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Brian Cox’s quest for meaning

02 August 2019

The Planets posed some searching questions for Christians, says Hannah Malcolm

Martin Johnson/BBC Studios

The presenter of the BBC2 series The Planets, Professor Brian Cox

The presenter of the BBC2 series The Planets, Professor Brian Cox

IN THE programme The Planets, broadcast recently on BBC2 (Television, 7 June), Professor Brian Cox narrates the stories of our nearest neighbours. Stunning images and emotive music accompany his sincere enthusiasm for our past, present, and potential futures.

Professor Cox looks out at a world rich with beauty and meaning, unique among the objects that orbit our small sun. But what is it that “brings meaning to the universe”? He gives his answer, five minutes into episode one: “Life”. The stories of our neighbouring planets are framed by the moments in time when things might have been different — when life might have been possible but for chance events, and when we might still find life of some kind, should we be in the right place at the right time.

If the search for meaning requires organic matter, bodies inhospitable to life (as far as we know) are, for Professor Cox, the antithesis of meaning-making: they are “tortured” (Mercury), “a graveyard of failed worlds” (the asteroid belt), or even “a vision of hell” (Venus). And yet they are also sites of tremendous beauty, even in their inorganic state. Saturn’s rings are “as if a god had taken snowflakes and sprinkled them over a gravitational field”, and I found myself moved almost to tears by the journey to Pluto’s subterranean ocean, far away from the warmth of the sun.

IS IT only life that gives the universe meaning, limiting its presence to our planet, and perhaps others, with very little in between? On this basis, the first millions of years of the universe’s existence appear to be rendered pointless but for life’s eventual emergence. Do the heavens declare the glory of the Lord only if some life form is there to observe them?

Professor Cox takes this framework to its logical conclusions: when considering whether problems on earth should take priority over space exploration, he argues that “focusing entirely on our mote of dust would be a profound mistake. . . It would mean that we had taken the decision to fight amongst ourselves for ever more resources. . . We live in a system of limitless resources, limitless beauty, and limitless potential.”

Intelligent life is, on this basis, duty-bound to expand, presumably bestowing meaning on each new world that we explore. This is curiously reminiscent of the rhetorical justification used by the British Empire for the colonial project, and raises further questions. Are we limited to the options of fighting among ourselves or endlessly expanding our access to resources? Are there unseen consequences — moral or physical — to mining neighbouring planets, even if they appear to be lifeless? Our ecosystem is, after all, a direct reflection of the history of our solar system; the movements of other bodies fundamentally shape our story.

Of course, it is not just Professor Cox who talks about the “resources” of the universe as existing for our use. For me, the biggest challenge of the series is the ways in which Professor Cox’s reasoning are also represented in the Western Church’s thinking about the universe and our relationship to it. After all, we share the same cultural context: a view of humans as both the pinnacle of creation and in some way distinct from the rest of the natural world. It is easy to view our “image bearer” status as evidence that the universe is fundamentally about us or for us, even if we also offer a nod toward all things being for God’s glory.

BUT, if this is really the case, the meaning of the universe is not reliant on human observation or use, but on God’s external position as creator. Life does not give the universe meaning: God does. Or, to put it another way, the universe is meaningful just because it exists, upheld by God’s continuing creative work. In the Genesis 1 creation poem, God finally declares that the world is very good not because humans are in it, but because the ordering of creation is complete: many good parts in joyful coexistence, whether celestial bodies or organic matter. For Christians, scientific endeavours ought to be shaped by that reality, acknowledging our mutual need.

The Planets is both a testament to human ingenuity and a reminder of how much is left to discover. We need to ask whether it is possible joyfully to pursue curiosity and exploration without an accompanying desire to expand and control. In the coming decades, we will again be forced to confront that question.

Hannah Malcolm is the co-ordinator of the project God and the Big Bang, working with children, young people, and teachers on science and faith. She won the 2019 Theology Slam competion.

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