Famously, Psalm 14 begins ‘The fool says in his heart “There is no God”‘. What is meant by this? Click ‘full post’ for text.
Is the fool foolish because there is some fact about the world that he hasn’t noticed? That is, is this attribution of foolishness akin to calling a flat-earth believer a fool? As if a man is standing in front of the sea and claiming not to see any water? That sort of claim would be an empirical claim. It would be an assertion of some fact about the world, a fact that is amenable to scientific investigation, the formulation of hypotheses and the accumulation of evidence. Then the dispute would be between the community of those who accept the legitimacy of those processes, and those who don’t, and the more widespread the acceptance of the processes, the more foolish the objector will be seen as. One definition of the fool: one who stands outside the consensus of the community. And in this example the community will have a particular ‘grammar’ for how to talk about what counts – what counts as important, what counts as evidence for what is important.
Is this the nature of the Psalmist’s claim? Well, let me first ask: are there areas of life where foolishness might be displayed in ways that are not open to empirical investigation? Consider the shenanigans in the Clinton White House involving Ms Lewinsky. When Hillary found out about these matters, would she be justified in calling her husband a fool? It is, after all, a familiar trope in literature when someone is rendered foolish by their passions. Or perhaps when someone is tempted to steal, on the optimistic presupposition that they won’t be caught – and they don’t realise that all of their actions are being caught on CCTV. Or perhaps the more long term and insidious foolishness of having just one more drink, or ‘one for the road’. Or perhaps pouring petrol on a blazing fire. In these examples there might be empirical information that is relevant – certainly to the detriment of Mr Clinton’s reputation – but is the foolishness itself empirically observed? Or is it rather a matter of judgement?
Isn’t that what foolishness is? An absence of sound judgement, or the impairment of judgement? Either a repeated choosing badly, or, perhaps, an absence of any decision making at all.
It is, in fact, a good example of foolishness to try and make these second sorts of foolishness – let’s call them moral – fit into the first type of foolishness – call them empirical.
And the question I want to ask is: which sort matters more? Which sort is most destructive of a fully human life? And what sorts of habits and attitudes help us avoid foolishness and pursue what is wonderful?
So what does the Psalmist mean? Well let’s put the quotation into context:
“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
It is common in the psalms to have a verse repeating the same sentiment in two different ways, and that applies here – the fool saying that there is no God is the same sentiment as no one doing any good. In other words we have here a practical description of behaviour. We are not here dealing with an empirical claim, we are instead dealing with the realm of morality. The claim of foolishness is not that the fool isn’t seeing the world correctly in some scientific fashion, rather, the fool is acting as if there is no accountability and no consequence to his actions. The fool who believes that there is no God is the same as the amoral actor who has no care for the consequences of his choices. This is the grammar of the language.
To say that the fool says in his heart there is no God is to describe the disposition, the shape of the heart of the fool. It is an undisciplined heart; a heart that is not accountable; a heart that is selfish and unconstrained. The word ‘God’ has its meaning in this context – it is the lynchpin of the entire system – for God is precisely that which orients a heart correctly, to which the heart is accountable, which is able to rightly discipline and enable the heart to judge correctly between what is just and what is unjust.
I have talked elsewhere about the problem with science and the positivist culture that has been so influentially humourless for the last century or so – it is asophic, it is blind to wisdom. It is asophic, and as a result, it says in its heart there is no God.
Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel, for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away. Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hosea 4)