This is an excerpt from my book The Romance of Religion
In one of his science fiction books, C.S.Lewis portrays an angelic being who moves through a solid brick wall, and when the hero asks if this ethereal being is real he is challenged about the nature of reality. The angel passed through the brick wall, but what if it was the brick wall that passed through the angel? Lewis points out that this is all a matter of one’s perspective and perception. If you saw a man step through an opaque bank of fog, and you did not know that the fog was actually a wall of mist you might think that the man was a ghost or a spirit. He had, after all, according to your perception, stepped through what seemed to be a solid wall. Of course you would have it the wrong way around. The man stepped through the wall of fog not because he was insubstantial, but because the fog was.
It has become clear that when I have been talking about fairyland and going to other worlds that I have been referring to our intercourse with the spiritual realm. To use the word ‘spiritual realm’ is in itself misleading because by ‘spiritual’ most people mean ‘ethereal’, and by ethereal they mean made up of ‘ether’ and ether is a gas, so what people usually mean is that when you speak of the ‘ethereal’ you are simply gassing. In other words, you are full of hot air.
By ‘spiritual’ they also think of angels, who they conceive either as a kind of fairy godmother or as plump, pink bottomed cherubs or effeminate handsome youths with wings. Or when they think of spiritual beings they think of ghosts–wispy illusions of smoke and shadows that disappear as soon as you say, “Boo!” When all is said and done, ‘spiritual’ for most people means gaseous, ephemeral, non physical and therefore unreal, or at least less real than all that which is substantial and physical.
However, this is exactly the opposite of what I think of when I hear the word ‘spiritual’. I think the spiritual beings, like the man stepping through the fog, are more real than what we consider substantial and physical–not less real, and that the things we consider solid and physical and ‘real’ are actually rather slippery and ephemeral, impermanent and insubstantial. Happily, modern physics seems to be coming around to the conclusions that ancient religion arrived at thousands of years ago.
In all sorts of ways we are learning that what we thought was solid and real is insubstantial, and what we thought was ‘spiritual’, ethereal and unreal is actually the most reliable form of reality. Modern physics is now more like metaphysics because the modern physicist has shown us that what we thought was solid matter is not so solid after all. It is a tissue of energy and invisible particles bound together no one knows how. Furthermore, our perception of this tissue of the so-called “physical realm” has been shown to be no more than a series of chemical and electrical reactions in our brain. Nevertheless, our perception of reality is very convincing, and it is easy to believe that it is the only form of reality. It is not hard to imagine how one might believe a convincing illusion to be the only reality there is.
If you go to the movie theater you see something which seems very real. You hear the hero laugh and you see the villain sneer. The illusion is so powerful that it can make you gasp with fear, howl with laughter and weep with poignant grief. For a few hours you are transported to a world of adventure, and the darkness of the theater allows the illusion to seem totally and utterly real. But then the credits roll, the lights come up and you remember that it was all a temporary world created with the amazing alchemy of modern technology. In fact the whole wonderful world was nothing but a magical mixture of music and machinery, lenses and light, and when it is reduced further you realize that it was all a concoction of digital images and digital sound and even these things were no more than electronic impulses chugging through a very smart machine. The illusion of the cinema is therefore one complex illusion piled on top of many others.
Now imagine for a moment, that a person was born in the movie theater and never went outside the movie theater. Ever. He would, of course, perceive the cinematic illusion as the real world. If you went into that cinema and turned on the lights and said, “You know, all that you have seen here is merely a picture of the real world.” He would not believe you, indeed, the more you insisted and the more you cajoled and the more you tried to explain the ‘real’ world outside, the more he would find your fairy tale a ridiculous fabrication. Indeed he would find it not only ridiculous but dangerous.
Let us imagine that you said to the movie man, “The real world is like that world, but the people are not big flat images up on a screen, they are smaller, but although they are smaller they are not less important. In fact they are three dimensional. They are real, and because they are real, the images you have been looking at are only worth something in their relationship to the real people outside.”
He would say, “What is ‘three dimensional?” You would reply. “You can walk around them. You can touch them. They are not flat. They are round.” He would say, “What is ‘round?” And if you said, “You can eat the food. Some of it tastes good. The root beer and the roast beef are delicious. Some of it tastes bad. The red beets are bitter and the broccoli tastes bad. ” He would say, “What is taste?” And when you stopped frowning in frustration and said, “But you can smell things there. The roses you see smell beautifully sweet and the wet dogs smell like sweaty socks.” He would reply, “What is smell?”
Because he had spent all his life looking at movies he would not have the mental equipment to even begin to conceive of taste and touch and smell and what ‘three dimensional’ means. Locked in the cinema his whole life, he would laugh at such things. He would scorn you if you tried to convince him that another world existed, which was like the world you saw, but was not less real, but more real. He would consider you to be a dreamer, a fool and a dangerous lunatic. Furthermore, if he lived in the cinema with a whole little tribe of like minded cinema people, he would feel secure that he and his fellow movie people were right and you were wrong.
So it is with the materialist. He is trapped in his little one dimensional movie house with his materialist friends and cannot see any further.
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