It may seem odd to say, but we stand to learn something about the search for truth from the witness of the Old Testament. For sometimes it takes a postmodernist enemy of truth to reveal to us our own presuppositions, and then the counsel of an ancient king to set us straight.
At the end of the last century, the late Richard Rorty was perhaps the most celebrated American philosopher —professional philosopher, that is. Rorty himself knew that he was no friend to wisdom. Nor was he a friend to the search for truth. In an essay entitled “A World without Substances and Essences,” the sole virtue of which was its candor, he contended that not only do we need to set aside truth as a goal, but we should also bridle our wonder.
“Plato, Aristotle and orthodox monotheism,” he wrote, “all insist on a sense of mystery and wonder in regard to anthropomorphic but nonhuman powers.” Such a sense of wonder, however, Rorty saw as “undesirable,” and wished to see it replaced with an “awareness that there are some things which human beings cannot control.”
Hurricanes come to mind. Should we look at great hurricanes as nothing other than challenges to be overcome, as Rorty wished, or should we also take them as invitations to ponder the mystery and the majesty of God?
The witness of the Old Testament is unequivocal: the wise have seen in nature, in the Creation, precious indications of God’s might and mercy.
The Psalms speak in harmony on this point. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). The order that we see in sun, moon, stars, days, nights, and seasons is both imposing in its regularity—not even the IRS is as reliable—and beneficent in its effect. The earthly cycle of birth and death may be punctuated by storms, earthquakes, forest fires, and other disasters, but it may also be trusted to reset and again to provide a fitting home for rational beings and other creatures. “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon which he planted. In them the birds built their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees” (Ps 104:16–17). We see in the Psalms, then, the awareness that order is good, and that it reveals the work of mind, the mind of the Creator.
We also find in the Psalms expressions of awe. In Monsignor Knox’s translation of the Psalm numbered 147 in the RSV, we find the psalmist almost speechless before the immensity of the universe because of what that vastness indicates about our infinite God: “Does he not know the number of the stars and call each one by name?” (PS 146:4, Knox). And elsewhere, the Psalms testify to nature’s ability to prompt us to look for God, or to strain our ears for the sound of his voice: “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of thy cataracts” (Ps 42:7).
Aquinas taught that “wonder is the beginning of wisdom, being, as it were, the path of the search for truth,” and in the Old Testament we find not only evidence of Israel’s wonder, but also a variety of admonitions and encouragements to embrace the quest for wisdom. King David declared that “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God” (Ps 14:2). His son Solomon echoed the point when, conveying the words of Wisdom personified, he wrote: “Happy is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For he who finds me finds life” (Proverbs 8:34–5).
This attitude or disposition is the essential character trait of the philosopher, the one who looks first at wholes, not parts, and who is unafraid to ask repeatedly ‘Why?’ of even the most humble realities.
Just a few years ago, we received a reminder of the importance of this kind of wonder from an unlikely source, the self-declared atheist Thomas Nagel. At the outset of his spirited best seller Mind and Cosmos, he gave this glorious testimony: “The world is an astonishing place [and] that it has produced you, and me, and the rest of us is the most astonishing thing about it.”
“What is man, that thou are mindful of him?” (Ps 8:4) This is indeed the question that should be our daily bread. If we make it so, putting practical problem-solving in its proper place and setting aside time to think about God and the world that he has made, then we too can learn to say, with Solomon, that Divine Wisdom “reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other” and “orders all things well” (Wis 8:1).