19 November 2007

Plato, Paul, Morpheus, Bagpipes, Trees, and Shadows

In probably what is Plato’s most famous picture of reality, he describes a cave in which its inhabitants are chained facing toward the back of the wall with a fire behind them. They cannot turn to see the cave exit and they cannot turn toward each other, and they cannot see the fire. The only thing they have seen and experienced their whole life is the shadow images upon the cave wall given off by the fire. This is their reality. This is all they know. All they know are shadows.

People have interpreted this for century's but let’s suppose (as Plato did) somehow one of the persons could break free and leave the cave; they would have no way of being able to explain to the others what the ‘true’ reality is for there is no foundation to describe it. How do you describe a tree when you’ve never even seen the color green before?

Later in history, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 13 that now we know only in part but someday we will fully know as we are fully known. This is a similar picture. Could not Paul have said, “Today we know just shadows on a cave wall, but someday, we shall know the freedom of walking through the trees.”

And here is the idea that we in our finiteness and brokenness, cannot know it all. All we know is but a shadow of reality.

Some would argue, (and I would agree with them) that Plato’s idea of not understanding reality and Paul’s idea are distinctly different. Plato believed that this material world is evil where the spiritual world is good. Paul believed that the earth is the Lords and it all belongs to him, whereas there is also a prince of darkness that rules in the spiritual realm. It’s much more of a mixed bag with Paul.

But is there not something similar between the two accounts? Can we not agree that somehow humanity is missing the mark and that no matter how hard we try, we can never fully grasp ‘the truth’ in this life. All we see is but a shadow.

And if, somehow we could break free and see the trees, how could we explain to others what we see. How do we explain the infinite world that opens up before us? The only way how, is to free them and show them. We cannot explain reason, argue, or convince a shadow watcher of the color green anymore than we can convince an ant that the earth revolves around the sun. I’m reminded of the scene in “The Matrix” when Morpheus says, “Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see if for yourself.”

So therefore should we not be mindful as we try and share what little we do know? Should we not take a step back and realize that words without context have no meaning unless context is given. And the only way to give context is having people live it so they can experience it themselves?

I cannot describe the music of a bagpipe to someone who has been deaf since birth. I can describe the feelings that a bagpipe gives me when I hear it –but even that will have vastly different descriptions depending on who you talk to (oh those controversial bagpipes!). With no context, there is no understanding no matter how often or how hard we try and explain it. The only way to communicate it is to somehow enable the deaf person to hear. Then and only then is context given to provide meaning to the words we use.

Therefore, instead of using words to describe the reality in which Jesus followers live that provide no meaning to those hearing it (other than those living in the same context), we MUST provide context by living it, and inviting others in to live it with us. Once they can put meaning to our ‘reality’, then words like, “love, sacrifice, compassion, holy, etc” can be used. Then these words not only have meaning – they have DEEP meaning. All of the sudden, what was a shadow puppet of a dog, becomes a real dog that can be felt, petted, smelled, seen, and experienced.

So therefore, should we not remain humble in all that we think we are so sure of we know? Should we not hold dogma with an open hand? Should we not – as Dan Stone puts it – have a humble apologetic? For although we have the light of Christ, we still only see but a shadow upon the wall.


Kevin said...

Good job David for providing the context for faith. That is exactly what Paul was trying to do in 2 Cor. He was trying to stay out of the power grabbing spiritual ways to connect disgruntled people to God but encouraged connection with God through living the context. Living the reality has much more to say than just convincing people of the words. Thanks for your thoughts.
Peace in Christ,

Paul said...

good post bro - i guess there is something in what you say, we can not fully grasp the reality because our perspectice of that reality is limited - we see in one direction from one perspective...

But i would say unlike the cave, we know love, we know life, we have moments where we break free of the shackles of self and make sacrifices for others -we give life, care for life, live life - and on top of that have both the imagination and the revelation of God made flesh to inspire us and the Spirit of God to help transform us...

David said...

That's true and thus a difference between Paul and Plato from 'our' perspective.
And of course - we're right!

David said...

Amen to that big K!