Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
–C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”(1945)
My years are beginning to show. I am facing the fact that I can no longer read most print without a pair of reading glasses. A cloudiness in my right eye suggests something more ominous, but I’m ignoring that for the moment.
Unlike the floaters I see in the air, which only appear when I stare at a blank surface, I am seeing connecting threads between many different things I’ve been reading in a variety of rich sources lately. Most of these ideas boil down to truths about learning, about character and about perspective, how we look at the world and how that looking affects us.
I’m still reading John Piper’s When I Don’t Desire God (which, by the way, is having its intended effect of making me desire God–for which, God be praised). In the chapter I’ve studied this week, he quotes several times from C.S. Lewis. This being the 50th anniversary month of Lewis’ death (he died on the same day as J.F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley, just in case you didn’t know that), I’ve been seeing more references to Lewis’ writing on various blogs, as well.
Piper included a long quote from Lewis’ essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed”, published in God in the Dock (1948), which I know I read years ago. Its truth struck me afresh this week:
“I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch black…
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.“
Lewis goes on to remark on the study of scholars in various disciplines who look at something from the outside–religious experiences, for example. Looking at something gives one the illusion of objectivity, and breeds an arrogant smugness towards those one is observing.
But say I’m studying pain, and people’s response to it. If I’ve never experienced terrific pain, I may be as detached as I like, even find certain kinds of noises or grimaces distasteful or comic. However, once I’ve felt the same degree of pain, I may find that I look on my clinical observations somewhat differently, with a new humility and compassion which is just as valuable as my objectivity was before. Is one better than the other?
Not necessarily, says Lewis:
“We must…deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. In particular cases we shall find reason for regarding the one or the other vision as inferior.”
I like that picture of looking along the beam to its source. It makes me think of the saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees–looking at details and missing the big picture. In this case, it would be looking at a single dusty sun beam, and not recognizing that it is emitted by a vastly powerful, distant star.
This is the essence of being “short-sighted”…not striving to take a long view of things as well as the immediate and obvious one. In some cases, it seems as if the long view is waved aside as immaterial, unimportant or irrelevant. (All those specific objections to Obamacare, which were raised in Congress before the bill ever passed, were scorned by its proponents. And now those problems, seen before at long range, are getting to be quite up close and personal, aren’t they?)
Perhaps arrogance is just another word for such short-sightedness. Hubris says, ‘What is right in front of my nose is all that matters.” Pride assumes that whatever appears logical and self-evident from one’s own perspective must be the objective and only right way of viewing the subject. How many problems could be solved by looking along the beam, rather than merely looking at it?
A blessed Sunday to you. When you gaze at the world today–mine is dusted with snow–don’t forget to gaze along it to its Source.
(…to be continued…)