Humus Sapiens, Part IV

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Ascension Sunday, 2009

What gives meaning? Order.

What gives order? Direction.

What gives direction? Purpose.

What gives purpose?  Wrong Question.

     Who gives purpose.


In our previous essay, we looked at the human capacity to discern order.  Order is in the eye of the beholder, however.  Two people can look at the same stars and see different orders.  One might see the outline of a bear in a constellation.  Another might see a big dipper.  Similarly one person might see a star as a massive, photon-spewing ball of atomic nuclei held together by gravitational force.  Another might see that same massive photon-spewing ball within the larger context of a universe created by the Living God.  The order is not within the arrangement of particles themselves, but rather the order is in the meaning discerned by the observer.

This is why we say that religion gives meaning because it explains the world as more than a chance happening, a collision of atomic particles without purpose.  There is direction to it.  There is purpose.  And the purpose lies outside the object.  Meaning will always transcend the particles and the events of their interactions.  Meaning requires a greater context in which to discern purpose.  That is the realm of religion-the transcendent realm, the realm beyond the meaningless collision of particles. 

This is the realm in which events have meaning because they are contingent upon a purpose which lends order to what would otherwise be purposeless and random.  And as we peel the next layer of the onion, and seek the source of purpose, we ask where purpose comes from.  Purpose comes from persons.  A persons lives, creates and designs with intent.  If purpose could exist in an impersonal something, a ‘what’, then that ‘what’ would not transcend itself.  It would be without intent or the capacity to design & create.  That’s why “what gives purpose?” is the wrong question.  The right question is “Who?”

That ‘who’ is either me, or us, or God, or all three.  If it’s just you and me, and if we are part of the ‘what’ of creation-random fluctuations in space-time-then that’s not much of a purpose.  Here we see why there is a great divide between theological and non-theological interpretation of the orders within creation.  Theological interpretation can and must discern order in creation, precisely because the creation exists within the context of the living God.  Indeed, this theological interpretation looks like a closed circle of thought to those who stand outside it, looking in. But it is not a closed-minded circle of knowledge.  To the contrary, it is the only circle which can logically and rationally claim to possess knowledge of the meaning of it all, even though that meaning remains shrouded in mystery and only partially discernable.  To stand outside the theological circle, looking in, is not merely a stance which finds no hope in theology.  Even worse, it is to adopt a stance that finds no hope in any discernable purpose, from any source.  Purpose is to be found in the ‘who?’ not the ‘what?’ of creation, and this is the realm of the theological circle-to wrestle with the ‘who?’ question.

Karl Barth reminds us of this distinction which belongs to the theological circle of knowledge-

The distinction between this order and what is customarily called “order of creation” elsewhere is clear and irreconcilable. To be aware of this order we do not leave the closed circle of theological knowledge. We do not in some way read off this order where we just think we find it. We do not understand it at all as an order which can be discovered by us, but as one which has itself sought us out in the grace of God in Jesus Christ revealed in His Word, disclosing itself to us as such where we for our part could neither perceive nor find it. We not merely suppose it; we see and know it. We do so in the secret of revelation and faith, but in this way really and authoritatively.[1]

When the meaning of creation is revealed to us, we see and know.               When our eyes see that which by grace is revealed by the one who beholds us,  then we have a reason to say, “seeing is believing.”

[1] Barth, Church Dogmatics  III/4, 45.