Ruminating on Michael Polanyi's epistemic model as developed and conveyed by Dr. Esther Lightcap Meek in the book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People

Saturday, February 11, 2006

George MacDonald Saw the Dolphins

The Chronicles of Narnia are all the rage right now, and for good reason. I read the seven books seven times each during my early and mid teens. This past year, I read them each again, and I must say that, children's stories though they seem to be, they were even more delightful to me at 43 years old than they had been when I was 15. Lewis' primary influence and inspiration for writing fairy stories was George MacDonald, who had lived in Scotland a generation prior.

MacDonald's book Phantastes works on the imagination in ways that only a LtK type epistimology can explain. It walks the reader through Faery Land as seen through the eyes of a Victorian-era young man. It's a most peculiar adventure. At times it hardly seems coherent. But it makes sense to your senses, if not always to your logical mind. As you read it, its immediate affect varies from charming to perplexing to aweing to almost embarrassing in a way. (Come to think of it, the Scriptures have much the same effect.) But when you put it down and go to do other things, the images haunt you in ways that make you realize that you've had a profound encounter with something important. It helps you see beyond the veil that modernity has draped over your eyes.

In the closing paragraph of the book, at the point after the primary character has left Faery Land, he describes lying beneath his favorite kind of tree, a beech, and having a brief vision of sorts of a wise old woman he met in his travels. He says:
"I opened my eyes, and, for a moment, almost believed that I saw her face, with its many wrinkles and its young eyes, looking at me from between two hoary branches of the beech overhead. But when I looked more keenly, I saw only twigs and leaves, and the infinite sky, in tiny spots, gazing through between."
Looking too keenly caused the vision to vanish. Is it not so often true that an attempt at highly precise observation causes us to miss the meaning of what we're looking at? When looking at the Magic Eye picture, you can see the dolphins only if you relax and look through it. If you examine it with the critical eye of scientific, modern man, all you'll see is a meaningless swirl of dots.

When we meditatively and appreciatively take in the beauty and wonder of the Creation of which we are part, we can hardly miss seeing the hand of our Creator, and rejoicing in His greatness and goodness. But if we see ourselves as above it, and Nature as something apart from us, to be pinned down and dissected, we'll see nothing but twigs and leaves.

The same thing happens all too often with Scripture in the hands of Evangelical interpreters, who are influenced more strongly than we know by Enlightenment assumptions. We get so caught up in the definition of individual Greek words, or in the exact wording of an isolated fragment of Scripture (a.k.a., a "verse"), or in trying to make the Bible into a How-to book for personal success, or in trying to find some 1-to-1 correspondence to current headlines, that we miss the story. The meaning is not in the words. It's in the story. It can't be pinned down too precisely, because it's living, and powerful, and sharper than whatever scapel you try to dissect it with. It dissects you. If you stare too closely at the minutiae, all you'll see is twigs and leaves. If you're lucky.


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