Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Kingdom in the Cave

Consider the following from Book VII of Plato’s The Republic and what is commonly known as The Allegory of the Cave:

Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself.  They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around.  Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them.  Also behind them, but on a higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire.  Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.  

The prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.  

When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up turn his head, walk and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before...don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?

Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.  

At this point, he would conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.  

What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there?  Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?  Wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to “work the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,” and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?” 

In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty.  Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it.  

The ones who get to this point are unwilling to occupy themselves with human affairs and that their souls are always pressing upwards, eager to spend their time above.

While Plato’s analogy is brilliant in its original intent--”compar(ing) the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature,” it perhaps even better symbolizes the wrongful expectations of the Jewish nation during the arrival of Messiah as well as the errant expectations of our common “Christian” culture today.

Let me explain.

The “shadows of those artifacts”  from which the “prisoners(Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time) could not remove their eyes were “study of the law and good works” and “national restoration and glory” (Edersheim 115).  Their failure to see that “the whole past was symbolic, and typical of the future--the Old Testament the glass through which the universal blessings of the latter days were seen” (115), caused them to live fixated on the physical and temporal, preoccupied with lower “images” andshadowsrather than “always pressing upwards, eager to spend their time above” where matters of eternity are concerned.  As such, their lives were “absent of any deeper spiritual elements” and “the meaning of the whole lost in the contemplation of its details” (115).  

Their synagogue was “in the cave,” and their Savior from above, from the “light,” was one who failed to usher in their long and erroneously awaited national exultation.  In response to His journey down into their cave and His words to press their souls upwards, their reply was much the same as the “prisoners” in Plato’s allegory--“and, as for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?”  

But Jesus was sent into the “cave” to be killed  in order to bring prisoners up to the light and give life.  He said, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).  As Alfred Edersheim explains in his The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: 

The purely national elements, which well nigh formed the sum total of Rabbinic expectation, scarcely entered into the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God.  And the more that we realize, that Jesus so fundamentally separated Himself from all the ideas of His time, the more evidential is it of the fact, that He was not the Messiah of Jewish conception, but derived His mission from a source unknown to, or at least ignored by, the leaders of His people (116).  

Many of same temporal and physical expectations which dimmed the eyes of Jewish prisoners during the life and times of the Messiah similarly blind the hearts and minds of “Christian” prisoners today.  Although many embrace an eschatology that keeps them fixed on the shadow of a physical and national kingdom “of this world” falsely anticipating the restoration of a physical, national and eventual Israel, more obviously, our modern caves (churches) are walled with the shadows of dumbed down sermons, empty, repetitive “praise” songs, and enhanced puppet shows that only make the prisoners more comfortable in the cave.  

Rather than point prisoners to the only One capable of delivering them from the cave, most puppeteers are content to dwell in the shadowlands, enamored by their own creations.  Using catchy phrases like “missional,” “emergent,” “relevant” and “real,” their quest to “transform culture” is really just another way of dressing up their own caves to meet their own ends.

But you see, Jesus didn’t come to make the cave a better cave.

Jesus came to take men from the cave (and especially the cave since so many of his words addressed those Jewish cave-dwellers of His time).  

Just as Plato's prisoner "conclude(s) that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see," we conclude that the SON not only does the same but also has a higher calling.  His "mission" was to usher in a spiritual Kingdom of God, the only Kingdom “not of this world” led by the only King qualified to set His captives free from the cave.  “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed(John 8:36).  The way of His Kingdom is always to draw men higher, and as Plato tells us from Republic, to make them “unwilling to occupy themselves with human affairs and that their souls are always pressing upwards, eager to spend their time above.”  The Apostle Paul, who was quite familiar with philosophy, said it this way, “set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col 3:2), or in our vernacular here, "not on things in the cave."

So, my friend, where do you and I live?    

Have small compromises caused us to become used to the fetters and chains which bind us towards the shadows and puppetshows in the name of freeing fellow prisoners from the cave?  Does it really work that way?  Sure, you might be sheltered from the wind and storms above while down in the cave, but you'll also never see the full light of the SON, and you'll never help to free any fellow prisoners while wearing chains yourself.  

Oh, to see less of the Kingdom in the Cave and more of the Kingdom of God!


Hal Brunson said...


Awesome application of Plato's Cave; I'm thankful you're posting with us; this is a very worthy contribution.

Shane said...

Beau. That was awesome. I give you the greatest compliment I can give a writer: I was sure Hal composed that post.

Thanks for sharing that.