Closeness to God helps us live life to the full
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight continues the theme of 'the myth of secular progression' by explaining why ultimately the superficial things never fail to disappoint.
I found myself on a picnic one warm sunny day in the local woodlands, high on the hills. I took in a breath of the cool winter breeze as I looked over to the city on the horizon. Looking on a city one sees a vast array of complex arrangements of materials – but in reductive terms they are relatively simple compared with the most complex agents in the city – minds and the diversity of the concepts contained within them. The city I was observing was much grander in stature than the physical organism (me) observing it. But the mind doing the conceiving was soaked in concepts and depths of imagination much more complex that any of the reductive material in the city.
This reminded me of Shakespeare; when Hamlet claimed Denmark to be a prison, Rosencrantz prompted Hamlet to respond with the statement that the whole world must be a prison too. After a brief exchange regarding whether Denmark is the worst prison, Hamlet tells Rosencrantz that it wouldn't seem like cells and dungeons to him because he believes that nothing is really good or bad in itself - it’s only good or bad insofar as what a person thinks about it. This elicited the response that ambition can be too large for a man's mind. And then comes Hamlet's great response, "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams". Then Guildenstern responds wonderfully "Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream". And then Hamlet responds with "A dream itself is but a shadow" - and then we get another wonderful response from Rosencrantz, "Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow."
This is an observation synonymous with revelations of truth and value contained within the power of the concept and the imagination – one can be locked in a tiny space, or on a hill overlooking the city, and still feel like the King of the Universe because of this feeling of transcendence. Physical space does nothing to suppress the imagination to those tenets of thought that lock into truth and value as being indescribable through the lens of pure materialism.
It is a beautiful and profound thing to elicit. The question regarding the extent to which the power of the concept and the imagination are primary is unsolved in science, and perhaps always will be. Despite this intractability, category distinctions between mind and the outside reality it perceives are useful when asking about the extent to which reality and perception are related. When it comes to God we can only interact, and pray and trust and imagine according to our own phenomenal ability – an ability we are told is a gift from God. The perceiving agent is effectively only what one is conscious of, therefore, if there are sophisticated and internally consistent ideas that occur within a state of consciousness, then as far as the first person is concerned those perceptions are reality.
The mind is both rich and enriching. As well as the rich depths of mind, Shakespeare also had plenty to say about love and beauty as a seen force and as a conceived force - often declaring them as rivals for the same territory. In his Sonnet 46 we find him admitting "Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war". But the issue is settled by him in the following way: "As thus: mine eye's due is thine outward part, / And my heart's right, thine inward love of heart." What this conveys is that the eye can behold one's outward beauty, while the heart has claim to one's inner beauty. And who could forget Helena's observation in Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
There is, I think, an important truth here in Shakespeare’s perennial struggle between the seen and the conceived; the visual is part of the secondary qualities, but what lies inside is the real treasure that we should seek. This is often expressed in the well-worn cliché about physical beauty only being skin deep. I doubt even Shakespeare could have imagined how the 21st century age would attached itself so obsessively to a ‘skin deep’ approach, whereby the visual image so often takes precedence over the deeper mind-based conceptual qualities. Most media-driven institutions care little about the mind – they are much more focused on what we can see, and how appearances will impact the general public.
The thing about the visual is that it never stops at what is observed; every facet of beauty, attraction, aesthetics and impression reveals further and deeper excitations that would only be trivialised if left to the superficial. I've found that one of the great undiscovered joys of life comes from removing from one's life the things that retard mental progress. This allows enjoyment of the things there to be enjoyed and happiness and fulfilment from the things that ought to happily fulfil. Those who are obsessed with the transitory image - be it in celebrity, in consumerism, in the skin depth of physical beauty, or something of that kind - only ever get to sample the shadow of a much greater reality. That is why ultimately the superficial things never fail to disappoint, and also why so many people who are in superficially poor states of living can have a relationship with Christ and have life in all its fullness. I suppose this ought to be more obvious than it is – for once we think about it, we know how freely the pleasures of love spring forth even when the superficial things on offer are absent. And we know that when love is at its most powerful the material things really don’t matter all that much.
St Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:19 that God will meet all our needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus. What does that mean? Are we to take it that being a Christian means we will get the riches of good health, have lots of fun, see all the places we want to see, fall in love, become a parent, and other great things? No, there is no guarantee – but that is not what a full life means. It certainly doesn’t mean we will have the attractiveness and allure that so many consumers want these days.
These ‘glorious riches’ we have in Christ are the very riches that are supposed to set us on a mental journey beyond the visual. When it comes to the crunch we are told that mind is primary and that visualised beauty is secondary. I can elaborate with a story that illustrates this. I remember a couple of years ago going to see my dentist for a routine check up. His waiting room is replete with pop culture magazines and there is usually a 10-15 min wait. I sat in the waiting room reading my newly purchased Philip Yancey’s book ‘Where is God When It Hurts?’ and happened to reach a couple of chapters that changed my perspectives on Christ’s glorious riches. The first chapter was about a former pole vaulter called Brian Sternberg and a teenager called Joni Eareckson – both of whom had accidents and were left severely paralysed and in emotional despair. As Philip Yancey recounted his visits and the way that a relationship with God had changed theirs and their families’ lives, I was deeply moved. Not just what being paralysed had brought to their lives, but the closeness they felt with God and the way He had brought together family members in love and support. From wondering how someone confined to a bed and unable to walk could have a full life when they had to rely on others just to turn over to avoid skin sores, I soon saw that a full life is not contingent on good bodily health but good mental health, and good spiritual senses. Despite their devastation I sensed that the people I was reading about had a fulfillment in the world that couldn’t be explained by mere physical well-being.
Out of a strange curiosity I picked up one or two of the pop culture magazines and looked through them. What I found was something that helped illuminate the point – the magazines didn’t contain celebrities who had happiness and fulfillment to accompany their rich lifestyles and illustrious careers, they had found anything but those things. What they had was insecurity, relationship discontentment, drug problems, alcohol addictions, cosmetic surgery that was either too much or had gone wrong. Tens of thousands of people have put aside their education, friendships and serious relationships in trying to attain celebrity status. But ironically many stars freely admit that they wish they were out of the limelight and free to live their lives out of the spotlight (as they did pre-fame). The god of the celebrity limelight is quite ugly and dissatisfying once the after-party cosmetics begin to wear off and the lipstick fades. Chase what is only meant to provide a fleeting pleasure and you will be disappointed. And that is why Brian Sternberg and Joni Eareckson felt blessed in spite of their infirmities – they sought a relationship with the One who will give us life to the full. And just like Hamlet – they realised that the mind is king of universe, and in particular, they saw that this plays out because we have minds that can have a full life in Christ. What they lacked in bodily dexterity they received many times more wonderfully in being close to God. This, I’ve found is a wonderful mental template for having the full life that is promised.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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