20 February 2015

Shrinking the universe

Sometimes I stay up late at night writing, trying to reason with myself why I should keep on living. I'm not really suicidal or anything, but sometimes I start feeling old and I tell God I've had a good time here and why can't He just smite me with cancer or a car crash and let me go home? And then a little voice tells me that I still have work to do. That I'm needed here for something.

I grew up with Sunday School teachers telling me that I'm special and God has an important plan for me. But I also grew up with a million billion stars over my head that told me that I could die tomorrow without making so much as a dent in the history of the human race. Neither the stars nor the Sunday School teachers told me both things at the same time--I've learned to put two and two together. And I thought to myself, "man God doesn't let me have any fun!" I'm important--yet I'm not important. No win. God wins. I'm just a speck. I can't die: God needs me here. Yet He doesn't need me at all, He could unmake me on a whim if He wanted.

The deeper I dug into my faith, the more I realized that Christianity is full of paradoxes. It's all twisty and topsy-turvy and turns everything upside down. It says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. It claims that we are enslaved yet free. That we have a choice yet are governed by the hand of destiny. The paradoxes of Christianity are baffling enough to turn many intelligent people away from it. It simply doesn't make any sense, they say. And they're right. It doesn't make sense. The only thing that kept me from turning away from it as well was this question: "Well, what does make sense?"

A lot of things don't make sense.

What about fire? Have you ever wondered what exactly fire is? Once I posed the question to one of the smartest people I know, and he replied, matter-of-factly, "it's energy, fuel and oxygen".

"Yes, I know," I replied impatiently, "but that's only what makes fire. Why does energy, fuel and oxygen make fire? How do you explain this orange, flickering, shapeless apparition?" and he once again began patiently listing its' ingredients. And that is exactly my point. I am convinced that nobody really knows what fire is. No matter how many times I ask these questions, I always hit a wall. What IS music? What IS gravity? What IS love? This post is not for the people who look at these things and are left untroubled as to the fact of their existence. It for anyone who has felt the same way as me--the people who have asked to themselves, "why does everyone pretend they know what's going on?" As a matter of fact, I don't think anyone knows what anything is, and that is the only thing worth understanding.

Truth is binary like all of nature. It is bound together by two equal and opposite forces in a state of constant equilibrium. It intertwines like a DNA strand: masculine and feminine, choice and destiny, waves and particles, being and knowing, north and south. I have no idea how these things coexist in time and space, but they do, and they fit together like harmony--incomprehensible, inseparable, beautiful.

Yet it does make sense (the paradox of paradoxes) and by "Sense" I mean that the shape of the Truth feels symmetrical and meaningful. Perhaps I should say the truth makes not logical, but geometrical sense. It responds to my intuition, my right brain, the part that perceives information without trying to understand it. In other words, the part of my brain that says such-and-such colors "go well together" (for whatever reason) is the same receptacle that accepts the reality of something as ridiculous as Choice and Destiny coexisting in the same universe. This function of my brain does not explain why these colors go together: only that they do. The truth does not make "sense" in the sense that you can quantify it or put it in a truth table, but it makes Sense in the sense that you can perceive it with the Senses--with smell, touch, taste, feeling, sight. Wow, that was a lot of senses in a single sentence. I'm beginning realize how vague a word "sense" is.

I will not say that the truth is relative, but it's not something you can find by turning to the answer key. It is like a mathematical formula with indefinite variables which manifests itself with infinitely original faces as it emerges from different times and cultures, yet maintaining the same integrity of shape. What I mean to say is: the truth is always the same, but we never see the truth itself--only the end result of it. You never see gravity, you only see the book drop and conclude that some force is pulling towards the ground. You can't see light--only by the thing it illuminates do you conclude that it exists. You can't see love, but when a person continues to sacrifice himself for you despite your flaws and failings, that is the thing we call it. You can know what x means, but never what x is, we can only recognize its' shape, paint the colors that make it up, and write music about how it makes us feel. When it comes to really and truly knowing the Truth, the most brilliant minds and thinkers in all of history are only like infants who can recognize their Mother's face but have not yet learned her name.

In George McDonald's fantasy story Lilith, the main character, Mr. Vane, stumbles into a strange, Alice-in-Wonderland-like dimension where nothing seems to abide by what he used to call the laws of nature, where physical space is defied and a single object can supposedly exist in two places at once. He tries to explain his confusion to his mysterious host Mr. Raven, who replies that he simply cannot explain the phenomenon at all. This is how he puts it:

"You are constantly experiencing things which you not only do not, but cannot understand. You think you understand them, but your understanding of them is only your being used to them, and therefore not surprised at them. You accept them, but because you must accept them: they are there, and have unavoidable relations with you! The fact is, no man understands anything, when he knows he does not understand, that is his first tottering step--not towards understanding, but towards the capability of one day understanding...Neither I nor any man can help you understand, but I may perhaps, help you a little to believe."

What McDonald is essentially saying is that the only reason Wonderland is a stranger world to us than Earth is because we've lived here so long it no longer strikes us as strange. But that doesn't make it any less strange! This is a point I tried to make in the post "The Art of Simplexity": that perhaps less realistic art may draw us closer to reality than the "realistic" art, because it forces us to reawaken our childlike wonder of the world. When your a child, a dog is no less fantastic or fascinating than a dragon. It is only upon growing up and discovering that dogs exist and dragons don't that a division is created between the fantastic and the ordinary that did not exist before.  What if we had a world where dragons were domestic pets and Dogs were stuff of legend? I believe the effect would be exactly the same. We would have stories like "King George and the Dog" and Anglo-Saxon legends of warriors going out on hunting parties with their pack of dragons to find the Wild Dog that lives a cave over the lake. And we would have children secretly wishing that dogs were real. As for dragons, they would be an incredible nuisance: you would have to teach them not to breathe fire in the house and not lay dragon-eggs on the sofa. We would very quickly become blind to how incredible they truly are.

In the end, I found that the paradoxes of Christianity is not a case against it but actually a case for it. It is the only religion that is humble enough to admit how much we don't understand.  When the Apostle Paul told us about God's plan for mankind, he said "Behold, I tell you a mystery." (1 Corinthians 15:51) He didn't say "Behold, I tell you the all encompassing formula that explains all of reality as we know it." Yet that is exactly what all other religions claim to do. But I find that they do not succeed in explaining reality but simply shrinking it. They have tried to fit the universe in their backyard--and have merely succeeded in creating an imaginary universe. The truth is so much bigger than we are--and if we try to modify into a form that we understand we will have to modify it so much that when we are finished it will no longer be the truth. So I have a proposal: Let's stop trying to shrink the universe. Let's explore it instead.

-The Minstrel Boy

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