In order for Psalm 23 to mean anything to someone they must be thinking Biblically. When our thinking becomes skewed, Psalm 23 makes no sense. The following is an attempt to show how the history of Western thought would have translated Psalm 23.
The Lord is my Shepherd…
(Early Church and revived in the Reformation)
God created the universe and man. By making man and woman in His image He gave them meaning. As creator, He determined what is right and wrong and it is society’s responsibility to live within those bounds. That is the universal base. There is a foundation for law, rights and freedom. God, as understood through the Bible, is the final authority.
But suppose I do not want to be completely under God. I would like some ‘freedom’ to think for myself. What will be my new universal principle?
The Lord is my Shepherd, but I help him guide me.
(Medieval times largely influenced by Aquinas who leaned heavily on the secular thought of Aristotle.)
Why restrict ourselves to only what God has to say? The Bible is lowered and man is raised higher. The Bible becomes a guideline that can be veered from and the church is raised to become its equal. Salvation is by grace but begins to increasingly include the works of man because man is viewed as capable of doing it. Secular thinking starts to trump the Biblical base and distorts truth. People start believing and acting independent of the final authority.
I am my shepherd.
(Humanism comes to fruition in Renaissance and is maintained through the modern era.)
Man is autonomous and independent of any supernatural force outside of himself. Absolutes are impossible to define because there is nothing to give them and therefore man is unsure of how to live. Optimistically, thinkers set out to find the way. Truth begins with man, not God. There is no final authority over man so man seeks how to guide himself.
I am left with the difficult question of what the purpose of life is and how I (and others) are to live. I trust my mind will lead me to the right answers.
Sheep are my shepherd.
(Beginning with Voltaire, the enlightenment awakens the god of reason and ultimately leads to man being seen as part of a closed system, where he is no longer outside of nature but is merely a part of it.)
Reason falters as it repeatedly runs into unacceptable conclusions. Opinions seem to be legion, but really there are only a few truly novel thoughts…but no one seems to know what to trust so I look for something outside of man, some natural principle that guides the world. I look to nature and find it both cruel and non-cruel. I believe I am only a small part of it, just a mass of atoms. I become nothing more than a cog in the machine.
Everything is my shepherd.
(Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard struggle to leave room for man amidst determinism and its other varied forms, trying to find meaning by looking at freedom from restraint, history, emotion and what is ‘natural’ (Romanticism). They are left with only rhetoric and the conclusion that reason leads only to pessimism.)
Now I must let go of reason because it leads me only to a pessimistic outlook. Reason tells me that without a god I am only part of the machine of the universe, devoid of meaning. I can say those words but I can not live by them. History has exhausted its ideas and come up wanting. If one begins with man, nothing gives meaning. My ‘innards’ tell me that there must be a purpose somewhere in all of this. But where is it?
So I let go of reason and let the unreasonable give me meaning. My experiences will hopefully be powerful enough to give me a sense of fulfillment. (Embrace of Hinduism or Buddhism for some in the Western world may enter here, under the pursuit of experience.) My personal goals of peace and affluence will guide my decisions. What is right in one situation may not be right in another. Each act is based on circumstances and is thus arbitrary to the person and the situation. What is right will be determined by what I want the goal to be and there is nothing to tell me that my goal is wrong. What is must be what is right. My pleasures rule.
Nothing is my shepherd.
(Existential philosophy abandons reason and leaps “upstairs” to find meaning and value without reason. Nietzsche declares that not only is God dead, but also all (he) supported, mainly meaning. His conclusions (I believe) likely led him to his insanity-not venereal disease.)
Without a universal base tying everything together with meaning I am only a part of this machine, devoid of purpose or direction. Nothing leads me anywhere. I can’t help but become apathetic. To keep from despairing I create schemes to keep my mind away from the impossible questions. In place of meaning I take up causes, like ending world poverty, or cleaning up the food system, or keeping the earth from getting too warm, or shaving a 1/2 minute off of my 8 minute mile. I exist and if you push me to tell you why I won’t know what to say.
All is bankrupt. Without a shepherd outside of myself my mind tells me I am no more than matter. Nature, experience and pleasure can not infuse me with any type of meaning or tell me what to value. Without an ultimate universal base society is left to the chaos of hedonism (pleasure rules) or the tyranny of authoritarianism by the élite to maintain peace. I have lost my freedom. I have lost my meaning. I have lost my bearings. I am empty.
I need my Psalm 23 shepherd back.
(Please note: this post leans heavily on the work of Francis A. Schaeffer in “How Should We Then Live?” This is my current understanding of the progression of Western thought. If you are looking for a resource to reference, I suggest you go back to the inspiration behind this post.)