I first heard about Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel, Flatland, when Sheldon made reference to it in Big Bang Theory, and I have loved it ever since as an illustration to explain theology. It is the story of a square who lives in a two-dimensional world, who has an encounter with a sphere from a three dimensional world that radically transforms his understanding of his world. I quote here from its opening chapter (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Flatland_(first_edition)/This_World) :
“I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.
Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard and with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said “my universe”: but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.
In such a country, you will perceive at once that it is impossible that there should be anything of what you call a “solid” kind; but I dare say you will suppose that we could at least distinguish by sight the Triangles Squares and other figures moving about as I have described them. On the contrary, we could see nothing of the kind, not at least so as to distinguish one figure from another. Nothing was visible, nor could be visible, to us, except straight Lines; and the necessity of this I will speedily demonstrate.
Place a penny on the middle of one of your tables in Space; and leaning over it, look down upon it. It will appear a circle.
But now, drawing back to the edge of the table, gradually lower your eye (thus bringing yourself more and more into the condition of the inhabitants of Flatland), and you will find the penny becoming more and more oval to your view; and at last when you have placed your eye exactly on the edge of the table (so that you are, as it were, actually a Flatland citizen) the penny will then have ceased to appear oval at all, and will have become, so far as you can see, a straight line.
The same thing would happen if you were to treat in the same way a Triangle, or Square, or any other figure cut out of pasteboard. As soon
as you look at it with your eye on the edge of the table, you will find that it ceases to appear to you a figure, and that it becomes in appearance a straight line. Take for example an equilateral Triangle—who represents with us a Tradesman of the respectable class. Fig. I represents the Tradesman as you would see him while you were bending over him from above; figs. 2 and 3 represent the Tradesman, as you would see him if your eye were close to the level, or all but on the level of the table; and (3) if your eye were quite on the level of the table (and that is how we see him in Flatland) you would see nothing but a straight line.
When I was in Spaceland I heard that your sailors have very similar experiences while they traverse your seas and discern some distant island or coast lying on the horizon. The far-off land may have bays, forelands, angles in and out to any number and extent; yet at a distance you see none of these (unless indeed your sun shines bright upon them revealing the projections and retirements by means of light and shade), nothing but a grey unbroken line upon the water.
Well, that is just what we see when one of our triangular or other acquaintances comes towards us in Flatland. As there is neither sun with us, nor any light of such a kind as to make shadows, we have none of the helps to the sight that you have in Spaceland. If our friend comes close to us we see his line becomes larger; if he leaves us it becomes smaller: but still he looks like a straight line; be he a Triangle, Square, Pentagon, Hexagon, Circle, what you will—a straight Line he looks and nothing else.”
If you begin with the assumption that a Creator God, who existed before time and space came into being, would by definition be unbound by these dimensional constraints, which confine and give shape to the perspectives and experiences of beings within these created dimensions, you will see just how wonderfully Flatland frames our theological endeavours.
We are, in Flatland terms, the triangles and hexagons and squares, who see the world as a series of lines and corners, whose movements are experienced in terms of variations in size. And that is the only way it is ever possible for us to conceive of the universe, unless – and this is the only way it would be possible – some external force allowed us to move into Spaceland. We could only ever experience the revelation of that external force through the lenses of our own dimensional constraints though; we who are two-dimensional in nature would be incapable of even conceptualising, let alone actually perceiving a three-dimensional reality. If we did experience the intrusion of a three-dimensional being into our two-dimensional world, we would only be capable of seeing it in two-dimensional terms.
And right there, you have everything you need to know about theology. Outside of revelation – God choosing to intrude into our world – we are utterly incapable of knowing a God unbound by our dimensional constraints. I do not believe that we could, through philosophy or logic, through our observations of nature and our experiences, ever come to an understanding of the divine, simply because God cannot be comprehended within the realities that frame our thoughts and experiences: they are too limited and we are incapable of moving beyond them. And even if that God did decide to enter our world, we could only ever experience Hen on our terms, and thus incompletely. We would only ever see lines and angles and not the glorious fullness of form. Our theologies, in other words, are always incomplete.
In a very gracious response to my last post, in which I argued that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is fundamentally damaging to out conceptualisations of God, an anonymous reader challenged me with the following idea: “all that you yourself know about Jesus, is probably based on what you have gleaned from the error-ridden bible…”
As an aside, I love being challenged. As I noted in my response to this reader, who seemed almost apologetic for disagreeing, debating theology is a good thing. Because we all come from limited perspectives, trying to understand something infinitely larger than ourselves, we can only ever benefit from disagreement; it allows us to grow our understanding. And even if we never agree, the discussion in and of itself has the potential to bring us to a point of greater love and understanding in our relationship, which is a far greater reward than intellectual consensus. So if you happen to disagree with my positions, know that I do not have a monopoly on truth (only very strong opinions) – we are all seekers, after all, not possessors of truth – and you should feel free to disagree with me. But I digress.
The reader’s point was that if the Bible is not inerrant, and essentially the only way I can have any knowledge of Jesus is through the Bible, how can I trust Jesus at all? It’s a common argument against my position, but I believe that the argument makes the mistake of seeing the issue dualistically: it assumes that either the text is perfect and I can trust it or it is not and I should not. But those are not the only options. Just because a thing is imperfect, it does not mean it lacks value. The reader is quite right in that when I read about Jesus in the Bible, I am always aware that I am not accessing Jesus: I am accessing somebody’s deliberate representation of Jesus to a very particular audience. Certainly, those writers’ depictions of Jesus are highly subjective and distorted by the writer’s contexts, expectations, and purposes in producing the texts. But that is true of any human representation of an external reality that they believe holds transcendental value. It is absolutely true of religious texts, just as it is of scientific ones. It is true of advertising, of Facebook posts, of academic research, of personal anecdotes: we always narrate them in the ways we believe will best make them connect.
As one of my Facebook friends, Jacob Wright, recently put it: “The very nature of language is shifty, evolving, and uncertain. Moreso when it attempts to describe metaphysical realities. And moreso when it is translated to a culture 2,000 years removed from its original setting. The insistency of biblical inerrancy has created an idol out of the Bible. We can no longer conceive of a living God unless he is bound to the cultural presuppositions that we project upon a black and white text that was translated from a culture 2,000 years ago. We have locked God into certain human language and he is not allowed to get out.”
Sometimes the representations of Jesus in the Bible are questionable, I have no doubt. But all of these cautions do nothing to diminish the fact that behind all of the carefully constructed narratives, behind the distorting veils of language and culture, there stands a Jesus figure, a revelation that I will only ever engage with incompletely, just as the gospel writers did, but with which I can attempt to engage nonetheless. Somewhere behind the gospel narratives is the figure who inspired thousands of people to find hope in the midst of the violent oppression of Roman rule. Somewhere there is the figure who, even if they told his story in imperfect and partisan ways, convinced innumerable people from various cultures and genders and races to relate in more loving and just ways. And that, for me, is worth the effort of trying to sift through the very human embellishments of the narrative. Especially when there is the glimmer of a chance that this narrative is about revelation – about the intrusion of an unimaginably splendid three-dimensional into my two dimensional world, bringing the promise that in ways I cannot begin to comprehend, there is hope for the restoration of this world.
The other reason I love Flatland as an analogy is that it suggests that we are not what we think we are either: there is a beauty and symmetry to humanity that we simply cannot see, but which is obvious from a three-dimensional perspective. We are more than lines and angles; we have form and colour, uniqueness, beauty. By stepping into our world, God opens up to us the possibility of different ways of seeing not only Henself, but one another too, of – in the words of Paul – a transformation of the mind, and consequently to different ways of being and relating (how we understand ourselves invariably affects how we relate). By intruding into our world, God unveils the limitations of our ways of seeing and being that were invisible to us before. What we did not question before because it seemed natural and normal, suddenly seems inadequate and even repulsive. Revelation shows us what we are, and more, what we could be. Revelation assures us that we do not have to accept the world as we perceive it; it challenges the legitimacy of the narrow and myopic ways we tell the story of God and ourselves. And yes, the Bible and even the gospels are flawed narratives, as indeed all texts are imperfect. Human perception is inescapably fractured. But that does not mean there is no promise there. And it is a promise I will never know is I continue to cling to a doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture, which binds me to my two dimensions, just as I will never know that promise if I discard the Scriptures simply because they are tainted by human weakness.
I am a Flatlander, as are you. Truth be told, Flatland loses its allure when you stay there long enough. It promises so much but delivers so little. Its history is one of violence and exploitation in the name of progress and liberty and modernisation. It deludes us into believing that we are individuals rather than interdividuals, each Flatlander spending hens life chasing personal dreams, trapped on the terrible treadmill of productivity and efficiency, always living for a tomorrow that never comes. And then someone tells me a story of a Jesus, who reveals dimensions I never dreamt possible, who shows me that what seemed good and right and normal – my insular world with its arbitrary categorisations of people into acceptable and unacceptable groups – is a lie. We are not what we thought we were; we are so much more. I see hope now where before I found no meaning. And where before, my dreams were but of advancing and (mostly) receding lines, now I dream in the boundlessness of Space.