Tuesday, November 15, 2011

To Know God Personally

Today I want to contemplate on an aspect of Christ’s ministry which involves looking at one of his best known activities through the lens of one of one of his other teachings. I also want to talk about abstract math and geometry, and the human capacity to identify and sort. As I have in other posts before, I will promise you now that this all comes together in the end, just come along for the journey.

I’m going to work backwards through my opening paragraph, and begin by considering one of the ways in which our human minds work. I have mentioned before, and many experts have dedicated their careers to studying, the human impulse to separate input into two piles, frequently in the form of an “Us and Them” or a “Mine/Not Mine” dichotomy. This habit can be used to befuddle and mislead us, allowing a clever con artist to lead us into thinking that a choice is falsely limited to two options, or that knowing what the choice of a group we dislike is, we will think we must support a specific other option. The ways this thinking can mislead us are myriad as the complexity of the world around us continues to grow, but it still serves us in many ways, allowing us to quickly find an item or person of importance in a crowd, or to ignore distractions while working on a task we have taken ownership of.

The critical element here is the mechanism, discrimination. Stripped of its negative luggage, this is the ability to separate input and identify the objects, ideas, or other data we wish to sort. If we see one waterfall, we remember a waterfall, and may have a hard time later deciding if another waterfall is the same or different, if we see a catalogue of waterfalls, we will recall what makes each unique. In general, if we cannot find a way to discriminate, our minds have a difficult time holding onto an idea or remembering a specific thing. By knowing what makes any input different from others like it, we have an ability to more fully identify and remember it.

Moving on to math, I want to touch briefly on the idea of geometric shapes, sometimes called perfect shapes. Most of us have a passing knowledge of geometric shapes, when asked what shape a book is, most people will say “rectangle” When asked about a soap bubble “Sphere”, we freely talk about Ice Cubes. All of these refer back to the geometric shapes, a set of form we have given names to which express a wide variety of the common shapes we see in the world, but in an abstract manner. If pressed, most of us would concede that no Ice Cube from a freezer tray would be found to comprise six exactly matching square faces joined at perfect 90 degree angles, and yet we all recognize it as a cube. Likewise with other objects we name by their shape. In nature, we get objects which express a form but deviate from it, there is even a field of topology which studies how deforming one object may produce another.

When we work with math in the abstract, we usually allow ourselves to treat the deformed objects of our experience as the perfect objects we name them. Wheels are made into circles; slopes are lines at a set angle to a surface, etc. But when we bring this work back into our lives, we set aside the abstraction for the reality. No one would take their neighbor’s bike after spending a physics class studying braking distances. The ability to think of the perfect shape does not remove our existing knowledge of the specific instances we have already accounted for in our mental sorting. Indeed, if I own a bicycle which I think of as mine I may be much more interested in learning math problems about braking or bicycling uphill than I would if I had an idea of a bike but had not encountered any bike I thought of as mine.

Now to the heart of my thoughts, the life of Christ. Prior to Christ’s mission on Earth, experience of God had been very limited, and always distant. God the Father had made specific warning that mortal man was not able to fully perceive him. We knew OF God, we knew him as perfect, all powerful, just and wise, but only a paltry handful could claim to have encountered him, and even those would likely demure from claiming they had known him. God was a sphere, a perfect geometric shape. We could study about him, admire his perfection and even speak of his nature, but we could not make him our own, if we were to see a sphere in the world, we might think that it was godlike, but we would not be able to speak meaningfully about how it compared to our God.

Then Christ came to live as a man among us. For those who knew him and walked with him, God was now theirs. They would know forever that ability to see something godlike, and know it was not God, to know the fine details and nuances that brought their Lord out of the realm of geometric shapes and made him into an actual object, a form which was mathematically imperfect, but so much more real. But what of us, his followers who have come to him since his Ascension into Heaven? It is good to read the accounts of those who walked with him, who knew him, and to know that his presence was with them and they knew him for their Lord, but now we are left with a description of a sphere again.

We may know OF our God, but how are we to separate his reality from the abstract idea, are we in the same boat as the Jews before his coming? No, we are not. What is it that so separates us? It is his final day, his suffering and death. No abstract idea of God has suffered and died for his people, a living person has done so. And this living person IS God. In this way we are given a clear and undeniable means to discriminate, to identify which god is our God. Confronted with an assortment of objects we would call spheres, we know what texture, what material, makes this one stand out, what makes it Ours, and allows us to claim it as the object of our devotion and love.

This last point is crucial, for it touches upon the work of Christ. Christ emphasized our most vital duty to love God with all our hearts, a duty which was profoundly difficult before his coming, but has been made so much more accessible to us by his presence. When we knew God only as an abstract, an idea of perfection, we could worship him, hold him in awe and fear, but to love him was difficult, for there was no handhold, no mental grip by which we could see how our love could reach him or become a part of Him; was He not already perfect and complete? But after Christ had died for us, we had the knowledge of His suffering and death, the knowledge that made Him less abstract, and we could reach Him. We could understand how a God suffering and dying could receive love, and how we could know that He was our God and our love was being given properly. How great are the mysteries of the Lord that He could use the moment of His deepest rejection by His people to make Him eternally reachable by all mankind, I marvel in His wisdom in new ways every day.

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