The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 3: Sections xi-xv "Small."

xi. small
Beyond death and thorns, the sheer size of creation can overwhelm our faith. It is curious how size is a theological predicament. Even if you don’t believe in a Creator, the magnitude of the universe is an existential burden. We are so small. The universe seems so immense, so cold, so old, and so indifferent. Do our workaday strivings mean anything at all in the face of that expanse? No one better articulated this feeling than Pascal:

“For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either. The ends of things and their beginnings are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed.”

“Let man contemplate Nature entire in her full and lofty majesty; let him put far from his sight the lowly objects that surround him; let him regard that blazing light, placed like an eternal lamp to illuminate the world; let the earth appear to him but a point within the vast circuit which that star describes; and let him marvel that this immense circumference is itself but a speck from the viewpoint of the stars that move in the firmament. And if our vision is stopped there, let imagination pass beyond... All this visible world is but an imperceptible element in the great bosom of nature. No thought can go so far... It is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

And, finally, his most famous line:

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

xii. telescopes
Perhaps this fear wouldn’t be so acute if we sat at the center of it all. But we have been displaced from the center of the concerns of the cosmos. Copernicus did this when he moved us away from the geocentric, Ptolemaic worldview. After Copernicus we know that we simply exist in a small corner of the universe, a provincial outpost of no real cosmic significance.

And although Pascal knew the universe was large Hubble came along and upped the stakes. Hubble made two significant discoveries when he turned the 100-inch Hooker telescope, the largest scope in the world at the time, to the heavens.

First, Hubble discovered that those fuzzy smudges in the sky, called nebula at the time, were actually galaxies in their own right, the same as our own, the Milky Way. In that simple observation the universe suddenly got very, very, very big. And we, as a consequence, grew even smaller.

And it got worse. Hubble later observed the red shift of the galaxies, indicating that the galaxies are rapidly receding from each other. The universe is expanding. Growing larger every moment. Pascal had no idea that the “spaces” of the universe that so frightened him were expanding by the moment. And the “silences” in between them growing ever more silent.

And we, so small to begin with, growing ever smaller.

xiv. backyard
I wander out into the backyard with my tiny 4.5 inch Dobsonian telescope. It is a crisp winter evening here in Texas. I find Orion, so easy to spot, and guide my scope to Orion’s Nebula. Orion won’t be around much longer. As winter moves into spring the winter constellations are being chased out of the sky by their summer compatriots.

I stare at those four pin-pricks of light, the famous Trapezium, and observe how their heat cause the stellar dust to glow in the familiar nebular fuzz of cosmic cotton candy. I note in my star chart that the Nebula is about 10 million billion miles away. I read the number but don’t comprehend it. All I know is that nothing sits in space between me and those stars. Nothing blocks my sightline. I feel how very, very empty the universe is.

xv. night sky

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

One of the recurring scenes in Peanuts is when Schulz has the characters sitting on a hill contemplating the night sky. Stars fill much of the space and the characters sit with their backs to us. We are looking over their shoulders toward the heavens.

Often, as the characters watch the sky, they become overwhelmed, as Pascal was, by just how enormous the cosmos is.

And just how very small we are.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

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5 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 3: Sections xi-xv "Small."”

  1. The vastness of the universe and the concept of eternity are two things that have overwhelmed and at times downright frightened me since I was a kid.

    A few months ago the campus minister where I teach gave a slideshow-aided devo with an array of impressive pictures of the cosmos and mind-boggling statistics. The point he ultimately made was how incomprehenisbly powerful God was and yet He still cares for us. I didn't find the devo as nearly as comforting as some others did--heck, I found much of it rather unsettling.

    Still, I wonder whether if the universe were smaller if life as we know it--or life at all--would exist. Having little knowledge of physics and no knowledge of omnipotent universe making, I don't know.

  2. Jason,
    That's an interesting point. If life is so improbable perhaps the universe has to be big (assuming the Creator is restricted to--for whatever reason--naturalistic modes of creating).

    The thing I wonder about is that many say the universe is so big there has to be life somewhere else in the universe. If this life is in anyway moral then I wonder about their relationship with God. Do they have salvation histories and Scriptures?

  3. I remember reading somewhere that the size of the universe was just a consequence of its age, that basically with billions of years of expansion, you're going to have an enormous universe. I suppose that's a valid explanation, but it doesn't make me feel any less small.

    I've wondered the same thing about life elsewhere. Although I'm skeptical of UFO's and the like, I'd like to think that there's life somewhere else in the universe. Otherwise, it seems to me that God left a lot of wasted space (no pun intended) when creating us. But if that's the case, then maybe the age/size connection is the answer. Mysterious indeed.

  4. Jason,
    Have you ever heard of the Drake Equation? Here it is:

    N = R * Fp * Ne * Fl * Fi * Fc * L

    R = Rate of star formation in our galaxy
    Fp = Fraction of those stars that have planets
    Ne = Number of Earth-like planets
    Fl = Fraction of Earth-like planets where life develops
    Fi = The fraction of life that develops intelligence
    Fc = The fraction of intelligent life that develops communication
    L = The "lifetime" (in years) of the communicating, intelligent civilization
    N = The number of communicating civilizations in the Milky Way today

    We know N > 0.0. We exist.

    Interested readers can fiddle around with the equation here.

  5. I don't know if this is just maybe evidence of a giant ego or something, but I don't feel small in the face of the giant universe. When I look at the stars in the sky, the vastness gets me really excited. Weird, huh?

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