Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

December 02, 2004

Big-Picture Thinking

I’m nearly done with The Long Truce, by A. B. Conyers. This book is so rich, so packed with things worth thinking about, that you wind up forgetting far more than you retain. You move from one paragraph to another with a kind of excitement, but as you do you drop two threads of thought for every new one you pick up. Conyers, in fact, says something about this phenomenon, which is really the problem of our own limited-ness, or the limits of our own perspectives, the horizons imposed on us by the simple fact that we are finite beings, and thus cannot ultimately grasp the whole, the unity, because we are so enmeshed in the particular.

This isn’t just idle philosophizing. Getting "the big picture" is going to be a condition of the saved for all eternity in the kingdom of the Lord. Although even then we will not have all knowledge (that belongs only to God), we will have such knowledge as to give us rest at last from, to mention just one thing, the fear that is born of a lack of understanding, and which pervades this present darkness.

Have you ever felt lost in the particular? You go to the mall, say, intending to buy a certain item. That is, you have a plan, a set purpose, and a course of action (right down to the choice of parking space) that is intended to best achieve that aim. But once you’re inside, you are suddenly immersed in an environment designed to make you forget your plan. To live in the moment, responding to the impulse of the moment, and impulse drawn from you by the environment itself. All at once you are being governed not by your own purpose, but by that of another. And suddenly you’re that person with the bumper sticker that reads, "Saw it, loved it, had to get it, got it!"

In the end, this busyness and superficiality is going to lead to a sense of emptiness, confusion, and pointlessness. A sense that the one big thing is being obscured by a million little. Conyers puts it this way:

Something in us responds to the notion that somehow we are related (we know not how) to all things, and all things are somehow related to each other. But what we experience is not whole but partial. Furthermore, it is daily: it is presented to us in little slices of time. It is like riding through the Smokey Mountains, seeing bits of the landscape hedged in by mountains, forced to follow winding roads down ravines and canyons, limited in our sight by banks of fog in the early morning or profound darkness at night. It is hardly the same thing as holding a roadmap in our hand and comprehending the entire region at a glance. In that case, we can place a finger on our destiny, and with a bit of calculation we make sense of where we are and where we are going. Nevertheless, we have what might be called a sense of the telos [Greek word for “ultimate purpose”] even in the most ordinary processes in life, from learning to traveling to creating.
Once we get a grasp, however imperfect, of the big picture, the telos, the ultimate purpose (which is to say, God’s purpose) for ourselves and for all creation, we will not be overwhelmed by the trivial, the local, the daily, the disparate particulars of the here and now.

Returning to Conyers:
The incarnation announces the accomplishment of reconciliation between God and man. It therefore announces the essential goodness of the creation. It is not something to be feared. One’s efforts to know the world are in the end fruitful, even if not in the present. And human beings are not intended to live in deadly conflict, but in the bonds of love and friendship. One can therefore have hope. And if one can have hope, then one can live with trust instead of fear, confidence instead of doubt, openness to the world and its men and women rather than locked into and endless cycle of fear and conflict.
Don’t get lost in the particular. Keep a mental hold on the big picture, the very purpose, the telos, of God. Or, as Paul said, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things." In the Kingdom, that’s what we'll be up to all the time. The particular will remain, but it will be sanctified, not distracting and muddying, but clarifying, pointing us not to confusion but to wholeness, unity, and completeness. All things will be gathered up in Christ. Can somebody shout hallelujah!


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