A 5 year old grandson of mine explained the difference between immortality and eternity in a way that would have made Augustine of Hippo cry. Three years later he pointed out a natural model for the Holy Trinity that made St. Patrick’s shamrock look, well, childish.
A 7 year old granddaughter rejected the notion of temporal symmetry concluding that living in the present is always and under all circumstances better than having lived in the past, and a 3 year old granddaughter made a model car out of playdough and couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t start.
Kids get it; adults…not so much!
How come? We’re too ‘smart’. We know too much. Sadly, we have learned to view the world, not through the ‘unenlightened’ eyes of childhood but with the ‘pseudo-enlightened’ vision that passes for adulthood in our society.
Recall Jesus words in the Gospel of Matthew: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” (11:25)
Ironically, the more educated we become, the more we master the arts of language, mathematics and logic, the further away we get from an accurate vision of our world; the less we actually understand!
No, this is not a grand conspiracy foisted on us by the government or by the educational establishment. Rather, we are victims of our own success. Using the contemporary tools of communication, calculation and reason, we have subjected vast swaths of the world to our collective will. And we like that. And we reap copious rewards from it.
But the better we are able to control the world, the less we actually comprehend it. (Perhaps this is a new version of Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle!) We have satisfied our desire for power and wealth…but at the expense of truth.
Let’s begin with language. The syntax of most modern languages conditions us to understand an event as a one way flow of energy, an ‘action’, a ‘vector’: Billy hit Joey (active voice) or Billy was hit by Joey (passive voice); same event. two different voices.
Of course, on some levels we know that this is at best an oversimplification of a much more complex process. Most likely, the real ‘event’ here is a complex web of social interactions involving Joey and Billy and perhaps others but we continue to resort to the oversimplified active/passive voice because it’s easy…and because it’s practical: we need to punish someone!
Two recent books and subsequent TV series, The Slap and Big Little Lies, make this point brilliantly. These stories are entertaining but they may also help us understand that an event is more a matrix than a vector.
But we don’t need to rely on contemporary TV shows to understand this point. 430 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton wrote: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It’s his Third Law of Motion. Of course, he was speaking about mechanics, but we all know that the same principle applies where human actions are concerned.
We sometimes call it ‘karma’. Crudely defined: what we do to others can come back and bite us in the a**; more colloquially, ‘what goes around comes around’.
Judeo-Christian morality states the concept less crudely:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (On some level you are your neighbor.)
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” (St. Francis of Assisi)
“Blessed (happy) are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”
Actions flow at least two ways. We are as much objects of our actions as we are subjects.
Anaximander, the father of Western philosophy, expressed a similar insight. To paraphrase: “You come to be what you are coming to be by letting others come to be what they are coming to be”. Empowering others is the ultimate act of self-creation. Let go…and become!
Interestingly enough, there once was a third voice in many languages, called the ‘middle voice’, that carried with it this idea of reciprocity. The middle voice captured the reality that subjects are also objects of their actions. Unfortunately, this crucial way of describing reality has vanished from most modern tongues. In the few languages that retain it (e.g. Icelandic), it has generally degenerated into a weak form of the passive voice.
Contemporary language is not the only obstacle to our recognizing truth. Arithmetic is another culprit. One of a child’s first intellectual achievements is learning to count: “One, two, five, ten, seven…” Over time, the sequencing of numbers becomes more accurate and eventually the child comes to understand that counting is an infinite linear process that proceeds by uniform intervals from the fewer to the more numerous.
Except that’s not true. Or at least it’s not always true. Consider Modular Arithmetic : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 (or 0), 1, 2… Now counting is circular, not linear. It’s the face of a clock.
Later on, the child learns the properties of arithmetic: The Commutative Property, the Associative Property, the Distributive Property and the Transitive Property, for example. All of these ‘properties’ reinforce the idea that the world is governed by linear regularities.
Consider just the Transitive Property for inequalities. If x > y and y > z, then x > z. Seems logical, doesn’t it? But it isn’t! Consider a game of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’: P > R and R > S but S > P. In real life, values are not always arrayed linearly; sometimes relative value is context specific.
This same thought habit spills over to logic (including geometry). If C is in B (physically or as a subset) and B is in A, then C must be in A (and A certainly cannot be in C).
Yet Judeo-Christian scripture is full of propositions that violate this basic principle of Euclidean geometry and Elementary Set Theory.
John quotes Jesus as saying: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (Jn. 6: 56)
The entire doctrine of Eucharist, in fact, rests on this point. When we ingest the body and blood of Christ, we incorporate his body and blood into our own; but simultaneously, we are incorporated into his ‘mystical body’, i.e. into him: A is in B and B is in C but C is in A.
In the Gospel of John alone we read:
“…The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (10: 38) See also 14: 10-11.
“…I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you.” (14: 20)
“…Remain in me, as I remain in you…Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” (15: 4, 5)
So where does this leave us? If we believe that Elementary Set Theory is absolutely and universally true and not just a useful, limited approximation of the truth, then we must reject all of this ‘nonsense’ outright. We may either label it ‘false’ (like Existentialists) or ‘meaningless’ (like Analytics) but we cannot rationally label it ‘true’ (like Christians).
Language, mathematics, logic – is there a way that we can summarize the disconnect between the world as it is and our post-Enlightenment understanding of it? For that I think we need to turn to topology for an analogy.
When we think of a space, we almost always think of the kind of space that is called ‘orientable’. A piece of paper has two sides, not one. A container has an inside and an outside. When you seal it, liquid stays in (or out) but not both. If you build a wall (whether in Berlin or on the Rio Grande), it is either to keep people in or out…it is NOT to bring them together. Within any orientable space, it is possible to segment that space, to create semi-autonomous regions that correspond to discrete objects and events.
But there is another type of space, not surprisingly known as ‘non-orientable’, with radically different properties. In a non-orientable space, a piece of paper will have only one side, a ‘container’ will not have an inside or outside, nor will it hold water, and a wall will ensure that the people on both sides co-mingle.
Wild! But do such non-orientable spaces actually exist? Yes. Are they difficult to create? No. Any 8 year old can do it! Am I joking? Absolutely not!
Take a strip of paper, say 2 inches wide and 24 inches long. Bend the strip so that the edges come together to form a cylinder. Got it? Now if you scotch tape the two edges together in this way, you will have created a very simple example of an orientable space (or surface). The paper has two sides, the inside stays ‘in’ and the outside stays ‘out (forgetting for now about the ‘holes’ at the top and bottom).
Yes, but we don’t want an orientable space; we want a non-orientable space. How do we make THAT?
Very simple: when you bring the edges together, before you join them, rotate one edge 180 degrees so that the bottom of that edge is now aligned with the top of the other edge. Now scotch tape them together! Voila, you have created a non-orientable surface (or space).
The paper only has one side and there’s no inside or outside. It won’t keep anything in…or out. (It’s called a Mobius Strip.)
Ok, way cool, but so what? Imagine you’re a tiny creature, perhaps an ant, walking anywhere along the surface of this strip. You walk and walk. As far as you’re concerned this surface is like every other surface you’ve ever walked on. As far as you’re concerned, you’re walking on an orientable surface…but of course you’re not.
Now imagine you’re a human. Imagine? Sure, bots are welcome to play…as are other animals. It seems like you’re walking through an orientable space…but what if you’re not?
The properties of reality that we associate with spirituality are much more closely aligned with the properties of non-orientable spaces than orientable spaces.
Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” (10: 32-33)
Heaven and Earth are not irreconcilably separate realms. The Incarnation acts like the twist in the Mobius Strip. It means that what happens in one realm happens in both. “On earth as it is in heaven”. The surface has only one side, not two. Life is both temporal and eternal.
Young children are not yet enslaved by the linearity of language, arithmetic and logic. They are not yet high priests of pragmatism. Blessed to be a grandparent many times over, I have learned that children are more likely to think in patterns and thereby grasp with relative ease concepts that are counter-intuitive for adults.
In the real world, linearity is at best a ‘special case’ of reality, at worst just a ‘useful’ abstraction. Thinking that linearity is all there is prevents us from understanding, or even seeing, what’s actually happening. As a result, we accept the recently formed tenets of engineering as dogma and reject utterly the millennia-old insights of revelation, theology and spirituality. Confronted with real life, we have no clue…and that’s why!
2000 years ago, St. Paul already saw the problem. He wrote, “Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12: 2)
We don’t just need to learn new facts; we need to learn to see and think in totally different ways. We need to think less like modern adults and more like children!