10.24.2008

Taking G-d out of the Dictionary

In a recent conversation with a friend (who happens to be [for now!] my only reader) I was redirected to a blog post about Jesus and his use of parables. Because this is one of my favorite three things in the world to think and talk about, and because, characteristically, "I disagree," I offer a shabby response:

Here is the scrutinized text, from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (NIV):
10The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" 11He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: " 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.' 16But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
Of particular interest to The Ridger, FCD, is the 13th verse in which Jesus explains why he speaks in parables. In Ridger's reading, "Jesus had the secret of how to get to heaven, but he chose to speak (like some oracle or wizard in a bad fantasy novel) in parables and riddles to prevent the wrong people from finding it out. And then he damned them to hell for not getting it...." Ultimately, Ridger complains that "Christians try to pretend that this isn't the way God works - even to ignoring the plain meaning of the words they quote Jesus saying."

Well, I don't know so much about Christians. I was raised in a church, but barely -- when I attended, I usually attended a kind of cut & paste/picture-book Sunday School session with my friends after listening to the first few songs sung by the choir and a little "invocation" or something. I was an atheist from 19-29, and probably was before that even though I would've called myself "Christian" because everybody else did.

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This morning I was teaching Plato's rock-star-famous "Allegory of the Cave" to a classroom full of college freshmen. To help them understand the allegory-parable, I showed a clip from The Matrix where one of the characters actually chooses to settle for the false world of the matrix because he finds the real world unbearable.



It's a really interesting and important scene because it considers a possibility that was overlooked by Plato: that a person might choose what is false over what is real. In the allegory of the Cave, Glaucon grants it to Socrates that the enlightened being would prefer to suffer anything instead of being forced to re-enter the cave and live in the old way according to the customs he knew were illusory.

Students sometimes try to sympathize with "Cypher" for choosing to plug back into the matrix, even though he know it is a simulation. But when, through discussion, the strict structure of the allegory comes into focus for them, they sometimes have a bizarre reaction: they simply refuse it altogether. They say things like, "But we are not like those people. This world is not like that. I have not been in chains since my youth."

I raise my hands and I point to the room around me -- "This world," I pronounce, emphatically, "these things," I say, pointing to the objects in the room, "My face--," I say, overseriously. "These are Plato's shadows, according to this allegory. There is another, brighter, truer world of which this one is a mere shadow."

"No," they say, "It is not so. We are not like those prisoners." In my students' resistance, in that response, you can understand the meaning of the words in Matthew: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand."

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Of course, like my students, you may disbelieve the allegories and parables. You may refuse the premise altogether... but consider the pedagogical problem from the perspective of one who has (hypothetically) actually seen the "higher" or "more real" world. If you had been strapped into an underground prison cell your whole life, and had seen nothing but shadows... what words could I (or the shadowed image of me on the wall, with its misleading echo), who have seen the higher reality, speak to you to make you understand that there is a more real world?

Could I say, avoiding parable, "You are looking at two-dimensional shadows on a wall; there are three dimensional objects that you can see and touch if you'll come with me." Would that make sense to you? Would it sound insane? Would you capable of imagining a so-called "third dimension?"

It is this dilemma -- this pedagogical problem -- that I believe explains Jesus' use of parables. It is not that he wants to keep people from entering the "Kingdom of Heaven." Quite the converse: people are unwilling and unable to understand what he is trying to describe.

In the words of Morpheus, in The Matrix, "no one can be told what the matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." To reemphasize a point I have made before: the distinction betwen critical analysis and experiential understanding is of profound importance in the search for truth and wisdom. The difference between the cave and the three-dimensional world, the difference between the matrix and the "desert of the real," the difference between this world and the kingdom of heaven -- in each of these cases the difference is so vast that the higher realm cannot be described in the language of the lower realm. At best, the teachers of the higher realms are able to hint at how vast the difference is; they can give no picture of what is on the other side.

In my view, Jesus speaks in parables because they are all he has -- ask yourself why Dostoevsky turned to fiction instead of simply writing Schopenhauer-esque philosophical essays. Ask yourself the same about Melville and Hawthorne. Melville wrote, in a letter to Hawthorne,

We incline to think that the Problem of the Universe is like the Freemason's mighty secret, so terrible to all children. It turns out, at last, to consist in a triangle, a mallet, and an apron, -- nothing more! We incline to think that God cannot explain His own secrets, and that He would like a little information upon certain points Himself. We mortals astonish Him as much as He us. But it is this Being of the matter; there lies the knot with which we choke ourselves. As soon as you say Me, a God, a Nature, so soon you jump off from your stool and hang from the beam. Yes, that word is the hangman. Take God out of the dictionary, and you would have Him in the street.

Take God out of the dictionary, and you would have him in the street. What an idea. The truth is not language. It is not this blog post. It is an experience -- one that I, I am sure, cannot give you.

I agree with Ridger on one point, though: it does seem to me that G-d has chosen from the beginning of time which people will be able to decipher the parables. But like a high-wattage radio station, I think Jesus sent the signal to whoever could receive it... G-d seems to have distributed the radio-receivers eons ago. The knowledge of the kingdom of heaven is like the radio, not the high-wattage signal.

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