Near the end of the novel Anna Karenina, a wealthy farmer named Constantin Levin lies on his back in country fields, looking up at the dome of the cloudless sky, he says to himself:
“Don’t I know that there is infinite space above me, and that it is not a round arch? But, however I strain my sight, I only see it round and bounded, and in spite of my knowing about infinite space, I am incontestably right when I see a solid blue dome, and more right than when I strain my eyes to see beyond it.”
Like Levin, we know many things about the universe which we can’t see with our eyes, things perceived through microscopes or telescopes. And through this knowledge we have come to the realisation that earth is just a small rock hurling through infinite space, and all life on earth is just a bit of scum clinging to that rock. But even though we know this rationally, we still experience life as if underneath a vast, beautiful blue dome.
The correlated gospel of the Mormon church is also like a dome surrounding us. It gives boundaries and explanations for our earthly existence. It is simple enough for a child to understand. Within this dome all is well with the world. Yes, there is evil, but we know that it will be vanquished in the end. Some questions unanswered, but we know God will make all things right and eventually bring all things to our understanding.
Outside the gospel dome is a swarming chaos of contradictions and questions. Scientists and philosophers have been trying to make sense of this chaos for thousands of years with little success. The more scientists discover, the further away they are from finding meaning and order in the universe. Socrates proved prophetic when he said “the more you know, the less you know.” Today scientists tell us that visible, tangible matter encompasses only 5% of all the matter in the universe. The rest is called dark matter and energy: “dark” because no one has ever seen it and no one knows anything about it. Truly, we know much less about the universe today than Newton did, or rather we know much less than we thought we knew.
A Type and Shadow of a Larger Dome
The gospel dome is a type and shadow of a larger dome, the dome of God’s entire universe in its fulness. If our gospel dome is like a snow globe of NYC then God’s dome is like the real NYC. Our snow globe gives us a birds eye view of the fulness and perfection of the universe, a universe so vast we could never comprehend it. Yet to God, it is simple, as simple as the snow globe is to us. Scientists and philosophers are like fishermen that go out into the dark, infinite sea of God’s larger dome and bring back a few random and exotic facts, facts which contradict what we thought we knew in our smaller gospel dome. While we understand New York from the snow globe of NYC, someone might bring back a bit of rubbish from the real streets and tell us: “You don’t know anything about New York. You think it is a beautiful place of shimmering skyscrapers, but we have been to its streets and seen it strewn with trash.”
Inside our gospel dome we are taught that God is a loving father who sent us to earth to become like Him, to be fathers and mothers of children clustered in happy marriages. But discoveries about homosexuality threaten to burst the bubble of our gospel understanding. Other random facts from the infinite void contradict things inside our gospel dome, making life inside the dome seem increasingly absurd.
But any worldview we might espouse, any dome of understanding we might inhabit, is in constant peril from contradictions from the outside. The moment we decide the universe must be a certain way, something will come along to contradict that view. This is not the fault of our dome. No paradigm can ever be a true reflection of universal realities, because universal realities are too vast and complicated to be contained in any paradigm. The best we can ever do is have a limited model which gives us a rough outline. We should never criticise any worldview for having contradictions and absurdities. It is the nature of things that all worldviews will have contradictions and absurdities. What is important about any paradigm is not its lack of contradiction, but rather the strength of its underlying principles. In the gospel, those principles are: God is good, life has a purpose, faith and obedience to divine authority produce good fruits. The details of the paradigm are not as important as these underlying principles.
The Parable of the Cooking Raspberries
Back in Anna Karenina, the farmer Constantin Levin gives us a further parable relating to the gospel dome and intellectual efforts to crack it open with contradictions:
Levin remembered a scene he had lately witnessed between Dolly and her children. The children, left to themselves, had begun cooking raspberries over the candles and squirting milk into each other’s mouths with a syringe. Their mother, catching them at these pranks, began reminding them that if they smashed the cups they would have nothing to drink their tea out of, and that if they wasted the milk, they would have nothing to eat, and die of hunger. And Levin had been struck by the passive, weary incredulity with which the children heard what their mother said to them. They were annoyed that their amusing play had been interrupted, and did not believe a word of what their mother was saying. They could not conceive that what they were destroying was the very thing they lived by.
“There’s nothing interesting or important about (saving milk) because it has always been there, and always will be. But we want to invent something of our own, and new. So we thought of putting raspberries in a cup, and cooking them over a candle, and squirting milk straight into each other’s mouths. That’s fun, and something new, and not a bit worse than drinking out of cups.”
Levin saw himself in those children. He had been raised in the Orthodox church and had left it. He had taken for granted all the spiritual blessings Christianity had given to him. Instead he had searched for a new path, one based on intellectual reason and science to find meaning in life.
“Isn’t it just the same that I did, searching by the aid of reason to find meaning of the life of man? And don’t all the theories of philosophy do the same, trying by the path of thought, which is strange and not natural to man, to bring him to a knowledge of what he has known long ago, and knows so certainly that he could not live at all without it?”
“Brought up with an idea of God, a Christian, my whole life filled with the spiritual blessings Christianity has given me, full of them, and living on those blessings, like the children I did not understand them, and destroy, that is try to destroy, what I live by. And as soon as an important moment of life comes, like the children when they are cold and hungry, I turn to Him, and even less than the children when their mother scolds them for their childish mischief, do I feel that my childish efforts at wanton madness are reckoned against me. Yes, what I know, I know not by reason, but it has been given to me, revealed to me, and I know it with my heart, by faith in the chief thing taught by the church.”
We intellectual Mormons are much like those children, unimpressed with simplicity of the gospel dome. We want to create a new dome, one we can arrive at through reason and which will be unassailable intellectually. Like children squirting milk into each others mouths and cooking raspberries over candles, we don’t want to do things like our parents. And so we waste and trample the gifts our parents have given us, thinking that there is an endless supply of milk and raspberries to play with.
Keeping a Snow Globe on the Mantle
My parents and religious leaders are sometimes guilty of over-idealising the gospel dome. They use apologetics to whitewash obvious contradictions and absurdities. They pretend that our strait and narrow way actually encompasses all truth. But in spite of these things, I am not going to abandon the dome. The dome does not need to be a perfect representation of reality for me to appreciate its fundamental value.
I am going to keep the snow globe of the gospel on my mantle as an expression of universal truths revealed to me by God. I trust it, not because it is perfect, but because it reflects what God wants me to know: that this is a divinely ordered universe of goodness and love.
Constantin Levin’s character in Anna Karenina said similarly of his own church:
“The church! the church!” Levin repeated to himself.
“But can I believe in all the church teaches?” he thought. He recalled all those doctrines of the church which had always seemed most strange and had always been a stumbling block to him. And it seemed to him that there was not a single article of faith of the church which could destroy the chief thing–faith in God, in goodness, as the one goal of man’s destiny. Lying on his back, he gazed up now into the high, cloudless sky. He ceased thinking, and only, as it were, listened to mysterious voices that seemed talking joyfully and earnestly within him.
“Can this be faith?” he thought, afraid to believe in his happiness. “My God, I thank Thee!” he said, gulping down his sobs, and with both hands brushing away the tears that filled his eyes.
- How do you deal with contradictions which assail the perspectives inside our gospel dome?
- Do you agree that all paradigms are beset with contradictions and absurdities?
- Does the gospel dome have value to you even when it is an incomplete and sometimes incorrect representation of reality?
- Do you agree that God purposefully gives us a paradigm which is sometimes incomplete or incorrect, simply because we are incapable of understanding things from His perspective?