I’ve mentioned the grain of the universe, learning to work with the grain of the universe, not kicking against the goads, an approach to life that I think of as “I can work with this.” A prerequisite to living such a life, of course, is an ability to discern the way things are, as opposed to the way we’d like them to be. That ability is a skill which needs to be developed. It can also be thwarted by bad habits and self-centered impulses, so those also need to be brought under control.
How do we learn to see things as they really are? There is no set program, no spiritual diet, no list of disciplines which when faithfully followed will get you into the proper state of mind. You have to track down your misalignments one by one, think deeply about their nature and their reason for being there, and then search for a remedy. It’s difficult and tedious, and progress can be irregular, especially in the beginning. But one gets better at the job, and the work becomes easier.
The best guides are not those who tell you how things are, but help you see it for yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish them—just ask the Emperor with No Clothes. The critical test is a simple one, simply asking: am I seeing this myself, or am I just taking someone’s word for it. For example, do you know from direct experience that life is best when lived for others, or do you only accept it as an abstract principle which must be true because you hear it so often from the pulpit?
Here are some wise words from Dallas Willard on the subject, from Living in Christ’s Presence.
You know Jesus’ effect on people was different from that of the scribes and Pharisees. That was because he spoke as one having authority, and people noticed that. The scribes and the Pharisees had to go look up their footnotes or find out which rabbi said this about what. The people listening to it understood that those people didn’t know what they were talking about. The scribes and the Pharisees pull authority out of their connections and laid it on them, but Jesus talked about real life.
The amazing thing about Jesus— and I hope you might look carefully at the logic of his words— was how he was able to refer to reality and cause people to understand it in a different way. Usually it was in a way that got past the hardened traditions of those people who thought they were in charge of the religious life. The test of religious life is life, and that’s where Jesus lived it. And that’s why he refers to children and says that if you are going to enter the kingdom of God, you have to come like a little child.
Now, apart from Jesus, the next most presumptuous person in the world is a little child. They just go, you know. The main thing is, when you hear Jesus, do what he says. Don’t build a theory. Just do what he says, and reality will teach you, and that is where authority ultimately lies. So, the test for the secularist and the Christian spokesperson is the reality that they bring people in touch with.
In our recent past the single greatest illustration of this is C. S. Lewis. He never pulls authority on you. He just talks about things, and he helps you see things. Multitudes of people have simply put in practice what he says, and they have found it to be true. That is the ultimate appeal of the spokesperson for Christ.
These are scary words for professional talkers. As this article notes, some things cannot be unseen. Once you’ve seen them, you will continue to see them. Once someone has helped you see the grain of the universe, their job is done and you are no longer in the market for what they have to say. So it was quite to the professional benefit of the scribes and Pharisees that their efforts were focused on “helping” people see things which can’t be seen … because they aren’t there. This is a job that is never done, giving those in the field a high level of job security.