Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Memories of Another Place

C.S. Lewis has stated that much of our work in coming to know God is not so much one of learning a thing for the first time, but of remembering what in truth we have always known. (I paraphrase.) One of the criticisms I see leveled at such comments, though, is the idea that because human memory is imperfect, and sometimes our desires are imperfect and lead to further corruption of our memories, that very little in our minds can actually be trusted.

Some go so far as to suggest that nothing except that which is captured in a scientific experiment could be valid and that in essence, all that is not quantifiable data becomes meaningless (perhaps "vanity" would be another term for it, if we take a page out of Ecclesiastes?). Dr. Victor Reppert posts an excellent refutation by C.S. Lewis to that particular point today, on his blog.

I'll be taking on a different angle today than Dr. Reppert's post. What I take issue with is the idea that because our memory is imperfect that EVERY impression it receives is therefore untrustworthy and all of the data has to be thrown out. Yet I believe that very often, even though we don't always correctly make sense of our impressions, we must assume that there is something at the root of those impressions in most cases, excluding, of course, those who have experienced severe self-delusion, or a break with reality.

Now let me start off by saying that anyone who wants to claim that we who are all believers are all that severely self-deluded, or that we have all broken with reality, is leveling a very serious charge against a massive segment of the population--and is essentially claiming that we are all so incompetent (in the literal sense) that we ought not be in with the general population. And a massive self-delusion on
that scale really ought to mean that nothing our society has come up with ought to be trusted, to include even the most basic moral precepts (and I would refer you again to C.S. Lewis for a discussion of the reality of moral law even before discussing God).

Instead, for so many of us to have reached the same conclusion about moral law, about meaning, and for those of us blessed to live in such nations, to hold the faith even in a society where the government cannot compel us to, suggests just as Lewis claimed that we are indeed remembering something essential, something shared--and even if we don't always get it right, our impressions and understandings truly
do converge on something real, something outside of us and that we have all known.

Let me give you an example from my own travels.

Not that long ago, I returned to Little Rock for the first time in about a decade since having lived there for one year. As you can imagine, I was very rusty in finding my way after having been there for such a short time--and at that time not being a very experienced driver and not having very many routes I actually drove for myself--and had what seemed at first like very vague memories. Memories that by all rights shouldn't have been trustworthy.

But odd things started to happen as soon as I started moving from North Little Rock to the western part of the city, mirroring one of the routes I used to drive to go to Barnes and Noble (they didn't have the one on McCain Boulevard back then). There were certain impressions I had of the route, though I couldn't exactly get the picture to form in my mind.

  • A bridge
  • A curve to the right
  • Strong impressions of being surrounded by yellow ochre
  • The color red--and a very specific shade of rust/brick red

I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to see, but I was convinced these fleeting impressions were going to help me somehow to know that my GPS was doing the right thing. I thought perhaps there was a bridge with a red structure and pavement of ochre. As I drove, I found I wasn't quite right about what my impressions meant...the bridge and the curve were right--one of the interchanges from interstate to interstate was indeed a curving flyover bridge that bent to the right. And the pavement of that interstate was indeed that shade of ochre.

But what about the red?

I figured that out very quickly as soon as I started getting closer to my destination--and there was a building sitting there on a hill overlooking the highway, with an incredibly bright shade of rust-red brick.

As I got even closer to my destination, some other rather interesting things started to happen. As the interstate ran out, my GPS started to give directions that made absolutely no sense for where I was going. Unsure of what to do to get to the place I was headed, I picked a lane that felt safe--and as it turned out, it took me right back to that Barnes and Noble I'd gone to all those years ago! Instinct just took over and guided me somewhere familiar even though I had only the haziest impressions of where I was going.

The interesting thing to note is that even though some of my attempts to reconstruct those memories before I actually ran the route weren't quite right, every single one of those clues was meaningful, and led to something

Another memory reasserted itself on the way to Fayetteville, and this one was even more striking to me given that most of the time when the family drove THAT route, I used to sleep in the car, and maybe only paid attention to where we were going half or a third of the time. And I certainly never drove the route myself (it would've been FAR too challenging for me at the time--drivers ought to have to take a special test before they go up 540, given some of the antics I saw this time around!). I had a vague memory that there was a tunnel somewhere on the route, but I had no idea where and had certainly never bothered to pay attention to any of the signs.

Yet after so little experience that should've applied, so few opportunities to form memories, I started getting this sense at one point on the route that I was perhaps only a few miles out from the tunnel. I couldn't explain why--it's pretty hard to tell one hill and one curve from another out there, and there were hardly any exits to remember things by, either. Yet I was convinced
this was the area...

...and there it was as I came around the next curve, exactly according to this instinct that came from somewhere I simply shouldn't have remembered.

I think that our understandings of God can be like that, too. Yes, we are prone to misunderstanding--to misremembering sometimes, and trying to put the pieces together incorrectly.

Yet the pieces
are there within us, and what they point to is real...and when you couple that to the experiences of so, so many fellow Christians who have also traveled down this road and found themselves beginning to feel the same fundamental memories stirring within them (anyone remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind?), it becomes very clear. We may not have the capacity to retain everything we should. We may confuse things. Yet somewhere in there, there is truth. There is a reality it all leads towards, and while our fallibility is grounds to tread very carefully, it ought not deter us from continuing on the path and trusting that the clues will eventually fall together into a shape we recognize, and we'll be able to look back and realize...

Though we saw through a glass darkly, this is how it was all along.

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