Today, as I was reading Isaiah 42 I was struck by how much it made me think about Plato’s allegory of the cave. In case you have not heard it or read it, the story can be summarized like this. (Here is a link for the full allegory)
Socrates was talking with a man named Glaucon. They were discussing the idea of knowing truth and the assent the mind can take in coming to know things at varying degrees of clarity. Socrates goes on to give an illustration of this reality.
Socrates tells about a group of people who have spent their whole lives in a cave, chained at the hands, feet, and neck. The could not look behind them, but were forced to keep their gaze set on a wall in front of them. On this wall danced shadows of different shapes. Since this is all these prisoners knew they perceived this as ultimate reality.
What these prisoners could not see is the other forces at play within and outside of the cave. Behind the prisoners was a fire, covered somewhat by a wall. However, enough light escaped over the edge to cause the shadows to flicker along the wall. In addition, there was a walkway that traversed through the edge of the cave and led up and out of the cave. People would walk along this path carrying various things. It was the interplay of these people, the light from outside, and the light of the fire that created what the prisoners saw on the wall and heard in their ears.
The prisoners were so entrenched in this existence, that some became the wise ones of this experience. Certain prisoners would predict which shadows would come next and what each shadow would do or sound like. The flickering shadows become their complete reality and each was totally engrossed in it.
One day a prisoner was taken up out of the cave by force, since that is the only way he would leave the cave. The prisoner was thrust into the blinding light and could not bear it. It was painful and mind boggling. How could he make sense of what he was experiencing? The truth was, he couldn’t. So he ran back to his familiar captivity to tell the others and get his bearings. The prisoner’s first taste of freedom did not feel free at all and his fellow prisoners perceived him to be a fool, for they could not comprehend any reality except the one dancing on the wall.
As time went on, the prisoner was thrust back out of the cave. Each time becoming acclimated to new sensations. First the shadows, then the reflections, then the real objects. Each new sensation was painful at first. But, as time passed he got used to it and seemed to even began to love it. He could now never go back to the former and be content. Eventually, the prisoner will be truly free and no longer a prisoner. Eventually, the prisoner will be able to look directly at the sun, the source of all he had experienced. Everything from the shadows, to the reflections, and the things that truly danced upon the earth.
However, no matter how many times the former prisoner went back to try and speak the truth to the others, they considered him a fool and began to see it as dangerous to journey out of the cave. Incredible! How could they be so blind? When I read in Isaiah this morning, I was stunned to see how much Isaiah 42:14-25 described the blind prisoners.
“Hear, you deaf!
And look, you blind, that you may see.
Who is blind but My servant,
Or so deaf as My messenger whom I send?
Who is so blind as he that is at peace with Me,
Or so blind as the servant of the Lord?
You have seen many things, but you do not observe them;
Your ears are open, but none hears.
The Lord was pleased for His righteousness’ sake
To make the law great and glorious.
But this is a people plundered and despoiled;
All of them are trapped in caves,
Or are hidden away in prisons;
They have become a prey with none to deliver them,
And a spoil, with none to say, “Give them back!”
Who among you will give ear to this?
Who will give heed and listen hereafter?
Who gave Jacob up for spoil, and Israel to plunderers?
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
And in whose ways they were not willing to walk,
And whose law they did not obey?
So He poured out on him the heat of His anger
And the fierceness of battle;
And it set him aflame all around,
Yet he did not recognize it;
And it burned him, but he paid no attention.”
One of the things that astonished me about this section of scripture was verse 42:22 “But this is a people plundered and despoiled; All of them are trapped in caves, Or are hidden away in prisons; they have become a prey with none to deliver them, And a spoil, with none to say, “Give them back!” As sad as the state of the prisoners was, the sadder reality is that no person could help them. This gives me a reality check about my role as a teacher. Education literally means ‘to lead out‘. People are lost and convinced that reality is nothing more than the shadows that dance before them. They have no idea the splendor that lays beyond. I must be about the business of directing the gaze of my students to the One who is about the business of leading out. What is even more interesting is the very next chapter in Isaiah is a picture of our freedom. In the midst of life in the cave whether it be us or our students, our Creator proclaims what is true about each of us.
“But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel,
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
“For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your place.
“Since you are precious in My sight,
Since you are honored and I love you,
I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life.
“Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
And gather you from the west.
“I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
And to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring My sons from afar
And My daughters from the ends of the earth,
Everyone who is called by My name,
And whom I have created for My glory,
Whom I have formed, even whom I have made.”
There is more beyond the particulars we see in front of us. More than the schedules, the curriculum printed on the page, and more than the words on the page. There is some more real that causes all of this to be and we are invited to partake and invite others along with us.
“Bring out the people who are blind, even though they have eyes,
And the deaf, even though they have ears.
All the nations have gathered together
So that the peoples may be assembled.
Who among them can declare this
And proclaim to us the former things?
Let them present their witnesses that they may be justified,
Or let them hear and say, “It is true.”
“You are My witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
So that you may know and believe Me
And understand that I am He.
Before Me there was no God formed,
And there will be none after Me.
“I, even I, am the Lord,
And there is no savior besides Me.
“It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed,
And there was no strange god among you;
So you are My witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“And I am God.
“Even from eternity I am He,
And there is none who can deliver out of My hand;
I act and who can reverse it?”
Wow. This raises so many questions in my mind. What exactly is my role as teacher? How to we, as teachers, participate with Christ, in helping to break chains, proclaim the former things, and lead our students out? What am I gazing at and calling it real when it is only a flickering shadow? Lord have mercy.
What about you? What thoughts and questions does the allegory of the cave raise for you? What thoughts and questions does the Isaiah section raise for you.
Expanding wisdom, extending grace,