When I was a kid I lived in a neighborhood that was relatively safe to run around in and explore. There was a small creek that ran through the neighborhood, and I used to play on its small muddy banks. I’d take the route from my house that wound through my neighbors’ back yards, through dense foliage, between trees, and behind fences, until I could hear the faint babbling of the water and saw the sun only reaching the ground in a few thin shafts that squeezed through the dancing, leafy canopy above. The somewhat isolated creek had its own character and feel, and its banks and surrounding grounds became a secret garden. I was probably only a few hundred yards from my house, but it was a world away.
There were other places, too, that had their distinctive feels, like the labyrinthian hayfield at my grandparents’ old house with hay that was tall enough to arch together and make tunnels to crawl through. Or the cemetery at the church I grew up in, which could simultaneously inspire peace and dread, a heightened sensuousness and a disembodied transcendence as you walked its rolling, headstone-dotted hills. I learned the distinctive characters of the different trees in my family’s yard, how to climb them, what they smelled like, how they would rock in the wind. I would swim in the ocean, taste the salt, feel its motion, and my mind would stretch to the horizon in wonder. I would swim in a lake, notice its conspicuous stillness, feel its chill reaching up to grab my feet, and shudder at what might be below me in the darkness.
Childhood camping trips were always a jolt to my suburban constitution. The most memorable experiences were of nature at night: sleeping in the open air, seeing things illuminated solely by fire light, and a sky full of stars I would never otherwise see because of light pollution (that’s really a thing). But oh, the stars. Laying on my back looking up into that concrete reality which gives meaning to the word “vastness”, the act of looking up would morph into the sensation of looking out. I would sense the immensity of the eternity in front of me, and I’d start to distrust gravity in my gut. I would clench the grass I was laying on for fear that I could drift into the heavens dominating my scope of vision, but I would embrace that numinous vertigo — because, though it was terrifying, it was also exhilarating.
These were real encounters with the real world. I was a child discovering a world that was already there, that had been there before me, that was other than me. The quality, kind, and character of places, things, and even times were truths that I learned as I experienced them.
Or were they truths? Now that I’ve grown up and learned a thing or two about biology, meteorology, and astronomy, I know more about all those experiences than I did as a kid. In fact I could quantify most of those experiences now in ways I would have never imagined then: naming the species, genus, family, etc. of those trees in my yard; mapping the topography of that lake bed; measuring the salinity of that ocean water; and observing the different light frequencies of stars to determine their distance from earth, their mass, temperature, and age. Was what I thought I was learning as a kid only subjective, emotional responses within myself, and not real data about the world? There’s an interesting passage in C.S. Lewis’s article Dogma and the Universe:
It is thus, in a sense, from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to over-awe us. … The silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal [Blaise Pascal, Pensées, No. 206], but it was the greatness of Pascal that enabled them to do so. When we are frightened by the greatness of the universe, we are (almost literally) frightened by our own shadows: for these light years and billions of centuries are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myth, falls upon them.
So the world really is only arithmetic, then. It was my imagination that turned a reality that can only be described mathematically into something with a character. It was my perspective which turned outer space into “the heavens” and gave its quantities a quality. But Lewis goes on:
I do not say we are wrong to tremble at [man's] shadow; it is a shadow of an image of God.
This last sentence makes all the difference. That mankind is made in the image of God is a central dogma in Christianity. And it is the singular explanation for the different ways we observe the world. For God, the Uncreated, in making the cosmos, had made an other, something derivative yet determinate, exact. God the scientist knows better than we ever will all the measurements of the universe; he has “marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance” (Isa 40:12). But God the poet has also beheld his creation and seen that it is good (Gen 1:31). So the world is created with both quantities and qualities. And these aren’t mutually exclusive, but are rather simultaneous layers of reality, mutually true. That’s why God both “determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” (Ps 147:4).
Man also, who is in the image of God, is both a scientist and a poet. When we encounter the world, we have both mathematics and poetry as tools for apprehending. They are two arrows in one quiver. They can even be shot simultaneously, and (I think) are meant to. In that sense, they are more like our two eyes, each set at different perspectives and each yielding different data. But when the two are used together, we perceive depth, and a new dimension opens to us which welcomes us further in to go on discovering new dimensions.
But if at any point we close one eye, we’ll find that we lose our balance in this world and develop an improper relationship with it. The key to keeping the right balance is to keep nature’s creator in mind, remembering that we are made in his image, and learning from him how to behold, appraise, and relate to the world. The ancient pagans, not knowing the God of creation, were overcome in their poetic knowledge of the world, its lively characteristics and sundry activities, and worshipped creation instead of the Creator. Modern man, disbelieving in the God of creation, amplifies his mathematical eye with telescopes and microscopes to lustfully peer into the frightful heights and depths of the world, and upon seeing his own shadow there, not realizing that it’s a “shadow of an image of God”, he worships the shadow — that is, he worships himself.
What I learned about the world around me as a child was real, important, and even propaedeutic [serving as a preliminary instruction or as an introduction to further study] for what I would learn about the world later in life. The natural poetic knowledge of childhood seems to be the first eye that opens to the world. Later, as an analytical, mathematical eye begins to open, there may be a fuzziness of perception, and it may take some blinking to bring this new harmonized world into focus. We must resist the temptation ever to close one eye for the sake of expedience, taking a shortcut to a simplistic, dishonest worldview. The world seen with two eyes open will always be mysterious, even paradoxical. But it will also always point us back to its creator, the truly mysterious, paradoxical One. It will never be an end, something to be worshipped; it will rather be a vehicle of communion with God. Like a common interest drawing two lovers together, when creation becomes to us what it is to God, we meet God there. When God called creation good and so did man, they were able to walk together in a garden in the cool of the day. When, however, man turned away from God toward creation, human vision was damaged. Now in Jesus Christ, God incarnate, our vision has been restored, and our eyes redeemed — both our eyes.
(More from Stephen Brannen can be found at One World Story)