Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Chimp Enlightenment

My wife loves animal videos and shares them with me often. I sometimes agree to watch. To be honest most of them are not of much interest to me. But one video I saw the other day was an eye-opener. It was posted by Save the Chimps, an organization that rescues and rehomes chimpanzees who have been used for lab experiments.

A 28-year-old chimpanzee named Vanilla had been caged all her life at a New York biomedical research laboratory. She had never been outside. This video captures the moment at a chimpanzee sanctuary when she goes outside, sees the sky for the first time, and wanders through the grass. It is inspiring.

My first thought was Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the Republic, Plato describes a group of people who have been chained inside a cave all their lives. They have never seen the sun or the real world. They see only shadows projected on the wall by objects passing in front of a fire behind them. They assume that their shadow world is the only world. Then one prisoner escapes, departs the cave, and enters the outside world. He is amazed.

This is what happened to Vanilla. It also is an apt metaphor for awakening to the spiritual dimension of life, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God. All our lives we assume that the physical world is the real world. In reality our five senses perceive only a small part of the universe. Eyes see only a fraction of the spectrum of light waves. Our hearing perceives only a narrow range of sound waves. The same with our other senses. Altogether our five senses – even enhanced by the use of scientific instruments – can perceive only a tiny sliver of the world.

How many other ways are there to experience the universe? We are aware of three spatial dimensions, plus time. According to string theory, the universe operates with 10 dimensions. In bosonic string theory, spacetime is 26-dimensional. We live in a shadowland and cannot imagine the real world. Plato says that even if someone were to escape from the cave, return and tell them of the real world, people would not believe them. 

The light of Divine Reality shines in the world, but we live in caves. The caves have many rooms. One type of room is religion. Most people in the world see the universe through the lens of their religion. They filter the evidence without being aware of it. Some religious rooms are bigger than others. Some are closer to the entrance than others and more illuminated. But all religions are caves enshrouded in darkness. The residents see shadows and mistake them for reality.

Unlike the prisoners in Plato’s allegory, we are not chained to the cave. We are free to walk out of our prison. But most do not. As the gospel says, “the light has come into the world, but people preferred darkness to light….” Some catch a glimmer of light and retreat further into dark recesses of the cave in order to avoid even reflected light. But by grace some emerge from the cave into the light.

The chimp named Vanilla was at first reluctant to emerge from the building. She sits in the doorway until the alpha male of the group, named Dwight, encourages her to come out. At that invitation she jumps into his arms, and they share a big hug. Then she looks up into the sky with an expression of amazement on her face.

This is what Christ does for us. He invites us outside our small world to see the Kingdom of God for ourselves. When we see, we are amazed.  In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will be troubled. After he is troubled, he will be amazed….” 

Jesus communicated this world of Light. He was that Light. But people did not believe him or understand him. The Gospel of John says, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”  Even Jesus’ closest followers did not understand him. Instead most Christians retreated into a cavern to protect themselves from the light. But in each generation there are some who emerge from the dark and are amazed.

There is a famous painting of Jesus knocking at a door. In some versions of the picture he is carrying a light or engulfed in light. Interpreters point out that there is no handle or latch on the door. It is locked from the inside. All we need to do is open the door. Yet there is more to the story. Jesus is not knocking to come in, as this painting is normally interpreted. He is knocking to invite us out - like Dwight inviting Vanilla into the sunlight. When we step out in faith like our chimpanzee cousin, we are amazed.

No comments: