Most of the atheists I’ve known have a profound and moving faith in the meaning and value of human life and in the value of abstract ideas and ideals. Some believe in these virtues and values enough to stake their lives on them and they have faith that doing so results in a life that is more meaningful and more real than one squandered simply on the pursuit of material goods or prestige and success. The late Christopher Hitchens was one such person; Hitch passionately believed in social and political ideals and thought it was his duty to speak up for them whatever the consequences.
Theists take things another couple of steps. Like Hitchens, religious believers look at values like justice and truth and find them to be compelling in their own right. That power is real. But theists also think these values point beyond themselves and tell us something about the way the world is made. The concept of justice isn’t just a product of our evolutionary upbringing, a flicker of sensation in our synapses that points to nothing beyond our conditioning or our genes. Justice claims to be a real value, objectively rooted in something beyond human perception, a legitimate demand on our consciences based on the nature of reality. Theists don’t think that this is a lie.
For theists, the universe isn’t just a place with scattered bits of meaning in it. Meaning isn’t decoration or illusion, a subjective human response to hardwired stimuli in our brains or grace notes that accompany us on our meaningless way through the dark void. Existentialists and others who believe that the universe is ultimately meaningless but who still choose to act as if meaning was real are among the moral heroes of the world, but theists think there is more to life than the brave but doomed affirmation of meaningless ideals in the face of an idiot, uncaring universe.
Theists think meaning really means something, that it all adds up. The transcendence that comes to us in life doesn’t just happen in our heads; it points to the nature of ultimate reality.The transcendence that comes to us in life doesn’t just happen in our heads; it points to the nature of ultimate reality. That ultimate reality transcends our ability to comprehend, and we only get scattered glimpses of it here and there, but whatever it is, it is greater than we are.
I am struggling through Dante’s Paradiso, which is significantly more difficult than the Inferno and the Purgatorio, mostly because it is so theologically dense. In one of the early cantos, Dante asks Beatrice if the blessed souls who appear to him on particular planets (they are rising from the earth through space, towards the Empyrean) inhabit those planets. No, she tells him, they all live in the Empyrean (that is, Heaven), but God allows them to appear in this way to Dante so he can understand something about the nature of their existence in Heaven. She tells him that man, being a finite creature, depends on his senses to help his intellect interpret reality. The things of Eternity are not possible for us to perceive directly, she explains, but only metaphorically — iconographically, you might say. Beatrice cautions Dante that he mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that an icon of Eternity is the same thing as Eternity. (I suppose that would be idolatry.)
One great lesson I’m taking from reading Dante is experiencing a sort of re-enchantment of the world. Now, I’m a Christian, so the world is not dis-enchanted in the first place. What I mean is that to read Dante is to enter into the European mind of the High Middle Ages, the last time in our civilization when nearly all men believed that spiritual realities were all around us, embedded in matter — that all of Creation bore the imprint of the Creator, and He could be known in part through its contemplation. Reader Mohammed sent me a great book by the historian Titus Burckhardt, Chartres and the Birth Of The Cathedral, in which Burckhardt discusses the theological and metaphysical underpinnings behind sacred architecture. Excerpt:
If a medieval church building, a Romanesque minster, for example, appears as a cosmos resting in itself, this results from the fact that it incorporates in itself a vision of the universe that captures the physical spiritually and the spiritual physically. What the Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture express in stone — a consciousness of the spiritual realities that surround man on all sides — Dante, at the end of the High Middle Ages, and as if to serve as its legacy, expressed in words. For the truth that the order of the visible universe extends far beyond itself, there is no better image than the concentric heavenly layers rising hierarchically from the lowest heaven, in which the moon moves round the earth, beyond all planetary orbits, up to the measureless value of the fixed stars surrounded in its turn by the outermost and invisibly moving heaven, which itself rests in the Infinite. The angels are likewise ranked hierarchically, as are the stages of spiritual knowledge, extending from the temporal to the Eternal.
If one could have told an intelligent man of the Middle Ages that in reality space was quite different from what he imagined it to be — that the earth was not its centre and that the sun was not the largest heavenly body within it — his response would probably have been as follows: The universe certainly contains many things that we have not yet seen, and very many more that we never shall see, for our eyes are those of a human being, not those of an angel or a demon. Since, however, God has placed us in a setting wherein the earth on which we stand appears as terra firma, and the luminaries in the heavens appear to revolve around us in ever-increasing orbits, this must have a providential meaning for us.
We Orthodox Christians have a common prayer in which we hail God as one who is “everywhere present, and fillest all things.” Icons, we believe, are “windows to heaven” — meaning that they make manifest, in matter, spiritual truths. But if God fills all things, then the world is an icon, a Cosmos that contains and discloses meaning, not a Universe of cold, indifferent matter.
The more I read about the pre-moderns, the more apparent it becomes to me that men in ages past saw some things more clearly than we do. A modern person stumbling into the Chartres cathedral may hold a Ph.D., but in important ways, he may be a barbarian in the way a medieval intellectual was not.