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.

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You Real Bad

This past July 4th weekend, I turned my ankle in a little hole. It seemed lightly sprained, but no worse -- at first. Over next few days, the pain got worse and worse, and the joint became severely swollen, to the point that I could hardly drive, nevermind walk. The pain became excruciating, and lasted for months.

The sprain kept me from working as much as I otherwise would have, and that put me in such a financial bind that I avoiding going to the doctor. I was certain it wasn't broken, and several people assured me that sprains can take a surprisingly long time to heal. By late October, I was finally beginning to be able to walk slowly.

No sooner was I starting to get around again, when I stubbed the big toe on the other foot. I was making breakfast, and simply turned around too fast and slammed it into the corner of the stove. My whole foot swelled up, and I was back on crutches, enduring more searing pain.

When that failed to clear up in a couple of weeks, I finally broke down and saw a doctor. He was puzzled by it. The toe was not broken, but in some ways it acted like it was. He decided to send me for an MRI. The results of the test were clear: gout. Yes, simple gout. This was a podiatrist, mind you. And I had listed gout as among my previously known foot problems on my chart. He was so embarrassed about having to do an MRI just to diagnose a simple case of common gout, especially in a guy who had a know history of it, that he didn't even charge me for the MRI.

I took a a prescription medication for it for a few days, and the problem cleared up completely. No doubt, the reason my lightly sprained ankle had given me so much trouble for so long was also due to gout attacking the weak joint. The damaged soft tissues and the sharp crystals formed in them by the gout had fed each other and kept each other from healing.

Why didn't it occur to me early on that gout was involved? Why didn't my dad, who has suffered similar problems, think to attribute it to that? Why did my chiropractor not make the connection? Most of all, why didn't an experienced podiatrist diagnose it correctly right away?

We were all led astray, prevented from integrating the clues correctly, by a sort of false clue. The sprain and the stubbing incident pointed us in the wrong direction, effectively blinding us to everything else. I had never had a gout attack last nearly so long. Everyone else assumed, based on my testimony, that some kind of damage to the joint was the key culprit. In hindsight, it seems so obvious.

If the clue we consider most important calls our attention to look the wrong direction, it can make it incredibly difficult to integrate the remaining clues. And the result can be incredibly painful.