Further up and Farther in

As a philosopher of religion, I spend most of my professional writing time considering the theological significance of pain and suffering.

As a human being, I spend most of my time outside in green under blue. I remember when, as a child, I first wondered what determines the way branches grow. I’m not referring to their branching structure as such, which Fibonacci discovered in the West theorizing about rabbit breeding, and thus unlocking the key to artistic expression from the Parthenon to the Mona Lisa. I am referring, rather, to the seemingly random, sometimes bizarre path an individual branch sometimes takes through space over time. It couldn’t be the wind, I thought, though in extreme cases–above the timberline, for example–that is indeed a major influence. Was it pre-programmed from the very beginning? Did each of Aristotle’s acorns have a telos for a particular shape?

The answer seems to be that–like the less-varied shapes of our own bodies–it is a combination of nature and nurture, of genetics, and chance and training. The bonsai tree of our lives can be shaped within limits. But if it is born a tea tree, it remains a tea tree.

It is plausible that aesthetic properties supervene on the whole of a work of art.  That is, it would be what logicians call a “fallacy of composition” to infer that if every part of a work of art is flawed, the whole is flawed (as but one example consider the wantonness of inferring that because every part of a complex polyhedron is a triangle, the whole must be a triangle). Our life is a mosaic which we stare at so closely that at times we can only see it as fragmented and senseless.

To encapsulate this meditation into a distinct thought: our suffering is a chaotic or apparently chaotic episode in a background of cosmic order.  This is not to say it is unreal or not really bad.  Rather, it is to note that understanding it requires a shift in perspective.  A dearest of dear friends recently wrote a poem that expresses this thought aptly.

Close colors blur fast into one.
One after another, changing.
Farther scenes pass slower,
Farther slower still.
Cloudless sky remains one,
Continuity over chaos.
Through tunnels black all is lost,
But for reflective windows.
Outside world disappears,
Darkness draws self to self.
Tunnel ends, light returns.
All is changed but for the sky.
Continuity over chaos.
Blue sky above seems eternal,
Knowledge knows it’s not.
Starry space above the
sky seems eternal,
Knowledge knows it’s not.
Spiritual heavens above the space are eternal,
Revealed by Wisdom to be so.
Heavens over space.
Eternal over un-.
Wisdom over knowledge.
No chaos, only comfort.

When we are racing through space on the tracks of time, the world seems chaotic. But the farther and farther we look away, the closer we come to Boethius’ Hill, as it were, and the more constancy we see from that perspective. And in that constancy we can begin to see the Whole. And we see ourselves with greatest clarity when plunged into the darkness. But for those that hope in God, each episode of suffering is only a tunnel, never a bottomless pit. There is light at the end. Travel hopefully. You are on the way to a Museum where, for the first time, you will see the whole mosaic of your life, indeed, of all lives, and you will have Forever to take it in, rising higher and higher gaining more and more perspective, the opposite of zooming in on a Mandelbrot set.

If any of this sounds trite, I wish you to remember that from Perspective comes Meaning and Victor Frankl said that it was a search for and grasp of Meaning which largely determined who survived the Holocaust and who didn’t. And even if the message is simple, it is not easy to apply. Seeing our day as part of a whole life and our life as part of a whole society and our society as part of a whole cosmos takes effort and practice. It is a struggle to keep perspective. I keep a few loose tesserae on my desk to remind me that each day is but a part and that my vision of the whole is very limited.  And I pray for the souls of the dead.

Trent Dougherty is a Philosophy Professor at Baylor University and Visiting Research Professor at the University of Notre Dame.  He spends every second he can outside, trying to connect the dots.

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