For centuries, the church depicted God and the universe as a sphere. Descartes discarded the sphere. So what?

Most folks are unfamiliar with what C.S. Lewis called “the discarded image.” It’s a sphere depicting the Triune God who is love. The universe is also a sphere. The Triune God created a spherical universe to express his love.

Medieval art depicts the universe as a sphere with a series of three spheres, or heavens, expanding from the center out. God dwells in the heavens yet transcends the universe. In The Discarded Image, Lewis writes that, at the center of the universe, we see love. Love governs the universe.

The Apostle Paul discovered this. Caught up to the third heaven (I Cor.12:2), he discovered the center of the universe is love (I Cor.13). At the core of our being, we are designed to “marry” God’s Son (II Cor.12).

René Descartes discarded all this.

We associate Descartes with the Enlightenment. I think, therefore I am. I can figure things out. We can figure some things out, but Descartes went too far.

“Figuring” is a math term (i.e., do the figures). Descartes reduced the universe to mathematics, introducing a linear method of measurement called the Cartesian coordinate system. It’s helpful in science, engineering, navigation, economics, and so on. But not for transcendence.

In Descartes’ system, I stand on the Earth and peer outward into an infinitely expanding firmament of stars and planets ruled by the laws of math and science. Thus, at the center of the universe, Lewis wrote that we see “unalterable law.” Law, not love, governs the universe. Life is about figuring things out (doing the math) more than being married to Jesus.

This is the death of transcendence. But it was the advent of the Western world becoming left-brain. That’s right. Over time, Descartes’ bias for “figuring out” led to a large bias overall for the left hemisphere.

Neuroimaging tells us why. We pay attention to the world in two different ways.[1] In the right hemisphere, experiences first become “present” to us. This is largely passive, as we never know what’s coming next. In the left hemisphere, experiences are “re-presented” in an attempt to “figure them out.” This is mostly active. Neither hemisphere is superior, but as Iain McGilchrist writes, “It is the task of the right hemisphere to carry the left beyond, to something new, something ‘Other’ than itself.” The right hemisphere keeps us in touch with transcendence. The left doesn’t.

Our bias for the left hemisphere means we teach truth with little transcendence. We see this in how we describe doctrine. Justification by faith. Substitutionary atonement. All true, but this is the language of the law, not love. It’s truth that hardly evokes a sense of transcendence.

Religious “nones” sense this. Many long for transcendence. They feel it in cathedrals, where the architecture draws you upward to Eternity. But older traditions often lack zeal. Contemporary traditions, on the other hand, have zeal but rarely evoke a sense of transcendence. The architecture, language, and worship typically draw everything downward to the stage.

That’s why many Americans are leaving the church. Social scientists report that 76 percent of those described as religious nones or “religiously unaffiliated” have a church background. Close to 40 percent of millennials fit this profile.[2] They were taught truth but experienced little transcendence. Fifty-nine percent of millennials who grew up in the church have dropped out at some point.[3] Roughly 80 percent of teens in evangelical church youth groups will abandon the faith after two years in college.[4]

Lewis attributed this to a discarded image, a sphere. He predicted the abolition of what it means to be human. Life would be based in law, not love, truth with little transcendence. Education would become technological (STEM). These are helpful disciplines, but they bias the left hemisphere.

And they miss the big picture. The universe is not infinitely expanding. Only God is infinite. He transcends the universe yet is at the center. God is a sphere, as is the universe he created. We’ve forgotten this, which is why Iain McGilchirst (a religious none) writes, “Western Christianity has been active in undermining itself.” We’re undermining a sense of transcendence.

Lewis felt the medieval world was last to remember the sphere. Medieval thought assigned supernatural beings—ghosts and ghouls and goblins—to a “place of residence between air and Earth.” They evoke a “welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory.” The Cartesian system is a little too self-explanatory. Halloween is a good way to discard it, offering a “welcome hint of wildness.”

We’ll look at that next week.

 

[1] c.f., Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010)

[2] “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Pew Research Center, October 9, 2012, pewforum/org/2012/10/09nones-on-the-rise

[3] “Americans Divided on Importance of Church,” Barna Research Group, March 24, 2014.

[4] Drew Dyck, “The Leavers; Young Doubters Exit the Church,” Christianity Today, November 19, 2010.

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3 Responses to “Too Little Transcedence”

  1. Dave T says:

    I love everything you’re saying here and I realize “René Descartes discarded all this” is a snapshot of history but “following the money” made by middle-men in an increasingly complex economy empowered Protestant rejection of Roman hegemony that increasingly exposed its failures to humanness in community. Sure, riches can make one left-hemisphered but if we marry that to your concerns for right-hemisphered humanness, relationships & community, when Roman churches fell down on the community job, individuals that cared for community fueled protestantism. I guess you don’t see successes and failures in being caring communities as being bigger than left or right hemisphered orientation. IMO, the abolition of man is really the abolition of family & community. But I will try to read you with an open mind.

  2. Mike Metzger says:

    Dave: I appreciate you being open-minded.

    I’m not reducing solutions to being right-brained, nor do I believe riches can make people left-brained, nor do I believe a left- and right- bias is the main issue. These are indicators of a deeper issue, a false view of human nature. A full-orbed view would include a full-brain, or what some call ambidextrous organizations.

  3. Dan McWilliams says:

    During a Sunday morning worship at my church, the power went out. So the congregation went to the parking lot to join a spontaneous worship time led by a leader with a guitar. We experienced transcendence that morning in ways that I rarely experience inside the building.

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