Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–A Contemporary Perspective

Does the natural world show any indication of God?

This question would not make any sense to the Church Fathers: of course, the world shows forth the glory of God.  But to a secular modern mind, God is absent.  In a cosmos of meaningless matter in motion, there is no place to look for him in the world.  Gerald R. McDermott, the retired Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, has recently written a book to counter this modern notion.  In his book, Everyday Glory, the Revelation of God in All of Reality, McDermott says

Consider the irony: moderns are proud that they now know that the world is not enchanted. Yet these same moderns—indoctrinated by Darwin, Marx, and Freud—have run to psychiatrists and counselors because of more per capita depression than perhaps in any period of history. The biblical authors, in telling contrast, write of joy to be found amid suffering. At the heart of that joy is a vision of the world as full of the glory of God. As John Calvin put it, the world is a theater of God’s glory.

Calvin was not saying anything new.   The Great Tradition–Origen and Augustine through John of Damascus to Thomas and Bonaventure—saw the world as a thing of wonder studded with beautiful and mysterious signs pointing beyond themselves.

Of course, this class has been opening you up to the deep rationality in what figures like Origen, Augustine, John of Damascus were saying.  These Christian figures were full of joy, even if they lived in a world where suffering was rampant.  Whatever one thinks of influential moderns like Darwin, Marx, and Freud, McDermott’s point about the joyless depression that too often wells up in many secular moderns is telling.   Progress has not brought us to Utopia.  Moderns do not live in a world of meaning–other than that of subjective fancy—because the most fundamental myths of modernity cut them off from seeing meaning by means of material stuff.  Deceptive myths destroy vision.

When the Psalmist looked at the sky above ancient Israel, he thought of his God:

     When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, 
     the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 
     what is man that you are mindful of him, 
     the son of man that you care for him?                  Psalm 8:3-4

Indeed, he goes on to say (verse 5) “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” The Psalmist lived in a world where he knew he was at home, where he was cared for, where he could address his maker as “you.”  Furthermore, one could not look at the skies without receiving a paradoxically speechless revelation from them:

     The heavens declare the glory of God;
         the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
      Day after day they pour forth speech;
         night after night they reveal knowledge.
      They have no speech, they use no words;
         no sound is heard from them.
      Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
         their words to the ends of the world.            Psalm 19:1-4

The Psalmist’s poem is still valid today, even though modern scientific instrumentation and theories enable us to see much more and much farther than he could.  The skies still “speak” to us in their voiceless way, if we have but the ears to hear.

Alister McGrath, the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, is another contemporary Anglican voice to help us put modern scientific knowledge and Christian faith together in a compelling way.  In his 2009 Gifford Lectures, published at the book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, McGrath says

To find the true significance of things requires the development of habits of reading and directions of gaze that enable the reflective observer of nature to discern meaning where others see happenstance and accident. Or, to use an image from Polanyi, where some hear a noise, others hear a tune. 

Do we see or hear what we have been trained to see or hear?  Or only what we want to see or hear?  How does one learn how to read the skies?  Or for that matter, a human face?  

C. S. Lewis offers some help in reading the world in his Reflections on the Psalms (as quoted in Branches to Heaven: the Geniuses of C. S. Lewis by James Como):

… what is required … is not merely knowledge, but a certain insight; getting the focus right. …

One who contended that a poem was nothing but black marks on a paper would be unanswerable if he addressed an audience who couldn’t read.

Look at it through a microscope, analyze the printer’s ink …you will never discover something over and above.  …

Those who read, however, will continue to say the poem exists.

We have to learn to read things rightly.  Yet, our way of reading is governed by starting presuppositions about what reading is, about how it should be done.  Reading transcends the simple surface of things, for we have to know what to do with whatever we “take in” by reading.  Are we looking for black marks on the paper or are we looking for meaning?  Could the black marks be the key to meaning?  Could they be telling us something, showing us something?  We all have to start with some basic “beginning,” ground, source, ἀρχῇ, arché.  That originating ground of our thinking sets the boundaries of what we will “read.”  If we expect meaning, we may expect to find it.  If we do not, then we will not.  There is more to what is there than what we bring to it. Yet, we need to bring some skill–we have a part to play in what the text says to us. Those who know how to read will understand what they are reading.  A good poem or psalm will keep feeding them more.  It is a window to the depth of the real, to those who know how to read.

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