Circles

I once heard life compared to a series of three concentric circles. It proves to be a very fitting metaphor. To explain the illustration better I want to start by describing the middle circle. The middle circle represents where we are at right now. It contains all our individual knowledge. It defines our reality because what we know shapes our own personal view of reality. Like a circle, which has no gaps or corners, the circles we construct for ourselves are often more or less complete. It forms a consistent, cohesive way to view the world, a bit like a worldview or schema (even though I dislike the word “worldview”; a topic for another post). If something is not inside our circle we tend to reject it automatically because it is outside our realm of possible, or our reality. In some ways there is nothing wrong with this. If we didn’t have some consistent way to make sense of reality, life would be very confusing. Imagine a life of consistently changing perspectives. It would be a bit like being drunk.


It reminds me of a weird little science fiction book I read last year. Orphans of the Sky by Robert Anson Heinlein tells the story of a spacecraft that has been traveling through space for centuries. The original crew and inhabitants are long dead. In it lives a small society, with their own myths, religion, social conventions, and government. Because of superstitions they actually only live in a small part of the craft without any view outside of it. For the inhabitants of the spacecraft the spacecraft is the limit of their universe, all reality. In classic science fiction fashion one inhabitant explores off limit portions of the craft. He discovers that what everyone believes to be the extent of the universe is really a portion of a spacecraft (no one knew they were on a spacecraft) in motion through vast space. His understanding of reality is shattered. Something like discovering that our universe, with planets, stars and galaxies is really inside of some crude snow-globe in the pocket of a giant alien. When he tries to tell people they don’t believe him. Even when a few see it they disbelieve. Their reality is made of the sum of what they know. Evidence to the contrary is ignored or somehow worked into there old view. Like the people on the spacecraft, our circle can always use some expanding.


It is easy to become very fond of looking at the inner circle, where we used to be. Looking at where we used to be when we were younger and understood less makes us feel good. It’s like looking down a mountain and marveling at how much more you can see up here than down below. The danger is that we will become puffed up with pride at seeing how far we have come. We look at how far we have come and how small other people’s circles are. It can cause us to stop expanding our circle. Little do we know that our circle may be very small in comparison to others.


To prevent pride and stagnation it is helpful to continually look to the outer circle. It represents the limits of what we know we don’t know. Looking outward tends to put life and knowledge into proper perspective. There is an old saying that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Looking outward helps maintain a realistic assessment of our view of reality. It also provides motivation to continue expanding our circle. God did not make us to grow and learn to a certain point and then stop. He made us to continue to grow and learn, probably into eternity. Plateaus and periods of steep growth happen, but we should continually be seeking to expand our circle.


Just one example before I end. One I am familiar with. For middle-schoolers attending my church, the circle of their Christian reality is very small. It includes attending church, youth group, and retreats. They are used to Christianity being presented and practiced in a very specific way. Yet to them it is their entire universe. What they experience is the way to be a Christian. They probably have a vague idea that other churches do stuff differently, but that is the extent of their outer circle. In reality they are a tiny slice of Christianity. Theirs is a non-liturgical, evangelical, North-west American, Baptistic church. It is Protestant as opposed to Roman Catholic or Orthodox. Two-thousand years worth of Christians have lived before them. Their experience of what it means to be a Christian, which feels like the entire Christian universe, is really a tiny segment of Christianity moving through time. In time most of them will have their circle expanded.


When I die I expect that some beliefs I have will be revealed to be outside of God’s truth. I hope more that much of what I believed to be true, even that I thought deep and complex will be shown to be true but overly simple. Even as large as we make our circles, when we come into God’s presence our circles will be shown to be quite small. Learned theologians will discover that their greatest theories are child’s playthings in heaven.

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