In Kenneth Branagh’s recent version of Cinderella, the title character and her mother have this exchange:
Cinderella: “Do you believe in fairy godmothers.”
Mother: “Of course. I believe in everything.”
Cinderella: “Then I believe in everything, too!”
You know the story. Cinderella’s mother dies. Her father remarries. Then he dies and Cinderella is left to cope with a wicked stepmother and two self-obsessed, dim-witted stepsisters. Her gloomy circumstances cause her to no longer believe in fairy godmothers. And then her fairy godmother shows up in person. The ball. The Prince. The glass slipper. The wedding. And they lived happily ever after.[Sorry: I should have warned you with a “spoiler alert.”]
Most people have the same open anticipation about life. They want to believe that people are good, life is grand and that everything will work for their good. At our very core we are creatures of hope. We are ready to believe in anything, everything.
And we are anxious to hear from anyone who has figured out how to make our hope a reality. Take this recent example from actor and comedian, Jim Carrey.
Carrey delivered the commencement address at a midwestern university this past May. He encouraged the graduates to “take a chance at doing what you love,” not just what is safe – a good message for anxious students ready to take on the world.
He explained further:
So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it. I’m saying, I’m the proof that you can ask the universe for it — please! (applause) And if it doesn’t happen for you right away, it’s only because the universe is so busy fulfilling my order. It’s party size! (laughter).
His speech was all over the media. CNN, The Huffington Post, the Washington Post, etc., enthusiastically reported on his brief message as “inspiring” and “emotional.” Even now, friends on Facebook continue to post the video with the lead-in, “Watch this. It will change your life!”
Carrey’s address was to the 285 graduates of the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, where all of the students practice Transcendental Meditation, as does Carrey himself.
So, what does it mean to “ask the universe?” The idea is an old one and is revived in popular culture regularly. The most recent splash came from the 2006 bestselling, self-help book, The Secret. The book was ravaged by critics as poorly written, filled with clichés and pseudo-science. But it struck chord with people who need hope that good things will come their way if only they have enough faith and know how to access the power. After the book received Oprah’s stamp of approval, a film version followed and The Secret became a lucrative industry.
The “secret,” according to author Rhonda Byrne, is the natural law of the universe, the “law of attraction,” that claims whatever we think and feel is attracted back to us. Positive thoughts and feelings attract positive events and conditions into our lives. You can change your life by changing your attitude.
Christians tend to discard this approach because it focuses on self-serving perspectives and practices (as if we aren’t self-serving enough). But we should be more thoughtful about Carrey’s teaching and understand why his worldview and positive message are among the most popular in American culture. And, surprising to some, it moves him closer to the truth of Christ.
Let me explain.
The Universe: More than We Can Imagine
Believing that the universe is more than a physical accident is a huge step toward belief in God. There are many Christians today who spent some time on their journey from non-belief to faith by holding to a version of this belief, recognizing the spiritual realities of creation.
“The universe,” as Jim Carrey describes it, goes by many different names. It is not the physical planets, stars, quasars, and black holes, but a cosmic power that is spiritual and binds it all together. And it’s not a new idea. The belief in an organizing force of the universe is as old as recorded history. Heraclitus (6th century BC) and philosophers who followed him called it the “Logos.”
“The universe” and the “Logos” are more popularized as “the Force” in George Lucas’s Star Wars: “It surrounds and penetrates us. It brings the galaxy together,” he says. The Force is a power that is available for those who believe and know how to use it: “stretch out with your feelings.”
So the universe is not “God” in the sense that we can pray to or develop a relationship with – and it makes no demands on us. It is a power that we can access to meet our wants and needs.
This approach to the universe is incredibly appealing. It counters the cold indifference of atheism and the popular versions of the Jewish/Christian/Muslim God with his strict moral demands and swift judgment.
And it is a common view among Hollywood celebrities in its various forms: the Scientology of Tom Cruise and John Travolta; the Buddhism of Richard Gere and Orlando Bloom; and the Kabbalah of Madonna and Ashton Kutcher.
C. S. Lewis calls this the Life-Force view, which is, “the natural bent of the human mind.”
He goes on to say, “The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?”
The Universe: Up Close and Personal
Is there a more accurate way to describe what Jim Carrey and others are expressing? Let’s look at this again from a Christ-centered worldview. Take Carrey’s quote and replace “the universe” with “the Lord:”
So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the Lord for it. I’m saying, I’m the proof that you can ask the Lord for it — please! (applause) And if it doesn’t happen for you right away, it’s only because the Lord is so busy fulfilling my order. It’s party size! (laughter).[A brief side note here: What if Carrey has used “the Lord” instead of, “the universe;” would the mainstream press have so effusively lauded his remarks?] Carrey’s challenge and joke sound practically Christian!
An impersonal power as the dominant force in creation may seem to help us retain focus on our own concerns but the big picture suffers. The Christ-centered worldview reaches even deeper. We know that our highest aspirations and our greatest joys come from the personal: love, family, friends, and relationships. Why would the ultimate “power” of the universe be an impersonal force?
In fact, that is exactly what we read in the Scriptures: stories, teachings, music, and poetry drenched with personality and relationship. “In the beginning God created . . .” The organizing force of the universe is God: a God who speaks, loves and creates us in his image.
When Jesus talks about God, he calls him “Father,” a scandalous reference at the time. His conversation about the Father and his conversations with the Father reveal an intimate relationship.
Going one step further, John wrote: “In the beginning was the Logos; and the Logos was with God; and the Logos was God . . . the Logos became a man and dwelt among us” (John 1: 1, 14).
Jesus himself makes it clear that he existed before the universe was created (John 17:5). In fact, the Scriptures indicate that he is responsible for creating and sustaining the universe (Colossians 1:16-17).
And he said, “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
The Christ-centered world view helps us understand that we do not ask an impersonal cosmic force for help but the personal creator God. He is not waiting around for us to “use” him but desires to enter into a relationship with us. He loves us. He pursues us.
On this Holy Week, we are reminded what Jesus said as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you” (Mark 14:67).
So we don’t need to emulate Cinderella and believe in everything; but we can believe in the One who can do everything. In fact, Jesus tells us (twice!), “I will do whatever you ask in my name, that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13-14).