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?