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Book review: Meaning, Mattering, Transcendence: Essays on meaning, morality and God by Vernon White

09 February 2024

John Saxbee reviews an argument about the moral sense and God

WHO WOULD have thought the meaning of “meaning” could be so intriguing? But it is.

In 2022, the Church Times carried a review of Steven Cassedy’s What Do We Mean When We Talk About Meaning? (Books, 9 September 2022). Cassedy ridiculed religious claims to possess the meaning of life, but affirmed that words have meaning, and that those meanings matter. Now Vernon White shows Cassedy to be right in what he affirmed, but wrong in what he denied.

When it comes to words that we use in relation to morality and theology, not only do they have meanings that matter, but those meanings lead towards ultimacy or transcendence, which, indeed, do indicate the meaning of life. He asserts that “believing that there is meaning in life is part of the human condition”; so it matters.

What is so impressive about White’s preaching, teaching, and writing is how lightly he wears the breadth and depth of his learning. In this brief and unfailingly accessible trio of essays on the meaning of meaning, morality, and God, he shows how musing on the meaning of meaning pushes us towards some ultimate ground of meaning beyond, as well as within, ourselves.

Next, to wonder at the meaning of morality leads to a notion of ultimate value likewise beyond, as well as within, ourselves. Finally, to reflect on the meanings of God is to attempt to give some kind of content to ultimacy and transcendence which is both the culmination of this trajectory from meaningful human existence to the existence of God, and the antidote to reductionist accounts of what it means to be human: “. . . transcendence is what grounds all our more tenuous and fickle created meanings, and makes things matter. It is what tells us that they are not all just contingent and transitory but have also an ultimate ground and destiny.”

The first essay uses the resources of psychology, literature, and mature reflection on lived experience to show how such experience implies some purpose to our lives which might, or might not, prompt an inclination towards religion. It characterises Homo sapiens and not just homo religiosus.

Next, he explores the meanings of morality. We may disagree about what is right or wrong, good or bad, but we possess a core belief that morality exists. Furthermore, we believe that morality matters, and it is the nature and extent of this “mattering” which beguiles him. There is something about morality which is distinctive, irreducible, authoritative, and absolute. These features drive him towards the conclusion that “when we meet the moral sense we are actually meeting the mind and will of a personal God.”

So, finally, he turns to what we mean by God. Scripture, classical orthodoxy, and modernity are brought to bear on this question, and White is unafraid to affirm both mysticism and postmodernity as appropriately hospitable to non-binary accounts of God as personal, purposeful, and meaningful in ways that may “stretch our reason”, but that positively challenge attempts to reduce humanity to merely physical characteristics.

One or two extended asides do disturb the flow of the argument, while the distinctiveness of the individual chapters reflects their origin as self-contained lectures. But this is a book to challenge and extend the moral and theological horizons of religious and non-religious readers alike — and the conversation between them.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Meaning, Mattering, Transcendence: Essays on meaning, morality and God
Vernon White
Cascade Books £16
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

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