A prison of possibilities.

I hope you are appreciating the art featured in this blog, as well as the text. I find the combination synergistic- the product is greater than the sum of the parts. Is it inevitable that words, in however careful a way their combination may be contrived, will trigger certain images in the readers’ mind that are not so precisely what the author wishes for? The addition of an appropriate image can add a different sort of stimulus which guides the reader in a novel direction, and, importantly, away from other well-worn paths. Personally, I think this is as much true of my own invention and creation process: a particular image provokes my imagination and stimulates a specific line of thought. This post results from such an occasion. My list of broad and eclectic tastes includes architecture and architectural drawing. In trawling through Pinterest recently, I stumbled on this wonderful piece of work by Saif Mhaisen, who trained as an architect but moved sideways into being an artist because, as he kindly explained in correspondence, he sought the greater creative potential of visual imagery under the artist’s control. A full page displays 8 projections of a room featuring one inhabitant, each one beautifully contrasting spaces and the walls that are their boundaries, light and dark, windows and shadows- occupied by the same figure, shown in various poses, sometimes in motion, often static- yet very alive. What at first appears to be a thorough architectural exercise, laid out with mathematical formality, turns out to be rather more than the professionally objective depiction of a singular space merely adorned with a symbolic figure. As Saif says, “I draw people and paint things. Sometimes I paint people and draw things, but mostly I draw people and paint things”1. In this single room, the figure is the actual inhabitant of the space, not merely a graphic adornment as is usually the case in architectural drawings. I discern a particular individuality in this figure, very much a posed manikin, and yet somewhat removed from ideal proportions. The neck is a little extended, enhancing the suggestion of emotional state, which is resigned. And then it dawned on me2.

‘Design of a Prison Cell’ Saif Mhaisen. Pencil on paper. 2012. As I meditate on the life depicted in these drawings, the room so carefully rendered in nuanced tones, I realise that the figure is without shading, as if it maintains its own internal light, perhaps derived from the light that is allowed to beam in from outside- both from the generous window and the skylight above. Can there be an institution called ‘Hope Prison’? I think Saif has drawn it. [My thanks to Saif Mhaisen for permission to reproduce this image.]

The reason that Saif Mhaisen’s figure is so organically part of this room is because this is the only place where they live and exist: it is their prison cell- and not a hermitage or a garden outhouse; neither a shed nor a private hotel room. It is part of this world- or at least it could be, if it were built- but shown completely detached from the rest of the building it must be part of, and likewise, the life of the inmate is absolutely separate from the rest of society.

And I still love this picture- these pictures. Perhaps, I now love them more. A prison is a creative place, is it not? I imagine that this would be an exercise for architecture students. They design rooms for all sorts of purposes, and a prison cell is a technology of incarceration that should be as much about rehabilitation as it is about punishment. A return to the womb of society, so that in that concentrated solitude the person within might be reformed and developed. The constraint is for a purpose, and in Mhaisen’s hand, the pencil describes a grid and a network of viewpoints that could be, we might hope, a renewing and humanising influence on the less-than-human, flawed individual that has been (temporarily) locked within. As I researched Mhaisen’s background, I found a New York Times article about artistic reflections on prison and imprisonment, evocatively titled, ‘The pencil is a key.’ If I ever were to be a prisoner, may it be in Mhaisen’s cell, for he has drawn a lock-up in which the man within can find the way to a new life, and real freedom. I get the impression that Mhaisen has progressed to a glittering career in art, and perhaps this epithet speaks of his visual artistry more broadly, equivalent to the literary proverb, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’

The thing is, a room is not just a room. One room may seem to be very much like any other, a bounded space in which life is possible. But all rooms are not the same, and certainly, the dimensions are significant, as is the matter of one’s freedom. A room with an open doorway is a very different thing from one in which you are locked, permanently, or at the whim of a jailer. A small space is limiting to human creativity and human becoming, while a large space, especially a house that one is free to do as one wishes, a place of vigorous life. Yet we might prove curiously adaptable to the contours of the social environments we find ourselves in. While some princes may be famed in their imprisonment, a humble peasant might become a philosopher. Of greatest importance in this is the companionship that we may or may not enjoy. What use is unfettered freedom on a richly provisioned island without other persons to share it with? The song lyric refers to more than love when it proclaims, ‘How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.’ There is more to being human than the dimensions of our bodies, the spaces we live in, or even the duress we might endure.

Which brings me to space and science. Our understanding of our place in the universe has developed by twists and turns as we have slowly come to understand that there is a universe, and that we live on a planet, with a star nearby, and some planetary neighbours that are so far away that at best they are only more mobile specks of light in the circling night sky. Not so long ago astronomy was more a matter of fantasy than of fact, when Ptolemy had the Earth at the centre of the geocentric system and drew fanciful circles within circles (they were called epicycles) to match the observed motions of the planets with his ideology that everything in the heavens could only move in perfect circles- there could be no other kind of orbit, the ancients were convinced. Nearing his death, Nicolas Copernicus finally published his worked-up heliocentric theory, moving the Earth to its proper place as a satellite of our blazing Sun, but he still had Ptolemy’s epicycles. Despite Galileo’s discoveries of the orbiting moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, it would take Tycho Brahe’s precise observations and Kepler’s mathematics to drag astronomical theorising into the proper realms of what we now call science. If it looks like a planetary body is orbiting in an ellipse, rather than a circle, then that is actually what it is doing!

Now this is all head-above-the-clouds stuff, obviously, and we might wonder what difference this made to the average Jane and Joe back then. It matters because, inevitably, we are very much influenced in our view of ourselves by our perceptions and evaluations of our our surroundings. Is it right to criticise the past folk for accumulating ideas of their own significance, bolstered by the sense perception that the sun and moon and stars give all the appearance of going around us and our world? Such intuitions may be recognised as being naïve and very wrong now, but they were not stupid.

Fast forward to the Moon Race in the 1960s, and December 24th 1968. I was 3 months old, so would not have known that Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders was far away on the other side of the moon, and very much surprised by the sight of our Earth appearing over the lunar horizon as they were scoping out possible landing sites for the later missions. By the marvels of modern technology, we can now go back in time to join them in this moment when the most reproduced photograph in history was taken- the view of our blue and cloud wreathed planet revealed against the inky blackness of deep space. If you scoot over all the links I’ve placed in my posts up to now, fair enough, but please go and see that one.

As you may now appreciate, this printed picture, a spread of black and blue and green ink on a white sheet of paper, was the stuff of which new dreams of our significance could be made of. It is no less true to say now that the Apollo missions were about mankind’s adventuring to the moon- going there, coming back, going again and landing, and then coming home safely again. And what a great adventure it was, which succeeded in placing 12 men on the lunar surface, and returning all who set out to their homes again. But there was another adventure that was not foreseen- to show all of us our Earth, our Home, from the perspective of another place entirely. Though perhaps T S Eliot could claim to have done so.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

—T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, 1943.

It seems that we have all become different as human beings because a few of us went away on this brief journey. I didn’t get to go on that exploration- though perhaps now I have, as I have seen the NASA reconstruction. This knowledge is not final, but it is different and more than we had before. Some refuse it; others embrace it. Several astronauts have become more outspoken in defence of our planet after seeing this singular jewel-like Earth from space- our only life support system. One Apollo veteran tells of how he went to the shopping mall after his return simply to sit and watch regular folk going about their common business. He was doing nothing except savouring the epiphany of our existence on this extraordinary rock.

One of the scientists who briefed the Apollo crews was Carl Sagan, more famous today perhaps as sci fi author and TV presenter. Sagan is rightly considered an intellectual giant in our era because he understood, and could articulate with artistry, that we needs must generate narratives about our place in the universe, and consider what meanings might emerge from the facts we learn. He said that we learn much about ourselves in the process of considering if there might be life out there. Sagan had the vision to attach a message to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, and after them, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, so that should these probes meet ET in the distant future, they would have an advanced letter of introduction. The Golden Records contain the music of Bach and Chuck Berry, photographs of people living their regular lives, and a scaled map of their launching point. But surely it is we who have more to learn from these snapshots of Earth and humanity, and their selectivity. A story may be composed and told in one way at first, but in the retelling, there is reconsideration, and the meaning of the narrative might change significantly.

So proved to be the case. Voyager 1 was finally leaving our Solar System in 1990, and it was Sagan who proposed a new project that was not originally envisaged. The camera was turned back to look toward Earth, now only the tiniest star-like speck of light, tinged a little blue- perhaps? Twenty two years after Earthrise we now had The Pale Blue Dot. Let’s see what Sagan had to say as he absorbed these images and sought to guide our reflections on our Place of Birth. The first excerpt is from Cosmos, the second and longer one from ‘Pale Blue Dot.’

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU), as part of that day’s Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.
In the photograph, Earth’s apparent size is less than a pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space, among bands of sunlight reflected by the camera.[1]
Voyager 1, which had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of astronomer and author Carl Sagan.[2] The phrase “Pale Blue Dot” was coined by Sagan in his reflections on the photograph’s significance, documented in his 1994 book of the same name.[1]

“The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely.” —Cosmos

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

There is much at stake in these passages, and I am happy to appreciate the profound insights and nuances in reasoning that Sagan pens with his considerable erudition. It is quite proper that following the flush of excitement that greeted ‘Earthrise’, there has been precious little repentance regarding our collective despoiling of our precious and singular planet, from which we cannot expect to escape to somehow try again. Sagan’s cajoling, including his rubbishing of inadequate religion, corrupting politics and exponentially increasing collective greed, sum up in a justified tirade. If it is such that a religion continues to deceive and mislead in regard of our collective thriving and the sustainability of our ways of life on this Good Earth, may I be found first in line to agree with Sagan in calling that out. I suspect Sagan may have thought so of such as me, but I do not, in fact, believe in such a God or hold to such a faith.

But I would turn this analysis around. Is it not the case that Carl Sagan makes unjustified claims of his own that are, frankly, ideological if not outright religious in nature. His naturalism/atheism is in clear view, and he is entitled to hold whatever point of view he wishes. But his category errors are clear and egregious. A careful study of the lines above leads us to discover the sound and simple claims that we are biological beings made of matter that can only survive on a body composed of the same matter. Our Earth is the third rock in orbit around our sun, and it is perfectly fine to stand afar off and describe this as a speck of dust. Its quite a big lump from where I’m sitting right now, and it must be big so some can fool about pretending that its flat. What is more, this rock must be bathed in sunbeams, as that is the necessary source of energy. And within a suitable range of intensity, as Goldilocks prefers. Finally, we need a life sustaining watery atmosphere. And there it is- the Chinese have spring onion, garlic and ginger, from which to construct every delicious menu. The planetary astronomer wants only for rock, light and air, in decent proportions.

But it is plain that Sagan will not stop here. He seems very exercised by the scale of things. The size of the stage, our Earth, compared with the scale of the surrounding darkness, seems to matter a great deal to Sagan. Our self-esteem as a species and as individuals seems in question when the vastness of the cosmos is recorded on the other side of the balance sheet. The fact that we find ourselves, at this time, to be physically alone in the universe- the only forms of life are earthly ones- is taken as a great strike against our being significant. But the question must be put to this esteemed and accomplished scientist: who composes such a balance sheet, in which the values of physical variables are supposedly collated on the credit side, while the qualitative judgements of human opinions are placed on the debit side? What scientific assumptions are being drawn on? To be brief: there are none- these are only the unscientific opinions of a Ptolemaic ideologue. Sagan is committing serial category errors. He is mixing up considerations of scientifically discovered facts with questions of meaning, big questions of human value, that are beyond physics. Sagan manages to allow that there is still some sort of meaning, value, kindness and love, but will only allow their existence within the bounds of materialism, and he is committed to a calculus in which their value is outweighed by the scale of the cosmos. Sagan says that whatever brief loves we may be fortunate to celebrate, we are surely drowned by loneliness even as we enjoy them.

The same is surely true of Professor Dawkins, who opines thus when considering the tangle of ecological realities:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

Dawkins will doubtless have considered the exact phraseology he wishes to use, and he is certainly qualified to speak to the science of this matter, as a behavioural ecologist and geneticist. He will have considered the likely objections of academics and religious adherents whose criticisms he expects. Yet the faults are clear: category mistakes abound. Physical forces are ‘blind’, the natural state of biology is ‘misery’, while the universe as a whole has the property of ‘pitiless indifference.’ But these are unscientific anthropomorphisms and metaphysical claims smuggled into what purports to be a scientific perspective on the world and ourselves.

There is, it seems, a shameless honesty in this position. Here is Sagan doubling down on his claims, baldly stating that in the face off between beliefs and values on the one hand, and science on the other, the proper winner is Science:

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

“If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?”

― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

It is all to the good that Sagan and Dawkins and others vigorously make the case that Science should inform our consideration of the Ultimate Questions about human existence and meaning. It makes a difference to our evaluations when we know what the cosmos is really like, what living things are like, how all this comes to be, and what means we have to gain objective evidence about the cosmos our adventuring and learning takes place in. It is right to call out the wooden thinking and obfuscations of inherited ideologies, whether old religious ones or the new religions of money and avarice.

But when such caveats are completed, the core complaint remains. For Sagan and Dawkins, we are imprisoned. We are imprisoned in space, on this lonesome rock called Earth. We might have each other, as playmates and families and lovers and colleagues and so on, but we are still all, collectively and individually, alone in an empty universe- and if there are others, it makes no difference, as they are too rare and too far away, beyond communication of any sort and in any timescale that matters to us humans. We may succeed in significant space travel in some distant era, but only at a miniscule scale. I think that we do better to focus on the aspects of Sagan’s complaints that pertain to the rescue of planet Earth from self inflicted disaster. His points are well made in this regard, and we would do well to amplify his alarm calls. He points us to the human value of kindness, which I agree would be a sound enough meeting place for peoples of all opinions and creeds.

And Sagan and Dawkins agree. We are imprisoned in time: born to live but ever so briefly, and then all too soon, to be completely and permanently snuffed out, after such a brief stay. There is again an honesty and rationality to this confession, for so many press on in wilful denial of the reality of our mortality. There is a light to be shed into our lives by such an embrace. Sagan puts it well, when, laying aside his appeals to scientific authority he speaks plainly as a poet:

“Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

And now the stage is cleared of stumbling blocks, so we can contemplate with a clearer mind whether there are any other bases on which we can consider our existential questions. In the prison cell, the inmate’s welfare is partly dependent on food and water and daylight and exercise, certainly, but also on other matters that are not so easily enumerated. As I mused over these things, I considered how much it is the case that the Earth and our lives on it could constitute a prison, or perhaps a place with potential. Your answers will depend on the perspectives you decide to adopt. I fell to considering how I might modify Saif Mhaisen’s artwork, and decided that I would transform it into a diptych. Next to the original I have pasted artwork from science texts, which provide particular views and perspectives on the nature of our world. The first is the interior exploded in an architectural drawing fashion, showing the mantle and core within the rocky sphere. The layers of the atmosphere, more complex than we might first expect, are shown below. There are some perspectives on Earth from space, some with astronauts in their temporary suit- prisons, without which they would not survive. Other views evoke the contrasts of light and dark at different times of day, such a key part of our experience. A solar eclipse sometimes produces the so-called ‘diamond ring’ effect, but in this image, the Earth has been substituted for the Sun, as this is the real gem in the Solar System, forged from the generations of stars that preceded us all. And lower left is the ‘Earthrise’ picture from 1968 which I described earlier.

‘Design of a Cell of Creative Possibilities, 2022. Stephen Thompson. Digital collage-montage based on and responding to Saif Mhaisen’s ‘Design of a Prison Cell’, 2012

So what do you think? Is this Earth a prison, and even if you say, Yes, is that a bad thing? The science is clear: the gravity of this 12 742 km diameter rock holds down both us and our atmosphere- without this forcefield, all the means of sustaining life simply drift away. And the same keeps us in orbit around our benign star, the Sun. Aside from the vital realisation that we must collectively change our behaviour to take better care of our unique and irreplaceable world, what other responses might you make? Sagan and Dawkins seem to agree to progress further on their adventure of discovery of what the world is like. They express anger and frustration, both at the way they see the cosmos/world to be, and especially at the irrationality of many powerful people, past and present (with which I would agree). They are resigned to certain findings and conclusions that they draw. There could well be purpose and value in a life lived even in a prison from which there can be no ultimate escape. Is it enough to accept that the only legacy we leave is that which remains in the passing memories of those who lived with us and knew us?

Here is where Sagan, Dawkins and I part company. Sagan is right to say that no-one and nothing is going to come to save us from ourselves, from the growing predicament of our climate emergency and the environmental destruction we are wreaking on this our home planet. No alien extra-terrestrials are nearby to help us fix this mess. But the proper embrace of my intellectual elders for Science has spilled over into Scientism, a love of reason into materialism, and their rejection of the possibility of Revelation is irrational. Science and reason have no authority to give final judgement on such a question, and recall that Dawkins did tell us that he appreciates the potential reach of justice.

In short, the Biblical claims of Revelation ought to be taken seriously, and I am one who has tried to do so, and have concluded that the biblical claims pass the tests and scrutiny of reasonable sceptics, who properly apply the tests of science, as far as they are justified, but not further. The faith of the apostles Peter and Paul in the Incarnate One known as Jesus of Nazareth was severely tested- it passed the ultimate tests, even up to death, and this was not a sudden surprise. There were many acute trials before that, some of which involved imprisonment for their faith. Here are two key episodes rehearsed in the book of Acts:

So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

Acts 12:5-11 ESV

16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer[a] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. 35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.

Acts 16:16-40 ESV

I hope you find the contrasts and parallels between these accounts, and with the artwork we have considered, to be instructive. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions, for the most part, saying just this. The claims of the Biblical accounts of the people of faith, who followed as disciples of Jesus Christ, are that while there are physical features of this world that sustain life and enable us to enjoy freedom in community, there is on offer a different mode of life that considers that the common life of flesh and blood, or family and business and reproduction and even creativity are not exhaustive criteria. Very simply, Peter’s story shows that prayer changes things, even engineering a dramatic release from prison, while Paul and Silas show that praise to God might also cause a transformation in society- note that they refused to run away quickly from their own incarceration but stayed put, tending to the welfare of their own jailer and then gave the opportunity to reinforce their further imprisonment on the authorities who had put them into jail in the first place. All this is simply foolishness to the rationalising man who considers science to be the only means to reliable knowledge about the cosmos. But the Christian says that the cosmos is in fact God’s own cosmos, and though unseen, He may be the guest at every meal, the One who blesses us with food and water and all manner of increase. He is, in fact, the God who raised Christ from the dead, showing the great victory of light over darkness. In so many words, Peter, Paul and Silas might say in our day, “How wonderful life is, as You have come into our world!” With great sadness, we observe that it is the wilfully blind and scientistic man who is imprisoned, remaining without hope.

I hope you agree that the important question should not be, ‘Are we in a prison?’ but, ‘Might we receive Visitors?’ Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins think that we are, for all our trivial freedoms, ultimately imprisoned in a cosmos of vast emptiness in which we have a painfully short time to absorb the meaningless wonder of our all-too-brief existence. In their proper enthusiasm for the power of the sciences to enlighten our collective understanding and expand the reach of our finding out about the remarkable universe which we find ourselves in, they unreasonably limit the boundaries of valid evidence pertinent to the Questions, ‘Are we alone?’ and, ‘Might our lives have hope beyond death?’ Do you agree, or am I merely indulging the wishful thinking of every imprisoned convict?

All of us are in the gutter. Some of us are looking at the stars, some of us are wondering, “Why did we build such a big gutter?”

Luke rollason, Edinburgh Fringe 2022
  • References:
  • ‘Design of a Prison Cell’ Saif Mhaisen. Pencil on paper. 2012. https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/637963103481799607/ See https://tashkeel.org/artists/saif-mhaisen, and…
  • 1. https://digitalcommons.risd.edu/masterstheses/283/
  • [POST PUBLICATION ADDITION] Saif Mhaisen has been very kind to correspond with me after the drafting of this article. He explained that while many have responded to his ‘Design of a Prison Cell’, usually for professional architectural purposes, my response was the first that gave an interpretation in terms of hope. I find this instructive. Despite the best efforts and competent skill of a practitioner, the viewer/recipient may not acknowledge what is clearly depicted before them. There again, it may simply underline the powerful synergy between verbal and visual modes of communication. While against this is the matter of freedom. In viewing Saif’s architectural-artwork without additional commentary, the viewer is left with greater freedom to make a personal and independent interpretation. Likewise, in his response, Saif was very happy to give his appreciation for my perspective, but also careful not to say whether that was what he had intended in the first place, or what he might think now. This too is freedom- the freedom of the artist to depict and to create and to represent, but to maintain a distance from the work so they retain their own dignity and free agency.
  • 2 Technical paper for teachers:https://uk.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/27832_Ch_1.pdf & https://www.onestopenglish.com/professional-development/advancing-learning-the-fifth-skill-viewing/557577.article This is one example of the pedagogical insight that we learn more effectively if the teaching process stimulates our brains in multiple ways, through words/ auditory means AND through images/visual means. In contrast to the now discredited notion that learners prefer ONE of the visual/auditory/ kinaesthetic modes. Later I will extend this by analogy to the EI approach that debunks Sagan and Dawkins: the questions they claim to answer in fact demand an EI ie multidisciplinary approach, marshalling the powers of science and also other disciplines to address big questions about the meaning and significance of human life at the cosmic scale. Further, the Biblical record of Acts specifically demands this in a causal manner, explicating the overlap of physical explanation (earthquakes that undo prison doors) with supernatural ones (angelic appearance and intervention). [NB I do not simply mean that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ as is said by many. I am referring to the combination of thought conveyed by words and well chosen images together in the service of a narrative or argument.]
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/12/arts/design/the-pencil-is-a-key-review-drawing-center.html
  • https://www.instagram.com/saifmhaisen/?hl=en
  • ‘How wonderful life is while you’re in the world’ from Your Song, Bernie Taupin and Elton John https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eltonjohn/yoursong.html I extend this allusion (from the realisation of fellowship and society as impairment of the life of the prisoner) to our spiritual fulfilment in God: How very wonderful life is if You are in our world.
  • https://www.planetary.org/worlds/pale-blue-dot Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994 Copyright © 1994 by Carl Sagan, Copyright © 2006 by Democritus Properties, LLC.

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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