Does the universe have a purpose?

Respectful dialogue is more and more important as we try to bridge our differences in an increasingly pluralistic world.

Yme Woensdregt

Throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed talking with people who believe differently than I do. I appreciate it when people challenge my worldview, as long as the dialogue remains respectful. It’s always fascinating to me to explore in an honest and humble dialogue what we believe, how we came to those beliefs, and what difference they make in our lives. I think this kind of dialogue is more and more important as we try to bridge our differences in an increasingly pluralistic world.

Not only is it an urgent task, it can also be a lot of fun. Candid and challenging conversations stretch me, and help to clarify my thinking and my faith. I respect those people who can push me this way to be more clear about what I believe. It also challenges me when people raise questions that I haven’t had to think about at great length.

Part of the way I try to understand the positions of other people is to read books and watch videos by those who believe differently than I. This is particularly so with those who claim not to have faith. One of the questions that keeps coming up in the books and videos from various atheists is whether or not the universe has a purpose. The smaller–scale but more immediately relevant question included in the larger question, of course, is whether we human beings have a purpose.

The more I read and listen, the more I am aware of what a challenging question that is to answer — to answer it, that is, a) in light of all we have discovered about the world and b) taking into account how differently various people might answer the question instead of just assuming my answer is the only one.

As I think about my own life, it’s difficult for me to imagine not believing that life — in general as well as my own life — is not wrapped up in some larger purpose. And, indeed, one of the great gifts of the Christian faith which I profess is the promise that there is indeed a purpose. Christians may express that purpose in different ways, but for me it often boils down to the sense that we are loved and that we are created to share God’s love with others in word and deed. That’s the heart of the most famous Bible verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

To be honest, I can’t prove that. Others will disagree. For example, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, says that “to claim to know the purpose of the universe is to lay claim to knowledge that none of us have.”

I agree when he says that we can’t know that there is a purpose to the universe. It’s not a matter of empirical knowledge. For me, it is a faith stance. This is what I believe to be true. This is the way in which I approach not only my life, but the life of the world. This is the way in which I view reality.

And I believe we are called to confess it — which means that we share with each other what we believe to be true and, just as importantly, to share how that belief has shaped our lives.

But no matter how fully I believe this, there are times that I wonder two things: First, do I keep believing this because I simply can’t handle the thought of a purposeless life? Is the route that DeGrasse and other atheists take somehow both more realistic and courageous?

Secondly, I can’t help but wonder if, whether we believe there is an “ultimate purpose” or not, yet each of us is called to claim such a purpose, to act as if there is a purpose. If so, I suspect the purpose you claim makes all the difference.

It’s a challenging question. As I said, we can’t prove whether the universe has a purpose or not. But I suspect that the way we approach the question does, in fact, make a significant difference for us.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook