I praise thee O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to babes. Matthew 11:25
I was listening to Father Hans Jacobse in his interview with Kevin Allen on “The Illumined Heart” podcast. They were discussing how the Orthodox faith can engage the culture and what kind of apologetics it will take to touch the hearts of the postmodern generation. Father Hans said we will not reach people with the classic philosophical and metaphysical arguments. He said we must tell an alternate story, that we must give them a narrative that touches their hearts and engages them at some mystical level, at the level of our true humanity. He admitted that he didn’t know exactly what form this will take or exactly how to do it but is realized it takes more than just syllogisms and logic and facts to convert the modern human heart.
I fully agree with Fr. Hans, because if we look at the fundamental documents that form the basis for our salvation they are stories. When Jesus was asked hard theological questions, He told stories. When God wanted to communicate all that he had done to bring about the consummation of his love for his creation, he did it by preserving the stories of his relationships. Even the account of creation itself is a narrative, a story, not a scientific textbook.
I’ve always thought that when Christians and atheists argue they’re not really arguing about biology, micro and macro evolution, natural selection, DNA and hosts of other things that are above my head. At the bottom line they’re arguing about a story. The irony is that both stories begin the same way and have the same plot elements: there is nothing or what seems like nothing, then suddenly there’s something. Then that something begins taking on distinct characteristics and begins functioning according to something that looks like order. This something continues to change and become more complex and finally produces a human being. So in a sense we have one story, and ultimately whether you believe Moses or Dawkins versions of it, it is a matter of faith because no one was there to observe its beginning or even the middle for that matter…, all we know for certain is the end… so far. The facts of the story so far really don’t need any scientific verification whether it’s Moses or Dawkins because all of us can see all of the elements of the stories right in front of us: light, water, kangaroos, mountains, armadillos, irises, all of creation is right in front of us, it is all undeniably HERE. There may be a surprise ending later, but that too is a speculative story…and so far no one has predicted the end of the story correctly whether it is nuclear winter, overpopulation, the apocalypse or a host of other end time scenarios.
But…No matter how much scientific research and experimentation you try to bring to bear on this story, it remains merely a story because ultimately no part of this story has ever been fully reenacted or replicated. Science in the end, can only describe a process even if it is an elaborate and involved one, and only insofar as it has tools to observe, measure, and define a process. Science can tell you the elements, steps, chemical interactions and necessary conditions for baking a cake, but it cannot name the baker unless he reveals himself, nor can it tell you whose birthday it is, nor most importantly can it tell us why we sing “Happy Birthday”. Science can also tell you the secret to pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but it cannot tell you where the first rabbit came from, or who made the hat and again, more importantly, why the trick was even conceived by a magician, and why people enjoy seeing it even if they know it is trickery.
So Christians and atheists both have similar stories and scientists can only do something similar or what they think is close to their version of it in a laboratory, test tube or an atom smasher …or the non-scientist can do it with a top hat and a rabbit. Science may look more serious because one has to be able to write long formulas, divide electrons and neutrons and strands of DNA and publish journal articles, but in the end is it really any more complex or difficult than cutting a woman in half, and is it truly any more or less magical, mysterious and incomprehensible. And if creation is a magical place, for some people it makes sense that maybe there’s a magician.
But in the end it’s not really about competing stories it’s about what those stories mean. And it’s really not so much about what those stories mean, it’s really about “do WE mean anything” and if we do, then what does THAT mean? I think that is the real issue… atheists just don’t like to be told what meaning looks like by Christians or anyone else who’s meaning is derived from someone or something that wishes to determine their behavior, or at least certain behaviors. But the true atheist drives headlong into the dead end cul de sac of materialistic determinism, and the irony is that he has no problem with everything in creation being ultimately determined by random chemical reactions that have no meaning. God is a leash that prevents them from choosing to be animals, but materialistic determinism is a leash that prevents them from rising above the animals even if they think they can desire to do so.
And even more interesting to me is that the atheists will argue the meaning of their story even though the logical outcome of the meaning of their story is that no meaning matters, even a Christian one. Why does it matter to them to convince someone else that there is no meaning to matter if nothing matters in the end. But the problem is they are human beings and because they are human, things DO matter to them, and the things that matter are the same things that matter to people who believe in a God or gods. With all the new theories of time and space, dimensions, string theory, quantum mechanics they are encountering the same thing that people who believe in God encounter when they look at the world: it is a mystery to be unravelled. And not just a mystery like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but a mystery that everything in the universe even in its apparent randomness and occasional indicators of some kind of vast order, is ultimately interrelated. For all the miles of atom smashers we’ve built, the subatomic particle is still a mystery, and yet while the atheist can claim that it accounts for all things no one can explain how it accounts for love, which is what both the atheist and the theist will ultimately point to as the crown of what it means to be human and that which will keep the human race from destroying itself, if it even matters that it is destroyed or not.
So whether we’re searching for immutable laws that tell us nothing matters, or an immutable God who tells us everything matters, human beings are searching for certainties that are not granted either in a laboratory… or in a church. Certainties unravel when we apply reality to them, both for Christians and atheists. NOTHING is “certain”, in fact it is the uncertainty of “God’s love and power” that atheists fire over the Christian’s bow, and it is the uncertainty of randomness and scientific anamolies and the ever changing face and limitations of science that Christians fire back. So the bottom line for both is really Mystery… and both have their Wizards of Oz trying to convince others with smoke and mirrors of something that is, in the final analysis, a matter of faith in an unverifiable story that looks similar to something we’ve seen before, encountered in life, and know somewhere within us that perhaps there is more to it than we know or even suspect.
I read somewhere recently that there was a movement to ban fairytales from children’s reading. The fairytales were too dark, too violent, too demeaning of women, in short too politically incorrect for our age. I’m not sure that the old fairy tales are still told that often, but they should be, and if they’re taken away entirely I believe we will lose the ability to stand in awe before Mystery. And we will lose part of the mystery of what it is to be human.
When I was a child, let me begin again… when I was younger, I had a set of “Childcraft” children’s books that I loved and still do. One of my favorite volumes was called “Folk and fairy tales”. As I grew up, I put away my childish things…. let me restate that, I put away the things of my childhood as I got older and I pursued childish things, like owning lots of toys… Giving away all my toys, (it was a stage I went through)… Impressing people… Trying to look and act like a spiritual grown-up, and talking with grown-up’s words…. Knowing lots and lots of stuff. In the process of doing all that, I learned the story of the Gospel. At first I thought it was not real, like a fairy tale. Then I thought it was real, but a way to escape reality into some fairy tale world. Now I think it is the only true reality. But it is the same reality I learned from the stories told by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen in my first childhood.
In the Emperor’s New Clothes I realized that in the process of becoming grownups we all seem to join the ranks of the King and his Court who, because they were too proud to admit they were fools, would not speak the truth to the Emperor who was parading stark buck naked in his imaginary new clothes. It was a child who spoke the truth, but the court kept up the pretense and all were even greater fools in the end for it. But in growing up I still knew deep within, like the King and everyone else, what the truth really is. The truth spoken by the Son of God, admonished me to become a child again. In him I understood that reality is as true and as profound as the fairy tales I lived in all those years of rainy days in bed time stories.
From Cinderalla, I knew the truth that our fairy godmother sent us to the grand Ball by grace, and there we found our true love. I knew too that we disobeyed the commandment and we ran in terror and shame as our garments of silk in our splendid coaches and dancing white horses turned into rags, pumpkins and rats. But our prince saw us, and sought us out and found us in our rags, amid the rats, living in squalor and took us home with him and married us anyway.
I found truth in the The Steadfast Tin Soldier who endured great misfortunes for the love of the Paper Dancer. He was cast into the fire because he was rejected and deemed unworthy to be counted among the whole and the pretty toys. In the end his love drew the dancer to him in his fiery death and perishing together they were resurrected as a tin heart that declared to all his everlasting love that fires could not overcome, that many waters could quench, a love that was stronger than death.
I knew the truth that the magic fish granted all things that the fisherman’s wife desired to make her happy, but when she desired to be like God she lost it all.
I knew the truth that when Pandora does something as simple as open a small box that was supposed to remain closed, that which was let out of it changed the whole world.
I knew the truth that we lost our precious Rapunzel because we desired and ate what was forbidden. I knew that evil seem to triumph over the prince who came to rescue the one he loved that was held hostage by evil. But no matter how the evil which tried to keep them apart, their love drew them together and through tears of sorrow over the wounds endured for the sake of love, a miracle occurred and the two were united forever.
I knew the truth that no matter how ugly a duckling we believe we are, how misfit, how rejected an outcast we think we may be, we are actually created as swans in the image of the beautiful Swan. And that image will one day be manifested both to ourselves and to the world, not because we were able to make ourselves into acceptable ducks but because of the one whose image we were created in.
And my favorite truth, the truth that love, true love, unconditional love, sacrificial love, love that looks beyond the repulsive exterior to the heart will transform the ugliest beast into a prince.
These truths struggle for their place against our grown-up notions of reality, our search for laboratory evidence, statistical certainty and scientific replication. The universe of our childhood is more real because it is certain that there is mystery at work in the world, that there is a profound order we can only speak through stories, that speaking truth is best, that evil gets it in the end, that true love conquers all, that death is only sleep when one who is willing to die for love comes along and kisses us, and that someone loves me in my ugly beastness and through that love I will someday become fully and perfectly human. Given the choice I’ll take my fairy tales over the dull certainty of my scientific adult world, thank you.
The Gospel is the most marvelous of all fairy tales. But it is not a fairy tale, a story of imaginary lands and dragons and princes and evil giants. The Gospel is truth, the fulfillment of all our fairy tale human hopes and desires to be saved from the frightening and dark world and even from ourselves, by some benevolent fairy godmother, by some prince, by someone whose love is pure, whose invincible goodness is stronger than the evil of the wicked witch. We know within the child inside us all that without that fairy tale hope we don’t have a hope in the world.
The Gospel is the mystery of God told in a foolish story that is as real as suffering, separation, despair, death, lies, envy, pride, resurrection from the dead, hope, love, mercy and truth,… a mystery that only a child would believe. Or an adult who is not ashamed to admit the truth about the emperor’s new clothes and his own nakedness.