A fictional account of a theologian who was greatly surprised at what he found when he died and went to heaven. This essay written by Bertrand Russell tries to give a little hint as to how small Man is in comparison with the surrounding universe, and is, IMHO, a call for modesty.
Used with permission of McMaster University, current holders of the copyrights of Russell's works.
The Theologian's Nightmare
by Bertrand Russell
from Fact and Fiction, 1961
The eminent theologian Dr. Thaddeus dreamt that he died and pursued
his course toward heaven. His studies had prepared him and he had no difficulty
in finding the way. He knocked at the door of heaven, and was met with a closer
scrutiny than he expected. "I ask admission," he said, "because I was a good
man and devoted my life to the glory of God." "Man?" said the janitor,
"What is that? And how could such a funny creature as you do anything to
promote the glory of God?" Dr. Thaddeus was astonished. "You surely cannot
be ignorant of man. You must be aware that man is the supreme work of the
Creator." "As to that," said the janitor, "I am sorry to hurt your feelings,
but what you're saying is news to me. I doubt if anybody up here has ever
heard of this thing you call 'man.' However, since you seem distressed, you
shall have a chance of consulting our librarian."
The librarian, a globular being with a thousand eyes and one mouth, bent
some of his eyes upon Dr. Thaddeus. "What is this?" he asked the janitor.
"This," replied the janitor, "says that it is a member of a species called
'man,' which lives in a place called 'Earth.' It has some odd notion that
the Creator takes a special interest in this place and this species. I thought
perhaps you could enlighten it." "Well," said the librarian kindly to the
theologian, "perhaps you can tall me where this place is that you call 'Earth.'"
"Oh," said the theologian, "it's part of the Solar System." "And what is
the Solar System?" asked the librarian. "Oh," said the theologian, somewhat
disconcerted, "my province was Sacred Knowledge, but the question that
you are asking belongs to profane knowledge. However, I have learnt enough
from my astronomical friends to be able to tell you that the Solar System
is part of the Milky Way." "And what is the Milky Way?" asked the librarian.
"Oh, the Milky Way is one of the Galaxies, of which, I am told,
there are some hundred million." "Well, well," said the librarian, "you could
hardly expect me to remember one out of so many. But I do remember to have
heard the word'galaxy' before. In fact, I believe that one of our sub-librarians
specializes in galaxies. Let us send for him and see whether he can help."
After no very long time, the galactic sub-librarian made his appearance.
In shape, he was a dodecahedron. It was clear that at one time his surface
had been bright, but the dust of the shelves had rendered him dim and opaque.
The librarian explained to him that Dr. Thaddeus, in endeavoring to account
for his origin, had mentioned galaxies, and it was hoped that information
could be obtained from the galactic section of the library. "Well," said the
sub-librarian, "I suppose it might become possible in time, but as there are
a hundred million galaxies, and each has a volume to itself, it takes some
time to find any particular volume. Which is it that this odd molecule desires?"
"It is the one called 'The Milky Way,'" Dr. Thaddeus falteringly replied.
"All right," said the sub- librarian, "I will find it if I can."
Some three weeks later, he returned, explaining that the extraordinarily
efficient card index in the galactic section of the library had enabled him
to locate the galaxy as number QX 321,762. "We have employed," he said, "all
the five thousand clerks in the galactic section on this search. Perhaps you
would like to see the clerk who is specially concerned with the galaxy in
question?" The clerk was sent for and turned out to be an octahedron with
an eye in each face and a mouth in one of them. He was surprised and dazed
to find himself in such a glittering region, away from the shadowy limbo of
his shelves. Pulling himself together, he asked, rather shyly, "What is it
you wish to know about my galaxy?" Dr. Thaddeus spoke up: "What I want is
to know about the Solar System, a collection of heavenly bodies revolving
about one of the stars in your galaxy. The star about which they revolve is
called 'the Sun.'" "Humph," said the librarian of the Milky Way, "it was hard
enough to hit upon the right galaxy, but to hit upon the right star in the
galaxy is far more difficult. I know that there are about three hundred billion
stars in the galaxy, but I have no knowledge, myself, that would distinguish
one of them from another. I believe, however, that at one time a list of
the whole three hundred billion was demanded by the Administration and that
it is still stored in the basement. If you think it worth while, I will engage
special labor from the Other Place to search for this particular star."
It was agreed that, since the question had arisen and since Dr. Thaddeus
was evidently suffering some distress, this might be the wisest course.
Several years later, a very weary and dispirited tetrahedron presented
himself before the galactic sub-librarian. "I have," he said, "at last discovered
the particular star concerning which inquiries have been made, but I am quite
at a loss to imagine why it has aroused any special interest. It closely resembles
a great many other stars in the same galaxy. It is of average size and
temperature, and is surrounded by very much smaller bodies called 'planets.'
After minute investigation, I discovered that some, at least, of these planets
have parasites, and I think that this thing which has been making inquiries
must be one of them."
At this point, Dr. Thaddeus burst out in a passionate and indignant lament:
"Why, oh why, did the Creator conceal from us poor inhabitants of Earth that
it was not we who prompted Him to create the Heavens? Throughout my long life,
I have served Him diligently, believing that He would notice my service and
reward me with Eternal Bliss. And now, it seems that He was not even aware
that I existed. You tell me that I am an infinitesimal animalcule on a tiny
body revolving round an insignificant member of a collection of three hundred
billion stars, which is only one of many millions of such collections. I
cannot bear it, and can no longer adore my Creator." "Very well," said the
janitor, "then you can go to the Other Place."
Here the theologian awoke. "The power of Satan over our sleeping imagination
is terrifying," he muttered.