Perception and History

[This essay developed from a conversation in seminary during a class in which we explored Jesus and the Gospels. I don’t recall the exact point made in the class, but we were pondering a reference to Leo Tolstoy and the day he witnessed a man being guillotined. The discussion sparked some debate about the reality and effects of historical events and became an interesting lens for me to explore what makes events/history real and/or meaningful. How we understand the nature and point of history goes a long way toward determining how we understand the Jesus we find in the gospels. This is not my most concise or well developed set of thoughts on the topic and my thoughts have certainly evolved some over the years since I wrote this, but it gives a glimpse into the background of how I’ve developed my view of the ‘happened-ness’ of story, history, and writing.]

How do we understand our perceptual differences if we both witness the guillotining of a person and disagree about the results? I might see that happen and have (what most would define as) a mental breakdown. I could still believe I am conversing with that person and may not be able to discern any difference in my life or his death. I might even steal the body to fill in the gaps and make it more real. You might, on the other hand, accept his death and do (what most people would define as) the appropriate thing. You might have a funeral, pay respects, and move on in light of the fact that he is no longer with you.

The clear difference between the two (at least what I think almost any modern person would say) is that my mind has created hallucinations that exist only in my mind, whereas your actions are a reflection of the effect that something which is real outside your mind has had on you (and something others would experience as well). The fact that there are similarities between what you’ve experienced and what others have is proof enough for me that there is a reality to the world that exists outside any particular person’s mind, which is influenced but not controlled by that person (I’m thinking about MacIntyre’s insistence that we come onto a stage that is not of our making and we all play some partial roles in others’ dramas as well as our own – the world is not simply what we make of it internally but there are many co-authors to what happens). But once I begin to question what it is about the thing which is outside the mind that makes it possible for me to say that one of us is right and the other wrong, things get fuzzy.

The reason I don’t think you can ignore science, in the broadest sense, is that to begin a definition I think you have to say something that at least vaguely resembles empirical observation. What thing outside my body causes the specific section of my sensory perceptions to which I refer as the man (dead or alive)? Even setting aside my case of delusion above, is there a sufficient overlap in everyone’s perception such that everyone has to agree on certain things? I don’t see how to measure that overlap apart from noting at least basic things like “he has two arms and legs” or “his voice is lower than mine.” And to prove that what is overlapping is real by virtue of what the man is rather than by something that we all just so happen to perceive in the same manner would require us to identify the real thing that constitutes his arms and legs or the air that is vibrated by his voice. In other words, we must speak of how it is appropriate to experience certain bundles of real things. By appropriate, I don’t mean to make a moral judgment (like is it appropriate to kiss a corpse) but a judgment of in what sense my experiences and yours are actually of the same ‘thing’ – what is the thing which exists outside both of our minds and is affective on our minds.

If by a ‘thing’ we simply mean that everyone has seen that which I would define as a two armed man with a deep voice, then we haven’t said anything necessary about the thing that warranted my definition. I may just be delusional or wrong. Qualities like ‘old’ or ‘skinny’ are clearly based upon the relative age and size of the man, but do bring us closer because to call them relative is still predicated upon the ability to reference a real thing that is being related to another real thing in a particular way. The only way I can think to describe that ‘thing’ in terms that should be acceptable to all would be to speak of the building blocks of that thing and how they are arranged so as to cause my perception of them (irrespective of what my actual perception is or how my perception matches up with anyone else’s). The most ‘neutral’ way to speak of something like weight is to say that he is 60 kilograms (for instance). But then you pull in the need to define what the blocks are that constitute what ‘he’ is that has that mass. To say what the boundaries of his ‘body’ are you must say things like arms, legs, head, etc. But until you can neatly define the boundaries between one constituent part of the body that is outside your mind and the world outside that body, you still have not given a real referent distinct from that which you perceive to be his body and that to which all persons must be referring to speak of the same thing they also perceive (though perhaps in different ways).

To attain a precise result, I suspect you have to get down to some level of atomic forces and the constitution of atoms; of what makes one force constitutive of making two things united and what other forces define the inner workings of another ‘thing.’ When you get down to this level, you begin to push the envelope of what scientist believe we can and can’t say about what is actually present, but you do not arrive at any definable boundary to which you can point to say ‘this is undeniably part of one thing and not the other.’ If in fact there is a real boundary between the things that exist at the most basic of levels and which constitute the things we believe to be real and distinct entities, those boundaries are so imperceptible and strange as to be distinct from anything we actually experience in the world (such is the case for the many ‘dimensions’ necessary in string theory or the idea that matter has no location until measured in quantum mechanics). Assuming for a moment that something like those theories is correct, my ability to precisely know what I mean when I say that I perceive a man is reduced to a long and complex set of equations that mathematically define where the ‘building blocks’ (if it is even still fair to use the term) of me are in relation to the ‘building blocks’ of the man. Anything beyond that is in some way my interpretation of how that which is really outside of me is related to other ‘thats’ and to whatever it is that constitutes me.

This may seem like unwarranted skepticism and speculation, but I think this way of understanding what is going on in the world is important because it seems that to do ‘critical history’ people often dig just deep enough into an explanation of what ‘really’ happened in order to show that what is recorded about history is an interpretation. The historian then proceeds from whatever part of the foundation they have arrived at and constructs a different (even if internally consistent) history without the recognition that their method for critiquing an ‘interpretation’ of what ‘really’ happened could extend all the way down until all that is left is mathematical equations showing what ‘blocks’ were ‘where’ and that ‘they’ ‘moved.’ If what ‘happens’ is math, history is only representable in equation form – equations which show things happening that are nothing like what I perceive.

Of course, this is all still assuming there is something going on in the reality outside of our minds that can be coherently represented through math. What it would mean if there were nothing coherent is way beyond what I can even try to conceive of. I think we simply have to assume there is something rational and contingent about the world in order to make sense out of the fact that there is something outside of our minds.

If what is more real about the thing outside my mind has no resemblance to the way in which I perceive that thing, then can there be any meaning to my attempts at describing that thing? To get at ‘what really happens/happened’ how can I avoid simply writing down a bunch of equations and walking away? Perhaps that which is real is not best understood as and represented by some complex math equation, but by a particular perception of it. The shape of our perception of that which is outside our minds but affective on our minds is the means through which we can relate to the world and one another – it’s what the conscious mind is and does. It may be the case that math is the most accurate or consistent way to represent the world outside our minds, but that representation in and of itself yields no intelligible information about the world apart from the assurance that the world really is there, it really affects us, and we influence but do not control it. In the broadest terms, I think people tend to take this type of thought process in a more ‘eastern’ mindset and deny that the world is fundamentally real or more ‘western’ and put blinders on to the fact that our common perceptions so greatly diverge from the results of our most challenging experiments. The former would say all that exists is perception. The latter would say all that is real is obscured by perception.

However, I think it is more accurate to ascribe the constancy and mystery of the world to the fact that I am a part of a reality that is not of my making, but with which I have been placed in relationship. If this is the case, I can choose whether or not to dig down into the particularities of ‘in what sense the world runs by laws’ and seek to define it by those laws (while never arriving at a final answer that is fully outside of but accessible to my mind) or I can accept that the power to remove all mystery from the relationship between myself and the world does not reside in my mind; I can rely upon the way my perception has been shaped as the best way to relate to the world and accept that my perception of that world (of what happened, happens, and will happen) can only get better by means of something that is outside my mind but affective upon my mind. It is the shaping of my perception wherein grace renders the lens of faith in such a way that what I perceive and what is actually outside of my mind correspond. God’s good creation is that which is outside our minds (and constitutive of our minds) but by the effects of sin we cannot perceive it properly except by the renewing of our minds through the power of God effected in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and perfected in us when we are raised in glory.

If all of that is in fact the case, then it would seem all we can know that everyone would know by observing the guillotine is that there is a real world outside the mind that has some effect upon the mind.

Perhaps the historical study of sayings more readily illustrates what I mean. We often ask, for instance, what Jesus actually said. To move towards an answer we look to criteria such as the types of sayings most likely remembered, the similarities with language patterns, and what types of things fit into the program we believe him to be working out. Without considering whether or not these are valid criteria for getting back to his ‘actual’ words or worrying about the problems inherent in applying those criteria, I suspect that at some level we mean to determine the actual shape of the sounds that came from the mouth of Jesus, the actual syllable combinations he uttered. Even ignoring all problems with translation from Aramaic to Greek or the differences between Judaism pre and post Hellenization, I would still question the possibility of arriving at an objectively meaningful conclusion through the quest.

Within such a quest, we hope to gain knowledge of something like the frequency and rate at which the air was vibrated by the voice box of Jesus Christ such that the inner ear of his hearers was affected in a particular way. We know that people can hear things and take them to mean many different things; being misunderstood is a risk taken by any and every person who uses words (or any form of language for that matter). Instead of trusting accounts of what Jesus said, we want to know exactly how his voice vibrated the air (exactly what was the reality of his voice before it was perceived and thus shaped or affected by another mind) so that we can then compile a list of those syllables/words/sentences and decipher his actual teaching. Ignoring the potential differences between seeing the shape of ink on a page that would be necessary for sharing Jesus’ words with future generations compared to having your ear tickled by the actual and specific air waves Jesus affected, the precise vibrations of the air formed by Jesus would not affect me in precisely the same way as they would you. The whole range of presuppositions and baggage that we each bring to the table would necessarily shape the meaning we draw from whatever Jesus ‘actually’ said. Is it, then, more important to know the shape of the air vibrations coming from the mouth of Jesus or to have a mind shaped in such a way that whatever sounds you hear reveal the voice of the Lord? Is it more important to know what the ‘historical Jesus’ said, or to hear what the living God reveals through the telling and retelling of Jesus’ story?

I don’t mean to say that there was no Jesus on Earth or that he didn’t say things; nor do I mean that it is unimportant what he did say. I mean that placing the burden on what Jesus said becomes an incoherent project when we attempt to separate out what was said from what those words (and actions) effected in the world. And again, it’s not that what Christ effected in the world is the exact same thing as what he said, but that both become incoherent when separated from each other. The sayings are shaped as ‘prophecy historicized’ precisely because that is the only way to speak of what Jesus ‘actually’ said; it’s the only way to connect the vibrations of the air with the Word of the Lord; the only way to speak the Word that God chose to reveal through the human voice and language by scripture and in the power of the Spirit.

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