Remember that scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her friends meet Oz the Great and Powerful for the first time? He’s a disembodied head, shouting at them while surrounded by fog and lightning. Dorothy and her friends are terrified, and agree to do Oz’s bidding largely out of fear. Of course, at the end of the film, we learn that Oz the Great and Powerful is nothing but a literal smoke-screen hiding a wizened old man.
Once we see ‘behind the curtain’, the fear evaporates and we’re left with pity and disappointment. This little old man doesn’t have any power to do the things he promised.
Though the film didn’t come out until the end of the 1930s, it was based on a book that was published in 1900. In that sense, the ending makes a lot of sense. The turn of the 20th century was one characterized by boundless optimism. The Wizard of Oz is a thinly veiled metaphor for religion – we think God is big and scary, but he turns out to be harmless and after all, we had the real power to actualize ourselves all along!
That optimism didn’t survive WWI, so it’s no surprise that in 1920, an author named Howard Phillips Lovecraft, published his first book of what would become known as ‘cosmic horror’. (Lovecraft is super problematic – he’s deeply racist, for instance. His horror fiction is also massively influential. You see it in everything from Stephen King to Jordan Peele’s films – Get Out and the forthcoming NOPE.
Lovecraft does the opposite of Wizard of Oz. When he pulls back the curtain, you don’t find a silly old man. Rather, it’s some sort of ancient, alien creature. In the wake of the most destructive, evil war the world has ever seen, Lovecraft imagined that what was at the heart of the universe was not some kindly, wizened old man but a vast, uncaring consciousness that couldn’t care less about humans.
Which is pretty messed up.
I bring up Wizard of Oz and H. P. Lovecraft because they’re two modern answers to an ancient question: what’s the nature of the universe?
We’ve been asking that question since we had the ability to frame the thoughts, and until the last couple of hundred years or so, it’s largely been the purview of religion. What is the nature of the universe?
Our Buddhist friends insist that what we call reality is an illusion, that if we can learn to empty ourselves and become nothing, we will find peace.
For Hindus, everything is an expression of the essential cosmic force. Our goal is to realize that all the ways we distinguish ourselves not just from one another, but from the world, are illusions.
Our Muslim friends believe that God created the world and that the human goal is to learn submission to God, in hopes that God will be merciful to us and welcome us into paradise.
Mormons believe we are God’s biological children, that if we are faithful to God’s way then we too will ascend to godhood and become lords of our own realities.
And what about Christians? Who do we understand God to be? What is the nature of the one at the heart of all things?
The theological word for our god is ‘Trinity’. We believe God is three persons who are one being. A contradiction, a paradox, a mystery at the heart of the universe that invites us not to seek to understand, but to be known and loved.