Thursday, December 12, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Here is the second of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme.

Talk Two: None so blind as those who will not see

Until comparatively recently, human beings just took it for granted that the world they lived in had a spiritual dimension.  People in all cultures simply assumed that there was a spiritual dimension to their life.  This was expressed in all sorts of ways through religion, magic, spells, rituals, and belief in various kinds of spiritual beings from angels to demons.  We can still read about them in so-called 'fairy tales'.

Nowadays, in developed societies like our own, we regard these practices and beliefs as mere superstitions; part of the ignorance of the past that, thankfully, we have now left behind.  We dismiss such things with a knowing superiority.  And yet, these practices and beliefs were at least part of a realisation that there was more to reality than what we as humans can see, hear, touch, and taste with our physical senses.

This attitude to, and dismissal of, the spiritual practices and beliefs of previous generations contrasts dramatically with how we regard the 'physical' – or, if you prefer, ‘scientific’ - beliefs of the past.  In the course of our history, humans have believed many different things about the physical world around us.  In the history of science, these attempts to explain the physical world are normally regarded and hailed as part of humankind's quest for greater understanding, even when subsequent generations found previous scientific explanations wrong, inadequate, or lacking.

Rather than simply dismissing or making fun of early attempts to understand explain the physical world, we regard them instead as steps on the path of progress to greater scientific knowledge and insight.  We see primitive machines and inventions, for example, as a necessary part of our development of better, more efficient machines and acclaim their creators as pioneers and geniuses.

In their understanding of the spiritual world, previous generations may have got many things wrong, but they were in their own way, like the scientists of the past who were exploring the physical world, at least attempting to understand a spiritual world whose existence they were as sure of as we are of the physical.  Christianity rightly sought to show how these spiritual practices and beliefs were wrong as later generations of scientists sought to show the inadequacies of the understanding and explanations of those before them who sought to explain the physical world.

Instead, Christians tried as best they could to present the truth as it had been revealed to them in Christ and to convince people of it.  Just as scientists did not advance their understanding by suggesting that the physical world did not exist, so too Christians did not seek to show the error of superstition by arguing that the spiritual world itself did not exist.  In the same way as scientists built on the understanding and explanations of those who had gone before, so too Christians tried to show that what people were seeking in their spiritual practices and beliefs could be found only in Christ.

Ironically, Christianity's success in getting rid of what we now regard as the superstitions of the past has now been used against it.  Christianity (and other religious belief) is now itself seen as part of the superstitious nonsense which humankind must leave behind.  Rather than seeing the possibility that we may come to a right spiritual understanding in the same way as we can come to a better scientific understanding by learning from the past, we deny instead the existence of the spiritual world altogether.

As human beings, we are increasingly narrow in our vision and seem determined to narrow it still more.  Telling each other that the only reality that needs describing is the physical may comfort us in our blindness and ignorance, but it doesn't mean that other realities thereby cease to exist.  It just illustrates our foolishness all the more.

St Paul wrote: 'because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.' (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Human beings have undoubtedly achieved a great deal during their existence and some of our discoveries and inventions have been truly remarkable and life-changing.  We are, however, often so pleased with ourselves and our achievements that we fail to see how limited our knowledge really is.  There are many areas of knowledge that we are simply blind to, and not least amongst them is our knowledge of ourselves and of God.

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

No comments: