Flying By The Instruments

I was told once that it is possible when flying an airplane to lose track of whether you are flying rightside-up or upside-down—presumably because when you can’t see the ground or are flying through clouds or fog, you lose track of everything. It was then, I was further told, that it became crucial that you fly by the instruments. That is, if the instrument panel in front of the pilot indicated that he was flying upside-down, he trusted the instrument panel’s information regardless of how he actually felt. He might have felt that he was flying rightside-up—and in fact he might have been sure that he was flying rightside-up—but he must disregard his subjective feelings and fly by what the instruments in front of him indicated. Otherwise he might try to come in for a landing while he was upside-down and experience disaster.

A dear friend of mine confirmed this sort of thing for me recently: he was a passenger in a small six-seater plane travelling in Alaska and he noticed a string hanging from the ceiling with a paperclip on the end of it. Not unnaturally his curiosity was aroused and he asked what was the deal with the hanging paperclip. He was told that it was a kind of backup system for the instruments: if the paperclip was lying against the ceiling, they were flying upside down. Okay then. Good to know.

This means that in flying airplanes as in many things in life, our subjective feelings are not always the best guide to reality. We often need something outside of our feelings, something objective, to act as a confirmation and a corrective. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s advice, “Trust your feelings, Luke” is not always the way to go.

This necessity of having an objective standard apart from our feelings holds good in doing theology as well as flying airplanes. We are all children of our age, subject to the incessant and effective barrage of a secularized world-view (read: “propaganda”) that inundates us. Each epoch has its own insights and its own blind-spots, and we cannot readily identify our blind-spots all the time because we are children of our epoch and have been thoroughly conditioned by our education and our surroundings. Our subjective feelings about what is right, good, virtuous, and healthy cannot always be trusted. We may feel absolutely certain that our views about what is good and what is bad are correct, just as a pilot surrounded only by fog and cloud may feel absolutely certain he was flying rightside-up. But we may be badly mistaken just the same, and might be flying upside-down. And more alarmingly, we may never know this until we finally come in for a landing after our lives end and we pass over to the other side. If we were in fact flying upside-down, the landing will end in disaster. That is why it is so important to have an objective standard for these things, and to fly by the instruments.

For a Christian, the instruments are the Holy Scriptures, as interpreted by the Church throughout the centuries and accessed through the consensus of the Fathers. Today, possibly more than ever, we need to fly by these instruments and not trust our own subjective feelings. Our age is becoming increasingly crazy, and it is easier than ever to fly upside-down while feeling that we are flying rightside-up. I mention two examples out of many: the Church’s teaching about eternal punishment and about sexuality.

Regarding the former, because our epoch has lost its sense of sin, we tend to regard the notion of eternal punishment as inherently immoral. In our secret heart of hearts, we regard everyone has basically good (if perhaps sometimes obviously flawed), and so we are both mystified and repelled at the thought of anyone going to hell. Okay: maybe some punishment could be meted out to bad people for a while after they die (like getting the strap in the Principal’s Office in the old days), but the punishment and suffering must eventually come to an end. We believe that no one must suffer eternally, and we find the notion of eternal suffering morally repugnant.   A God who could countenance allowing anyone to suffer like that, even if the punishment were self-inflicted, would not be a good God. We have, in fact, become rather squeamish about the whole thing, yet we are dead sure that we are right and all previous ages were wrong. We are dead sure we are flying rightside-up.

Regarding the latter, we observe that our epoch has lost both its sense of modesty and restraint, as well as its mooring in universal norms, and so we believe 1. Sex before marriage is perfectly normal and acceptable; and 2. Sex with a person of either gender is also perfectly normal and acceptable. We feel that as long as the sex happens between consenting adults, it is all just fine. This approach to sexuality is so ingrained in our modern Western culture that it is never questioned, and those who do question or reject it are dismissed as quixotic at best and morally dysfunctional at worst. More than this, they are increasingly vilified in the media, and sometimes driven from the public square. Once again, those who accept the modern secular view of sexuality are dead sure they are virtuous and right and it is the others who are flying upside-down.

This is why it is important to fly by the instruments, reading and trusting the Scriptures rather than our own subjective feelings. The Scriptures are crystal clear that an eternal hell will be the fate of some, that sex before marriage is sinful, and that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. Everything in our Western culture screams to us that these traditional teachings are wrong, and that Western culture is currently flying rightside-up. Christians must therefore fly by the instruments, no matter what their feelings tell them. The cost of trying to land upside-down is very high. And we are all of us coming in for a landing soon enough.



  1. There’s another warning to pilots when it comes to flying on instruments: Fly the plane, not the radios.

    It is all too easy for a pilot to be so wrapped in the nuances of navigation that he ceases to pay attention to the state of the plane. Modern GPS is a wonder when compared to the older LORAN beacon system, and so in some respects requires far less fiddling than the older systems which required dialing in multiple radios and checking one’s actual headings against the flight attitude, and correcting for drift – the GPS can just show you where you are with accuracy as opposed to triangulation. But that comes with the new distraction of watching the map as you fly into a mountain. The warning to “trust the instruments” has an implied corollary, which is “remember to check your instruments in the first place.”

    My father and I found this out the hard way when we borrowed a boat with a then-new-to-us fish finder sonar. We were so wrapped up in what underwater terrain we were seeing (being on an artificial reservoir over what had been a small town, we were marveling at the old foundations below) that we failed to notice the all-important depth, and so chewed up the propeller on tree stumps.

  2. It is just as easy, Father, to believe by our feelings, that none will be saved.
    Or that salvation is a figment of certain folks fevered imagination and totally irrelevant. Each respective attitude is based on essentially the same upside down thinking that brings many to the conclusion that “government knows best”.

    Many hurdles and road blocks. For me, my joy rests in two simple realities: 1. My tomatoes this year are transcendently beautiful. I praise God and thank Him and the tomato plants everytime I walk by; 2. God’s mercy is infinite and beyond my comprehension but closer than hands and feet. A deep well that is a gift received each time I am humble enough to repent.

    All that is necessary is taking up my Cross.

  3. Do you have any thoughts on Kalomiros’ “river of fire”?

    I’ve heard a criticism, for instance, that it doesn’t really include a “punishment”. I would disagree, myself, but would be interested in your thoughts.

    1. I suppose it depends what connotations one attaches to the notion of punishment. The idea of wrath directed against evil is clearly moral, as everyone acknowledges when they face some of the evils of Nazism. Some people–perhaps Kalomiros–seem to shrink from any notion of justifiable punishment and wrath. Much of this seems to me to be rooted in our emotional squeamishness, and not in sound exegesis of Scripture. But I have not read his River of Fire very carefully.

  4. I am so thankful for the MANY times that your gentle “shepherding” reminders are EXACTLY what our Lord taught. He continually calls me to a HIGHER moral standard, not a LOWER one.

  5. So if Hell is sheol, the shade, the dark. Then is it fair to say that those who fly without regarding the instruments, are flying in the dark or blind. Before the world began, there was deep darkness. And then when the Spirit hovered over that deep darkness…her energy caused a voice to emerge from the deep…saying, let there be light. And there was LIGHT. Can it be then that those who fall asleep in death will remain forever in the dark until such time as the Spirit awakens them as she did the Father of Creation and they together with the Father speak and say LET THERE BE LIGHT?

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