Faith as a Way of Seeing

"Learning to see is the key, for you see what you are."

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

A few months ago, I saw a framed print; in beautiful calligraphy it read, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” The quotation was credited to H. M. Tomlinson (1873–1958), a British journalist and essayist.

The quotation actually comes from the Talmud, a huge collection of commentary written by thousands of ancient rabbis who were commenting on the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament).

The saying reminds me of those kinds of pictures where you can see two different images depending on how you look at it. Many times, a viewer will see only one image, and can’t see the second until someone else points it out. Even after we recognize both images are there, it is impossible to see both at the same time. Studies have shown that the eye can only process one pathway of information at a time. Usually, what we see is determined by what we expect to see.

That insight is true of most of life. Winston Churchill once said that “the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” It’s similar to the old saying about whether you see a glass as half full or half empty. The kind of person we are will determine what we see.

But we also learn from such experiments that we can learn to see in different ways. When we have seen both images in one of those pictures, we can choose which image we will see at any given time after that, even though nothing in the picture itself changes as we flip from one image to the other.

William Bausch, echoing the Talmud, writes that “Learning to see is the key, for you see what you are.” I think this is a useful way of talking about faith.

Above all, Christianity is a way of seeing. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that “Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers, or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a huge difference.”

One of my favourite Christian singer/songwriters is Ken Medema. This blind man sings a lot about seeing. One of his songs sings about “Sunday and Monday eyes”:

“Monday eyes see practical necessity, building the economy, the killing of the enemy, the guarding of our ethnic purity, protecting the Great Society, giving the world democracy even if it means killing and torturing to do so. Monday morning minds create the policies of sovereign states, talk of good and thrive on hate, and God help you if you deviate for fear that you might create confusion which we cannot tolerate.

“Sunday eyes can see the world in a whole new light: making real the weakness that the strong despise, and the wisdom which confounds the wise. Sunday light exposes lies, cuts the monsters of our Monday world down to size, sees the tears which the suffering cry and shuns the power which money buys. Sunday morning minds are free to love the enemy, dream a new community, see a new reality.

“Monday morning eyes can see the things they think are good for me and Monday morning eyes go rushing headlong across the way, across the road, not caring who they trample on and Sunday morning eyes can view the man who stands beside the road, the lonely woman, the frightened child, the hopeless one who has no one to tend him or her. Sunday morning eyes will not let me go on until something I have done will make a difference.

“Monday morning eyes will see that things must be done efficiently, and if it is not quickly done, then Monday morning eyes will soon be gone. Sunday morning eyes will take time to search the road, and find the hopeless one, restore the rhyme and reason of life no matter how much time it takes, for heaven’s sake.”

It strikes me that everything in Christian life flows from how our vision is transformed by compassion and grace. Christian people seek to see the world from the perspective of Jesus, and seeing differently, they learn to live differently in the world.

3rd–century theologian, Origen of Alexandria once remarked that “holiness is seeing with the eyes of Christ.” 20th–century Roman Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin said with great passion that his mission as a Christian thinker was to help people see. 13th–century Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas said that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is a “beatific vision”, an act of seeing.

Faith is a way of seeing. May your perspective on life be renewed so that you might learn to see with Sunday morning eyes of compassion, grace and love.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook