Home > Apologetics > Finding spiritual truth in secular places: “Flatland” (and other real-world analogies)

Finding spiritual truth in secular places: “Flatland” (and other real-world analogies)

(The video I’m referring to is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VS1mwEV9wA. The original concept of “Flatland” is described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland.)

As you watch Carl Sagan explain the different dimensions, I can’t help but get the sense he is talking about our perspective on God. In fact, I’m surprised he had no intentional spiritual overtones in this video and that he was an agnostic/skeptic. The analogy seems so obvious…

Human beings are wonderfully complex, but we are also enormously limited. We are like 2D shapes, living in “Flatland,” going about our business and trying to make sense of the universe with only our concepts of left, right, forward, and backward. The “apple” in the illustration is like God, trying to reveal himself to us. Because of our limitations, all he can do is show us a slice of who he is. He gives us the Bible, and even sends his son to take on “2D” human form so that we can better understand the divine. But without any ability to see “up and down,” the third dimension, we cannot fully grasp the truth of God. All we can do is try our best until we go to heaven and receive our glorified bodies and fuller understanding.

The other 2D shapes will scoff at the idea of the 3D apple, claiming there is no sufficient “proof” for its existence. If only they could see things from the 3D perspective! The humble 2D shape who has experienced a glimpse of “up” (by being taken off the board of Flatland, even for a short moment) is like the person who has received the Holy Spirit. To her, it is proof enough of a third dimension—knowing the unknowable. But how can she explain it to the other 2D dwellers? All she can do is try to use what limited explanatory tools she has at her disposal. To very few, it will be enough for them to take the leap of faith and desire a relationship with that “apple.” To others, they will never see it, and technically on their own, they cannot see…if they rely on their own limited perspective and their worldview. (This is why people generally do not come to faith by logic alone.)

The “saved” 2D shape might try to explain things with analogies or put things into Flatland’s terms.

Ms. Christian Square: “OK, let’s say you’re going left to right, west to east. You know how forward and backward, north and south, are perpendicular to that line? Well, imagine if there were another line that were perpendicular, but at a different angle…”

Dr. Barker Triangle: “You mean like north-east? A 45-degree angle?”

Christian: “Well, no, not exactly…it’d be like if a line could be 90 degrees from the north line, but neither west nor east…a totally different direction altogether.”

Barker: “That’s logically impossible!”

Christian: “Well, I’ve seen it, and I know what I saw. I floated above Flatland for a bit.”

Barker: “What’s ‘above’? What you’re saying doesn’t make sense, therefore it doesn’t exist.”

Of course, this illustration ignores the fact that there are many worldly explanations that refute the skeptics’ claims. But we shouldn’t expect to understand everything with our limited intelligence and perspective. No worldly analogy can adequately explain the Trinity or other difficult concepts, like the nature of God or predestination. Ms. Christian Square might not have all the answers, but she’s seen enough to know that there is something more than just Flatland. There is another dimension, the supernatural, that transcends our world and even our reasoning.

In my own personal experience, every time I have come across an argument against God that initially sounds good, scratching beneath the surface reveals a fatal flaw or gross oversight. Usually, these arguments (like the problem of evil, or most ridiculously, “who designed the Designer?”) are overly simplistic, and therefore have a lot of public appeal. People like neatly packaged answers.

Because I like analogies so much, consider the following three. In my view, of course, the overly simplistic person is the atheist who fails to consider other non-obvious factors.

1) Bob has a can of soda. Candice has a cup that is larger than the can in volume. Candice asks Bob whether he thinks he can pour the entire can of soda into the cup without contents spilling over. Bob answers, “Of course, the can is smaller than the cup so there’s no way it would overflow.” (Bob fails to recognize that if he pours too quickly, the carbonation will cause the soda level to rise quickly and some of it will overflow. If he pours slowly with intermittent pauses, he could empty the can with no mess. The solution is more nuanced than it initially seems.)

2) Izzy, the novice science student, learns about gravitational acceleration for the first time. Based on the constant of 9.8 m/s2, she confidently calculates the time it would take for her notepad to drop from the top of a building to the ground. When she goes to actually carry out the experiment, she is dumbfounded when the notepad takes a bit longer than expected to hit the ground. She hastily concludes that the constant must be wrong and that her textbooks were either fraudulent or outdated. (She fails to take into account air friction and other real-world factors.)

3) Jan spots her friend Dirk digging into a bag of Haribo gummy bears at the beach. She sees him picking out certain ones and becomes certain that not only is he a selfish pig, but he’s also a picky eater, selecting all the good colors for himself. There is no doubt in her mind she has accurately assessed the situation. (In reality, perhaps Dirk felt guilty that he accidentally got some sand in the bag of gummy bears, so he is sacrificially eating all the sandy bears so that his friends can eat the clean ones.)

These were just a few stupid examples, but it’s not too far off from the way we jump to conclusions in more important matters. Too much confidence in our own ability and wisdom can lead to perilous mistakes when it comes to spiritual truths.

Personally, as I study God’s word and apologetics more, it feels like I’m learning where the glass ceiling is to our intelligence. Rather than being completely unaware and blindly saying, “I’m sure there’s a limit to our understanding up there somewhere,” it’s almost like, “ah, so there it is right there!” When you learn more, it’s like you also learn to recognize the difference between actual contradictions/shortcomings and what is simply beyond understanding. If I may say so without coming off as haughty, it’s not ignorance or denial to be OK with the glass ceiling, but rather honesty and discernment.

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