Discover more from For The Rest Of Us
Learning New Ways to See — A Reflection on Psalm 19
David writes in Psalm 19,
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out
through all the earth,
and their words to the
end of the world.
It's a vexing and paradoxical image — the psalmist personifies the heavens and earth, but also makes them profoundly unknowable. He gives them speech, consciousness, and agency, but it in a form that is "not heard". How is this possible? I would argue that David is aware of a different form of intelligence, one that isn't apprehensible by standard human forms of knowing. A common accusation against historic Christianity is its anthropocentrism, that the ecological crises we face are the consequence of a worldview that treats the natural world as a loose collection of discrete resources, rather than an integrated, living whole. If such a worldview does flow from the belief that humans are created in the image of God, it's a bitterly ironic that it does so, and this psalm is an indictment of it.
Reading it, I can't help but feel that David would nod in agreement with Paul Kingsnorth and Iain McGilchrist that something has gone very awry with how modern people see the world. Under the gazes of science and rationalism, we have broken the world apart, examined its constituent pieces in isolation, and now make projects of re-aggregating them in various ways to suit our own ends. I'm not quite as pessimistic about science and technology per se as Paul Kingsnorth is, but I think his observation is astute. Our desire to know and master the world is concomitant with an inveterate tendency to control and dominate, and our attempts to tightly grasp things cause them to break.
In a recent talk, Kingsnorth asked what we should do in response to the myriad collapses we feel around us. His answer was, simply, pray. The passivity of such a response might shock us, but I think it's poignant — a lot of doing is what's gotten us into this mess, after all. But what might the contents of such prayer look like?
Fortunately, the Psalms have served as a sort of prayer book for Christian and Jewish peoples throughout history. They can give words when we have none. I read somewhere once that if scripture is God's self-disclosure to humanity, the Psalms are humanity's self-disclosure to God. Because this self-disclosure happens in the open, it provides a starting point for our own prayers and meditations.
In the matter of how we ought to relate to the material world, Psalm 19 seems to provide a great starting point for such meditations. In the first two stanzas, it presents to us the cosmos as a living, coherent thing. Then, in the third stanza, it makes a sudden pivot to talking about the "law of the LORD". His "testimony" makes the simple wise. If we understand the "ordinances of the LORD" to be true, we ought to inquire into their nature.
Like the physical world, the "commandment of the LORD" is not a set of atomic and decontextualized directives, but an integral set of principles and truths about how we ought to relate to God, the world, one another, and ourselves. They are "more to be desired than gold" — or any other resource we might extract from the earth. We are warned by them, kept from both "hidden faults" and "presumptuous sins".
David probably did not have our current ecological, economic, social, or political woes in mind when speaking of faults and sins. But for pre-modern people, those "external" concerns were all spiritual in nature — they were never put asunder. And once again, we return to the issue of how we discern the world as (post)modern people. By putting things into distinct buckets — spiritual/material, religious/secular, economical/ecological — we fail to see their inherent dependencies.
Learning to see as our forebears did, through texts like the Psalms, open our eyes to possibilities and pitfalls to which we may have been blind before. Psalm 19 make be a good place to start. We can pray along with David for a transformed mind:
Let the words of my mouth and
the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.