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The Cave

I have a friend who's a freshman at a nearby college. She and I have been emailing each other, and I've been quizzing her about her classes, her major, and her plans for the future. She loves literature, so she's majoring in English. The other night she mentioned that she had to write a paper comparing the allegory of the cave with the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

The allegory of the cave is my favorite image when it comes to trying to explain what's wrong with the church. So I thought I'd revisit it here in case some of you are not familiar with it.

In "The Republic," Book VII, Plato gives us a striking image which attempts to illustrate the difference between reality and illusion. To over-simplify it, the allegory describes a group of prisoners chained inside a cave in such a way that they can see nothing but the back wall. Behind them is a bright light, and between the light and the prisoners are men who are putting on a show for them. They hold up various objects which cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners, never having seen the real objects, try to think up names to give those shadows.

For instance, if the men hold up a certain object, the prisoners might decide that the shadow it casts should be called a "book." But it becomes clear that, since they cannot see the original object, they think that the shadow is the actual thing called a "book." They never realize that there is a three-dimensional and far more detailed object behind them which is truly a book. They have mistaken illusion for reality.

I'm convinced that those who are leading the church today are prisoners, chained by the bonds of tradition in a cave called the church. For 2000 years they have been looking at shadows on the rear wall of their institution. They have long since come to believe that those shadows are the only reality. As a result, their theology is made up of fuzzy gray images, and they are so invested in those unclear shadows that they will go to any length to defend them. If you suggest that there are real three-dimensional objects casting those shadows, they will try to burn you at the stake for heresy.

For instance, their shadows tell them that they are the only ones whom God loves, and that he condemns everyone else. However, the real object, which they cannot see because they refuse to turn around, is a God who loves and embraces everyone regardless of their religion or lack of it. Their discussion among themselves has convinced them that God's entire truth is displayed in the monochrome images on their tiny wall. They refuse to listen to the truth, that outside the cave is a whole world of color and light and indescribable beauty.

How do we get them to turn away from the darkness and seek the reality which projects those shadows? Human ideas, traditional concepts, limited worldviews, religious formulations are nothing more than the shadows of things unseen. We have a choice -- worship the shadows, or emerge into the light of God's truth and beauty.

Posted 9-15-04

Copyright: John W. Sloat 2004