Tripping over Theology

Last week, we talked about how stuff like the multiverse and dreams of communing with alien intelligences have a curious resonance with the Christian theological tradition. There are lots and lots of ways people who imagine themselves to have evolved past or even to be mortally opposed to that Tradition constantly betray an indebtedness to it. (Yet again, let me recommend Tom Holland’s DOMINION for a chronicle of just how deeply and intensely–and unconsciously–Christian so-called “post-Christian” culture still is.)

One minor, but fun and interesting, example of that influence is found, unexpectedly, in the speculations contained in the video below. Joe Scott is not a scientist and still less a professional philosopher. He’s just a passionate amateur (the best kind of amateur) who happen to love sciency/geeky/nerdy stuff and has a background in video production. He loves to talk about all sorts of arcana and is a useful fountain of information while being open to correction when he gets stuff wrong and not taking himself very seriously. In this video he dinks around with some speculations about the nature of reality (he does that in other videos too). Also, he’s very funny:

What interests me about this is not really the speculations themselves as possibly being true (I don’t believe it for a second), but rather their clear relationship to the sort of stuff Plato was playing with 23 centuries ago. Somebody once described the history of Western Philosophy as “more or less a series of footnotes to Plato” and this seems to me to be a classic case of that.

The conception of this world as a “simulation” immediately invites the thought that “simulation” implies there is a Real Thing being simulated which, for me, immediately brings to mind the beautiful and thrilling moment in THE LAST BATTLE where the children having passed through the stable door and found themselves in a new and wonderful world after the death of the old Narnia, slowly begin to realize that this new world seems familiar:

“Peter,” said Lucy, “where is this, do you suppose?”. . . “If you ask me,” said Edmund, “it’s like somewhere in the Narnian world. Look at those mountains ahead—and the big ice-mountains beyond them. Surely they’re rather like the mountains we used to see from Narnia, the ones up Westward beyond the Waterfall?”. . .

“And yet they’re not like,” said Lucy. “They’re different. They have more colors on them and they look further away than I remembered and they’re more . . . more . . . oh, I don’t know . . .”

“More like the real thing,” said the Lord Digory softly. . .

“But how can it be?” said Peter. “For Aslan told us older ones that we should never return to Narnia, and here we are.”

“Yes,” said Eustace. “And we saw it all destroyed and the sun put out.”

“And it’s all so different,” said Lucy.

“The Eagle is right,” said the Lord Digory. “Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but when he added under his breath “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” the older ones laughed. It was so exactly like the sort of thing they had heard him say long ago in that other world where his beard was grey instead of golden. He knew why they were laughing and joined in the laugh himself. But very quickly they all became grave again: for, as you know, there is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.

Scott is right, of course, that the conviction that all is not what it seems, that there is a deeper reality behind what we see, and similar ideas is something that goes to the very root of the human experience. And nor it is something only undergirding religion or theology. It is the mother of philosophy, art–and science. If you do not believe this about the world (and believe is precisely the word since it precedes rational attempts at analysis) you would never make such an attempt to connect the dots via any of these routes.

What I find fascinating is the clear relationship between the concept of this world as a “simulation” and the language about it being a “shadow” or “copy”. So, of course, did the author of the letter to the Hebrews, who likewise borrowed from the Platonic tradition the notion that God revealed himself “in many and various ways” (Heb 1:1) and that he only fully revealed himself in his Incarnation, death, Resurrection, and Ascension–and that our experience of him is often fragmentary, allusive, and mysterious. So he speaks of the cultic worship of Israel and its furniture and strange signs and symbols as “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb 10:1). As Paul puts it, “Now we see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). The idea is not that God plays games or jerks us around, but rather that we can’t see well because our vision is darkened by sin. As Lewis will also say in his beautiful TILL WE HAVE FACES:

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Scott appears to a sort of agnostic and says elsewhere that he is not much of a metaphysical kind of guy, which mostly seems to me to be rooted in an unclear idea of what metaphysics (and theology) look like. For, in fact, it seems obvious to me that the sort of questions he is asking are obviously chockablock not only with metaphysical underpinnings but with all kinds of assumptions that, yet again, come out of a Christian tradition he does not know he is borrowing from.

And that’s just fine. The term “educate” means to draw out. The way we learn most deeply is not by people telling us what to think, but by discovering how this amazing universe works and working things out till we ourselves are deeply convinced “This thing is so”. (That’s why Jesus doesn’t show up and start ramming “I am the Messiah” down his disciples’ throats but instead simply lives out who he is with integrity and finally invites them to draw their own conclusions by asking “Who do you say I am?” It is Peter, not Jesus, who declares Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus then commends him for getting it right and underscores his epiphany by telling him “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).

This was how (and indeed the only way) the Faith spread before the Empire became Christian in the 4th century. People came to it out of conviction that Christ made sense of what they had already come to think about the world whether through their Jewish or Greco-Roman worldview.

And I think Christ still has much to say to people like Joe Scott who are re-asking questions that Plato asked.

PS. I also find interesting his various accounts of Tales of the Unexplained from sundry readers. This too has a category in Catholic theology known as “private revelation” and I am convinced in my marrow that the world is absolutely chockablock with such weird encounters with the supernatural/preternatural. I think I may post a chunk from MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON to discuss this in more detail soon.


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