In the category of tee-shirt spirituality, I came across a slogan that said, “The Universe Has Your Back”. I won’t reference the promoters of this idea (because I don’t want to spread their message for them!). At least at the level of tee-shirts and coffee mugs, the idea of the Universe as a benevolent, personal power is gaining traction among our neighbours.
Why is this spirituality appealing? Why stick it on a tee-shirt? Here are a few reasons, followed by what I believe is a necessary alternative.
1. Tee-Shirt Spirituality Is Casual
At a surface level, the reason for trusting ‘the Universe’ is that it differentiates that kind of believer from all others, without being exclusive of anyone. It can be an Atheist without the philosophy. It can be Buddhist without regimen. It can be Hindu without getting into the pantheon of deities. It can be Christian without the bible, the Trinity, or the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a mix of deism and panentheism cast in a catchy way with a coastal vibe. No self-denial required.
2. Wanting a Free Agent Higher Power
The second reason why this tee-shirt spirituality is appealing is that many people are looking for a higher power to help them make sense of their loneliness, society’s strife, and a global awareness of pain. People are longing for something else. But for lost people, they tend to confuse spirituality with ethnicity and cultural allegiance. So if they are not Arab, Indian, Chinese, or Middle American, they will want to avoid associations with the various religions they assume are connected to those cultures.
The belief in the Universe is a handy solution. The Universe can be sort of like a free agent player in the sporting world. The player can play on any team but is unassociated with any. That’s how belief in the Universe works. It’s a free agent god who is as adaptable as you want ‘it’ to be.
3. The Universe Is Insulated from Criticism
Third, although secularism bans talking about God, talking about the Universe gets a free pass. So trusting in the Universe stays nicely insulated from criticism from the religious and the secular. The Christian critic will say that a person is just trying to trust in God when they are trusting in the universe. But that Universe believer can be flexible and empathetic, all while skipping any of the truth claims of Christian faith.
In fact, to the undiscerning, Western, cultural Christian, all of the talk about prayer, meditation, daily gratitude, and the sovereignty of the Universe, might well be what that person really believes anyway. For those ‘Christians’ a slogan like “The Universe Has Your Back” is a little simpler. “Why fight it with messy doctrine?”, they might ask.
4. The Universe Is Gender Neutral
It goes without saying that to have a gender-neutral god to believe in is highly attractive to our society. You don’t have to worry about the maleness of the Christian Jesus or the femaleness of pagan Gaia. If “The Universe Has Your Back”, you can project onto the Universe any combo of gender fluidity you wish.
In the face of tee-shirt spirituality, one of the great biblical accounts is how a young man was set apart by his father, as well as by God in order to interpret dreams. The young man’s life was filled with dreams, his own and others. Yet his reliance was not on the Universe, or unnamed spiritual forces to interpret these dreams. Instead, this man could say to those who had dreams, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”(Gen 40:8).
Repeatedly, the man was guided and delivered by a personal being who “had his back”. But the reason he had his back is because of promises that had been made to the patriarchs of this man’s family. The promises were verbal and recorded in writing. The promises were specific, even differentiating certain blessings for some and different blessings or even cursings on others.
There was no vagueness about this God and his ability to interpret dreams, giving this miraculous information to the man. The actions of this God were so specific that even the afflictions that surrounded the man (family betrayals, human trafficking, false accusations, imprisonment, etc) were actually part of a fulfillment of specific promises. No tee shirt spirituality here.
If you know the story, you will recognize that the historical account I’m referring to is the life of Joseph, sold into Egypt, later imprisoned, only to be raised up to Pharoah’s right-hand man. All of this was to provide a way to preserve the family of Jacob and fulfill God’s promises to bring the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent.
Better Than “The Universe Has Your Back”
Compare the statement, “The Universe Has Your Back” to this:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Pray for those who are believing in tee-shirt spirituality. They need a merciful, loving, promise-making, covenant-keeping God to save them. Without it, their casual spirituality is only one more way for them to be those who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18).