So my wife and I were moving and wanted to dispose of some bookcases that were past their use-by date. We had a bite on Craigslist, and the interested party came to our apartment to see if these essentially pine boxes with a remnant of veneer would do the trick. They were, in fact, exactly what she had been looking for. “I just put it out to the universe,” she exclaimed with all the joy of finding the bike she really really wanted under the tree on Christmas morning, “and here they are!”
I immediately turned to my wife, lest my expression strike fear in our guest. My wife gave me her signature "Anthony, don’t go there" smile¯an acknowledgement of what I was thinking and an attempt to forestall my blowing the deal by saying something like:
“You put it out to the universe? The universe is concerned that your shelving needs are met? Do Neptune and Pluto fret over your interior design? Does Alpha Centauri pine for our pine? Does some kamikaze comet threaten cosmic doom if a couple of 84” bookcases do not materialize with relative alacrity?
“Explain to me how this works. When you address the Universe, what title do you use? What salutation is preferred? Dear Sir, Madam, or just Hey U?
"Do you believe in any of the multiverse theories? If so, which one? I prefer the 11-dimensional string theory model, in which case, given the variance in physical laws, is it possible to ask for a bookcase in one dimension and end up with a Buick LeSabre in another?
“Does the Universe ever feel iffy? Does it ever sit on the fence? Ever put a request out there and get a big fat maybe ? If so, how would that be expressed? A dull ringing in the ears? A general lethargy? Yet another season of So You Think You Can Dance? ?
“Don’t you know that the Universe is expanding, that it’s coming apart, that it’s dying? Not only is there no sentient there there, but what’s there is on its way out.
"How do you find solace in the fact that, in moments of need, want, even desperation, the only thing you have working for you is entropy?”
Instead, I said nothing. Instead, I walked into another room. I didn’t want to embarrass this fragile-looking person, or my wife, and what opportunity there was for some kind of Christian witness would only have come out as sarcastic rebuke and condescension. (I was also concerned that I had gotten the whole multiverse and entropy thing wrong. For all I know, the steady-state theory is back in fashion.) But I was tempted to refuse her the bookcases, just to show her that the Universe was just the universe and had nothing to do with her successful pursuit of shelvage, or, at the very least, that the universe couldn’t give a rat’s fundament about her, because the universe couldn’t give at all, that appeals to impersonal forces at large were immediately sent to the cosmos’ dead letter office (currently stationed on Mercury) or possibly rerouted to darker forces who meant her no good.
But I didn’t. How could my withholding the bookcases be perceived as anything but just plain mean-spiritedness, confirming her probably already deeply engrained prejudices against, well, against people who have very different beliefs about how people acquire bookcases?
And it’s not as if it were the first time I had heard someone “put it out to the universe” like a 1950s housewife leaving her empty milk bottle outside the kitchen door, twirled note stuffed in its neck: “This time no cheese.” The depersonalization of deity, the reduction of God’s own sovereignty to merely “the force,” a field of energy that neither asks embarrassing questions nor makes imperious demands, is in perfect keeping with our escape from contingency and radical dependence to self-deification.
Mind you, I have nothing against this particular universe. As totalities of material entities go, it’s fine. (Although I wish the rents were lower—and what’s with all the background noise?) It’s just that my expectations of it are rather modest, even downright scanty. That is should just be is enough. That’s it’s there is sufficient. But even for that it deserves no credit.
As I heard my guest and her boyfriend struggle with the bookcases in the hallway, I wondered if they’d make it out of the building without the sheer bulk of their present from the stars overwhelming them to the point that the pine boxes would have to be put to a much different use.
But who could put the irony any better than Dickens in Bleak House , who gives us the feckless Mr. Skimpole on the orphan Esther:
“She is like the morning,” he said. “With that golden hair, those blue eyes, and that fresh bloom on her cheek, she is like the summer morning. The birds here will mistake her for it. We will not call such a lovely young creature as that, who is a joy to all mankind, an orphan. She is the child of the universe.”
Mr. Jarndyce, I found, was standing near us with his hands behind him and an attentive smile upon his face.
“The universe,” he observed, “makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid.”
Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor of First Things .