In past posts such as last December’s “The Theodicy of Narnia“, I’ve called attention to some of the unintentionally revealing comments that famous theists have made about their own belief systems. C.S. Lewis, for example, wrote whole books to defend the thesis that God’s existence is compatible with pain and suffering, but when it came to creating his own fictional world, he took pains to point out that its history was overwhelmingly blissful and peaceful so as not to cast doubt on the goodness of Aslan.
I intend to continue highlighting gaffes like this, and with today’s post, I’m going straight to the top. Of all the people who played some part in the creation and spread of Christianity, the single most influential is Paul of Tarsus. He wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, and therefore he is principally responsible for Christianity taking the form it has ultimately taken. And one of his letters contains a very revealing statement about his beliefs and about faith in general. Due to the beautiful language of the King James translation, it is a famous quote, and yet its implications seem to have been widely overlooked – until now.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
—1 Corinthians 13:12
This chapter is about the world’s transformation at the end of time, when miracles and prophecies will cease but faith, hope and love will remain. Although we currently see only a dimmed and darkened view of the world, Paul says, there will come a time when we will finally perceive all things as they truly are.
To that statement, I have this to say in reply: Of course Paul’s vision was dimmed and uncertain. After all, he was looking at the world through a dark veil of faith.
What faith is, after all, is a barrier placed before the free and inquiring mind. It is a declaration that there are some ideas one will hold exempt from questioning, no matter how much the rest of the world must be distorted to fit with them. Instead of embracing the hard-fought, hard-won understanding of the cosmos that we have labored to build up over centuries of patient investigation, faith is a declaration that one will reject all this and instead cling to the archaic cosmologies and pious guesses of a far earlier time.
Paul did not have the benefits of the scientific enlightenment, of course. But he still insisted on populating his vision with endless hordes of devils and angels, layered heavens, fiery hells, suffering saviors, tripartite gods, and other phantasmal and bizarre visions that fairly crowded out the real world. Like the sun occluded by clouds, this fog of mysticism kept him from learning even the little that was then known about how the world truly works. Recognizing his own lamentable ignorance and tightly limited intellectual horizon, he erroneously concluded that his faith would someday free him from it. In fact, it was his faith that was the problem all along.
Paul of Tarsus himself is long gone, but his words survive and have led countless millions to follow a similar course, wandering through life with a head in the clouds. How many more benighted souls are there who recognize that their knowledge of the world is poor, that their ability to predict and control it is even poorer, but believe in faith that one day all will be made clear? What they do not realize is that it is faith itself, eclipsing reason and blocking out enlightenment, that causes them to see the world dimly, as if in a darkened mirror.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Beyond the gray clouds of mysticism, there is a brilliant sun shining out. Those who walk in the clouded vision of faith are unaware that all around them is a beautiful, glorious world, byzantine in its complexity, rich in its diversity, capable of inspiring more awe and wonder than even the most wildly imaginative fantasies of humans. We stand on the shores of galaxies, we map the countless branches of the tree of life and find our own small leaf among them; we write down the harmonies and symmetries that govern the cosmos on a piece of paper. Compared to the vast sweep of natural history, all the pantheons of the past seem like pale shadows. Who needs the small mythologies of a bygone age when we have the entire universe to study and explore?
We need not wait for a hypothetical apocalypse to see and know the world as it truly is. Some people may strive in vain to seek knowledge in the wavering reflections of a darkened mirror, but if only they would look behind that mirror, they would find that the world is there and has always been there, and it can be known right now. As atheists, it should be our task to show them what they have been missing out on. We can and should teach them to shatter that dark glass and reach through into the light.