Going to a movie with Louise is an experience. She absolutely loves movies. But there are some problems. First, there’s the dog. Where does he sit, or lie? Does he prefer his popcorn with or without butter? But mostly there is the constant need for a running commentary. “Why are they laughing?” “It’s just the expression on her face.” “Now he’s getting his gun out.” “She looks as if she’s going to explode.” “They’re all watching the sky.” Louise, if you hadn’t guessed, is blind.
Seeing is absolutely fundamental to the experience of most of us. In the movie, we understand the significance of the raised eyebrow, the glowering red sky, the sign saying “Enter at your own risk”. It is all lost on Louise.
Believing in God has to do with seeing too. I talked to David recently. As we looked out over a lovely winter landscape, he shook his head. “Why can’t everyone see God in that?” “Did you always see God?” I asked. “No”, he replied. “What came first-believing or seeing?” He thought for a minute. “I think I believed a bit, and then I could see a bit, then I believed some more and I could see some more. And now I see it all, all the time.”
The scientist sounds sceptical when believers say that believing comes before seeing. Surely we should only believe what we see? Even scientists don’t always follow that rule. Often advances come because a scientist has a flash of insight into a problem. She believes she has found the answer, rushes to the lab to try it out, and discovers that what she believed actually is the case: it can be seen. Believing first, seeing afterwards. Of course, that kind of believing is itself a kind of seeing, a vision, an in-sight. But not physical seeing: rather, seeing with the eyes of faith.
After a debate once, I began thinking about the man I had debated with. He lives in precisely the same world I inhabit. We walk the same university corridors, are friendly with the same people, eat in the same restaurants and order from the same menu. But all the time, we see things differently. I see God everywhere in my world. I look for God in the lives of the people I meet. I thank God for providing my food. My friend does none of those things. They seem to him bizarre and inappropriate, even neurotic.
To say that people are “spiritually blind” is not an interesting theological theory. It is not the rash overstatement of a zealous evangelist. It is an observable reality. People simply do not see God, where to the believer he is clearly standing and beckoning. They do not believe in him . . . so they cannot see him.
The movie Honey, I shrunk the kids (1989) is not exactly Oscar material. But it says a lot about seeing and believing. Rick Moranis plays the father, an eccentric scientist, who really does shrink his kids, and then by accident sweeps them up and puts them out with the garbage. Before he figures out what has happened, they have begun to make their way painfully, slowly, through the immense jungle of the backyard, to their house.
When realisation dawns, Moranis takes perfectly logical action: he arranges a system whereby he and his wife are suspended from a thing like a rotary clothes line, and scan the ground from a distance of three feet or so with pairs of binoculars, trying to spot their microscopic children. The neighbours decide the scientist and his wife are totally out of their minds. And so by any “normal” standards they are. But to us, the viewers, their actions make perfect sense. We, and they, know that there is a whole world, invisible to full-size people, which needs to be treated with utmost seriousness.
The way believers live is equally eccentric to the agnostic or atheist. Their lifestyle-actions, attitudes, priorities-only makes sense once you understand that they live in the light of a world that is totally invisible to the unaided eye. Then it becomes utterly logical. Believers know something, see something, the unbeliever does not.
But how do you help someone see what they cannot see? In a recent discussion on the existence of God with some philosophy students, I showed them a picture. You may have seen it. Looked at in one way, it is the picture of an old woman’s face. But many people see it as the picture of a young woman’s face. “Who sees a young woman?” I asked. “An old woman? Both?” The class was split three ways. The interesting thing then was to see those who saw both trying to help those who saw only one. The most helpful tool was not a form of reasoning but the index finger: “Look,” they said. “Don’t you see how the old woman’s mouth can be the young woman’s choker?” Philosophy seemed to have gone out of the window. They were learning to see.
Finally, they all got it. But it was hard. Peer pressure certainly helped. “How come all these other people see a young woman and I only see an old woman? Am I stupid or something?” Imaginative effort helped too: “Try to think of the nose on your old woman as a chin”. Sounds strange, but it is the only way. And eventually, for all of them, there came the moment of illumination, the moment when they said, “Aha! Now I see.” They believed that their friends were probably right-that it was not a conspiracy to make fools of them-and eventually their believing led to seeing.
The movie gives another clue. The apparently eccentric couple explain to their sceptical neighbours what has happened-to the neighbours’ children as well as to their own-and little by little the neighbours come to believe that it must be true, because, bizarre though it sounds, it is the only explanation which makes sense of everything that has happened.
So how do people get to see? They have to be convinced that those who say they see are not totally crazy. They have to understand how this new explanation actually makes more sense of things, in spite of its unfamiliarity. They have to be told, little by little, how the world appears once you have this new way of seeing. And, most importantly, they have to want to see, in spite of the cost. Unlike physical blindness, this kind of blindness is to do with choice.
Another word for helping people to see spiritually is evangelism. Living consistently in the light of a world they do not see, so that they begin to feel its reality even before they see it. Talking about the way the world appears to believing eyes. Explaining what we see in the movie called life. Until, sometimes long after, they say, “Now I see for myself what you meant.”
Originally published in Christian Week, 1996