Updated: Aug 7, 2022
There are many who would say that Christianity itself is a denial of reality. To them I would ask, “How are you doing?” Does your life have meaning, value and significance, does your description of reality take into account all the facts and or are you alone in a universe of fragmented things. Christianity has had a bad press, for much of this Christians are to blame; but it has also had an ignorant press and the non-Christian’s understanding of it may well be woefully incomplete.
We arrive in the world naked and dependent. We are covered, fed, watered, cleaned, and cared for by other people within the context of either love or hate or something in-between. Our social and emotional needs, as legitimate as the need for air and food, are met by others. We are a source of joy, or frustration. We are the objects of care or rejection, of being drawn in or pushed away. Their care shapes our world and our experience of their failures and successes teaches us what the world is like. None of this has anything to do with us except that we exist and we can do nothing to change it. We are powerless to change the reality. We are small and defenceless. It would be nice to think about what would happen in a perfect world, but we all know there are no perfect parents. This is not a judgment—the reasons for ineffective parenting are as many and various as are the ways we fail. It is merely recognition of what is. When this process fails we learn to cope by retreating into self-made realities, sometimes of cynicism, romanticism or some other safe place to shelter from the storm. We idealise our caregivers and demand they meet our needs. We keep demanding this of them long after they have gone.
Jacob said[i] “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.” God is the centre and source of all reality. The Christian knows that a time is coming when we will meet God, a time when the hungers of our hearts will be met. We live in the tension of these times and times to come. But for now, while always in his presence, I am not always aware of his presence. My mind is encumbered by the thoughts and spirit of the age. This is strongly materialistic, occasionally beautiful, and sometimes very cruel. This earth, this life, is the place where we start to learn how to worship in spirit and truth. Our experience of reality from childhood on can be painful, yet we live it in the presence of God. This is a real tension.
We learn early on that life is dangerous. Like Adam and Eve we find trees to hide behind, virtual realities which shelter, in which we are satisfied, and through which we attempt to understand and find meaning in the world. The result is successful for a time, and, for some, that time may be the whole of life. For others, reality is the wall we crash into when our illusions turn out to be just that. When, through age or infirmity, we are no longer able to expend the energy necessary to maintain our illusions or until events crash in on us with such overwhelming force that we are unable to resist them.
There is an objective reality, outside of us, although we perceive it subjectively. We cannot always be sure what it is. We use our imagination and reason to understand it. These judgements are based on our experience, our inherited values and our needs.
The context for these ideas is Central and Eastern Europe; this is the area in which they were observed and documented. However; these issues address us all as human beings created for freedom and relationship, but frustrated in the process of daily life in a broken world. In Central Europe people found ways of dealing with life under the pressure of overwhelming authoritarianism, an excess of external control. Some choose resistance, some choose jokes. Many learned that change is not possible, thus inadvertently accepting the inevitability of Marx’s ideas on the historical process. Time has proved him wrong but a legacy remains: patterns of behaviour, loss of trust, cynicism, romanticism and longing. When, in 1989, the crowds rattled their keys for freedom, they exchanged one set of locks, for another, albeit more comfortable. God calls us to a life that will eventually abandon keys altogether, not now and not yet, but step by step and then completely.
This earth is the place where we meet God, the ultimate giver of meaning, the source and sustainer of life, the “absolute intimate” who invites us to a relationship of intimacy through trust. The One who says, “Let there be no other “gods” between us[ii],” an invitation to draw close to the “consuming fire”[iii]. This closeness may be accepted on his terms alone and in his ways because he dwells in truth, we cannot approach him in any other way.
What do we mean by “reality”?
Reality is the “what is” of existence. It includes the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown. It is there if we know it or not, it is there if it is understood or not, we are part of it. It includes how we live in it and our experience of and reaction to it. We should not think of this in some vague or philosophical terms. This is the stuff of everyday life. It is the sum of all that is and our daily lives are one part of it.
Reality is not defined by belief. My believing something does not make it true, however much I want it to be true. This does not mean that faith in something that is not true does not change the way I experience reality; belief is powerful even when it is wrong. But, eventually, the content of that belief will be exposed for what it is. Ultimately, reality does not bend its borders for us, although we have a great deal of freedom within those boarders to mould its parts in many ways.
Facts plus meaning
Reality is the “what is”, it is the sum of the data and the meaning. Hans Rookmaaker, the Dutch art historian, said, “Reality is facts plus meaning.” We live in the world of facts and how we understand and organise them, the value we put on them gives us meaning. So H20 can be water but it is also the waterfall and the rain, it is my wife watering the flowers. We add meaning through our experience and interaction and through our relationships.
Existence, Experience and Expression
It does not take a mathematician to realise that the sum of existence is larger than my experience of it, but we often live as if this were true. Reality is larger than my experience of it.; our experience of reality is partial, it is understood by us from our perspective, it is subjective. It is not the sum complete. It is real; it is ours and it is genuine. When I attempt to communicate my experience to someone else, I try to give it words. There is the danger that I may be misunderstood or that I myself might have misunderstood. Not having all the data, misjudging the motives, seeing only one side of the whole. As I attempt my description, I interpret and add my meaning and responsibility to the facts. My description is also based on my beliefs about the nature of all of reality. It remains my interpretation and does not necessarily reflect the whole. We do not always have enough access to the totality of the real to make complete judgements. Our description of the whole of reality is based on a mental model of the world which comes through our experience and understanding of the way we have discovered things to be.
These are four different things. We often make mistakes of perception or logic in several significant areas which, if held to dogmatically, hinder change. One mistake is when we do not see these as four separate categories. We get our experience out of perspective; making it a larger or smaller part of the whole than it really is. Another mistake happens when we think our experience is the same as our description and do not allow for the possibility that there may be more reality out there than we know. My experience is not the sum of all experiences possible. Your experience may be different than mine. My experience may be negative and painful; that does not exclude the possibility that not all experiences of the same sort are negative. My experience of my teacher might include shame. Not all experiences of all teachers include shame.
Reality as a brick wall
Finally, there are givens in life to which all of us must submit. We are only free within the form that we have been given. To submit to authority is to submit to the author; the one who sets the boundaries. Thus, however creative the architect wants to be, at the end of the day his building must stand upright and to do this it must obey certain laws of reality. It is easy to be fooled at this point. Of course it is not possible for man to walk on the moon, but men have walked on the moon. The known limits are not necessarily the real limits—but that there are limits is obvious to every sane person.
Reality reflects its sources
What I believe about reality only helps me if my belief is true. The author has the freedom to set what ever limits he chooses. If there is no author behind this story, if it is a vast continuum of random moments, then its meaning will be as transient as we are. If there is a source and sustainer behind existence then reality should reflect the mind that “wrote the book”. Our understanding of that mind will influence how we interpret the world around us and our experience of it. One can only say that the best way to understand the “real” behind our reality is to see if there is an explanation anywhere that best describes the facts as humans as a whole have experienced them, but that is a discussion beyond the bounds of this paper.
Deception and reality
The common lie is evil because it is an illegitimate attempt to twist the shape of reality. The lie is used to knowingly bend a description of reality to the benefit of the liar. There maybe many short-term reasons for this, but the habitual and persistent liar is basically saying that reality can be shaped for my convenience and for my desires and fears.
Self deception and the amazing ability of the human heart.
That I can deceive you will come as no great surprise to either of us; that I can deceive myself should amaze us both. This is important: We often mistake the yearning of our own hearts and set about meeting our longings in ways that are unhelpful. We reach for entertainment when we are lonely instead of intimacy, for the bottle when we are afraid instead of encouragement. Because these things satisfy us and give us a similar experience to the one we are after, we return to them and take our comfort there so often that they become habits and addictions.
Human beings are damaged to differing degrees and in different ways, but it is no shame to admit that we are all damaged. It is an illusion beyond credibility that humankind is good. The humanist that teaches us this is a cruel or ignorant idealist. Only the fool says that all is well in the world all the time. It is true that not everything is as bad as it could be, nor equally bad for everyone. Have you every heard a politician say, “I have nothing to offer you that would make things better”? Have you ever seen an advertisement that promised that it could not make life better for you? Things are not as they should be—and this is commonly recognized in the daily experience of all of us.
We hide from reality hat we might find painful or dangerous. We learn to suppress truth that might expose within us truth that we do not want to see.
Reality is God-centred
Christians understand reality to be centred around the God who is both Infinite and personal, who is three and yet one at the same time, who is source and sustainer of life. This personal and infinite God is the author who sets the limits of what it means to be human.
Reality as revealed truth
There is a great deal we do not know about God or about vast tracks of life. Einstein once said, ”I know one billionth of one billionth of all there is to know.”[v] I suspect that he was exaggerating. There are some scientists who, having fallen in love with their speculations, have put their trust in their knowledge. Science is a great subject and tells us a great deal about how things are but we would be foolish to trust science for things that science has no authority to tell us. They are free to do this but they must also live with the consequences.
What we do know about God is known because God has revealed it. This idea, so often scorned in our day, is very familiar to us. It is how we live every day of our lives. We are self-revealing agents. We have the ability to withhold information about ourselves, about what we think and how we feel, about what we have done, and we are free to reveal what we know. There are very good reasons why we are slow to do this. And we are wise to be slow. We know from experience that people cannot be trusted, that information can be misused. Just as God is selective in what he says, we must also be selective in what we say. There is no room for idealism, people cannot be trusted.
Reality of the fall
Christians teach that God made human beings in his image, that our interaction reflects his being in some ways. Of course not in every way for that would be to make us God. We are not infinite but we are personal, we are moral, we are able to decide and our decisions have meaning, we are responsible and free, we are creative, have feelings and are moved with joy and fears. The Bible says that there was a time when these attributes of humanness worked properly, that is, they were in correct relationship with each other, in correct proportion and perspective, in the right tension; also in right relationship to other people, to other parts of his creation, and to God himself.
Things did not stay this way. When the first humans tried to live outside the borders of reality set by God, the relationship died. With that relationship broken all hope of keeping things in perspective and proportion was lost. Small things became large and large, small. Appropriately angry reactions became explosions out of all proportion. Acts of love became cravings as the good was twisted by this deformity. With the foundations gone the house began to crumble until what is left is a shadow of what was. So we have our freedoms and our will and our creativity and all the other beautiful forms of humanness in the image, but they are a broken house and one is never quite sure if the plaster will stay on the walls or if it might fall off and be a source of pain. One is never quite sure if the house is haunted by the ghosts of its former occupant or if there really is someone there hiding beneath the shadows.
We do a valiant job of keeping up appearances, but we know winter is coming as we hear the rusted door hinge groan in the wind.
Dignity and depravity
We are made in the image of the perfect creator and we are a ruined house, a broken mirror, an untamed wave that threatens the ship. There is dignity in each of us and there is depravity. There is not part of us that is fully functional. And so our relationships are broken and our feelings rage against us. We are deeply ashamed as we respond inappropriately to each other. We are guilty of grandstanding and of cover up. There is gossip at the city gate. There is judgement of the other for things I have done myself. There is hatred, greed jealousy, there is a terrorist in every one of us—but there is also dignity. The park, the picnic, a young man helps an old lady across the street. Grand institutions of learning, great explorations and discovery, the Christmas table and the joys of family… but beneath the surface we all know depravity waits like a wolf behind the door. There is no really safe place. It is all merely a matter of degrees, a question of time. It is not a matter of dividing the good from the bad because the good and the bad are the same thing; a little too fast, a little too slow and the one becomes the other. Insults are praise. The heart is twisted, the mind is bent, the spirit is alone and wounded.
“If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
What do we mean by living in the real?
Realism contains proper understandings of both Man’s dignity and depravity. Reality must include God, Heaven, the Kingdom. Moments of profound contact with reality draw us further towards it.
Ambiguity: living with doubt and uncertainty
The ability to ask questions and to know the proper place of doubt are important in a world where everything is not known and where we are not given any certainty. The mature person recognises this and is hesitant about making judgements, without being paralyzed by indecision. I am not sure; I expect I am partially right. I believe it is OK to make a mistake but I must learn to improve. The mature person is able to see the difference between saying, “I will not operate on the brain until I am reasonably sure the surgery will be go as intended,” and, “I am not sure of the recipe but I will try to bake that cake anyway.” We are limited in every area of life; there are boundaries that we have to acknowledge. Everyone lives by faith but this is a reasonable faith, not the faith of absolute unknowing. The mature person knows when to take risks, learns how to evaluate between real reporting and propaganda.
To expect a life without ambiguity is to idealise and to be afraid of risk. This is as true in relationships as it is anywhere else. Learning to manage risk is a part of growing up.
Always expecting the best or worst is a sign that something is not right.
Demanding absolute certainty, or even forcing reality to appear as if it is absolutely certain, is an illusion and a sign that someone has not accepted the terrible reality that human beings are both free and fallen. Free within the limits of our form and fallen from the high place we were born to and separated from the source of life that binds the form