Ultimate Meaning: Pope Benedict and William Wordsworth Have a Theory

I don’t think much of the pedophile shielding (and enabling) Pope Benedict, but in his Easter homily this year he laid out the atheist v. theist divide with succinct eloquence: 

If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no, reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine reason.

Notice the “if-then” in the Pope’s statement followed by a “but no.” In place of accident is reason—divine reason.

Wordsworth reflected a similar contrast (or tension) in his famous Ode: Intimations of Immortality (1807), beginning his poem with a lament at his adult inability to access awe toward the ontological mystery (the mystery of being) in the manner of his youth:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

Turn wheresoe’er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Wordsworth’s opening irony is contrasted by lines 58-71 of the same poem, which offers a theory about our true situation that is quite similar to the Pope’s:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

But He

Beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy; . . .

What the Pope said affirms hope and meaning, and Wordsworth’s poem is beautiful, but what, do you suppose, is actually (and ultimately) true about the human condition?

I think the best we can say at this point is this: the confident atheist and the confident theist are both whistling in the dark. We don’t really know what’s going on (and may never know).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Ultimate Meaning: Pope Benedict and William Wordsworth Have a Theory

  1. Well, we do know we evolved and we do know that working together makes life better for everyone. These things are scientific realities.

    But it goes a lot deeper. Aside from a small % of the population that are sociopaths, there is a lot more we all share. We all want to be happy. We all want to be safe. We all want to be with those we love. We all want to be treated fairly. We all want to be healthy.

    These things are not enough for most people though. Many seek a grander reason, an explanation of everything. Lots of times, this is driven by fear of death or explanation of deaths and our inability to achieve what we desire. Sadly, we do not have the grander answer and we may never have it. But this takes me back to my first set of points. We know that working together gets us the things we desire for ourselves and enables others to do so. It is simultaneously good for the individual and good for the species. It increases our understanding of the universe and continuing to do so is the only chance we have of really finding if there is a bigger purpose. Religion is the excuse of the lazy and the arrogant.

    • santitafarella says:

      Jared,

      I like Matt Ridley and agree with the bulk of what you said, but the great question on which all ultimate reasoning depends—did the universe just happen or was it made by a rational intelligence—goes unanswered.

      This puts us, if we’re honest with ourselves, in the position of the characters in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” (not knowing what to do or say with certainty, and so making it up as we go along).

      And so you said, “Religion is the excuse of the lazy and the arrogant.”

      But couldn’t that also be said of atheism (of the person who treats the atheist conclusion with the same confidence that a religious person treats a religious conclusion)?

      —Santi

      • @Santi

        Maybe. I think the atheist conclusions is simply “I don’t know.” And the only way to find out is to ensure we advance as a species. That may qualify as lazy, but certainly not arrogant. And I am not even sure how lazy it is, since it means we have to work to advance to find out.

  2. Nancy says:

    I believe the true “I don’t know” is the position of the agnostic, rather than the athiest, who tends to be evangelical in his denial of god’s existence. One can no more prove God does not exist than one can prove that He does.

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