“The universe has judged you. You asked it for a prize and it told you no.”

Not so long ago, one would’ve been hard pressed to encounter such a quote anywhere outside of a course on Eastern religions, at least in North America. To hear it in a popular movie or TV show would’ve sounded esoteric and out of place. The universe has judged you? When did the universe get a seat on the Supreme Court?

Things have changed, however. Nowadays, such lines fly off the screen and past the viewer with scarcely a notice. The quote in question is from the megahit Avengers: Infinity War, spoken by Gamora, one of the film’s heroes, to her wicked stepfather Thanos.

Granted, Infinity War has a cosmic setting in which talk of the universe might come with the territory. But similar quotes pop up everywhere, from crime dramas to romantic comedies to celebrity interviews. Actors (and the characters they portray) routinely praise the universe for their good fortune or express fear that the universe will pay them back for their bad choices. When things don’t go their way, they wonder if the universe is teaching them a lesson or simply has other plans.

In a relatively short time, then, the universe has become the Hollywood stand-in for God.

Pantheistic origins

Equating God with the universe is not a new idea, of course. Pantheism is a basic concept in various Eastern religions and other philosophical systems, and has made inroads in popular Western thought over the past few decades. It has a variety of forms, but they all boil down to the belief that the universe is God, or at least indistinguishable from God. According to this view, God is not a personal being independent of His creation, but rather an impersonal all-encompassing force, made up of all things and all creatures in the natural order. In short, God is everything and everything is God.

Pantheism is no newcomer to the world of entertainment, either. The force in Star Wars, the circle of life in The Lion King, and the worship of nature in Avatar (to name a few well-known examples) were all inspired by pantheistic ideas. And as the mention of God has grown less fashionable in pop culture, it’s not all that surprising that the universe has been taken up as a convenient substitute for Him.

A clash of worldviews

The strange part about this popular embrace of pantheism is that its assumptions about the universe are diametrically opposed to those of materialism, which is often touted as the default worldview in a secular society.

In a strict sense, the materialist narrative has no room for God or gods of any sort, even for an impersonal mystical force that pervades all things. Matter and energy are all that exist, the products of random chance, without plan or reason. Concepts such as right and wrong, justice and purpose, as well as the mind itself, are mere illusions created by brain chemistry. According to materialism, the universe is a cold, meaningless place that doesn’t care whether anyone lives or dies. It certainly doesn’t reward virtue or punish evil or teach lessons or spin the wheel of karma.

And yet even some prominent atheists, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris among them, view pantheism in a favourable light, as a belief system that encourages care for nature, at least in their opinion. Dawkins in particular has referred to pantheism as “sexed-up atheism,” which he meant as a compliment. Apparently, belief in a transcendent universal force is more palatable (and pragmatically useful) to atheist thinking than belief in a personal God – an opinion echoed by a steady stream of voices in popular culture.

The quest for meaning

But why this cultural disconnect between two contradictory worldviews? How is it that influential voices can insist on materialism as the default worldview in an enlightened society, while also leading the charge toward pantheism? How can they believe in an impersonal universe that somehow still creates purpose and controls destiny? How can there be a zeitgeist in which there is no God, and yet the universe is God, at the same time?

The obvious answer is that in a pluralistic society, people with different beliefs can coexist side-by-side. That’s true, of course, and also a good thing. But at the same time, it’s vital to recognize that all of us – whether theists, atheists, pantheists or otherwise – have gaps between what we claim to believe in principle and what we actually believe in practice.

For many individuals, a meaningless universe is an appealing concept, an intellectually satisfying way to avoid God. But in reality, nobody can live in a universe like that. No one believes that the love they share with family and friends is an illusion. None of us can help but think in terms of right and wrong, of what ought to be rather than what is. We rage at the injustice of being robbed or slandered, or of innocents being assaulted and killed. We crave truth and beauty, love and justice, purpose and ultimate meaning. No one who’s being honest can accept a reality that’s nothing more than a random shuffle to the grave, followed by the eventual heat death of the universe.

Even so, the idea of a personal God who holds everyone accountable is out of vogue in contemporary culture. More than that, it’s disquieting for fallen human beings to know they stand in the presence of their Creator. Consequently it’s far more attractive in the present cultural milieu to conceive of the universe as a substitute for God – distant, impersonal, satisfying the need for transcendent meaning without making anyone uncomfortable. In the end, it’s an attempt at having one’s metaphysical cake while eating it too.

God and his universe

Replacing God with the universe has become a standard trope in popular culture, showing up in movies, TV shows, interviews and social media posts. Almost any type of story or personal anecdote that requires mention of a higher power will routinely invoke the universe as that power. This occurs so often that it almost escapes notice, largely because it’s a belief shared by many in the wider culture. Even professing Christians will at times speak of the universe rewarding or punishing them, or else teaching them a lesson.

It’s a sobering thought, therefore, to realize that God – the real God, who created the heavens and the earth and everything in them – takes a rather dark view of such a belief. Contrary to pantheism, God is indeed a personal being, distinct from His creation, far above and beyond it while still present everywhere in it. The universe is His universe, and He rules it with perfect wisdom and absolute power. To replace God with His creation is to give it the honour and worship that belongs solely to Him. The Scriptures refer to this practice as the sin of idolatry.

At the same time, it’s profoundly reassuring to know that reality is governed by a good and wise Sovereign, and not by the vague workings of an impersonal force. The universe may not care whether anyone lives or dies, but God does, and deeply so. In fact, He created the universe to reflect His beauty and glory, and He’s at work redeeming it to that end. He has imbued it with value and purpose, to be a realm in which love and justice and righteousness – in a word, shalom – are to be the defining qualities.

As beings made in the image of God, we humans don’t need to look to the universe for ultimate meaning, or try to create it for ourselves. God has already given it to us. From the beginning, we were designed to glorify Him and to enjoy Him forever. There can be no substitute for that – nor, all things considered, would we want one.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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