Destiny without Deity
February 19, 2012 1 Comment
Like lots of folks last week, I invested a bit of time looking for a good Valentine’s Day Card to give my beloved. Whether for a birthday or some other occasion, I’m always dismayed by the selection of cards in the store. For the most part, they alternate between mildly profane and unbearably saccharine.
I did manage to find an agreeable V-Day card. However, another card happened to catch my attention. It was one of those sappy ones, but different; a card that wanted to retain a sense of romantic destiny without tipping a hat to deity. I don’t remember it verbatim, but in essence, it read something like this:
“I am in awe of a universe that put the two of us together, and even more so that it knew I needed someone who could put up with me.”
It was a striking example of two powerful but opposing forces at work in the human mind. On the one hand, the propensity toward awe, and on the other, the conspicuous denial of whom that awe is owed to. What does it mean to be in awe if not to acknowledge the masterful work, power, or fury of a willing agent?
And describing a universe that knows something about the couple beforehand not just implies intelligence, but borrows from a sense of divine providence. It shouldn’t have been a big deal for the card to just say “God” instead of “universe.” Even a pantheist could be happy with “God” wording; on such a metaphysical view, God is the universe. So maybe the card maker was trying to be inclusive of an acutely irreligious clientele. Whatever the reasoning, the consumer is confronted with an inconsistent sentiment on the card shelf. Our material universe cannot be owed awe or have foreknowledge.
The late pastor and apologist Francis Schaeffer gave us a potent tool for making sense of this inconsistency in his concept of the upper story and the lower story. Imagine human knowledge as being contained in a two-story house. On the lower story, we have truths about the material world: what we can learn through empirical inquiry and science. The facts formed from the observation of physical phenomena do not support any normative end in themselves. Even with them, we find ourselves asking, “How now shall we live?” We somehow must find those answers in the upper story, where morality and meaning reside.
On a pre-modern worldview, which allows the possibility of the supernatural, we can ascend a staircase that connects the lower and upper stories. But with the Western Enlightenment came modernity. Strict naturalistic presuppositions disallowed any real connection between the two stories. On this materialism, there was no effective way to indict evils like the Nazi holocaust or European colonialism. So postmodernism launched in an attempt to recover some sense of meaning for humanity. Yet, its claims on meaning and morality are only a “leap” of faith from the first to the second story. It doesn’t even want to affirm any real logical connection. Only an objective supernatural reality can ground true morality and purpose.
Without the supernatural, all our sentiments are empty. That we picked out a nice greeting card and some flowers becomes a matter of simply going through the motions. There are still philosophers, like Luc Ferry, who suggest that we ground our meaning in the frame of reference of our fellow human beings. But if matter is all there is, to speak of meaning as if were something real becomes itself incoherent. Anyone who harbors such a worldview must come to terms with the idea that nothing can inspire awe, and that there is no path of destiny you can embrace. Thank God this is not actually the case.