A word from God

I have my world, but before I or my world existed there was the world. This distinction between my world and not-mine is, O’Donovan says ( Self, World, and Time: Volume 1: Ethics as Theology: An Induction ), what we mean by “the world’s objective truth ” (10). The truth of the world that is not-mine imposes demands on me: “moral awareness is the demand that the world lays on my inner self without being my inner self.”

Given this structure, moral reflection is not only prescriptive but “has a vast stake in description” (11). We need to know what kind of world we’re in if we want to know our obligations within it. “World-description belongs . . . ‘on the ground floor’ of practical reason. There can be no prescription without it; neither can there be description which is neutral in its prescriptive implications.”

But then there’s the rub: How do we learn to describe accurately?

The first, straightforward answer is that “we are sites of experience” and thus “what our eyes have seen and what our ears have heard is insurmountable evidence.” But we can see and hear things that aren’t there: “‘I saw a fish suspended over the altar as the priests celebrated the Eucharist!’ No doubt you did. But was there a fish suspended over the altar?”

We can expand the range of knowledge through reliance of tradition; we trust a tradition of map-making and exploration to convince us that places exist that we’ve never visited. “Community-constructed interpretations that we know generically as ‘science’ play a large part in that negotiation.” But these constructions are “empirical” in only an extended sense: “Scientific doctrines may sensibly be called ‘empirical,’ just as water drawn from the tap in the Thames Valley region of England may be called ‘urine.’ It is a correct description of their origin, but in each case what we actually consume has been subject to very careful processing” (12).

These matrices of community criticism and tradition are needed not because the world is merely a projection. We need them precisely because of the objective truth of the world: “We know there are more things in heaven and earth than we can experience ourselves, and that what we experience ourselves is unintelligible to us till we are given tools with which to grasp it.” These tools and matrices are not underwritten by direct experience. These tools and matrices can be, often have been, contested.

So how then can our readings of the world, whether coming from our own experience or from community-constructed theories and traditions, be assessed? We need a “critical measure” if we are going to gain “a direction for intelligent questioning.” We need “a key to the world’s meanings” if we are ever going to sift through the complex of information we receive.

In short, “practical reason looks for a word, a word that makes attention to the world intelligible, a word that will maintain the coherence and intelligence of the world as it finds its way through it, a word of God” (12).

Nicely done, that. And here’s a news flash: O’Donovan has a sense of humor. I’m sure it’s always been there, but I’ve never noticed before. But here there’s that fish floating over the altar, and urine ( processed urine, to be sure) coming out of London taps.

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