Since materialism wipes out the possibility of ingrained purpose, and we require purpose to live, what we call expressive individualism naturally arises. We kill God and we will become him. When purpose and therefore meaning are self-determined, we fall into crisis. In other words, one thread of our predicament in this strange malaise we call modernity, is the natural result of our changing understanding of what the world around us is.
We live in a world that tells a story about itself: we learn the story as children in school and we imbibe it in our cups as we go about the day. It’s whispered to us by automobiles and tarmac and concrete pillars and we receive it intravenously by the tap our smartphones have placed in our souls.
The story is simple, though its implications and endless poorly written sequels spin themselves out like the very worst of web serials. It goes like this:
This is it.
The world tells us a story that the stuff that we can see is all there is, and that the stuff we can touch is just stuff. If there were a temptation to believe that perhaps that tree was not just a tree, and maybe, possibly its branches might be raised towards… just stop there. There is nothing to be raised towards. How can there be? What you can see and touch is what there is.
If we were tempted to believe that beauty has a source, that somewhere outside of the stuffy cave we find ourselves in there might be a source of the shadows we watch on the wall, the story will swiftly correct us. Because the world has a ruler, a story-teller, who would really prefer we didn’t consider his existence, or that for most of Christian history we have referred to this Prince of the ‘Air’ who twists stories like smoke around our heads as our Adversary. In Hebrew, the Satan.
But this story—which when we’re feeling philosophical we might call materialism, or naturalism—has got its grip on our world. It’s still pretty new, historically speaking, but it has solidified and deepened. We no longer believe in a Cosmos of ordered light, but instead in a Universe that we describe in mechanistic terms. It sounds like a machine.
We are catechised by our machines, so we start to think in their stories. Even for those who know that there is more, those who know that the story of the world is not that there is stuff that decays to dust but that God became dust and all things will be reconciled to him. Even if we know that the beating heart of the Universe is after death, life we still struggle to believe that what we see and touch is more than it appears. We’re steeped in stories that tell us otherwise.
If I, for example, suggested that what we refer to as the ‘laws of physics,’ our observations about the regular nature of the Cosmos’ operations, are most likely overseen by angels, I sound like I need to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.