Navigating Realistically (in a Platonic Sense)

by Tom Tredway

The Bible uses a number of metaphors for the relationship of the believer to God, for the Christian life. Marriage, child-parent, servant-lord, foot race, battle—these are a few of them. Certainly one of the most frequent is that of a journey or pilgrimage. From the author of Hebrews to John Bunyan to the hymns of the Scandinavian Pietists the idea that the Christian is on a journey has been a powerful one for understanding the inner life. If you accept that way of thinking about human existence in relation to the divine, you tend to see the everyday world in a different light and you are apt to find in ordinary things traces or even evidences of things greater and unseen.

Even before the Christian era, Plato, so important to the effort of early Christianity to find evidence for its own view of the world in the wider culture of Antiquity, taught that visible things pointed beyond themselves, to eternal realities. Many people of my vintage learned decades ago in seminary that the New Testament and Plato do not mesh so easily. The sense that they were at odds was a view current in the theological world in the mid-twentieth century, then in the thrall of neo-orthodoxy. But maybe the early Church knew better, finding an ally in Plato. His well-known allegory of the cave portrays humans as “prisoners” fettered in such a way that they can only see an inner wall of the cave where they are chained. On that wall shadows are playing. They are cast by forms or figures behind the prisoners, which the latter cannot see because they are restrained. The light comes from a fire that is behind both the prisoners and the figures. For Plato the world which our senses reveal to us is only a shadow of the eternal and ultimately more real one, which intellect or the spirit can help us to see and understand. In the minds of many Christians that view supported the New Testament’s assertion that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”

In medieval Christian theology, of course, a dominant method of understanding the Scriptures as well as other literature and art (and for that matter life itself) was the allegorical. In this understanding every element or person in a story or painting or song pointed beyond itself to a greater and not immediately apparent reality. And the relationships between the elements or persons revealed heavenly realities. So Peter Bruegel’s two popular series of engravings, “Seven Deadly Sins” and “Seven Virtues,” for example, are full of figures whose faces and postures point to the spiritual virtues and vices which the late medieval Dutchman saw everywhere around and within him. Often the parables and stories of the Gospels themselves were understood in the Middle Ages as allegories. One of the efforts of modern scholarship has been to seek in these Biblical passages their own original and simpler meaning. So one looks for the single main point of a parable of Christ, for example, rather than seeing in every feature of the story a symbol of some heavenly or churchly person or idea which only the initiated or tutored can understand.

By the time of the Protestant Reformers the entire visible world was seen as a sign, when properly understood, of deeper spiritual realities. One Protestant catechism, which many pubescent Covenanters learned (back in the days when definitions were memorized in Confirmation classes), defined a sacrament as “the outer visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.” So bread and wine in Holy Communion represented the body and blood of Jesus, and the water used in Baptism the washing away of sin, one’s own as well as that inherited from Adam. In fact, for some Protestants, all things accessible to the senses pointed, when properly understood, beyond themselves to the divine power that had created them; this was a “sacramental universe.”

The Romantics saw life this way as well. Wordsworth:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, it joys, its fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

And William Blake, the printer-visionary-artist-poet, in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience pictured and wrote about the world in this manner. Trees, their roots deep in the earth, their branches lacing toward heaven, were signs of the nature of our own lives, the stunning mixture of the earthly and the heavenly which every human being experiences. Spring lambs brought Christ to mind and the tiger “burning bright in the forest of the night” the terrible ferocity of life itself. (When one is trying to cope with this contrast—Blake’s two-mindedness, John Keats is handy. Keats spoke of “negative capability,” the capacity of the mind to deal with conflicting realities and truths, in this case the blessedness and the savagery of life, at the same time.) Writing at the end of the Romantic period John Henry Newman argued that Christianity and poetry have in common the idea that imagination must look beyond the visible to the deeper reality behind it.

So from pre-Christian to modern times our civilization has been graced by seers who, looking at the world as it presents itself to us, have searched past it for deeper meanings, not immediately evident to one who wants only to deal with “the real world.” Anyone now living has almost certainly been conditioned by a materialism that sees in matter, what the Germans sometimes call Stoff (stuff), the ultimate reality. Even the devout wonder if there actually can be a realm of spirits, a life beyond this one, whether mind is simply the name we give for the brain at work. “Realism” for Platonists meant that ideas and the realm of the spirit are more real than the world that is available to the senses. For most moderns it means conversely a lack of that sense; today a “realist” is likely to mean a person who relies on the senses rather than the ideal and tends to reject the impractical and visionary. But are we all simply road kill in the end? Is the pilgrimage in the end merely a road littered with dead bodies (including mine)? It is good, at least for me, to be reminded that for well over two thousand years, some souls seeking to navigate their own way on life’s journey (and perhaps even daring to offer guides to others) have seen the world that we see and hear and taste and touch and smell as one offering hints about and even evidences of things greater and in the end more real. John Bunyan:

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,
We know we at the end shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say.
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.

The sense that the spiritual is in the end more real than the material has run through our own and other civilizations since pre-history. It is probably a small and obvious thing to point that out. But given the modern disposition to “see things only as they are,” it may be well to remind ourselves that many of our forbears saw themselves as pilgrims and that they looked at the world through which they were passing as revelatory of another, better, and ultimately more real one. It was the reason for their hope.

Tom Tredway is President Emeritus of Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

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