The Cosmos in an Apple

I can think of another instance in which a piece of fruit had cosmological significance, but this time we’ll focus on Newton’s apple:

Now, when Isaac Newton observed a certain relationship between and likeness between the behavior of the falling apple and that of the circling planets, it might be said with equal plausibility either that he argued by analogy from the apple to a theory of astronomy, or that while evolving a theory of astronomical mathematics he suddenly perceived its application to the apple. But it would scarcely be exact to say that, in the former case, he absurdly supposed the planets to be but apples of a larger growth, with seeds in them; or that, in the latter case, he had spun out a purely abstract piece of isolated cerebration that, oddly enough, turned out to be true about apples, though the movements of the planets themselves had no existence outside Newton’s mathematics. Newton, being a rational man, concluded that the two kinds of behavior resembled each other – not because the planets had copied the apples or the apples copied the planets, but because both were examples of the working of one and the same principle.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, pp. 124-125

Doesn’t it seem like this story could have come out of a fairy tale? This is one of the reasons I am glad I was encouraged to read Polanyi: he reminds us that science and imagination cannot be, and therefore are never, separated. Newton’s articulation of the law of gravity was a massive act of the imagination which saw an explanation of the workings of the cosmos in a falling apple.

It almost sounds as if he were a poet. Keats heard a nightingale and thought of ‘Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.’ Newton saw a falling apple and thought of the workings of the galaxy. Chesterton’s idea that everything is poetic really isn’t that far fetched.

The story also reminds us of the importance of analogies. As a preacher it reminds me that analogies are important for engaging the imagination, which in turn can lead to a better grasp of the truth. Call it a reminder of the need for ‘whimsical’ preaching.

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Of Starry Pixels

The Wise Men of old beheld a star,
Named and ordained
Light years of old.
They divined a birth.

The years of faces buried in tomes
Of great lore, mystic meditation,
And in skies of wonder,
Led to epiphany.

Behold! A new heavens and a new earth.

And we, in this brave new world,
Do seek our enlightenment,
As we too, with faces buried
In skies of wonder,

Of starry pixels,
Dotted across the expanse
Of black screens
Of plasma and plastic,

Behold the new heavens.

Should we look up
For a moment,
We would lose sight
Of our cosmos, our creation,

Our flesh made word;
Disincarnate; reality made virtual,
Heavens made space,
Space made cyber.

Behold the new earth.

Bring your gifts from afar
And rejoice in the constellations
Of individuals networked,
In ethereal formations,

Of thumbs up and thumbs down –
Those five fingered
Keepers of orthodoxy.
But where do they point?

To heaven or hell?

On Exercise as Worship

At sunrise thirty young people ran out into the clearing; they fanned out, their faces turned towards the sun, and began to bend down, to drop to their knees, to bow, to lie flat on their faces, to stretch out their arms, to lift up their hands, and then to drop back down on their knees again. All this lasted for a quarter of an hour.

From a distance you might have thought they were praying.

In this age, no one is surprised if people cherish their bodies patiently and attentively every day of their lives.

But they would be jeered at if they paid the same regard to their souls.

No, these people are not praying. They are doing their morning exercises.

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn, At the Start of the Day, from Stories and Prose Poems, p. 216

I went on a Solzhenitsyn binge a while back. I didn’t write much about it. But tonight, before the kids went to bed, we all huddled up while I read some of his poems (they’re really small meditations on various life events). This one struck me afresh. Perhaps it is because I’ve started a new exercise program. After dropping a bunch of weight a few years ago, I’ve tried to stay in good shape for a while now; but I’ve become rededicated. I find that physical discipline has helped my spiritual discipline tremendously over the years. At least, in my experience, physical discipline sets a rhythm that can be conducive to spiritual discipline. But I’ve always fought to keep priorities straight, keeping in minds the words of the apostle:

For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come (1 Tim. 4:8, KJV).

Solzhenitsyn reminds us just how much exercise can look like worship. He never denies that it is profitable. He only points out the great paradox that people will often admire physical exercise and discipline without giving any thought to spiritual devotion, or even jeering at those who are spiritually disciplined. If someone raise their hands up during yoga class, hooray. But if someone raises them up in worship, not so much. We lack balance.

Are we as active in the spiritual gymnasium of the Means of Grace as we are in the gyms of this world? As we long for a certain body type, a certain physique, a certain look, do we long to be built up spiritually into the image of Christ? If not, when we bow down, and prostrate ourselves, and raise our hands up in exercise, we really are involved in a sort of idolatrous prayer. When we press up heavy weights on the bench press or in the squat rack, we are only living out a strange parable – that the weight will always be there. No spotter can ease our burdens. The burden of the self-worshiper is so great that it will weigh him, and pound  him, down to the very depths.  As we meticulously plan each meal as though it were a holy sacrament offered up to the god of self, in remembrance of the law of macronutrients,  do we remember that man does not live by bread alone? Do we remember that as the body is meant to live on food, so the soul is meant to live on Christ?

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.

This is not to devalue physical exercise. Rather, it is to value it by putting it in its proper place. As Lewis was fond of saying, if you turn something into a god it will become a demon. Find balance.

Unreflecting Love

I was reading some poetry this weekend and came across John Keats’s 52nd Sonnet (otherwise known as When I Have Fears). It is a beautiful sonnet to say the least, but I was particularly moved by these words:

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
   That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
   Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

Here I simply one to record one train of thought thought from my reading of this sonnet.

The line ‘Never have relish in the faery power/Of unreflecting love…’ struck a particular chord with my imagination. Just yesterday I finished up a lengthy series on Romans 8 and had to deal with that famous line of the Apostle Paul, ‘What shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ As I thought about how I might go about presenting such a grand theme as the love of Christ, I almost felt at a loss for words. I have reflected on the love of Christ for years, and because of that past reflection, at times I feel it is an unreflecting love at this point.

I would never say that love must be fully unreflecting. Rather, I would urge that we reflect on the object of love to the point that our experience in the present, at times, feels as though there were no need for reflection: that is that we would simply bask in beauty from time to time. That is what I wanted to do Sunday morning before the great love of Christ. And if the beauty of that experience were taken from me, indeed I think that I would sink. But I would not appreciate that beauty quite so much in the present had I not spent years previously reflecting on it.

The same is the case with purely human love in some sense. To enjoy unreflecting love is a great privilege; but it will never truly be enjoyed if the unreflecting love of the present is not backed up the deep reflections of the past. Beauty is fleeting. I can look at my wife and cringe at the thought of never again seeing her face. But if it is just a face, why would I cringe? Rather, behind that face, for me, lies a thousand reflections from that past dozen years that reinforce the significance of that beauty. Again, I say, it is the reflection of the past that makes way for the true beauty, or faery power, of unreflecting love in the present.

You can read the entire sonnet HERE.

Begin With It Is Finished

At the end of a pregnancy, all fears abated and a healthy baby;
At the end of school, hearing a bell or framing a diploma;

At the end of a day, working to see the clock strike whatever;
At the end of a week, working for the weekend;

At the end of pain, a broken bone mended or bad part removed;
At the end of stress and distress, feeling sweet relief;

At the end of a life, few regrets and many memories;
Nothing is as joyful as the words, ‘It is finished;’

Live in joy, for those words have already been said.
Do not end with ‘It is finished,’ but there begin.

Indwelling: The Presuppositional Air We Breathe

When we accept a certain set of pre-suppositions and use them as our interpretative framework, we may be said to dwell in them as we do in our body…They are not asserted and cannot be asserted, for assertion can be made only within a framework with which we have identified ourselves for the time being; as they are themselves our ultimate framework, they are essentially inarticulable.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 60

A parable:

A crab walks into a bar the ocean and says to a fish, ‘Dude, you should really get out of the water sometime; it would be good for your complexion.’

‘Huh?’ said the fish.

The crab responded to the perplexity of the fish: ‘Seriously bro, you stay wet all the time; you need to soak up some sun.’

‘Blub, blub,’ said the fish, and then he began his soliloquy: ‘Crab, I have no idea what you’re talking about; I’m not wet, I don’t even know what wet is.’

‘Are you serious bro?’ replied the crab…

I could go on, but I won’t. (A while back I wrote a POEM that tries to express the same point) The point is simple: For the fish, the water becomes and extension of himself; it is his atmosphere, his ecosystem. Human minds have ecosystems as well; I suppose you could call them ego-systems. In order for a radical conversion of thought to take place, the fish (yes, back to the fish) must see, 1) that there is such a thing as water, 2) that he lives in it, 3) that the fact that he lives in it has major ramifications, and 4) that there is a possible alternative that might suit reality better.

This won’t work for a fish because water is the only environment that suits its purpose – unless of course the fish is a mermaid, like Ariel, and realizes that the seaweed is greener in another world. Come to think of it, the Little Mermaid had an epistemological crisis of the sort we’re driving at here: she saw a more suitable alternative that fulfilled her deepest longings. But, alas, we have digressed from a brilliant chemist and philosopher to a lame parable to the Little Mermaid; by all means, let’s wrap this up.

Our basic presuppositions are the air that we breathe. In order for someone to abandon them they must be made aware that they exist, see there faults demonstrated, and see that there is another, and more suitable, alternative. You won’t get the fish out of the water, in this case, by jumping in yourself. The task is to get the fish out, not to get yourself in. If you do jump in the water, it must be for the purpose of blowing up the lake (metaphorically speaking of course) so that others will come running out with you.

Don’t Believe In Anything That Can’t Be Told In Coloured Pictures (Chesterton)

G.K. Chesterton wrote these words in a Randolph Caldecott picture-book he gave to a child:

You will not understand a word
Of all the words, including mine;
Never you trouble; you can see,
And all directness is divine—
Stand up and keep your childishness:
Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
That can’t be told in coloured pictures.

A former teacher (and pastor) of mine regularly uses the last four lines of this poem as he introduces the Book of Revelation. (He also does a good job of tying a ringing cell-phone into his sermon!).

Known Obscurity

I walk through a teeming mall;
No one knows my name, my life;
I sense obscurity; my countenance falls;
Then I see my wife.

The mass of people fades,
Becoming a loud background.
For one in a thousand says
My name, and I feel that I’ve been found.

Unknown to masses all around,
yet I feel love and personality.
For at least one in the crowd
Knows everything about me.

So it is with all that is unknown,
forgotten, and obscure,
If they know the One
Who knows their name and numbers their very hairs.

The Imagination and Mental Pictures: The Justification of a Non-Visualist

In my mind, at least, I always believed that the ‘imagination’ had to do with images. Hence I always believed that I did not have a good imagination, for I was never good at producing mental images. Even when my football coach told me that I needed to visualize a game happening in my mind, I couldn’t produce it. The Waterboy (Adam Sandler reference), however, could do it quite well.

As a young preacher this especially bothered me. Early on I read a lot of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons. He was a master of images: a spider hanging over a fire comes to mind (from Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God). I read that, and it moved me, yet I still couldn’t draw up the image of it in my mind. Even now, as I write, I try to force the image into my mind and it just doesn’t come easy. But, here’s the but, the idea is there even if the image is not. And even without a mental image, the idea still comes to me with power and force.

I have never been one to insert myself into stories, at least not for the most part. I don’t picture myself standing in the multitudes as Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, nor do I picture myself standing at the foot of the cross. But that sermon has come to me with force nonetheless, and so has the cross. The images aren’t there, but the ideas are, and I do not believe that they are less forceful.

Let me move on to the point here. In his essay entitled Image and Imagination (from a book with the same name), C.S. Lewis has a mock-dialogue on the subject of what the imagination, or, more specifically, what an imagined thing is. One of the points he makes there is that an imagined thing cannot simply be an image (or what we might call a mental picture). For instance, using the example of an imagined tower, he makes the point that an imagined tower is not the same thing as a mental image of a tower:

Take away from the tower all its implications and it ceases to be an imagined thing and becomes merely an image. But images are not enough: for the way in which they affect us depends, not on their content as images, but on what they are taken to be. Mention a tower, or a king, or a dog, in a poem or tale, and they come to us not in the nakedness of pictured form and colour, but with all the associations of towerhood, kinghood, and doghood (Image and Imagination, p. 44).

Let me stay with the idea of a tower here. If you picture a tower in your mind, what do you picture? Do you imagine its foundation? Do you imagine each brick that it consists of? Do you imagine the particles of each brick? The mortar? Each piece of furniture? The subtle shadows depending on how the sun is shining? And when we introduce the sun, we stretch outside of the tower, to the world in which the tower exists. Do you imagine the sun? Do you imagine the dirt or grass outside the tower? Do you imagine the country in which the tower sits? Or the world in which the country sits? Or the universe in which the world exists?

The answer to all of these questions is likely ‘No.’ Therefore, Lewis is arguing, to truly imagine something, to imagine it with any sort of depth, is not simply to have a bare mental picture of it. That kind of picture is not worth a thousand words. The thousand words come from the context surrounding the image. We are stretching ourselves out from a bare picture of one object to entire worlds. But as we stretch out, we also narrow our focus in on individual blades of grass. Our image has grown substantially, and become substantially more detailed. We now have more than an image, we have a story. We have moved from the image of a castle, to a specific castle, in a specific country, in a specific world, in a specific universe. Whether this castle, world, or universe actually exists is irrelevant at this point.

Lewis goes on,

On this point I speak with some authority, having been an extreme visualist, and having learned that this unruly power – in truth not the ally of imagination, but a mere nuisance to it – must be corrected and restrained in dealing with literature. Our imagination uses our images for poetical purposes, much as a child uses material objects for its games. An imaginative man can make of very scanty and crude images all he needs for appreciation of the greatest books, as a child worth its salt can make a liner or a railway station out of the first two or three bits of furniture it finds in the nursery. It is not the children with the costly toys who play best: or if they do, they do it in spite of the toys (p. 45).

Lewis is arguing that having a good imagination does not demand our having good mental pictures. In fact, the pictures can be a hindrance to the imagination. Which brings me back to where I began.

Images are frowned upon in the Scriptures. The third commandment immediately comes to mind. One of the problems with us, as a species, is that we want to craft images, whether in the mind or with our hands. One of the Hebrew words the KJV translates ‘imagine’ has to do with making a ‘form,’ another has do with etching or plowing, creating lines. These are always frowned upon as mental acts. Perhaps the reason for this is that the creating of forms, mentally, actually causes us to lose our perspective of bigger things, and smaller things as well. Focus on an image of a castle and forget the whole world. Focus on an image of a castle and forget the grains of sand that hold it together. And in the process of losing the world and the sand, you also lose any emotional affect the castle might have – you lose the affective mood or flavor. But move from the image to the ideas – castlehood – and now you have something. You have the universe, the world, the nations, the counties, the cities, the dirt, the grass, kings, knights, princesses in distress, and you have a mood that those objects set. And it will be the mood, most likely, that moves you emotionally.

To bring this back to the examples I used earlier of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount or dying on the cross, let me say this: As for the cross, if I focus on the image of a man being crucified, perhaps it will evoke something within me, like horror or sadness. But these emotions are nearly animal (animal spirits, as Jonathan Edwards called them). They are physical reactions as much as they are mental, they are a reflex against horrible sights. But if you go beyond the image, outside of it, and into the details, that’s where we find meaning. We have a man dying on a particular cross, on a particular day, at a particular place, in a particular world, for a particular purpose. All of this demands context, and bare image cannot supply it. It must come to me as an idea, or as a story, or a poem, or what have you, if it is to have true imaginative force. This is precisely what poets tend to do. They take small objects and relate them to the world, or even the cosmos. They look at a Grecian urn and end up thinking about flowery tales, deities, and priests offering sacrifices. Or they take a nightingale and, before you know it, they are thinking about ‘perilous seas, in faery lands forelorn.’

I do not mean by all this that one should not have mental pictures. What I do mean is that the common notion of the imagination simply as something that supplies mental images is wrong, and deadly (as far as the imagination is concerned). Someone who uses their mind to build castles in the sky is useless. Someone who can tell me a story about castles in the sky is quite useful.

Perhaps this post is an attempt to justify my own mental bent, or justifying my own way of imagining. But I hope that will encourage anyone who is not an ‘extreme visualist.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t have a good imagination. In fact, you may be better off.