Some see before; and some see in; and some see after
But some don’t see at all.
When we wish to talk about humans and their encounter with truth, the simple idea of “seeing” enriches our discourse in wonderful ways. When used metaphorically, the everyday act of seeing is raised far above the physics and neuroscience of what happens in the eyeballs and the occipital cortex. In religious language, to behold is to realize truth. To be blind is to reject guidance. Sight is the innate capacity to recognize truth. Light is truth itself, and so darkness is falsehood.
There are, then, two levels of sight, biological and spiritual, or literal and metaphorical.
An anecdote in the Muslim tradition uses this ambivalence in the notion of “seeing” to make an important point. The anecdote reports two disciples sharing their experiences with a spiritual master; the story suggests a subtle element of healthy competition and good humor.
The first disciple said: “Whenever I see anything, immediately thereafter I see God.” The second disciple, not to be outdone, exclaimed: “Whenever I see anything, I see God in that same moment.” The master responded: “Before I see anything else, I see God.”
But, of course, some don’t see anything. Spiritual blindness is pervasive, even though we are born with the gift of sight and the sun is shining brightly. So why is it that some of us are able to see God and not others? To answer this question we have to first deal with another issue, i.e., why does the phenomenon of “seeing” lends itself to two levels of meaning at all?
When we see something at the physical-biological level, we do not directly perceive the “thing” that’s out there; we merely perceive a unique configuration of specific visually encoded qualities, such as shape, size, color, texture, and depth. Our minds then synthesize this raw data into a meaningful experience of looking at a person, a tree, a book, or words on the computer screen.
The same is true of seeing at the spiritual-metaphorical level. We don’t see God, at least not directly. What we perceive through our bodies and minds are the qualities of our inner and outer reality. These individual qualities of reality, in themselves, do not tell us much about the larger whole to which they belong, just as perceiving the shape or color of something is insufficient for accurate identification. What is needed, in both cases, is processing of this knowledge and its appropriate synthesis.
Insofar as our information about the most important qualities of reality is relatively complete and accurate, and our processing and synthesis of this information is more or less adequate, we end up encountering the truth, which is another way of saying that we end up seeing God. Since not everyone has a 20/20 spiritual vision, it is perfectly normal that some see before, some see in, and some see after. Moreover, as is the case with our ordinary sight, some of us do not seem to have any spiritual sight at all. Such individuals don’t see anything. What makes them blind?
Ordinary blindness occurs due to one of two causes, i.e., defects in our visual apparatus (eyes, optic nerves) that collects and transmits visual information, or defects in the neural mechanism that processes and synthesizes visual information into a meaningful experience of perception. The same applies to spiritual blindness. If we fail to see God, the defect could be either in our knowledge of the qualities of reality, or in our capacity and willingness to synthesize that knowledge.
In terms of the phenomenology of sight, we see God in exactly the same way in which we see anything else; similarly, we fail to see God in exactly the same way in which we fail to see anything else.
It makes sense, therefore, to use the metaphor of “seeing” when discussing our realization of truth, and the metaphor of “blindness” when discussing our inability to do so. These metaphors are particularly useful because there are innumerable degrees of seeing as well as innumerable degrees of not-seeing, at both biological and spiritual levels.
The title of this post is a line from “A Land called Paradise” by Kareem Salama.