Now we see indistinctly … then we will see face to face. My knowledge is imperfect now; then I will know even as I am known. (I Cor. 13:12)
“Compare the effect of education and that lack of it on our nature,” writes Plato, “to an experience like this.”
Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.
Then imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it—statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, some are silent.
The prisoners, though like you and me, cannot see anything besides the shadows on the wall in front of them. They cannot see themselves, bound to their posts, nor can they turn their heads to see each other. They do talk amongst themselves, and they name the shadows they see pass in front of them. The huge cave has an echo, and the prisoners suppose even that the voices of the carriers, whom they cannot see, belong to those shadows passing in front of them. In short, in every way, the prisoners believe that “the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”
Such is our set up. Now suppose something happens. “Consider,” Plato continues,
When one of them is freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up towards the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now—because he is a bit closer to the things that are, and is turned towards things that are more—he sees more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?
And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s being shown?
And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?
…He’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.
Finally, Plato concludes, this released prisoner would be able to see the sun itself, look at the sun in the sky, not via reflection on the moon or in a lake. And then this prisoner would realize that it is the sun that illuminates all such that he can see what there is, and that it is the sun that enables living things to persist.
But what if this released prisoner remembered his original dwelling place, and those he left behind?
If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes—coming suddenly out of the sun like that—be filled with darkness?
And before his eyes had recovered—and the adjustment would not be quick—while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn’t he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? And, as for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they try to kill him? (Plato, Republic VII.514a-517a)
We began our lives of faith in a community that assuredly has justified beliefs about the nature of reality. The images that pass before them are their understanding of scripture and cultural values. But these images are only shadows. And the shadows are of images created and carried before us by others trying to express the transcendent reality they have encountered. And these images, and the shadows they cast, are illuminated only by the fire of their own zeal, by their own passion and love.
Yet the prisoners with whom we were once bound, cannot see outside the context of their shadowy doctrines, outside their own hermeneutic. They define all of reality, all knowledge, all truth, by the patterns and predictability of the shadowy parade before them. They are bound to this, and they have developed whole systems of interpretation, whole approaches towards understanding the patterns in the parade. And if a pattern is interrupted, if an anomaly occurs in the display, they argue long and hard about what such a thing portends. They seek transcendence; they seek meaning in the shadows, but much of what there is wholly escapes them because of their inability to look beyond the shadows.
We who are gay Christians were compelled to stand up, rub our eyes, and turn around to face the veil. We were compelled to by our own desperate need to know the truth, to understand something beyond the predictable patterns, since nothing in those patterns resembled us. And when we turned around, our painful quest began.
Somehow, even though it pained us, we had to see what it was that made us different, and we stumbled towards the fire, eventually finding that the shadows were eerily like these things passing before the blaze. We returned to primary texts, reading what the early Christians wrote, attempting to return to their intended meanings, attempting to flee the calcification of shadow doctrine, of “churching.” And when we saw their writings for what they were, we looked beyond them into the fire that illuminates the texts. And we knew love in such a way that we had to press on to find the source of that love. We got a whiff of transcendence, of love that overreaches doctrine and points to something beyond our own hermeneutic.
It was our desperate need for more that drove us up to the entrance. We were conflicted, wishing we could go back, pretend all this didn’t happen, and settle down to a nondescript or even somewhat successful life predicting shadow parades, to become known as doctrinal interpreters, or even to use the shadow hermeneutic to encourage others to see better. But it did happen—we couldn’t deny that all of this was bigger than we are, and we were compelled to continue in our quest—to whatever end.
Stumbling up the rocky path, we often cut and bruised our feet, unaccustomed as they were to such a quest after years of shadow predicting. And then we fell into the blinding daylight of the Son. But we couldn’t even yet look upon him, for this love was still too much for us, so we focused on the reality illuminated by this love, on the truths that the images were still inadequate to fully communicate to us yet we could now see directly. And we realized that everything is so much more, so much bigger, so much more multifaceted than the words of the early Christians could attest, though they did all they could with the feeble tools of language and culture. And eventually, we gazed upon Christ, upon love incarnate.
Return to the cave we must. We have so many whom we love that remain there, staring at shadows instead of looking through them to see the images, and then looking through the images to see truth. They are missing the love and zeal that motivated the images, which itself is only fed by the love of Christ, in whom all things hold together.
And when we return, Is it any wonder that we are scorned? Is it any wonder we are considered apostate? We don’t care about shadows any longer, for we have seen the Son. We tell them the shadows are but shadows, and we challenge everything they have ever believed they knew. Like we once were, they are overwhelmed, and blind to that which is so close to the fires of love.
Okay, so it’s not quite like that. For one, I’ve not yet gazed upon the face of Christ, straight into the light without any use of reflective materials. But I’ve seen a chunk of reality that no shadow can capture. And I’ve found that the images are an incomplete set, that some things out there just cannot be replicated in the finite and faulty materials of language.
But I know what it’s like to begin that journey out of the cave, and I’m pretty sure a lot of you do, too.
Why do we, then, endure the attacks of those who don’t want to change their doctrines? Because we seek the truth, and we have experienced a taste of reality and divine love that it pains us to know our loved ones haven’t grasped. Why then do we endure the attacks of these, our beloved fundamentalist friends, or of those narrow-minded hate-harboring people in our lives that we love even through the pain? Because we know that they only see shadows, and that they are bound by their ignorance, that if somehow they could find that inner compelling force, they too would stand up, rub their eyes, and begin a quest for love and truth.
For love is no love that is not shared willingly and unconditionally. And we now love with the love with which we have been loved.