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This Thanksgiving, Don’t Thank the Universe…It Doesn’t Care

Milky Way

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Matthew Becklo - published on 11/21/14

Or "give you what you need"

In a progressive little elementary school in the 90s, I was taught the following song…sort of.

A staple of our all-school sing-alongs, the version we learned was redacted of religious implications, and every instance of the term “the Lord” was replaced with the sterilized secularity of “today.” So my six-year old self – totally oblivious to the lyric change – would wander around singing:

Today is good to me!
And so I thank today!
For giving me the things I need
The sun and rain and an appleseed
Today is good to me!

Looking back, I’m totally unsurprised by the decision of the principal, teacher, parents –whoever it was that took out a Sharpie to the lyrics. While most people are content to “live and let live” when it comes to both private and public expressions of faith, we’ve come to expect a certain vocal anti-religious minority (e.g. David Silverman’s “Freedom From Religion Foundation”) to frame any mention of God in the public square as an aggressive infringement.

Looking back, what bothers me now is not so much the revision itself, but the total incoherence of the revision. It’s the same incoherence besetting a recent cultural trend of “thanking” the universe for what it “does” or “wills” or “thinks” about us and what we do.

Consider this sampling from TV:

True Blood:
“Tonight, the universe showed me my destiny.”

“A sign from the universe telling us we need to solve this case together.”

Modern Family:
“The universe rewarded me.”

Girl Meets World:
“I hardly think the universe is upset with me for being nice to Farkle.”

The Mentalist:
“I’m blessed is what I am. The universe wants me to have this money.”

Marry Me:
“The universe isn’t against us at all. Our friends are just idiots.”

And the winner, “How I Met Your Mother”:

“I mean, the universe is screaming at me right now, how can you of all people have come to ignore that?”
“Maybe we don’t need the universe to tell us what we really want. Maybe we already know that. Deep down.”
“Why would the universe do that to me?
“That’s the universe, the universe is talking to us.”
“The universe clearly does not want you and Robin to be together.”
“You see, the universe has a plan kids, and that plan is always in motion…All these little parts of the machine constantly working, making sure that you end up exactly where you’re supposed to be, exactly when you’re supposed to be there. The right place at the right time.”

Like a redacted Johnny Appleseed, these sentiments about the universe take what are essentially descriptions of a transcendent agent and apply them to the imminent material universe of quasars, pulsars, and black holes that constitute the over 100 billion galaxies of which our solar system is a mere fraction of a sliver of a hair. The impulse behind this metaphysical bait-and-switch is not difficult to decipher; it reaps all the “magic” of classical theism – meaning, purpose, and value – without the high social or personal cost of believing in or even mentioning God.

But you get what you pay for. The godless universe, as Christopher Hitchens once put it, “doesn’t care.” It’s not that the universe is mean – it’s not even aware that it doesn’t care. It may be magnificent and mind-blowingly beautiful – and it might not judge us – but “Mad Men” cuts through all the fluff of these other shows with the brutal reality: “I hate to break it to you, but…the universe is indifferent.”

The universe doesn’t “do” or “think” anything, precisely because it lacks what philosophers call “intentionality.” Intentionality – which comes from the Latin “intendere,” which means “to aim (at)” – refers to capacity of consciousness to “aim” at, represent, and be “about” an object. This is not synonymous with mere “intention” or desire – your conscious perception of the computer or smart phone in front of you, and your belief that this article is officially going in a weird direction, are both examples of intentionality.

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