Friday 21 June 2013

The Strangeness of the World

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Wonder by Akiane Kramarik

Horatio – O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet – And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Allow me to relate two stories about children that I heard recently.

The first is about the nephews of one of my Jesuit companions who, along with their parents, visited my community a month or so ago. Since they were coming from the States, it turned out to be much cheaper for them to fly into Buffalo than Toronto, so my companion drove across the border to pick them up. On their way to Toronto, they stopped at Fort Niagara, on the American side of the border. My companion said to his nephews, “I hope you brought your bathing suits, because we have to swim to Canada.” His nephews weren’t sure if they had their suits or not. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but it didn’t seem terribly surprising to them: after all, they had never been to Canada before, and for all they knew, the way one got there was by swimming across the river. Of course, it was only when they were told that their uncle was pulling their leg that they saw the joke: before that, it was quite plausible.

The second story is about the little boy of some friends of mine who were living in an apartment building. At one point, they were considering moving to a different apartment in the building and had been invited by the superintendent to have a look at the prospective rooms. The boy’s parents asked him if he wanted to come see the other apartment. He promptly went over to the other side of the room, picked up a potted plant, and then joined them. “What are you doing?”, they asked him. “Helping to move,” he replied. Their son must have thought that they were moving right away. He had no real idea what was involved in moving and thought it was as easy as picking stuff up and carrying it to a new set of rooms in the middle of an afternoon.

Most of us can tell similar stories about children being confused about how the world works. To those of us who know the way that things ordinarily go, the distance between childish imagination and reality is amusing. But it is useful to pause and consider that it reveals something significant about the world: its strangeness. We too, when we were children, were confronted with a strange universe, where many things seemed possible but only some were really so. We had many insights and hunches about nature that turned out to be completely wrong when we encountered the real thing. When you actually go to another country for the first time, or when you first move houses, the reality is never exactly what you expected.

It is important to be reminded from time to time of this fact about the universe we inhabit. What we encounter and come to understand through our experience could be otherwise than it actually is. To know the world, we have to go out discover it. Adults usually forget this and assume that because they are comfortable in the everyday world of common sense, the universe is no longer strange. In fact, such facile comfort eventually leads to stagnation or even decline. Instead of remaining open to the radical possibilities that are present all around us, we often try to fit the world into the mould that we have grown used to. What has always been—or probably more accurately, what we mistakenly think has always been—must continue to be so in every situation, we tell ourselves. But we all know to some extent the dead ends this can lead to.

The scientific revolution of modernity is a compelling example of the power of rediscovering the strange. The deceptively simple realisation of modern thinkers was that we cannot predict a priori exactly how nature behaves: we need to do experiments and make observations to find it out. Gravity isn’t something that you can work out just by sitting in your room and thinking. Eventually, you have to drop balls off a tall building in Pisa and see what happens. Lightning may be caused by the same phenomenon that causes your finger to spark on a doorknob, but you need to fly a kite in a thunderstorm to find out.

There is an obvious link in all of this to the Christian faith. Once you realise how strange the world really is, you can understand how absurd it is to expect that Christianity should be completely predictable or conducive to our habits of thought. Just like the rest of reality, Christianity is strange and needs to be discovered. Like the world, we can come to fruitful understanding of the spiritual realm only through some kind of experience of it—or, as is momentously proclaimed by our religion, when it it is revealed to us by God.

Jesus said that we need to be like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. If we once needed a child’s receptivity to discover the strange world that we already live in, how much more must we now reignite that curiosity, openness and freedom of spirit in order to discover this strange, new kingdom where the first are last and everything we thought we knew is turned upside down?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, Adam. Thank you.

    These are very Chestertonian thoughts, if I may say so.