In a series of two posts I would like to ponder the glory of something we call order. I do this more in the form of a meditation than a treatise. Some may argue that I am oversimplifying complex philosophical concepts. That may be true, but I am a pastor not an academic. And though I summarize here, I do not think I have been inauthentic in setting forth the concepts and problems that have birthed the modern age. My intended audience is people who seek some understanding of the mess we’re in today, but don’t have all day or all week to study it.
Thus permit me this meditation on the glory of order. In this first part, I set forth how the appreciation and understanding of order has suffered in the modern age. In part two (tomorrow’s post), I will meditate on the glory of order under four headings. For now, though, here is part one.
The English word “order” comes from the Latin ordo, which is a row or series ranked in some intelligible way. It indicates that something is arranged methodically toward some desired end or purpose. To give someone an order is to give authoritative direction for the purpose of attaining a willed outcome.
We live in times that are marked by increasing disorder. Socially, a lot of our disorder stems from the disorder at the heart of our families. As the family, the basic unit of society, breaks down, a fundamental order is lost; this brings disorder to the community, Church, state, and nation. But even here, there is a deeper disorder at work, more intellectual than merely social.
Intellectually, many today fail to appreciate order. Why is this?
In ancient and biblical times people saw the world as ordered by God and imbued with a wisdom that ordered it intricately. God created everything through His Word. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. By His Word (Logos) He spoke things into existence. But also by His Word He imbued everything with a logic (logike, a word that comes from Logos).
In the Old Testament this was known as the wisdom tradition. In the New Testament this vision is carried forward but with a glorious transposition, for the Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us. Thus Jesus is the wisdom of God, the Second Person of the Trinity among us.
Yes, the ancient and biblical world saw creation as ordered. Jewish and Greek philosophers alike esteemed order and sought to learn from it. When chaos or disorder was noted it was seen as a departure from the normal order, as an anomaly, or as a paradoxical example of some deeper, hidden order.
This thinking and this respect for order continued largely intact from biblical times through the age of the Fathers and on to the High Middle Ages. God is a God of order. His creation, even this fallen version of it, bespeaks that order.
But this appreciation and understanding of order began to break down as early as the 14th Century with the rise of nominalism. Nominalism (from the Latin nomina (name)) was a theory of knowledge that came to dispute the existence of “universals.” Universals are the “form” in which similar things participate. For example, a tree participates in the universal we designate “treeness.” And while individual trees have unique qualities, they all share similarities in a basic form that we perceive as “treeness.”
As I stated above, this is not a philosophical paper and I cannot adequately summarize hundreds of years of debate in a paragraph, but fundamentally the nominalists (William of Occam, et. al.) argued that universals do not actually exist but rather are merely constructions or abstractions of the human mind. They are only names or categories into which we intellectually place things that are similar. In this case trees are stored in the category named “treeness.” (As an aside, the word nominalism comes from the Latin nomina, meaning name.)
Now whether “treeness” is real or just an abstraction may seem debatable and highly academic. But as nominalism became very influential in the 14th century, the focus started to shift away from the physical world to our minds. Reality used to be something we went out to meet, and having observed its order and its laws, learned from it and sought to base our thinking and our life upon what was actually out there.
After the dawn of nominalism, what we call reality became increasingly understood as more of a projection of the human mind than something that the human mind receives and learns to obey. As the centuries ticked by, man moved toward the center; creation and creation’s God were pushed to the edges. Perceived order came to be more of a projected order. And if man projects order and meaning then he can also change it. There is less to obey and more to command.
Welcome to the beginnings of the modern age and the seeds of thinking that one can, for example, create reality by deciding whether one is male or female, rather than determining it from the obvious physical data. Of course all of this took time to trickle down through the centuries, through the Cartesian divide and the Enlightenment.
Increasingly gone was the notion that order existed in creation and could easily be discovered and obeyed. The human mind, not creation, was the locus of order. Darwin spoke of creation having evolved, not out of order and someone who ordered it, but as the result of blind, random chance. There was thus no order, intelligent cause, purpose, or finality to be discovered. It was just all there by chance.
All sorts of other movements (e.g., nihilism) came from the shift that nominalism introduced, the shift of focus from reality to the mind. Since order could not be discovered and agreed upon, but rather just existed in the minds of individuals, the result was disorder, the tyranny of relativism, and a sort of despair in the modern age that anything really has intrinsic or universal meaning at all. The mind is a very lonely place when we sever it from what God has set forth in the Book of Creation and in His revealed Word.
As a believer, I have strongly resisted these modern notions, rooted ultimately in nominalism. I cannot say that I haven’t been influenced by such notions, but I have consistently resisted them since early adulthood. To me, the world shouts, “Order, order, order! I was designed! Come and meet my designer!”
Order is a beautiful thing. In creation God’s order is deep and intricate, vast and wide. It is apparent in the vastness of the entire cosmos and in the intricate workings of cells, molecules, and atoms. What glorious order is all about us! Discovering God’s order, I find peace, meaning, and order in my own life. Reverence for God’s order, an order that is actually out there and not just in my mind, gives me joy and helps me to trust. God has a plan. God has a purpose for every human person as well as for creation itself. Creation does not exist merely in my mind. It is an aspect of what God has created and permeates it. It is “out there” to be discovered and obeyed. It reaches my mind and includes my mind, but it is not just in my mind; it is actually there in what God has made through His Logos, which gives it a logike (logic) that I discover.
In tomorrow’s post, I will offer a brief spiritual meditation on order under four different headings that help to define the experience of order in practical ways:
- Life is ordered energy.
- Beauty is the splendor of order.
- Virtue is ordered love.
- Peace is resting in order.
Here are some words related to order/disorder:
Chaos – utter confusion. It comes from the late-Greek word khaos, referring to the primeval emptiness of the universe; this was as opposed to Kosmos, the ordered Universe. The extended sense of chaos (the void at the beginning of creation) has thus come to mean “orderless” confusion.
Pandæmonium (pan- (all) + daemonium (evil spirit)) literally means “all demon.” More figuratively it means “demons everywhere.” John Milton coined the word in Paradise Lost as the name of the palace built in the middle of Hell.
Anarchy – without a ruler, chief or principal
Disarray – lack of arrangement or order
Discord – without a common heart (dis (without) + cor (heart))
Disorder – without order
Lawlessness – the state of living apart from law