Was Blind, But Now I See: Deconstruction and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Was Blind, But Now I See: Deconstruction and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave October 27, 2022

Deconstruction is not a new movement. Plato’s allegory of the cave is an ancient story about emerging from the darkness of old beliefs, into the light of new truth.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Man emerging from cave while others remain bound in delusion. Men facing shadows, cast by fire behind them.
Image by 4edges on Wikimedia Commons

 

Plato’s Parable

Once upon a time, said Plato, there was a cave. Inside the cave lived a group of men, held captive in chains. All they had ever known was life in the cave. Bound in foot stocks, they were forced to face the cavern’s rear wall. At their backs there blazed a fire that cast the men’s own shadows on the wall before them. Each man wore blinders so that he could not see the men next to him. As all they could see were the shadows projected on the cave wall before them, they believed these images to be the whole of existence.

One day, one of the men escaped. He made his way past the fire and up the long shaft of the cave. Emerging into the light, his eyes adjusted to the brightness. There he beheld a reality he had never known before. Instead of shifting shadows, he saw a three-dimensional world filled with living beings and colors he had never before imagined. Filled with joy, he embraced this new life.

After a while, he remembered his brothers in the cave. Filled with compassion, he returned and made his way back down the shaft. There he found them, seated as ever, facing the back wall of the cave and watching their own shadows. They complained when he produced a hammer and broke their chains. They called him a liar when he told them that their whole life was a deception. And when he described to them the beauty of the upper world, they picked up the heavy change and strangled him.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth!’

When I first heard Plato’s allegory of the cave, it reminded me of Jack Nicholson saying, “You can’t handle the truth! Then, I thought about Jesus, and the hammer of truth that he used to smash people’s chains. He tried to set them free with his tales about the realm of God. But true light and life were more than people could handle. Preferring their darkness and bonds to the new vision that he offered, Jesus’ community leaders became his enemies. They put him on a cross and slew him. When I first heard Plato’s allegory, I thought he must have the prophetic touch, and that he was literally talking about Jesus.

Later, I understood that Plato simply knew human nature. When confronted with the truth, people prefer to live in darkness. Plato learned this by watching the forced suicide of his teacher, Socrates. Put on trial, the philosopher was found guilty of two charges: impiety against the gods and the corruption of the youth of the state. He was sentenced to drink hemlock and publicly die Socrates paid the price for trying to enlighten others. So, Plato’s allegory of the cave wasn’t a mere invention—it was a parable about his teacher. Now, when I read the story of the cave, it makes me think about deconstruction.

 

Breaking Free from the Chains

Critically evaluating your faith doesn’t usually happen all at once. In Plato’s story, the man had to first notice a flaw in one of his chain links. Maybe he took a rock and began to chip away at the broken piece. Perhaps he twisted and pried until the link came open and his chains fell to the floor. Of course, he still was not free. He still needed to take off his blinders so he could see his situation for what it truly was. He had to look around and see the mechanism of his deception. He needed to notice the flames and the shadows and to see his fellows for the prisoners that they were. He had to find the shaft and make the decision to climb. When he saw the light at the end of the tunnel, he compelled himself to screw up his courage to emerge.

It’s the same with people deconstructing from fundamentalist religion. It starts by noticing a small chink in the chain. For me, one of these weaknesses in the chain was the idea of a God who commits and commands acts of violence. Then there was the doctrine of hell, the ultimate example of a violent and retributive god. There was penal substitutionary atonement, again a depiction of a God who delights in violence. One by one I examined these weak links in my chains. Eventually, I took my hammer and broke myself free.

man emerging from cave
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Climbing to the Surface

Free from theological chains, I was able to look around and see the other mechanisms of my captivity. I saw how religion uses shame and punishment to keep our feet in stock, so we don’t wander away. Guilt and blame shed light on every misdeed. Instead of seeing ourselves as the people of light that we truly are, all we can see are projections of our shadow selves on the wall. But the truth is we are not the sinful shadows that religion says we are. We are full human beings, created to live in the light of the upper world.

When my chains were gone, I climbed to the surface. In the dazzling light, I realized that it wasn’t sin that held me captive. It was religious lies that defined me as nothing but a sinner. The only way I could this truth was in the gleaming light of God’s grace. It took me a while for my eyes to adjust to the brightness and my heart to adjust to the freedom. It took even longer to quit listening to those inner fundamentalist voices telling me I was going to hell if I continue on this path. Pretty soon I realized that the hell I had emerged from was the cave of my own fundamentalist religion.

 

Trying to Free Others

There was no going back—or so I thought. Some things you can’t unsee. There was no way I would return to those beliefs that held me bound. But pretty soon I saw the need to go back to the cave and help set others free. The problem comes when the people in the cave have only ever seen you as a shadow on the wall. Suddenly you stand before them, in all three dimensions. They say it’s like they can’t even recognize you. They tell you that you’ve changed. They stop their ears so they can’t hear you telling them about the light and the world above. And when you try to get them out of their chains and up that shaft, they turn on you and tear you to pieces.

If this has been your experience of deconstruction, then you are in good company. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle understood this. Jesus was crucified because of his deconstruction of first-century Judaism. Copernicus endured trial and censure when he tried to bring others into the light that he had found. Some have claimed that deconstruction is a new trend that is glamorous and sexy. First, it’s not new. It’s as old as the philosophers, prophets, and Jesus. Second, it definitely isn’t sexy. Deconstruction involves mental anguish and spiritual heartache. You lose friends over it. You lose your entire worldview as you learn to see things differently. It’s agonizing, but it’s worth it to emerge into the light.

The trick is learning who to tell about it and how to tell about it, so you share about your new freedom without being slain in the process. Remember that Jesus got crucified for telling his truth, and you don’t have to be crucified. Check out my article here about casting your pearls before swine. Nobody is calling you to be a martyr to the cause of deconstruction. If through your process of liberation, you have gained a deeper faith, it is only incumbent upon you to live out that freedom. If deconstruction has liberated you not just from religious bondage but from all spiritual beliefs as well, it’s not your job to convert others to atheism or agnosticism. Especially if you are still hanging out with cavemen after returning to set them free, it’s not your job to stick your neck out so they strangle you with their chains.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is a paradigm for deconstruction. It tells you how to set yourself free. It points the way out of the cave. It warns about the perils of trying to rescue others from the delusion of fundamentalism. It isn’t a prescription for martyrdom. Instead, it is both a cautionary tale and an invitation to a life of spiritual freedom.

 

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