I occasionally hear from Christians who wonder if they’re crazy. They’re not, but you’d have to be familiar with Edwin Abbott to discover why.
Edwin Abbott was born in 1838, died in 1926. He was an English schoolmaster and theologian. But he’s best remembered as the author of a little book published in 1884 called Flatland. Narrated by A. Square, Flatland is a fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world. Flatland’s inhabitants can’t even imagine a third dimension.
This makes for a lot of either/or thinking. For example, Flatlanders believe, “Women are deficient in Reason but abundant in Emotion.” Men are the other way around. Today we know from neuroimaging that’s not true. It’s crazy.
Square’s two-dimensional world is disrupted when he’s visited by a three-dimensional being named Sphere. Sphere tries to explain what it’s like in the 3D world. Square doesn’t get it. “There is no such land. The very idea of it is utterly inconceivable.” Sphere stops explaining. He instead pulls Square into the three-dimensional realm. In this world of Solids, Square beholds a three-dimensional version of himself, the Cube.
This opens Square’s eyes to a reality beyond his linear world, to a transcendent universe with spheres and infinite possibilities. He and Sphere begin imagining further dimensions of reality—a fourth, fifth, sixth dimension… and beyond.
Flatland closes with Square returning home. In Flatland, he begins telling his friends about this multi-dimensional reality. Meanwhile, The Council of Flatland has introduced a resolution “enjoining the arrest, imprisonment, or execution of anyone who should pervert the minds of people by delusions, and by professing to have received revelations from another World.” Square is deemed a lunatic. He’s locked in an insane asylum.
Apparently Flatland was a favorite with C.S. Lewis. Lewis referred to Flatlander people in his book, Miracles. They can never imagine God as three Persons “any more than a knowledge of squares would have enabled us to guess at a cube.” Inside their linear world, Flatlanders cannot comprehend the structure of the universe God created.
Lewis also referred to spheres in his book, The Discarded Image. He noted how the Western world discarded the sphere as the central image depicting God and the universe. Descartes’ Cartesian coordinate system, a linear model, replaced it. For many Christians, God became “up there.” The world became “out there.” The idea that God is a sphere and the universe has an almost infinite number of dimensions is utterly inconceivable.
And that’s why I occasionally hear from Christians who wonder if they’re crazy. They feel like outsiders in their church, exiles. They hear linear thinking. The idea that God is a sphere sounds crazy to their friends. The result is that the Christians I hear from—those who recognize exile—wonder whether they are the crazy ones.
They’re not. Our situation is similar to the Babylonian exile of 2,500 years ago. Only the sons of Judah recognized they were exiles. The other Judeans thought they were crazy. One of Judah’s leaders assured the nation that this little trip to Babylon would prove temporary. The nation was not in exile. Turns out he was the crazy one.
A few centuries after the Babylonian exile, the writer of Second Chronicles recapped the history of the kings of Judah, including the Judeans’ exile in Babylon. He invites readers (and, by extension, us) to recognize how often the faith community is living in exile resulting from unfaithfulness. In Jeremiah’s day, only the sons of Judah “got” it. In the writer of Second Chronicles’ day, only the sons of Issachar “understood the times, so they knew what to do” (I Chr.12:32). They weren’t crazy after all.
This is where I spend much of my time, working with a small tribe of believers who sense the Western church is in exile. That’s why the highest compliment I receive is when one of them says, “Thank you for assuring me I’m not crazy.”