I have been engaged in what appears to be a useless conversation. I’m having a private email chat with an atheist/materialist who insists that there are no miracles – everything can be explained by “natural” means and that the world will be better off when everyone finally agrees this is true. He is a crusader. I have no explanations or apologies for the conversation and know that it will end soon with a poor outcome. But, what can you do? I am, however, interested in “Flatlanders.” This is the term that comes to mind when I think about people whose world is grounded in a peculiar, modern concept of “nature.” Strangely, my encounters with historical/literalist arguments within Christianity seem to belong to the same category. Some readers will understand what I mean in this, while others might be puzzled. And, it will be yet more puzzling when I suggest that what I have been saying about allegory goes to the heart of the Flatland conversation.
My email Flatlander argues for a view of the universe in which objects and energy operate in a single plane and a closed system. There is and can be no event that occurs from outside that system because there is nothing else. There is only nature for him – no supernature. More than that, my Flatlander is a Nominalist. The objects and actions within nature are all there is – everything else is just our thoughts about the objects and actions. For the Nominalist, there are only particular, concrete entities. Speech is only speech, with no direct connection to anything other than our own brains.
I need to say here that I believe that with very few exceptions, everyone born into our modern culture is a Flatlander. Even if he believes in God, he will have doubts that come from the direction of the Flatland. An ancient former pagan, when he apostasized from Christianity, became a fierce pagan. The trees and roots, springs and wells, the elemental spirits beckoned him back to his fetish. The modern believer, when he apostasizes, falls into the Flatland and believes in nothing. He can, of course, retain a sense of purpose by hounding those who have not yet apostasized, imagining he is doing the world a favor.
At least as problematic, as far as I can see, is the Flatlander Christian. Words are only words and the text means what it says or it is useless. History becomes an extended flatland, a vast continuity of things and events either accurately (even infallibly) presented in a text or not at all. Poetry, allegory, typology, and every non-flatlander form of speech belongs only to the world of the mind. The world consists of things and minds. It is easy to explain and teach, and also easy to reject.
Flatlander Christianity is problematic because the very texts that are authoritative for Christians assume something quite different about the world. The New Testament clearly asserts that the writings in the Old Testament have a meaning that lies beneath the surface – the level of the literal even obscures what is truly there. When writers of the New Testament use statements and stories from the Old in such a manner (as a figure, allegory, symbol, etc.), they do not preface their statements by saying, “It is as if….” There is nothing in their usage that suggests that they, like modern Flatlanders, believe such figures and symbols to be “only in the mind’s eye.”
Perhaps the most illustrative case in the New Testament is in Galatians 4. Paul specifically calls his OT example an allegory:
For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are an allegory. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar–for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children–but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband.” Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless, what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. (Gal 4:22-31)
Think carefully about what St. Paul does. He takes the case of Hagar and first says that she is Mount Sinai, and then says Mt. Sinai is Jerusalem “which now is.” This is an allegory within an allegory! Sara, however, he says is the Jerusalem “that is above.” It is an amazing passage, for which St. Paul in no way apologizes. For him, he is on unassailable ground. How is this possible?
One reason is so straightforward that no Flatlander would ever consider it: St. Paul speaks this way because the allegory, symbol, figure, etc., is actually there. This is the very heart of the Biblical and Patristic use of types and figures. We do not live in a Flatlander’s world. Rather, we live in a world in which an even greater reality lies buried.
CS Lewis plays with this in some of his fiction where (following his friend, Charles Williams) he invokes a Logres that lies beneath and alongside Britain. The Kingdom of God has this very quality about it as well. Among its primary characteristics is its hiddenness. The message concerning the Kingdom is twofold:
- First, since the Kingdom is everywhere present and filling all things, to live with an eye to that unseen reality is to live in true harmony with that which is. True peace can only be found in such a manner.
- Second, the Kingdom which is hidden will someday be revealed. That inner reality will become the manifest reality of all things. This is the clear sense of St. Paul’s great eschatological passage:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that isseen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. (Rom 8:18-25)
The theme of the passage is waiting-for-what-is-hidden-to-be-made-manifest. And this itself is properly the theme of the Christian life, when rightly understood. But the nature of the Flatland, where everything simply is what it is, can only be affected by external forces. It is an inherently violent view of life. The Christian life becomes essentially a life of behavior (morality). Rules, however they may be stated, powered by psychology, are the common tools of its so-called spiritual life.
But the truth of the spiritual life is hidden. It has a sacramental character and waits to be revealed. It is internal, transformative, characterized by humility and self-emptying. The world is layered with height and depth. Christ urges those who hear Him to ask, to seek and to knock. Nothing is obvious. The rich become poor; the weak are the strong; those who mourn are those who laugh. And all of this is a commentary on the world itself: it is everything but flat. And the Scriptures that God has given us share the same character. There, too, we ask, seek and knock and reach beneath the obvious. The treasure is buried beneath the letter.