The Kingdom of Heaven
by John Bryan | 11 May 2018 |
How would you explain color to a man who’s never seen before? With what words would you describe the sounds of music to someone who is deaf?
Pingelap is a small circular island in the Pacific, an atoll, forming part of the country of Micronesia. A portion of its residents live with a most intriguing and peculiar neurological condition: they are born without cone receptors, those microscopic photoreceptors in your eyes that enable you to see color—a condition called achromatopsia. Their vision is analogous to a black and white television screen: darker colors are seen as dark grey while lighter colors are seen as light grey. The circumstances of this condition extend beyond color: cones are responsible for seeing in daylight, but at night they are ineffective and hand the job over to the rods. Without cones to see in the daytime, the light sensitive rods take over, so squinting and wearing heavy dark sunglasses are a regular consequence for the people of (Sacks, 1998).
There is a world hidden from the eyes of the people of Pingelap—one that, perhaps, even their imaginations cannot fully comprehend: for no memory of color has ever hued their thoughts, no shade of tint has ever dyed their imagination.
Are we any different? The universe is all there is, and every species living in it experiences only a portion of it. The world we experience is one written by our senses, and our senses reveal only a portion of it. We remain ignorant of things hidden beyond our sensory experience. The German biologist Jakob von Uexküll called the partial world in which a species lives the umwelt (1957).
When light hits our retinas, a whole phototranductive cascade begins, culminating in a nerve impulse to the brain (Klein, 2015). Our eyes are organs specialized for the perception of light as it is reflected or emitted by our environment. This light is an immense ocean all around us, and yet we do not see most of it—our eyes are incapable of seeing it. The only portion of the spectrum our eyes perceive is that which is aptly called visible light—but that is only a miniscule 0.0035% slice of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. It is as if we could only see the ripples on the seashore, but not the tsunami approaching in the distance. We are by all accounts, blind inside our umwelt.
It is hard to imagine that there are colors beyond red, and colors preceding violet. Honeybees, however, can see light in the ultraviolet frequencies as it bounces off flowers that would otherwise appear white to any of us (Carlson, 2013). Snakes, on the other hand, can sense the slightly larger waves of infrared radiation through pits on their heads. To a bat, the world is a vivid chaos of sounds and echoes; but to the blind, deaf, and nose-less worm, the world must be a vast nothingness, wholly unlike anything we have experienced. To the bacterium living in the microscopic world, even normal physical phenomena collapse; it is a world in which flagella, instead of propellers, are used for propulsion. Like a child swinging their arms in a pool of plastic balls, only the whip-like motion of cilia and flagella will function because the viscosity of blood is too great for the dynamics of a miniature rotor (Gould, 1980).
The optic array is a word psychologists use to describe what our eyes see; the spatial pattern of brightness and color (Yantis, 2014). At any given moment there are a limited number of things displayed onto our retinas. Some things are hidden behind other objects; others are outside our 190° horizontal field of view. On top of this, all of the optic array must be filtered through our perceptual system. Our brains are actively and intensely interpreting the world we gaze upon—a process we can appreciate in the presence of optical illusions. Such illusions eloquently remind us of the limits of our perceptual abilities, but also beautifully remind us of the world hidden beyond our perceptions. Our eyes are not the end of reality.
An Indian story tells of a small group of blind men, in the midst of a heated discussion. A strange new animal called an elephant has been brought to their village. Having never seen one before, the blind men debate and argue over what each has heard, and what each imagines it must be like. Tired of their philosophical inquiries, they eventually seek to investigate the claims by finding the elephant. However, having only their hands for observation, each one touches only a part. The one who touches the leg is convinced the elephant is like a tree. The one who touches the tusk says the animal is like a spear. The one who touched the trunk thinks an elephant is like a large snake. Each one sees only in part, and therefore understands in part, forming an incomplete picture of the animal. A person capable of seeing the animal in its entirety is needed to communicate to the blind men the entirety of the animal, which lies outside of their experience.
In relation to Heavenly things, the experience of these men, as well as that of the people of Pingelap, is similar to our own. Consider these words from Francis Thompson’s poem, The Kingdom of God, which have resonated with many Christians for the last two centuries:
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!”
The umwelt of our existence, the portion of the world we are immersed in, is a small fraction of what is out there; not only in earthly but in heavenly matters as well. Heaven is filled with things that man has never before laid eyes upon. It is an unveiling of that which our senses have not yet experienced. Like Elisha’s servant, our eyes are sightless to the thousand chariots that cover the hills like a blanket. Strangely enough, since dreams are a reflection of that which we have experienced during our waking hours, perhaps it is true that we cannot even imagine what Heaven is like—because our best attempts to envision it will always be stained with the familiarity of earth. As it is written, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him” (KJV, 1 Corinthians 2:9)
The words of God through the words of men—this is how God has chosen to teach we the blind what it is like to see. Sometimes, the best way to reach out to a group of people is to send others who belong to that group of people; and the best way to teach them what they cannot understand, is to compare it to the things they can. One must reach people through people. In the simplicity of natural beauty, God has made known heavenly truths. The invisible glory of God was made manifest in the visible form of Jesus; the intangible divinity, into the graspable humanity. Inapprehensible truths, explained in comprehensible parables: “Natural things were the medium for the spiritual; the things of nature and the life-experience of His hearers were connected with the truths of the written word. Leading thus from the natural to the spiritual kingdom, Christ’s parables are links in the chain of truth that unites man with God, and earth with heaven” (Ellen White, COL, p. 17).
Christ stands not only as the mediator between man and God, but also as the interpreter. He translates heaven for us. In this world we gather only hints of truth, producing only vague models which map unto reality. In this world we only get a glimpse of love, but not love in its purest and most complete form. We grasp love by its tusks, seeing only its passion but not its intimacy; or we touch love at its feet, seeing its intimacy but not its commitment. In Christ we understand God, we understand love, we understand truth. In Him we see Scripture, we see atonement, we see salvation. For man is content in his own world and seldom considers the universe beyond.
Umgebung is the word Jakob von Uexküll used to describe the “everything-ness” that is out there (Eagleman, 2012). There is a world all around us that we do not and cannot know. And yet, we do know; for we have inklings that there is something outside our mental grasp—a universe which we only perceive in part. For we now see through a glass, darkly; but then we shall see face to face. Now we know in part, but then we shall know fully, even as we are known.
The Bible is the word of a Man who in the midst of our achromatopsia, began to teach us: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”
Carlson, N. R. (2013). Physiology of Behavior. Boston: Pearson.
Eagleman, D. (2012). The umwelt. In J. Brockman, This Will Make You Smarter (pp. 143-145). New York: Harper Perenial. Retrieved from http://www.eagleman.com/blog/umwelt.
Gould, S. J. (1980). The Panda’s Thumb. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
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Sacks, O. (1998). The Island of the Colorblind. New York: Vintage eBooks.
Schiller, C. H. (1957). Intrinsic Behavior. Connecticut: International University Press.
Shepard, R. N. (1990). Mind sights. New York: W. H. Freeman.
Uexküll, J. V. (1957). A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture of invisible worlds. In C. H. Schiller, UEXKÜLL (pp. 5-80). Connecticut: International University Press.
White, E. G. (1941). Christ’s Object lessons. USA: Review and Herald Publishing Association.
Yantis, S. (2014). Sensation and Perception. New York: Worth Publishers.