Over the next couple of weeks, the media will begin its annual practice of reflecting on the events of the past year, including the passing of celebrities and politicians. One of the people who surely will be mentioned is comedian Norm MacDonald, who died of cancer in September. MacDonald was best-known as a cast member of Saturday Night Live and for anchoring the “Weekend Update” segment from 1994-1998. His comedy was often crass and juvenile, hidden behind which was a bright intellect and thoughtfulness. On occasion these qualities were on display in serious interviews, particularly in recent years, during which he spoke seriously about philosophy, the meaning of life, and his belief in God. One of the most interesting of these instances took place in April 2019, when the celebrity astrophysicist and outspoken skeptic Neil deGrasse Tyson wryly commented on Twitter: “The universe is blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pains. Have a nice day!” In response, MacDonald wrote: “Neil, there is a logic [sic] flow in your little aphorism that seems quite telling. Since you and I are part of the Universe, then we would also be indifferent and uncaring. Perhaps you forgot, Neil, that we are not superior to the Universe but merely a fraction of it. Nice day, indeed.”
This good-natured exchange revealed different understandings of the place of human beings in the cosmos. Tyson seems to assert Man’s authority to determine the meaning of the universe (including its lack thereof), thereby setting human beings apart from the rest of the cosmos. It’s an “anthropocentric,” or man-centered, view of everything. The problem with this perspective is that, inevitably, it is the powerful who end up being the ones who determine the meaning and value of things, including the value of human life. MacDonald’s statement, however, places human beings firmly within the cosmos. Since we are part of the cosmos and capable of compassion, he rejects the assertion that the universe is a cold and indifferent place. It’s also worth noting that, although we are part of the universe, it is this capacity to know and to love and to wonder, as well as to sin, to forgive, and to ask forgiveness, that makes human beings unique among the animals.
MacDonald’s position is certainly much closer to the Catholic perspective on Creation than Tyson’s. Rather than an anthropocentric understanding of the cosmos, we believe in a “theocentric” – or, God-centered – understanding of Creation. Human beings do not determine the meaning of things for ourselves, as though we were somehow apart from the rest of Creation. Instead, we gaze in wonder at the world of which we are a part, and we use the gifts we have received to discern, rather than decide, the meaning of things. This should lead us to treat the world, including each other, with proper reverence as God’s creatures.
I don’t know if Norm MacDonald practiced religion. But his comments showed that he was engaged in the search for the answers to the most important questions. Moreover, he seemed in his more reflective moments to take life very seriously – an unusual quality in a comedian. Surely the perspective on the world considered above must have affected over time the development of Norm MacDonald’s sense of humor, which was rarely cynical, but rather seemed to delight in revealing the absurdity that results from our tendency to try to impose a warped sense of reality on reality. I pray he rests in peace.