Flatlanders

Michael Metzger

Download SkyView® Lite and discover how far we’ve drifted from the gospel.

A few weeks back, Sage (one of our nine grandchildren) was playing on SkyView Lite (it’s an app on my phone). As she pointed it down, toward the floor, Saturn appeared. A quizzical look came over Sage’s face. Huh? How can Saturn, which is always up there, also be down there?

Try explaining spheres to a five-year-old. Sage has seen planets. But at her tender age, she imagines the world is flat and the planets are up there, in space. Sage is a Flatlander.

Flatlander comes from a book, Flatland, published in 1884. It’s the story of Square. He imagines the world is flat. Everything is up or down or sideways. But Square’s life is upended when he meets Sphere. Sphere tries to explain that the universe is a sphere. Huh? Square is like Sage.

So Sphere pulls Square (keeping these names straight?) out of the universe. Square looks back into this universe that he thought he knew so well. He didn’t. It’s a series of spheres.

Most Christians in the Western world are Flatlanders. We hear this in saying God is “up there” (i.e. straight up) The kingdom of Heaven is “up there.” If so, God is “down there” for the Chinese (on the other side of the planet). Same with the kingdom of Heaven. Down there. That’s nuts.

Which is exactly what The Council of Flatland deems Square to be. Square tells friends in Flatland the universe is spherical. Square is deemed a lunatic. He’s locked in an insane asylum.

C. S. Lewis referred to Flatlanders in his book, Miracles. But he explained how we became Flatlanders in his scholarly book, The Discarded Image. Lewis said the Western world discarded the ancient view of the universe as a series of spheres, or heavens. The ancients held that the first heaven is the atmosphere surrounding your body. God is often most intensely here. The West discarded this for a linear universe. God became “up there,” far away, not so much here.

Dallas Willard recognized this. He wrote that the gospel is the availability of the kingdom of the heavens. Plural. Heavens. Enlightenment thinkers discarded this, with the result that “the ‘Western’ segment of the church today lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship and the gospel.”[i] If you doubt we’re living in this bubble, open your Bible.

Jesus announces the gospel as: “The kingdom of the heavens has come near” (Mt.4:17). That’s what he said—the heavens—plural. Your Bible reads: Heaven—singular. Jesus taught us to pray: “Our Father who is in the heavens” (Mt.6:9). That’s what he said—the heavens—plural. Your Bible reads: Heaven. Translation often includes an element of interpretation, and here we see the Enlightenment’s interpretative influence. We’ve drifted very far from the gospel.

Huh? If a quizzical look came over your face when you read that last line, I’ve got good news. Lewis wrote fantasy literature in tandem with his academic books. The Ransom Trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia parallel The Discarded Image. The trilogy’s first book? Out Of The Silent Planet.

In Out Of The Silent Planet, a man named Ransom is kidnapped, put on a spaceship, and taken to Mars. Looking back, he sees we dwell in a universe of spheres (what the Bible calls “the heavens and the earth”). So does Maleldil (i.e. God). Ransom sees God “is in every place. Not some of Him in one place and some in another.” In the Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy makes the same discovery. God fills every place. As Aslan gets larger, every place gets larger—which is why Tumnus the fawn tells Lucy, “The further up and further in you go, the bigger everything gets.”

And so, beginning next week, we’re going further up and further in. Not “up” as only “straight up.” But up as Ransom experienced it—out into the heavens. This is where, looking back at the earth, he saw how the “older thinkers had been wiser” in naming space as “simply the heavens—the heavens which declare the glory of God.”

Space. That’s where we’ll pick up next week. In the meantime, download SkyView Lite. It might help you see how far we’ve drifted from the gospel.

Be sure to check out the latest Clapham podcast: https://claphaminstitute.podbean.com/

 

[i] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 214.

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4 thoughts on “Flatlanders”

  1. Really appreciate this. I picked up Flatland in December – it was referenced in “Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream”, by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M Kapic. One of the newer books from Chalmers Center. They have a whole chapter “Escaping Flatland”, springboarding from Carl F. Ellis, Jr’s recounting of the story.
    “We have been immersed in the stories of Western Naturalism and Evangelical Gnosticism for so long that we are like Flatlanders, having lost the ability to conceive of a world in which the spiritual is really real Monday and Saturday…spending 0.6 percent of our lives acknowledging God’s existence on Sunday mornings is simply not enough to overcome the 99.4 percent of our lives that are deeply shaped by the narratives, systems, and formative practices of naturalism.”
    They also reference an illustration from James KA Smith that Western Christians are indoor baseball fans…the dome has closed, and our focus is so intense on the field so that we don’t even pay attention to the fact that the roof has closed. Anyways, keep writing! Great stuff to continue to chew on and discuss with others.

  2. Mike Metzger

    Aaron:

    Glad you noted the lack of a deep sense of the spiritual in Western evangelical traditions. I think there’s a connection between this paucity and the rise of religious Nones.

    By definition, Nones are “spiritual but not religious.” By definition, Western evangelicalism is a religion that’s not spiritual.

    I don’t mean to offend (nor do you), but as John Adam noted, “Facts are stubborn things.” This is a stubborn fact that Western evangelical traditions would be wise to face.

  3. Pingback: The Right Metaphor - Clapham Institute

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