When someone dies,
the family gathers
beside the still body.
Around a table
they draw near each
other, singing familiar songs
and shared memories—
the moments that mattered,
the words and actions
that revealed the divine soul.

What are we to do
when a world dies?
Where do we gather
when the dead body is ours?
Enemies do not eat
together; they see not the
Other. They shout different songs,
construct different memories—
the moments that matter,
the words and actions,
that reveal our ruined soul.
The center did not hold.
So where will we gather
For the funeral of a world?

The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe observed that “what can’t be otherwise we accept . . . but possibility destroys mere acceptance.”1 At the dawn of modernity, the Scientific Revolution expanded the horizon of human possibility, and this awakening of possibility destroyed acceptance. The beginning of rapid technological advancement seemed to imply that man need no longer accept the limitations of the created world. New modes of transportation, communication, production, and medicine made it seemed possible to overcome the limitations of space, time, and perhaps even death. The scientific revolution and its attendant technological progress radically altered the way Western Europeans experienced and thought about the world. While medieval culture had viewed the world as originating from a transcendent, spiritual reality which defined and enlivened the material realm from the inside out, moderns began to view the world as something which could be known and dominated from the outside in. For the ancient and the medieval mind, the fundamental source of being was found in the transcendent realm which was accessed through the inner life of man. For the modern, the externalized material realm became the fundamental locus of being and the spiritual realm was rendered secondary, illusory, or strangely independent. For the past five hundred years, this radical shift has been slowly changing every aspect of Western culture, and here at the dawn of the third millennium, modernism had turned the entire cosmos upside down and inside out.

The modern shift from a transcendent to a materialist metaphysic transformed what God created to be an expression of his glory into an arbitrary and meaningless collection of dust. The material world has become something to use rather than something to contemplate, and so economic production has now replaced worship as the life-giving center of Western culture. The rationalist endeavor to make human reason the foundation of truth has ironically, as Malcolm Guite explains in Faith, Hope, and Poetry, “made for a universe devoid of mind and intrinsically unintelligible.”2 Cut off from a Divine Mind, the reduction of the human mind to a mere material reality has “made mind itself almost an absurdity.”3 No longer sure what it means to be a human, Western culture has regressed into a neo-pagan morality where sexual ethics and the sanctity of life are questioned and even denied. Materialist reductionism has undermined the sacrament of marriage and reduced the meaning of sex to a mere exchange of chemical pleasure (pornography making even physical connection optional). No longer sure what it means to be a human, we mutilate ourselves with surgeries and drugs. Our inability to perceive the transcendental qualities of goodness, truth, and beauty as inherent in the physical world has rendered our society increasingly immoral, incoherent, and ugly.

So here we are, at the end of our world. The old glories are over. At this postmodern juncture, there is nothing left to deconstruct, reduce, or devour. How shall we mourn, we who ourselves are dead? But therein lies our hope, for in a Christ-centered cosmos, death leads to new life. Here at the end of the modern overthrow, we still find ourselves stunned by the mystery of existence. We have doubted everything and now we find ourselves doubting our doubt. We have deconstructed all meaning and yet still find ourselves meaning something. We keep writing poetry. We keep getting married. We still have children, and every newborn child is the renewal of the world.

The meaning we still seek is still present in the world all around us. The heavens have not ceased to declare the glory of God. Day by day, they pour forth speech. Morning, still, “at the brown brink eastward, springs – for the Holy Ghost over the bent world still broods with warm breast and bright wings.4 The whole of creation, all the “outward ‘objects’ of nature, they are continuously given and made by the Divine Mind; they are the ‘eternal language’ of the Divine Poet.”5 The world still speaks. And we still wonder. God has written the truth of his Word into nature and even into our very bodies; if we can learn to again listen to the music of the spheres, to the meaning of the trees, to the meaning of skies and seas, we will rediscover the God who is still there. He will mourn for us, and by the power of His resurrected life renew the world once again.

Notes:

1 Elizabeth Anscombe, “Contraception and Chastity” (1972), OrthodoxyToday.org, accessed February 1, 2018, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/AnscombeChastity.php.

2 Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (London: Routledge, 2016), 168.

3 Ibid.

4 Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.”

5 Guite, Faith, Hope, and Poetry, 161.