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The Heavens Declare the Glory of God Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 30 July 2014

This is the famous first line of Psalm 19 – a lovely sentiment that poses a serious question: Do the heavens really declare the glory of God?  Is meaning something out there in the world?  Or is meaning merely something in me – something I create in my mind, a sort of mental varnish I paint on the world rather than a breath of fresh air I take in from it.

Since the time of Descartes, intellectuals in the West have spent a lot of time in their own heads trying to discover a way out. Whether there is really a world out there is one of those questions bequeathed to us by Descartes – reality external to our minds being one of those things consumed by Descartes’ “methodical doubt.”  On the Cartesian view, we are fundamentally “thinking things” for whom perhaps the only thing we can know for certain is that we exist.  (“I think therefore I am.”) 

Before Descartes, “knowing” meant bringing our minds into accord with reality.  After Descartes, what we know is only the content of our thoughts, not reality itself.  That which cannot be reduced to clear and distinct ideas is no longer considered worthy of rational attention.  Not only was “faith” subsequently often reduced to little more than a romantic “leap” of the will, even the kind of knowing that had been considered the summit of the intellectual life by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, namely contemplation, was turned into a kind of sophisticated navel-gazing. 

What could we seriously contemplate with our minds other than ourselves – and in particular, our own thoughts?  Get the body out of the way and get straight to the purity of thought.  Descartes’s little “doubt” about the existence of his own body had its natural consequent in modernity’s exaltation of various forms of ersatz oriental mysticism.

Worse yet, we have an entire generation of emerging adults who are certain they cannot “know” anything – especially anything about moral goodness, right or wrong.  For many people, “knowing” is not a process of bringing their minds into deeper appreciation of a reality out there in the world – a process requiring time and discipline, necessitating skills that must be honed and developed. It is, rather, merely a process of naming things in such a way so as to render them more conveniently subject to a person’s desires. Reality, on this view, is not something that in-forms us; it has become merely matter to be formed by us.

An obvious example of the problem can be found in the modern discussions about the nature of marriage.  Presented with the Church’s teachings about the true nature of marriage – a series of teachings that depends almost entirely on reason rather than revelation, and natural law rather than biblical authorities – many people’s responses go something like this: “Why should I define marriage that way?  If I define marriage that way, then I won’t be able to do what I want.”

          The Marriage of the Virgin by Pietro Perugino, c. 1502

It isn’t a question of trying to discover the true nature or meaning of things – in this case, marriage – it’s a question of how I can construct “meanings” in such a way as to enable me to get what I want from the world.

The problem is, once we’ve all given up on discovering the truth as it exists out there in the world, taking refuge in the “truth” or “meaning” I alone create in my mind, then we no longer possess any touchstone against which to test our thoughts.  As long as all of us are merely constructing “meanings” in accord with our own desires, then language becomes less and less a means of communicating (of creating a “communion” with others). It becomes simply another arena for competing will-to-power: “Here is what I will insist these words mean.” 

If there is no intrinsic meaning out in the world that I am called upon to discover and bring myself into accord with, and if meaning is merely something I create for myself, then we are left with no common language and no real way of expressing to one another our concerns for the common good.  Forthwith everything must be couched in the language of “freedom” and “autonomy.” 

The problem is, autonomous freedom apart from any concern for the common good will necessarily degrade into the rule of the stronger over the weaker.  At some point the desires of the larger, more powerful group will overrule the desires of the smaller, less powerful group.  And whenever someone starts talking about a “social” good or the “common” good, many people conclude they’re merely manipulating the language for their own ends. 

People increasingly assume (and the media fosters their cynicism) that once you’ve unmasked the pretty-sounding words, at bottom, all such language is just an individual group’s expression of its own will-to-power.  And all we’re left with then is the language of ideology:  People mouthing slogans they themselves scarcely believe – words meant to shame rather than instruct, to manipulate rather than convince.

The other problem with thinking of meaning and value as something I create, rather than discover is that, if I choose to value something, then it has value, but if I don’t, then it may have no value.   And thus, just as easily as I can say, “That’s not what sex or marriage means to me – those aren’t my values,” so too I can say: “I personally don’t value old growth forests or spotted owls or salmon – certainly not enough to stop logging or halt my dam project.” If the world has no intrinsic value, then the only way to get people to “agree” is to browbeat them into accepting my “values.” 

Do the heavens – and the earth and human bodies – declare the glory of God?  Has the world been infused by its Creator with intrinsic meaning, put there for me to discover?  Or is it just dead “stuff” – “matter” waiting for me to do with it what I will?

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 30, 2014
Etienne Gilson famously observed that “the greatest difference between the realist and the idealist is that the idealist thinks, whereas the realist knows.” The heart of the Cartesian error is this: “For him, Mind is what thinks, just as for us the intellect is what knows.”

It is worth noting that the Cartesian self is simply a misconstrual of the reflexive pronoun. “I” in Descates’s “I think...” is not a referring expression at all; no more than “it” is a referring expression in “it is raining.”
written by Chris in Maryland, July 30, 2014
At a family reunion, as we stood in the shade of a giant oak, my cousin explained to me that the giant oak really didn't exist - we were just [mis]perceiving its existence. While he was persisting to try to engage me in this do-loop, a liberating and wonderful realization came to me, and I said: "Joe, that is not an interesting idea."

A free man is one who wonders. Taking the comment of Michael P-S and where its pointing, Descartes trapped himself, and his legacy is entrapment, and eternal prison.

The same generation that deploys Descartes to deny revelation spends billions peering into space searching for...what? To look through the Hubble telescope is a type of worship.
written by Benedict Augustine, July 30, 2014
Smith outlines the progression quite well. When we separate meaning from things, and confer meaning of our own, we then isolate ourselves from one another by creating our own values and diminishing a common rationality to which we could appeal. This kind of attitude certainly prevails in the modern moral (or amoral?) realm in which we redefine problems in order to solve them. Marriage is a problem? Redefine it so that it isn't. A certain group of people or certain ideologies are causing problems? Redefine them so that they're not a problem anymore. Instead of changing the world, we change our perspective and thus suffer the consequences.

That being said, I think it's a little unfair to unload all the blame on poor Descartes. Smith accuses him of opening a Pandora's Box by formulating a process of thinking based on doubt and citing consciousness as the only thing we can know truly and distinctly. St. Augustine said something similar in his earlier writings. I don't think Descartes, or Augustine, intended to use this idea to assign his own meaning to thing, but to prove that most of our experience predicates on an unconscious faith in God, and God's reality. If we knew this, we wouldn't take God and reality for granted, but perhaps have more gratitude and understand the nature of God and reality a little better. His disagreements with the Thomists at Sorbonne shouldn't obscure the fact that he was a Catholic who believed in God. He also arrived at his conclusions through contemplating them himself, and he advises others to do the same. Montaigne, Hobbes, and Hume are the true doubters who bequeathed us the vicious relativism Smith speaks of. If we're looking to see where the madness starts, we may look there.
written by Brad Miner, July 30, 2014
"After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- 'I refute it thus.'"
James Boswell: Life of Samuel Johnson
written by kristinajohannes, July 30, 2014
Brad, your comment put me in mind of something a Dominican priest told me regarding this. He said, "if you step in front of a Mack truck barreling down on you, you'll still get flattened whether or not you think it is there."
written by pgepps, July 30, 2014
Well said, sir. And an indication of the clarity of this column is that the first four comments I've read have all been meaningful elaborations of its main idea. I especially like Chris's moment of clarity beneath the oak tree!
written by Stanley Anderson, July 30, 2014
I suppose that the attempt of separating meaning from things has always been a characteristic of fallen man that we could trace in a philosophical manner even all the way back to the very disobedience of Adam and Eve in their attempt to "be like God" apart from his Will. But to me, the primary historical pendulum-swinger to the modern scientific/reductionist/materialist "this is all there is" view of the world is (if I can say this indelicately about our Protestant brothers) the Reformation's denial of the Real Presence and subsequent eventual separation of virtually all sacramental aspects of the Sacraments.

Rather than "separation of meaning from things" I would instead tend to describe it as the denial of the "pointing" of things here and now to "out there," a place that we cannot at present see. This pointing is what I believe the true nature of "science" is and shows us over and over again, and something modern "materialistic science" tries determinedly (I want to say "deterministically", but that strikes too uncomfortably home to that sort of view) to "look away" from that pointing and to keep looking down at the thing "here and now" that it is supposedly studying. (All the formulae and “inventions” that scientific theory develops are mere playthings at best, useful as they may be for our worldly desires, and, at worst, distractions to divert our attention away from the pointing)

Virtually every scientific and mathematical endeavor illustrates this pervasive "pointing" that God has apparently incorporated as a fundamental feature into the very fabric of His Creation. I could go on and on with lists of examples throughout the history of science and math, if this post were not already overlong, but the recent examples of the twentieth century of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems and Quantum Physics (along with, I believe, Evolution) are some of the most dramatic examples of that "pointing". It is almost as if, as time and increased denial of that pointing goes on, God provides more and more startling and eye-popping examples even down at the sub-atomic level, as if to say to the materialist, “You can run, but you cannot hide.” We may not be able to hide, but we are unfortunately very capable of narrowing the blinders closer and closer together. As long as a gap exists, God apparently can squeeze more pointers in, but what happens when the blinders come together and completely block any vision? Are we already there?

It is fascinating to me that virtually all of the attempts to "interpret", say, the weirdnesses of the quantum wave function and its collapse, try to wrangle that "pointing" back down into "here and now" examples of "this is all there is", whether it is the Copenhagen interpretation's view that the uncollapsed wave function is "not real" and only becomes "real" when we observe it, to the popular impression of Everett's "Many Worlds" view that simply turns it into a side-by-side series of other worlds, each pretty much "just like this one here", as if a cube were just a bunch of flat square pieces of paper stacked up on a table instead of a "solid" object in itself. The first breeze that comes along would blow such a stack into a flock of fluttering insubstantial sheets settling randomly to the floor into a nasty mess. Not what I would call a cube. (Even Einstein's side of his famous debate with Bohr to try to deny that Copenhagen view was fundamentally based on a materialistic view -- consciously recognized or not -- that "this is all there is")

In any case, lots and lots of similar examples, but again, I think the divorce of the Real Presence from the bread and wine, along with a similar divorce of virtually all the Sacraments was and is instrumental in the development of this "blindness" to the incessant "pointing" by the world to "out there". I would guess our best weapon is to continue faithfully partaking of that Real Presence and of the other Sacraments to help re-foster a sacramental view of God's Creation.
written by Stanley Anderson, July 30, 2014
Brad Miner quoted Boswell's famous story of Johnson's "I refute it thus" line. I've always fancied that Tolkien's song that he has Sam sing, "Troll Sat Alone on His Seat of Stone" was a sort of earthy Shire Hobbit version of that story -- not only does kicking the stone refute the idea, but the mere attempt at refuting it leaves a long-standing reminder of the effort for Tom.

(for those unfamiliar with the song, "Tom" comes upon a Troll who is gnawing on the shin bone of Tom's "nuncle Tim". The troll attempts to capture Tom and eat him too, but Tom escapes. Here is how the song ends):

...But just as he thought his dinner was caught,
He found his hands had hold of naught.
Before he could mind, Tom slipped behind
And gave him the boot to larn him.
Warn him! Darn him!
A bump o' the boot on the seat, Tom thought,
Would be the way to larn him.

But harder than stone is the flesh and bone
Of a troll that sits in the hills alone.
As well set your boot to the mountain's root,
For the seat of a troll don't feel it.
Peel it! Heal it!
Old Troll laughed, when he heard Tom groan,
And he knew his toes could feel it.

Tom's leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;
But Troll don't care, and he's still there
With the bone he boned from its owner.
Doner! Boner!
Troll's old seat is still the same,
And the bone he boned from its owner!
written by Myshkin, July 30, 2014
@Stanley Anderson
You're on to something, but the truth goes even deeper since both Descartes and the Reformers had be educated in schools that emphasized the nominalist thinkers of the late Middle Ages, i.e., Blessed Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Durandus. These thinkers were in reaction against the earlier Thomistic synthesis and sought to limit or eliminate the strongly hylomorphic aspects of the Theology and philosophy in High Middle Ages. Blessed Scotus never really understood the relation between esse and essentia, and even Cajetan makes a critical mistake in his tract, The Analogy of Names.

The rejection of St Thomas Aquinas' masterful synthesis helped provide the intellectual climate for the Reformers and early modern philosophy (Descartes, Fr. Mersenne, others). This is one of the things that made Leo XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris such an act of heroic restoration after centuries of terrible disarray in Roman Catholic theology and philosophy.
written by Athanasius, July 30, 2014
@Myshkin, thanks for the mention of Leo XIII's encyclical. He really was a great pope, wasn't he? Also, I still consider myself mostly a Thomist, as I would consider Pope St. John Paul II mostly a Thomist. The Angelic Doctor just makes sense to me.

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