Last week I discussed the importance but also the dangers of breaking down the constant flow of our experiences in and observations of the world into more manageable and sensible pieces. This week I will reiterate that approaching things on the small-scale or breaking problems down into smaller constituent parts is good, but suggest that we must also regularly lift our eyes from the small scale to remind ourselves that our specific studies (or disciplines of study) will never give the entire picture by themselves. Rather, they risk robbing us of the awe and beautiful confusion that experiencing the whole by way of community should give. Notice how the common pejorative gloss on the word confusion is disorder, or chaos, or mistaken identification of one thing with another, while its root meaning is to “fuse together” two different things, not necessarily in error. Our enlightened desire to keep things discrete and separate makes us reluctant to do what Jesus did with language and the world every time He spoke in parables, which was bring disparate things together to hint at the whole.
Indeed, it is when we begin to look collectively and synthetically at the small elements that we also begin to make out the big picture—less by aggregating all our discrete studies into a larger encyclopedic collection than by seeing within and across them such similarities and patterns that we come to feel that the whole must likely exhibit on a much larger scale the qualities and characteristics of what we see repeated in each or many of the particulars. We have physical paradigms for this kind of relation of part to the whole in the fractal mathematics describing the arrangement of leaves on a stem and chambers of the nautilus, and it is extremely significant that we understand such relationships not just as interesting or quantifiable, but beautiful: our subjective sense helps us to recognize and give proper attention to significant objective relationships. As poet Luci Shaw recognizes, such attention to similarities, likenesses, and concrete metonymy has both enlightening and reconciling roles to play:
One of the symptoms of our age is its tunnel vision, by which we fragment the universe. Because of its extraordinary complexity, we cannot handle more than a few facets of existence at a time. The result is that we each do our own narrow little thing: politicians, farmers, housewives, musicians, merchants, socialites, mechanics, neurosurgeons. Not even a Buckminster Fuller or an Isaac Asimov or a C. P. Snow can pull it all together. It is my hope that the creative Christian may, by means of his “baptized imagination,” help integrate the universe by widening and sharpening his focus, by “seeing through God's eyes,” by observing man and his environment and saying, “Yes, I see. This is like that, and it is significant.” Here the artist and the analyst, the poet and the pragmatist can collaborate, joining reason with imagination.1
In this passage Shaw also points us in the direction of two other important aspects of the way we understand and relate to the world: first, that our faith in and intimacy with God is a singularly powerful resource for seeing likenesses and connections; and second, that part of that gifted insight is the recognition (or reassertion) that no one image or likeness or story is sufficient to encapsulate the whole, but rather it is often the unresolved tension between images and ideas that most rightly represents what is truly real. I have slipped here into more literary and explicitly artistic language as an entrée into my next point about the way that God has presented Himself and the narrative of his people through Scripture, but seeming contradiction and paradox are not just features of literature or history, to be taken as subtle evidence against the reliability or truthfulness of those testimonies.
On the contrary some of the most interesting and fruitful advances in our understanding of the physical cosmos have come with and even through attention to paradox. In the intertwined disciplines of cosmology, particle physics, and quantum mechanics especially, the last century or more of science has suggested that even the most “objective” and basic features of the universe are stubbornly (or beautifully) subjective: subatomic particles seem to pop in and out of existence or be “entangled” despite distances in time and space, and light shows itself to be either particle or wave, depending on how the observer chooses to look. In short, it seems that while the essence of the universe may be orderly and elegant, it is also mysterious and intractably resistant to being explained away.
And perhaps that last point is the most instructive to those of us who want to be faithful to the fullness of the way God chooses to reveal himself to us—the complicated, similarly-intractable interaction between the natural world, the written Word, and the work of the Spirit in contemporary lives and communities. Each of those sources has a call on our attention and commitment, and each of them involves more than a little mystery: not mystery in the sense of a riddle or temporary uncertainty, but mystery as a paradox—a “both/and” sense of the truth. Hearkening back to the discussion that began these posts, it should give us pause if both committed materialist atheists and committed evangelical Christians use precisely the same unimaginative argumentative techniques and methods to get at the truth (or falsehood, so say the atheists) of our relationship with God, even if they begin from different logical (or religious-legal) presuppositions. Method, attitude, is more telling, sometimes, than is purported message, revealing more about our disposition towards our Creator, His creation, and our fellow creatures than what we say we believe.
As journalist and cultural critic Ken Myers asked while framing an interview with writer Craig Holdrege, “What if we’ve been mistaken about the shape our knowing of the world should take? What if the great Modern error is to perceive of the world principally as a puzzle or a problem solved by essentially mathematical means, rather than a gift and an epiphany, apprehended by loving and reverent engagement?”2 Going further, may it even be that the irresolvable nature of these tensions between different ways of approaching God and His creation is, itself, a gift that draws us ever closer to the Creator while prodding us to be in more loving relationship with those of our fellow creatures who seem so far from Him? To begin with the supposition that there are “answers” in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible that allow us to codify and quantify away the complexity and mystery and paradox of God’s sovereignty and our freedom, our sin and God’s grace is not wrong, per se, but it does rather miss the intensely relational character of a God so beyond us that we must speak of Him as being Three in One, yet who nevertheless invites us to join Him at the table. In this, the season of epiphanies, may we all do better, and more humbly, in appreciating as gift the mysteries that remain in our knowledge of and relationships with the Creator, with the world—and with each other.
1. Luci Shaw, “Imagination—that other avenue to truth.” Christianity Today. January 2, 1981. Perhaps the blind men in the story, had they taken this strategy to heart, might have at least noticed the commonality of their experiences and been moved to contemplate the beauty and importance of wrinkles.
2. Ken Myers, “Craig Holdrege on science and detached knowledge.” Mars Hill Audio Journal, Vol. 92:7: 3:30-3:51.