The Invisible and Otherness

It hardly is worth repeating that Socrates spent a lot of time in dialogue with others. However it is worth repeating that he spent much of his effort to point out the difference between appearances and reality. As Plato’s interlocutor, one suspects his distinction tends toward the vertical relationship between the forms/ideas and matter that the former eventually articulated. The excesses of that conception excepted, the distinction between what appears and what really is is a perennial one that drives our striving to understand and to live well.

Two themes I have come to notice in Christianity, no doubt belatedly, is the importance of the invisible and presence of otherness. By invisible I mean those realities and their aspects that are essentially beyond our sensible recognition. Are these real? By otherness, I mean the emphasis on that which is beyond our control, the objective nature of the world we live in. It is in light of these two themes that life as a Christian can come into and remain in focus; following the Way, the Truth, and the Life only makes sense when one recognizes there is reality beyond which our eyes can perceive, and the swollen pride that deceives one into subjugating that which cannot be subjugated must be bled (or iced, if you prefer).

The Invisible

On first blush, one is tempted to reject the reality of the invisible. I grew up under the impression that the victory of science proved that everything can be studied scientifically or is observed. Isn’t everything simply reducible to quantum mechanics, or whatever its latest interpretation is? I simply could not understand why anyone had ever believed there to be reality beyond the physical, because science had uncovered the forces behind storms and the “wrath of the gods” and knew them to be material. What a nasty form of ignorance this is, and it is indeed pervasive.

In short, why would anyone think there’s reality beyond the visible? Because it smacks us in the face; we just have to open our “eyes”. A great example from philosophy is the problem of universals: why is it that we call two trees “trees”, why are there biological species, and commonalities between two separate chunks of matter? The two trees outside my window are indeed two different trees, yet there is something essentially the same. Is their similarity encapsulated in that we call both of them trees? But why do we call them both trees? There is something in their reality that coheres, that matches, that is the same.

This brings us to a head: if everything that is physical is individuated and distinct (like the atoms that make the trees up), then how are they essentially the same? There is something deeper “in” them that is universal, that is one. How this essence they share exists is beyond my point, but there is something in fact real about their essence, otherwise we are mistaken in our perception of the trees (in which case it is perhaps imprudent to trust our senses at all…). The reality of essences is everywhere in the perceptible world, yet it is invisible. We do not perceive essences, but the individual instantiations of them; the visible is the path to the invisible.

Consider another example, evident from the physical sciences. Cellular biology only developed after the production of the microscope, an instrument that allowed us to get beyond surface perceptions. Likewise, the study of astronomy only took off after the telescope. The realities we have uncovered in the micro and macro worlds are stunning, and cohere with the principle that reality is not simply what it appears to be. Granted, these are physical examples, however this heightens the import of the idea because even the physical is not as simple as we may have thought.

This is no less true of mathematics, which studies abstract numbers and their properties. We might perceive ten birds in the sky, but it is via theorizing about quantity that we get beyond the squawkers to systematic understanding. In fact all of our systematic knowledge is abstracted from the real things we perceive; this ability of our mind is always seeking the deeper reality beyond the surface. To move from the visible to the reality of the invisible is a tropism and integral capacity of the mind.

This is exactly what occurs with the reception of grace through the Sacraments. Sacraments, recall, are visible symbols that do what they symbolize; they give grace to those who receive them in faith. The Eucharist remains in its appearance as bread and wine, which should surprise no one; the Sacraments are not magical (if they were, why would we need faith!?). We are told by Christ what the Eucharist becomes, and if Christ is who He claims, we have reasons to believe Him. Our senses are of no help in the matter, because at issue is invisible reality which in principle is beyond our perception. We have seen it is not irrational (quite the opposite, actually) to recognize realities that are non-sensible; why should we not allow for this in the Sacraments of the Faith? In the one case when we could not possibly be lied to?


The second theme of note is that of objectivity, of truth, of otherness. We find ourselves, in this life, in a world full of things beyond our control. Our very being is not our choice. We are bombarded with otherness every moment of our existence. In turn we have two options, to reject the otherness and obdurately claim hegemony (a move destined for failure) or to respect our limitations and live in concert with our nature and the world. Certainly since the Enlightenment we have tended towards the first, because we can build incredible artifices, and perhaps because of our complaisance and credulous tendencies. To be able to manipulate the reality we inhabit is not evidence of our hegemony, yet continues to be prime evidence of our contingency: we manipulate that which we did not create. Our manipulation is at the mercy of otherness.

Certainly, coming to live in accordance with our nature and reality does not entail Thoreau-ean luddism. Curing diseases and innovative technology are all good things; but not the only good things, nor the highest. Much of the modern world seems to be at war with nature, using our natural sagacity to manipulate, control, and destroy. That nature is our clue to the good, true, beautiful, and to God is treated as an atavistic reversion, because it does not conform to our desires. Christianity, like life in general, insists on the otherness, the objective reality, the truth that we encounter; it refers us to that which is beyond our control and making. Perhaps paradoxically to a mind geared towards license, it actually frees one of constraints.

There are two expressions of this that seem relevant, the first being how we encounter the truth. Classically, truth is considered to be when our minds cohere with how things are. We know the truth when we know what is the case. In contradistinction to Descartes and the moderns in general, coherence and clarity of ideas are not sufficient for truth; but we must mold our minds to the reality we encounter if we are to understand it. This is the endeavor of knowledge, of understanding: to have our concepts cohere with the essences we encounter in reality. As the primary end of our minds is to gain truth, we can say that it is in our nature to approach and absorb the otherness.

Secondly, in our moral life we are called to a similar response to the otherness. We all have a mixture of desires that influence our will and actions, some a natural and others acquired through circumstances. Our moral sense requires us to examine these and only follow those that befit our dignity and duty. If we have the desire to be angry because of a perceived injustice, we cannot kill the culprit responsible without being unjust ourselves. In the same way we must mold our minds to reality in pursuit of truth, we have to censor our response to our desires to mold ourselves to the good and the good life. We obviously do not exist in a vacuum, and there are conventional and natural boundaries to our behavior.

There is certainly much more that might be said, and others who have stated it more eloquently. Yet in my experience, these two themes of the invisible and otherness run through not only our nature, but the grace that builds on it given by God. To understand them is to begin to orient oneself to reality and the Faith.