Things Visible and Invisible: Towards A Unitary Dualism

Originally written June 4, 2012

Each Sunday, we recite the following line from the Nicene Creed:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Well, I have a lot of ideas about what exactly “things visible and invisible” might be (yes, I have read my Plato), but here’s one idea: everything.

No no, I know “things visible and invisible” would be everything, that’s not what I mean. What I am saying is that every thing is a thing visible and invisible. Often in Christianity we hear people denouncing dualism, and rightly so – dualism can be very damaging, especially the Manichaean varity where the hierarchy of binaries is bound to create oppression and pain. It creeps into Christianity all the time – people are dualists about their Christian lives, reverent at Church and wicked at home, dualists about religion and politics or religion and work or whatever else. This kind of dualism is not good. But, given my commitment to the Boethian hermeneutic of charity, I must ask: in what way does this false dualism point to something true? Is there a legitimate sort of dualism?

Well, certainly not any hardnosed kind of dualism – maybe not even a literal dualism. We might call those types of dualisms naive dualism, or real dualism, heretical dualism, or whatever else. What I speak of instead is a dualism of emphasis, or an aspectual dualism, if you will. This is why I speak of everything in Creation as invisible and visible – it is one, and yet it has these aspects (minimally – certainly more). Of course, binaries are hopelessly inadequate to reality, but they help conversation get some traction at times, and that is what I hope it does here.

I am thinking especially about epistemological and interpretive approaches. There is what we see – the obvious, the empirical, the surface. And there is what we do not see – the imbedded logic, the superstructure, the episteme, the shadows and the things in the shadows. And there is everything in between – the glimpses we catch, the murmuring suggestion of something more, that keep us going. So of course, it is not really a dualism, but a spectrum, but positing the dualism allows the spectrum to be seen more clearly.

After all, if things are all visible and invisible to us, then all things inhere this dual reality, and thus this reality is really one. I see a water bottle on my desk – I see the light glancing off of it, the water inside, the Nestle Pure Life Wrapper, and the cap screwed on it. There are things about it that are visible, that I see, that are empirical. But without special tools, certain things about it are invisible – I cannot see what makes up the consistency of the plastic or the water molecules. Even if I had the tools to do that, I could not see the history of the water bottle – the person at the factory who was paid by helping to make it, the person who carried it onto the truck, the truck that carried the water bottle and its fellows to Walmart, or the life of the person who acted as my cashier as she sold me the water bottle. I cannot see, though I can guess, at its role – it is here to stop me from being thirsty and to keep me hydrated, but I do not know the precise moments and ways when and how it will be sustainig me after the initial imbibing. I do not know what actions precisely will be strengthened for performance by this sixteen ounces of fluid, though I do have some idea of how it will do so and that it will, generally speaking, provided that it is not poisoned. Here, on my desk, reflecting the rays of the iridescent lighting of the overhead units, sits a small, ordinary example of things visible and invisible.

I can both know the water bottle, and I cannot know it. I can speak of it enough to have just written the paragraph above, and probably more details. But the writing of it would also uncover more ways in which my knowledge is insufficient, ways in which I cannot know it. But I can only know this because I am able to know something of it, whatever precisely that may be. My apprehension of its visible reality gives me insight into the suggestion of things invisible, and my conjecture of its things invisible suggests other things visible, which in turn uncover more things invisible. The ontology of things, all things, escapes our human teleology, and yet it is our human teleology that allows us to grasp some of the ontology of things, and the ontology of things, being grasped by our epistemic motions of telos, that the ontology, being perceptible in part, is in whole beyond.

If there is any truth to this at all, then it must be with the greatest of care that we approach the Other, the Other Person, because unlike a water bottle, an Other Person is also striving to comprehend things visible and invisible. An Other Person’s mind is a wonderous thing, because it is a marvelous chance to speak with the invisible world in a way we cannot do otherwise. Our consciousness is the closest meeting point between the visible and the invisible we ever encounter, and this half-shadowed, fiery thing, with hopes and dreams and fears and fallacies and anger and sadness and love and hate and all manner of deep rivers of unknown glimpses of reality beneath the surface, is the only place we can come in this world where we meet Others who can acknowledge the incredible complexity of something as simple as a water bottle. We are a unified convergence of realities, the explicit voice implied in all the words of creation, and to say so is not to speak with pride, but to sound a note of caution when speaking with the Other.

But even greater must be the notes of joy.

“Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.”
-T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from The Rock”

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