Once again departing from the Revised Common Lectionary, I’ll be preaching the whole of Psalm 19. I preached this week’s Mark reading as well as last week’s in the sermon before.
The Nü Atheists, as Michial likes to call them, often claim that “science” has supplanted “religion” (I take them to mean that materialist philosophy has supplanted rationalist creationism, but that’s for another post) on two fronts: for one, the explanatory and predictive powers of science are such that religion is no longer needed. For the other, science has filled the need for aesthetics with its “cosmic vision” of the universe, a spectacle grand enough that nobody should really need God-talk in order to have a sense of reverence for the universe.
I think of the first claim relatively little; as Terry Eagleton has noted nicely, the Nü Atheists can’t even ask interesting questions, so coming up with good answers to interesting questions is just not something to expect, unless one enjoys disappointment. To imagine “religion” as primarily an explanatory device that “primitives” use until the scientist-heroes come along to liberate them is a silly bit of historical fantasy at best.
I think of the second question a fair bit, though. Certainly the Enligthenment, starting with Edmund Burke and going through Kant to the Romantics, has given us the Sublime as an antidote to an over-explained world. To position humanity such that we experience grandeur as beings-of-our-size is a nice bit of aesthetic philosophy, and I’m not going to deny that the concept of the Sublime has helped me to think through what it means to live a human existence in a historical moment so thoroughly defined by scientific inquiry. On the other hand, I don’t think the picture of that human existence is complete unless to the Sublime we add the Personal. And that’s where this Psalm comes in.
The poetry of the Psalm comes in its parallels: the night’s speaking-knowledge runs alongside the all-seeing sun. The heavens declare, and the voice is heard. I suppose that people entirely convinced of uncomplicated historical progress might see these as the anthropomorphisms of “primitives,” but I’m inclined to read a master poet, someone telling us not what we can already observe but what is true of reality, if only our blinders would come off. This is the world in which all things, not only those that we can understand, sing. This is the world of prophetic imagination, a challenge to see otherwise when the world seems indifferent or even hostile.
And running parallel to the enchanted world here is the divine Torah. Again, very little reference to the mundane in Numbers happens here: there’s no mention of boundary markers, of forbidden shellfish or procedures for making sure that accidental manslaughters don’t fall in revenge-killings. Instead, the grand Law runs alongside the grand Heavens, both of them gifts of God, both of them providing knowledge and light and joy and life to those who would receive them. The check on moral vice that the Law promises comes not from delineating repayment schemes in cases of livestock theft but in its grandeur when regarded as divine. When the self-obsessed mortal looks into it, to echo the New Testament epistle of James, God gives that mortal a mirror, a look upon the self that is true in ways that a look at the self without a mirror cannot be.
In an age so thoroughly defined by scientific inquiry, I for one need this sort of prophetic word. It’s far too easy to stand in the hubris of homo scientificus, to pronounce the structure of all of reality, to locate the books of Moses in their Iron-age moment and leave it at that. When I fall to those temptations, I’m inclined to think too much of myself, to forget that my very existence is gift. Even with the help of the Sublime, I’m inclined to congratulate myself on “seeing” the vastness of the world rather than thanking the God who reminds me of the same. It’s when I take most seriously the LORD who gives the enduring law, when I praise El-Elyon as the one who sets the vast Kosmos in motion and cares for it in every moment, that I really remember the God who calls us forth to give shape to God’s worth, to be worshiping creatures. And it’s in the act of worship that indeed I see.
May our praises always praise the true God, and may our hearts always move forth from that truth.