Say the universe is meaningless.
Problem: “Meaning” in the contemporary West is either a very rich or very muddled term- we’ve either put our finger on a very living, multifaceted and profound thing, or we’ve hopelessly conflated any number of very distinct ideas. The term first means “to signify” when said of words, which then stretches to include symbols, though it is not at all clear that symbols mean things (does the statue of liberty mean the welcoming of immigrants? Did a pre-Nixon dollar mean some amount of gold?) The term then stretches to include purposes larger than signification, and can be watered down till the point where it is a synonym for “important”.
But this is the wrong line of analysis. The term can be viewed as the opposite of vanity as used in Ecclesiastes. Things are either meaningful or in vain. Meaningful things progress to some fixed goal/perfection/ point of rest; and it is the absence of this in the universe that so horrifies and bores Coheleth. The universe just goes on. Time passes without going getting further from or closer to anything. The rivers flow into the ocean and never fill it up. Any eschatology of “a last day” cannot be read off the days themselves.
Notice that it is precisely the regularity of nature that makes Coheleth call it vain. He is seeing things from a fundamentally scientific point of view – not in the sense that he is forming hypotheses and setting up experiments (these are only means, anyway) but because he sees all the acts of nature as mere repetitions and instances of eternal, regular laws.
So then, we have both a divine and existential warrant to viewing the universe as meaningless, based not only on theology but on the horror of seeing the algebra of the world. Once the splendor of the simple equation wears off, you realize the ontology of the equation is that time and history just roll on – they are, as Aristotle would put it without seeming to notice what he was saying, potentials without any corresponding act. In this sense, human beings have known for a very long time that science makes the world meaningless.
So there it is, a meaningless world. What now?
1.) The first response almost doesn’t need to be said. This isn’t the whole truth of the universe. Leaving aside the protests of scientific philistinism, there are obvious meanings in the human world which spill over into the larger animal and organic world (hunters chase deer because they want to kill them whether the hunters men or wolves; and anything that acts to hydrate itself can be seen as drinking, whether it is a man, a cow, or a shrub.) The fact that living beings incorporate (the putatively meaningless) elements and physical processes of the world into their being at the very least problematizes the meaninglessness of the universe.
The response to all of this is to say that the meaningless part of the universe, even if not the only part, is the fundamental part. Nature is whatever happens always or for the most part, and the universe for the most part is not living. Chalk the things that find meaning in the world up to a rounding error – nature is regularity, law, vanity.
2.) So let’s say the fundamental story of the universe is meaningless. But we need to be more precise since meanings can be given to things which lack that meaning of themselves. We can all decide to stab Caesar when he turns down Tillius’s request, though not because there is an intrinsic connection between refusing him and being stabbed (in fact, the lack of any such intrinsic meaning in the act is one of the reasons why we choose it as the moment to stab him). But to draw this distinction between meaning intrinsically and just meaning problematizes the question. Meaning, after all, is usually imposed on something that does not have it of itself and thus presupposes a meaningless substrate. To take absence of intrinsic meaning as evidence of lack of meaning is the same as to say that a word is not in English because none of its letters necessarily spell an English word. The universe is intrinsically meaningless to the Creator in the same way that sound is intrinsically meaningless to a spoken word. Considered in this sense, the intrinsic meaninglessness of the universe was a prerequisite for its having a divine meaning.
True, no Thomist is going to argue that the universe lacks intrinsic meanings altogether. But time and history can be vanities, and history is precisely the theater in which Judeo-Christian tradition sees God as working.