Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Willing Suspension

Suppose I told you that as I was writing this the floor beneath my chair gave way. As a result, I found myself atop my desk careening down an earthen corridor, laptop and HP Officejet Pro 8000 tumbling behind. Coming to rest some distance below, my eyes met with an astonishing sight - a cavernous subterranean realm peopled with a race of day-glow semi-humans dwelling undetected beneath our world. And, having taken to the place, I’ve elected to stay. In fact, I’m sending this communique from my new netherworld flat where I can still eek out a solid Wi-Fi signal.

Now, unless I miss my guess, you don’t believe me. The claim itself is so far-fetched, so beyond the pale, that it would take a great deal to convince you that this had, in fact, taken place - a great deal I’ve not provided. But, why don’t you believe me? And why, in general, do we believe some things and disbelieve others?

It's an intriguing question. What’s more, in light of the story we’ve been discussing, it's a question of some importance. This is, after all, a story set apart. It’s unlike any you’ve ever heard. Why? Well, among other things, this one has a very singular mandate woven into it. It can be summed up in a single word - Believe.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, its not. I mean, who are we kidding? The story of the transcendent Creator breaking into our reality from beyond it, breaking through the fourth wall of our world, is the picture of far-fetched. Let’s just say, as uncanny goes, it’s several orders of magnitude beyond anything else that comes to mind.

And we’re not just talking about a single unusual event. What we’ve got here is a whole sequence of wildly implausible happenings in connection with this central fact. And there is a book - not just a book, really, but a kind of anthology, a whole collection of books written over a millennium and a half cataloging these unearthly goings-on. You know: emancipated slaves following a column of fire through the wilderness, people walking about on lakes, dead men rising, and on and on.

To sum up, swallowing this stuff is no small feat. Nevertheless, difficulties notwithstanding, you are entreated, even commanded to believe this story. And what’s in view here is more than a bare assent to the facts of the plot. You’re being summoned to - get this - entrust yourself body and soul to a figure within the narrative. And, to top it all off, you’re told that the trajectory of your entire existence hinges on doing just this. It’s a curious thing, is it not?

Those who study the mechanics of belief speak about what are called “plausibility structures,” the network of largely unquestioned assumptions we make about what is possible and what is not. These, they say, are based on culture, experience and a million other factors. But in this case, what exactly is going on? What about my personal “plausibility structure” allows me, and many others who seem to have a fair foothold on reality, to buy stories about split seas and the self-sacrifice of a God?

The British writer Samuel Coleridge spoke of something he dubbed the “willing suspension of disbelief.” It’s a simple concept really. He said if a story is sufficiently rich in human interest and possesses a semblance of truth, it compels the hearer to temporarily suspend judgement about things they would otherwise rule out as impossible - things like supernatural events.

So, is that all this is? Is this just some kind of literary device that has burst its banks and spilled into the real world? I don’t think so.

To be sure, something akin to this is in play here. We are being summoned to willingly suspend our innate disbelief and embrace the narrative. We are invited to lay aside our notions of impossibility, and all for the sake of the story itself and its Teller. Like the stories Coleridge had in view, this one is suffused with the greatest possible human interest. However, unlike what he had in mind, this story claims in the soberest possible way to blow past any mere semblance of truth. It claims, rather, to report something that is finally and absolutely actual. And you’re being invited to abandon yourself to believing, not merely for the length of the telling, but forever.

More on these things next time. But, I’ve got to run. There’s a pick-up basketball game in the next cave in 20 minutes.

1 comment:

  1. This is by far my favorite blog to date. I am really looking forward to reading the next one! Another question I have about Christianity is exactly what you have eluded to is it that we believe in this story and follow the path of a Man who died for our sins? In the end it might just come down to faith, but in my walk I am just not ready to say that it all comes down to faith.



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