This is something I posted on Facebook for Christmas and am now belatedly posting on WordPress for longevity’s sake, or just in case you missed it:
Just nearly two weeks ago I was in Paris, sitting at the top of a basilica named Socré-Coeur. Atop this church on Paris’ only hill, you see a marvellous view of the otherwise completely flat city – other than the Eiffel Tower sticking up like a needle off in the distance.
As I sat there I was thinking about how this vantage point enabled me to gain an understanding of the city of Paris that couldn’t be gained from walking its streets. You don’t really know what a city looks like until you’ve escaped it, risen above its walls, and seen it from the outside.
Then I thought about how life is so often like that. Things always look different when you’re in the middle of them compared to how they look from the outside. I thought about the slightly crappy situation I was going through those few days, and realised that in a few weeks or months I would look back on that situation with an entirely different perspective.
You haven’t really understood your situation until you are no longer in it. It’s only from the outside that you can examine and appreciate the whole shape of one of life’s episodes. It’s only when you’ve come through the other end that you can view it with a clear enough mind to really learn from it.
But then I thought a bit harder and realised that the exact contradiction of this idea seems equally true. If I had only seen Paris from the top of Sacré-Coeur, and never seen it from the ground, a Parisian might rightly ask, “What do you know of the real Paris when you haven’t walked it’s streets?” If I had only seen Paris from the outside, surely I would be missing some vital experiential knowledge of the city. It seems like one could equally say that you don’t know what a city is like until you have been in the thick of it, touched the walls and breathed in the air.
And likewise it seems that you haven’t fully understood a situation until you’ve seen it from the inside. This is why we are so familiar with the words, “You don’t understand,” that meet us at our attempts to criticise the addict, or console the grieving parent. Of course we never understand a situation that we haven’t been in ourselves.
And so I thought, “Which is it? Which viewpoint gives us the best knowledge of something? Is it the view from within, or from without?”
And then I realised that it’s both. We need both.
This is when I wrote these words, which you might have seen on Instagram, if you were paying attention:
“The fullest knowledge of something can only be attained through viewing from both outside and in, above and below, as both a part of it, and as the other.”
And then I thought about this world we are in.
There is only one person who has viewed our world from both within and without. You see, none of us really understand this world, because we are in it. Our exclusively interior view of the world strips us of the ability to see its true shape, to understand where it fits within reality, and to know its purpose, or whether it has one at all. Only a creator who stands outside of it, and distinct from it, has a high enough view to see it as it truly is, unbiased by this low-down, narrow viewpoint each of us has.
But then in his distant objectivity, we petition, God is missing something. He is missing that experiential knowledge of what it is truly like to be a part of this world: to be weak, limited, fragile. To know what honey smells like, what blood tastes like, what it feels like to run out of breath as you run a mile, the awe of looking up to the stars and wondering what they are, and the pain of a broken bone or a betrayed friendship. God is distant, we say. He doesn’t understand what it’s like.
But Christians worship a God who knows, who understands. Christmas is the story of the incarnate God, the God who became flesh – an insider in the very world he created. God, who had looked over the whole universe with perfect objectivity, now found himself amidst it, viewing it through two human eyes. The God who at first only knew the world in a way that we couldn’t, now also knew the world in a way that only we could.
The God of Christianity knows pain, thirst and hunger, not just because he can conceive of them with his perfect, divine imagination, but because he has felt them. There is only one person who has been both an outsider and an insider, both one of us and incomparably other, who has seen the world with the clarity of a spectator, and with the detailed empathy of a player.
No other religion in the world has ever proposed a God like this. Only Jesus knows what it’s like to be a part of our world without being limited by it, because he also sees us from above. He knows our pain, but he also sees its purpose. He can sympathise with our struggles, but he can also see the part they play in the whole story.
This is to me what makes Christmas a day of hope. God is with us. But he’s still God. As the old carol says, “The incarnate deity.”