17 December 2017

Captives in a cave

 I’m sure every generation considers itself the wisest, best, most knowledgeable, most scientific, most accomplished the world has ever seen. Yet each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors, building on its achievements, benefiting from its discoveries, learning from its experience. Western thought stands on some very ancient shoulders, for it is said that the philosophical foundations of Western culture were laid by three Greek philosophers who lived four centuries before Christ – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

It is Plato who has drawn a very challenging and suggestive picture of man with his immortal longings. He has a very famous allegory about a cave where prisoners are chained unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave in front of them. Behind them burns a fire and, on a parapet between them and the fire, puppeteers hold up puppets which cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see the puppets, the real objects; they see only their shadows on the wall in front of them.

That is the allegory and it has to do with appearance and reality. The prisoners talk about what they see on the wall before them and to them the figures are real enough. They may discuss their form and their actions and those are real to them, and they can become animated about them, but still they are talking only about shadows of a reality they do not see.

That allegory of the old Greek philosopher fits well with our lives. We have immortal longings. There is an inner hunger which shows itself in a restlessness, a dissatisfaction with much of life as we experience it. We have not yet found reality, but we see shadows on our wall of life, shadows which we believe have a reality we do not yet see; the very longings we have are indications of a reality we have not yet grasped. But then, bearing in mind our eternal origin, it is not possible that anything on earth can satisfy us. If God has created us to find our true joy in the riches of heaven, how could we ever think of being satisfied by the things of earth? At the same time, assuming our high, divine and extraterrestrial origin, we should expect that life here will at times be like the shadows on the cave wall, pointing to a reality beyond our vision which we have yet to experience. Thus, as one writer has put it, ”We live in anticipation, not fulfilment. Experiences which we have on earth are hints of something greater which is yet to come.” Now let us explore that a little further.

BEAUTY Consider beauty. Isn’t our experience of beauty a shadow on the cave wall? We come close to a rose and it delights us with beauty both in form and smell. A mathematician may see beauty in a mathematical formula, a scientist may find it in the discovery of a process, an engineer in a great construction, a sportsman in the execution of a particular piece of athletic skill, an antiquarian in ancient artefacts. Beauty has many forms but, whatever the form, we are still seeing only the shadow on the wall. We feel that there is a perfection to beauty we have not yet seen, a loveliness which is complete and entire of which all our experiences are only a shadow and an expression.

KNOWLEDGE Or consider knowledge. We rejoice at the explosion of knowledge in our day when it has become so detailed that most of us can know in detail only a little part of any broad subject. But while we do rejoice at all we now know, we have a feeling that this knowledge is again only shadows on the cave wall, reflections of a complete reality which lies beyond the cave. We feel that out there beyond the cave it is possible to have entire knowledge, so that nothing is unknown which it is possible for a creature to know. We believe that our knowledge, vast as it seems to us, is only the furthest flowing of a stream that, like the Nile, needs to be traced back to its source in the vast waters of eternity. It is a world that lies outside the cave.

JOY Then consider joy. Is it not the same with our experience of human joy? It is found in many of life’s experiences. The scientist shouts, “Eureka.” The lover says, “I love you.” At times it can be overwhelming, so that the winner of the Open Golf Tournament or the bride at her wedding or the granny at the birth of the first grandchild cannot hold back the tears. Yet our experience of such joy is so temporary, and the joy is so transient. One writer says it’s like the afternoon of Christmas Day. We have the joy only for a little while; it fades away, leaving us with only a memory = and a sense of disappointment. But is that all there is to joy? Are our experiences of joy not hints to lead us to a world beyond our world? Are they not anticipations of a joy that does not fade? Are they not shadows on the cave wall, reflecting a reality we do not yet know?

INNER LONGINGS Then, consider too our own inner longings. We have longings which this world cannot satisfy.

We have longings after immortality. The longing in this regard is that this destructive thing called death should not have the last word over us, that it should not be able to say ‘Time Up’ and end everything. We want to deny it the power to consume us and obliterate us. And it’s widespread too. There are few atheists at death and few mourners either who believe that barren creed. Even if they have lived without God in life, they usually want to feel that the dear departed have gone to some sort of heaven. We have a longing for immortality.

We have also a longing for meaning. Some want to tell us that there is no order, that life came about as the result of chance. They say, “Sure the universe is full of order and of laws which scientists have discovered so that they can explain how the planets and constellations came about and how life is sustained today, but at the beginning,” so they say, “it was pure chance; there was no super brain that put all this process together.” Carl Sagan, the astronomer, opened his television series Cosmos with the statement, “The cosmos is all there ever was or is or ever shall be.” Many, however, find that unsatisfactory, and Sagan himself was not so sure afterwards, for in his later writings he seemed to be moving towards the belief that there must be some mysterious, divine force behind the universe. It seems strange to many that a universe filled with laws and with such order in it should be the result of chance. There has to be meaning behind it all, and so the longing persists and the desire for answers.

So we ask are these longings, for immortality and meaning, not shadows on the wall of the cave, indications of a reality beyond us, of a world where these things are plain and real?

OUTSIDE THE CAVE We come back again to those prisoners in the cave who have never known any other life or anything other than the shadows of the wall. But what if someone were to come to them from outside the cave and describe in their own language what life out there is like, how bright the sun is, how the birds sing, or the smell of a rose? What if that were to happen? Then surely they would be dissatisfied with their captive life and would want to leave the shadows behind and have a taste of the reality of life out there.

THE MAN FROM OUTSIDE That’s where we come to that Man again, the Man who defies explanation as a normal human being. As we said before, apply to the record of his life and death the same principles you would apply to any other historical document, and his story still stands and demands to be taken as seriously as Caesar’s Gallic Wars or Herodotus’ history of the Persian Wars. The nearest document to Caesar’s work is 900 years later, and there are but 10 of them. The nearest copy of Herodotus is 1000 years later, and there are but 8 of them. The nearest document to the NT originals is within a century of them, and there are 5000 of them. This record stands analysis, and if you have an open mind, you must confront this Man, the strange, high quality of His life, the universal and continuing superiority of his teaching over any other before or since, and the claims He made about Himself. He is THE figure of human history, a figure to be reckoned with and one who defies explanation in normal terms.

He claims to be One who comes into our world – into the cave – from out beyond. He said to his opponents, “I am from above.” He speaks of that other, outer world as heaven and says, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” In the profound prologue to the Gospel of John it is said that He was the creative force which brought everything in the universe into being. It tells us that He was in the world from the beginning, but the world did not know Him and then He came into the cave from his world beyond. He, the divine wisdom behind everything, took on the flesh and blood of humanity so that He might confront humanity on its own ground, speaking its own language and living its own life.

He says that He has come to bring reality, that life from the world beyond, to describe in our language what life ‘out there’ is like. He promises satisfaction. He spoke of natural water and said that whoever drinks of it will thirst again, but then came the so startling claim, “Whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst again. Indeed the water I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” That phrase ‘eternal life’ is his way of describing that life from beyond the cave. It defies our vocabulary adequately to describe it and so He uses this term ‘eternal life’ and that defines its origin. It is life from that world beyond the cave.

However, He may come from that world beyond the cave and describe to the captives what life is like out there beyond. But they are captives, chained inside the cave and have no power to release themselves so that they may go out and get a taste of that life beyond. They need someone to break the chains and remove the shackles, to release them and set them free, and this is exactly what this Man promised to do. He said God had sent Him to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind and to release the oppressed. Was there ever a better description of what those captives in the cave need? That is what Jesus offers them.

So we see how Plato’s allegory fits into our lives with our immortal longings, and the solution lies with the Man from outside. He comes to us and offers to set us free and take us into a world where all our longings are satisfied. But at that point He waits. We must make a move to Him since He has come to us. Yet, He encourages us by a promise that under no circumstances will He turn any away. That’s the Gospel! That’s good news, the biggest sensation this sensation-hungry world could ever have. He waits for you and will not turn you away. One whom He set free from captivity wrote a poem about the experience and one of the verses has these lines-

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth and followed Thee.

Sidlow McFarland