"Just" is: "acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good." This definition includes the idea of justice, which is an impartial administration of rewards and punishments—that is to say, if the universe is just, what you receive in common space and time should be balanced. By universe I mean: "the whole body of things and phenomena; the totality of material entities," and the cosmos is "the universe conceived as an orderly and harmonious system."
How we humans have conceived the universe has changed through time. In antiquity it was a primitive three-tiered construct: earth in the center, the primordial waters beneath the earth, and the fixed luminaries in a domed structure that protected the earth from the waters above. In Biblical faith God used weather, the elements, and historical events to reward and punish, although not always in a just way (for example, his treatment of the Amalekites, 1 Samuel 15).
Until the twentieth century our view of the universe was limited. In the second century CE Ptolemy proposed a geocentric system for the movements of the heavenly bodies in what we now know as our solar system: the sun, moon, five planets circulated around the earth below the (so-called) fixed stars, which were so distant they seemed never to move. The view of the universe in the middle ages is reflected in the theological system by Dante Alighieri (1300s), which included both the various levels of Hell and dwelling places of saints, angels, and the deity, with earth at its center.
In the 1600s, Copernicus proposed a heliocentric system: the sun was the center of our solar system. The earth rotated on its axis and circulated along with the planets around the sun. This explanation was resisted by the church until the nineteenth century, because an earth-centered universe was best harmonized with the Bible and Christian doctrine.
Today we live on an insignificant planet on the outskirts of a galaxy of perhaps a hundred billion planetary systems in a universe of perhaps one hundred billion galaxies (Carl Sagan). Our universe has no edge but is unbounded and expanding outwards toward some unknown destination.
The question with which I began (Is the Universe Just?) assumes too much. Since the universe is not sentient, it could not be "just." The universe does not think or see, so there is no way that it could perceive an imbalance in justice—much less consider correcting it. The aggregate of existing stuff and entities that fill the void of space act more or less in accord with what physicists and astronomers (i.e., scientists: people who study the universe) call the laws of physics.
In short, the universe is inflexible. It blindly follows its own rules, some of which we know; most of which we do not. Do not expect the universe to balance out your allotment of good and bad in life. We only have to recall a few of our recent tragic encounters with the physical world on this blue and white planet to know that there is not an ounce of compassion in the universe over the loss of human life, unjustified suffering, and property damage caused by the physical elements: the San Francisco earthquake (1989), the Indonesian tsunami (2004), hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005), the Joplin tornado (2011), hurricane Sandy (2012).
What happens in the world is not the result of evil. Rattlesnakes and disease, for example, are not caused by the devil or by God. Rattlesnakes are true to their nature; disease is a natural phenomenon that human beings can cure, and control once we discover the causations—like we have done with chickenpox, diphtheria and polio, for example.
For these reasons I cannot seriously entertain the idea that God is a universal Spirit pervading all things in the universe with a divine presence—a leaf, the sunrise, a drop of water, a gurgling brook, etc. The universe is simply too hostile toward human beings to think it reflects the character of a benevolent Spirit. Nor can I seriously consider that God actively runs the universe in a benevolent hands-on way (Colossians 1:16-17), correcting, like Don Quixote, its excesses and imbalance.
We seem instinctively to know that the universe is not just, and recognize that benevolent Deity is not controlling the universe in our interest. That is why a common feature of religions in general is to hope/believe/expect that Deity will balance our books in the afterlife, if such there be—that is, to compensate us for any imbalance of good and bad we experienced in life.
Is that true do you suppose?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Wings Books, 1980).
The universe contains the potential for human beings to act justly.
Theodore Parker (1810-1860), transcendentalist, Unitarian pastor, reformer, abolitionist; inspired the following quote by MLK, Jr: "The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice." ("Where Do We Go From Here", address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August, 1967).
Thanks for engaging this question.
I guess I would have said something like: In spite of the physical situation in which they find themselves human beings possess the ability to act in a just manner toward others. And even better, they can act in a compassionate way toward others.
And do you agree with MLK, Jr. that the" universe bends toward justice"? If so, is that an item of faith or hope, or is it based on observation?
Charlie, that question is very difficult to answer in the abstract: faith, hope, or observation, the greatest of these is??? I act and talk like I agree with MLKJr. At the Christmas Eve family dinner table I read from Gaius Musoinius Rufus, an early 1st century CE stoic philosopher who wrote a discourse on "Women Should Also Study Philosophy." It contains many sentiments about the equality of men and women, and I engaged the grandchildren in questions about when women received the right to vote and so forth. The adults couldn't believe that such enlightened ideas could have been written by a Greco-Roman during the time of Jesus. It was an engaging few minutes and I hope a life lesson reinforced.
Does the concept of justice imply balance? If so, "an eye for an eye" is justice, but that's not what Jesus taught. In fact, the totality of the universe might be in balance, but if we attach human morality to justice, then as you say, Charlie, the universe is not just. Will there be a reckoning and a re-balancing for individuals in an afterlife? Since we have no way of knowing the answer to this, we should probably spend what time we have while we are alive trying not only to live justly, but, as you also say, with compassion.
I can't help but think most of your readers live safe, secure lives; much of the world has and does not. The real heroes are those who strive for justice and compassion under the most trying of circumstances.
Questioning the nature of the universe in terms of morally right or good is illogical. Consider the question of morally right or good with regards to a stone, or to gravity, light, matter, and nearly all the "stuff" of the universe. Questions about morally right or good relate only to human behavior. So simplify the question to be: "are humans morally right or good"?
Good afternoon Jim,
Good to have you back. As you could tell from my essay, I agree with you, but some still think in terms of associating the universe with moral features. See the following site on the quote "the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice":
I have long admired the idea "the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice". It is certainly true for human behavior. Human behavior bending toward justice has increased in the past 100 years and is even accelerating-especially in western civilization. The bending is due to human increase in knowledge of the universe and human experience within our societies. One could more accurately say human behavior bends toward justice, along with compassion with increased knowledge. Sadly there is a strong tendency for humans resistance toward these advances due to both ignorance and lack of empathy.
Enjoying the observations, but confused about two matters:
1. "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" would not be balance: if the offense, for example, was murder, there would be 2 dead people and 0 live people. Isn't justice removing obstacles to fulfilling one's potential?
2. Yes, justice seems to be in the world only in the form of human behavior, but the capacity for humans to perform justly is part of the potential in the universe. As Wink suggested, we have to think of ourselves as the universe reflecting upon itself, making sure that all spheres (atmos, hydros, lithos, cosmos, etc.) are interacting to maximum benefit (read Geering, Coming Back to Earth, 2009).
I did not say so at the time you posted this comment, but let me say now you summarized the situation very well,
The universe is neither just nor compassionate, and we always live at risk in the world--and most of the people are coping with living in the world under the most dangerous situations.
Those of us that enjoy peace and security should thank whatever Gods there may be and pour out the first libation for their consumption--you cannot be too careful, you know.
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