From Seeing to Understanding

Illustration copyright © 2015 Adriana Vawdrey

I have a pretty enthusiastic American Literature professor here at the University of Southern California. Actually, enthusiastic might not be the right word for it; I think the words "intellectual agitator" best describe his personality. He's one of those guys that want you to question everything that you know and believe, but in a good way.

One of this professor's favorite topics is about seeing what we expect to see versus seeing things how they really are. He repeatedly references novels in our class that he feels highlight the difference between sight that is superficial and sight that accurately discerns the truth. His argument is that we often base our understanding too much on what we initially see: that sight is inherently affected by what we expect to see. There are so many ideas that just "go without saying" that can make it really really hard to see or understand things as they really are. While on the other hand there is "seeing to understand", which requires critical thinking and sometimes paradigm shifts on the part of the observer.

Consider the following illustration of the concept of seeing but not really understanding. You're on the sidewalk and you see a homeless man rolling down the other side of the street in a wheelchair. If you were to try to understand how that man got to be where he is, you could probably draw some reasonable inferences about what mistakes were made, what unfortunate circumstances occurred, etc., that caused that person to be in such a difficult position. But can you really know? The truth of what happened to that person goes beyond what you can initially see. I have a homeless man that lives on my street. His name is Kevin. He rolls down the street in a wheelchair, and I, too, have found myself drawing conclusions as to how he got to be in that situation. But there were things that I didn't see, not because they weren't available for me to know, but because one can only see so much from just looking.

This may seem like an obvious conclusion, that you cannot understand everything about someone or something from just a few glances. But that's not the point. The point is how often do we take our understanding past the initial inferences? I would say that more often than not we content ourselves with the limited understanding that we obtain from first impressions and uninformed conclusions, instead of going further to understand things as they really are.

After talking to Kevin, I found out a few interesting details about his life and past. I found out that Kevin went to USC, and was a student and Trojan just like me. He played baseball at USC and went on to play for the Chicago Cubs. He reads the Sunday newspaper, and follows the sports section religiously. And not too long ago he told me that he had recently gone to visit his aunt and found out that she had passed away unexpectedly. These were all things hidden from my view, and would have remained hidden if I had continued to rely on my own distant interpretation of what I was seeing, watching him from the other side of the street.

This same problem exists in the religious sphere. We observe, and we think we see, but we just don't understand.

Jesus faced serious difficulty in getting people to comprehend what he was all about. In Matthew 13:14 Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, "By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive." He was referring to the Jews and their inability to understand His parables and doctrine. They were unable to appreciate the value of His teachings because they couldn't get past initial judgments like, "Don't we know this guy? Isn't he Joseph's son? Isn't he just a carpenter?" He was indeed, and yet Jesus went on to become one of the most influential religious figures of all time. But many people could not glean any value from His teachings because they were blinded by their own expectations of religious leadership and doctrine.

When it comes to religion we need to be very careful about jumping to conclusions, about making incorrect judgments based on what we can see from our limited perspectives. My point is that it is common for us humans to put stock in pre-established understanding that we constructed, or that we let others construct for us. And this especially affects our understanding of religion. Granted, we can't know everything about everything, and sometimes we may need to content ourselves with a limited understanding. But the real problem is thinking that we have an accurate understanding when we do not. And this is a limitation that needs to be understood when it comes to evaluating religious beliefs, both those of others and our own.