The Ascension, perception, and worldviews

I commented on an instructive exchange at BioLogos a week or so ago. A guy calling himself WalkerColt asked:

How does the Ascension fit into the accommodation view? Jesus seemed to hold to the three-tiered view of the cosmos (Jn 17:1). Did Jesus ascend ‘up’ to accommodate the view of the witnesses? How do we believe this to be an actual event in history if it is explained using this ancient cosmology?

Moderator Brad Kramer replied:

The trick here is reject the false dichotomy between the “everything in the Bible must have happened exactly as it was written or the whole thing is false” position and the “anything that sounds supernatural must be a total fabrication” position. I saw a screening of a new movie about Jesus that show the Ascension as Jesus disappearing into a sort of “curtain” of light, which I thought was a good job. Jesus did indeed leave this reality in some visible way, and the disciples interpreted it through the lens of the three-tiered universe.

It’s instructive to ponder just what is implied by the “disappearing into a light” reinterpretation rather than the “ascension into heaven” eye-witness description. In a lengthy passage in Miracles, C S Lewis suggests that we are in danger of losing truth when we update the imagery:

Granted that there are different Natures, different levels of being, distinct but not always discontinuous – granted that Christ withdrew from one of these to another, that His withdrawal from one was indeed the first step in His creation of the other – what precisely should we expect the onlookers to see? Perhaps mere instantaneous vanishing would make us most comfortable. A sudden break between the perceptible and the imperceptible would worry us less than any kind of joint… We are well aware that increased distance from the centre of this planet could not in itself be equated with increase of power or beatitude. But this is only saying that if the movement had no connection with such spiritual events, why then it had no connection with them.

He goes on to say that it is arbitrary to assume that there must be no movement at all “within the ‘Nature’ he was leaving”, since the Ascension indicates departure, not disappearance. He adds that unless it were downwards, any movement of departure from the world would be “up” to us. Lewis is more concerned, though, about our tendency to denigrate the witnesses’ testimony from our modern sense of omniscience:

But what really worries us is the conviction that, whatever we say, the New Testament writers meant something quite different. We feel sure that they thought they had just seen their Master setting off on a journey for a local “Heaven” where God sat in a throne and where there was another throne waiting for Him. And I believe that in a sense that is just what they did think. And… for this reason, whatever they had actually seen… they would almost certainly have remembered it as a vertical movement. What we must not say is that they “mistook” local “Heavens” and celestial throne-rooms and the like for the “spiritual” Heaven of union with God and supreme power and beatitude.

A number of additions may be made to this. In the first place, we are wrong to think that Jesus and the Hebrews generally falsely believed heaven is above us. In fact, they knew very well that heaven is above us, because like us they could see it. What they believed was that God had chosen to represent his actually intangible immensity as a presence in heaven, in what might be called a “virtual” way.

It is comparable to the way that his shekinah “presenced” him in the Tabernacle, the Temple, or the pillar of fire in the wilderness, or that the Spirit localised him in prophets and Christian believers. Solomon, dedicating his Temple, had prayed that, since even the highest heaven couldn’t actually contain Yahweh, the Temple couldn’t either, but yet he asked that it might be a place where Israel could direct their prayers and worship. It’s pretty sophisticated theology, recognising the need for humans to locate God spatially in their imagination to avoid turning him into a mere phantom – and what is more, giving that imagination reality.

If we don’t consider it “primitive” that people went to the Temple to pray (and why should we, if we ever go to church?), why should we consider it bizarre for Jesus to go to heaven to be enthroned with his Father?


 

My second point is about the theory-ladenness of all perception. What we see is deeply coloured by our worldview. This is pointed out by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, as the Stamford Dictionary of Philosophy says:

…Kuhn supposed, when observers working in conflicting paradigms look at the same thing, their conceptual limitations should keep them from having the same visual experiences. This would mean, for example, that when Priestley and Lavoisier watched the same experiment, Lavioisier should have seen what accorded with his theory that combustion and respiration are oxidation processes, while Priestley’s visual experiences should have agreed with his theory that burning and respiration are processes of phlogiston release.

Now the article goes on to say that, though this was true, it did not affect the measurement of data by the two scientists:

Priestley, who thought there was no such thing as oxygen, believed the change in water level indicated how much phlogiston the gas contained. Lavoisier reported observing the same water levels as Priestley even after he abandoned phlogiston theory and became convinced that changes in water level indicated free oxygen content.

The moral of these examples is that although paradigms or theoretical commitments sometimes have an epistemically significant influence on what observers perceive, it can be relatively easy to nullify or correct for their effects.

However, we should remember that despite theoretical differences, the two scientists were both approaching the same kind of experiment from within identical worldviews: different scientific paradigms are pretty small beer in the worldview universe. A primitive aborigine’s worldview would be so different that he’d never have been involved in such an experiment, and had he been there who knows what would have engaged his attention? The meaning of the birds outside the window, perhaps. Certainly not a change of water level from a chemical reaction.

It’s a fair bet that ones perception of the Ascension would be profoundly affected by ones worldview.


My third point is a spiritual one, and is is akin to the point I made about “possible worlds” in a recent post on free will. Just as “I could have done otherwise” is actually pretty academic, since you didn‘t in the only actual world, so “What we would have seen had we been at the Ascension” is futile, because we weren’t, and designedly so on God’s part. He selected a relatively small number of witnesses for his resurrection appearances, every one of whom (including the ascending Jesus) shared a 1st century Jewish worldview.

Even the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in resurrection and had condemned Jesus, “might have seen something diferent” – but they weren’t allowed to see anything at all, so why speculate on counterfactuals? It was God who granted the sight to his chosen witnesses, and presumably God who prepared and governed their perception of it so they could be witnesses to the whole world.

You could compare it to the Genesis creation story – as soon as you grant that it is not simply imaginative fable but is inspired by the Spirit, then asking what was “really” happening is futile – the only eyewitness to the creation is God himself, and the only reality is how God saw it – or, perhaps, how God interprets it for our instruction, through an ancient worldview he chose as his medium. There simply is no other viewpoint of creation from outside God – there is no view from nowhere, just as there is no objective way of conceiving God himself, apart from what he reveals.


 

My last point is simply to drive home that the subjective nature of perception is not simply limited to an event like the Ascension, where worldview differences most certainly do profoundly affect how we see things (though also making it impossible to re-imagine such a unique event, when no-one with our worldview was within a couple of thousand years of actually witnessing it).

Sir Arthur Eddington wisely said, “There is no such thing as an unseen rainbow.” How can that be, since rainbows are undoubtedly not imaginary? He pointed out that, when the droplets in a shower each refract sunlight, the result is a melee of light rays of all wavelengths that are almost parallel (they were more parallel before refraction). Only when there is an observer present, possessing an apparatus (like an eye) to form what you may remember from school physics to be a “virtual” image on the retina, and a mind to interpret it as an arc of spectral colours; only then does the rainbow come into existence.

His point is that reality, unperceived, is but a swirling mass of quantum particles, energy and other inconceivable things. Only our animal bodies, and especially our human minds, interpret that into everything that we can ever experience of the world – “the phenomena”. And that can never, ever, happen without all the other things our minds bring to bear, like our experience of similar phenomena, their emotional associations and the worldviews that interpret them as significant.

A rainbow, then, is a mental phenomenon – as is the association any Bible reader will make with God’s covenant with Noah. One is no less real than the other – it’s just that the physical properties of the rainbow are shared with all beholders, and are therefore that much more public. The colourblind, of course, will have their own perception even of the physical rainbow. The insect or the bird will see a different rainbow again.

In the case of the Ascension, the only witnesses had the perceptions they had, according to the bodies and minds they had, which included the spiritual worldview they shared with Jesus, the subject as well as a witness of the event. If the event itself was real, then their version of it is the only authentic one there is, or can ever be. We can legitimately only accept it by faith as true, or reject it.

Since the angel told them that they would see him return in the same manner he went, perhaps we may get to develop our own take on things, from within our modern worldview.

Or perhaps we’ll see Jesus as they saw him, and just be gobsmacked that the old cosmology wasn’t so completely wrong after all.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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