Flying By The Instruments

I was told once that it is possible when flying an airplane to lose track of whether you are flying rightside-up or upside-down—presumably because when you can’t see the ground or are flying through clouds or fog, you lose track of everything. It was then, I was further told, that it became crucial that you fly by the instruments. That is, if the instrument panel in front of the pilot indicated that he was flying upside-down, he trusted the instrument panel’s information regardless of how he actually felt. He might have felt that he was flying rightside-up—and in fact he might have been sure that he was flying rightside-up—but he must disregard his subjective feelings and fly by what the instruments in front of him indicated. Otherwise he might try to come in for a landing while he was upside-down and experience disaster.

A dear friend of mine confirmed this sort of thing for me recently: he was a passenger in a small six-seater plane travelling in Alaska and he noticed a string hanging from the ceiling with a paperclip on the end of it. Not unnaturally his curiosity was aroused and he asked what was the deal with the hanging paperclip. He was told that it was a kind of backup system for the instruments: if the paperclip was lying against the ceiling, they were flying upside down. Okay then. Good to know.

This means that in flying airplanes as in many things in life, our subjective feelings are not always the best guide to reality. We often need something outside of our feelings, something objective, to act as a confirmation and a corrective. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s advice, “Trust your feelings, Luke” is not always the way to go.

This necessity of having an objective standard apart from our feelings holds good in doing theology as well as flying airplanes. We are all children of our age, subject to the incessant and effective barrage of a secularized world-view (read: “propaganda”) that inundates us. Each epoch has its own insights and its own blind-spots, and we cannot readily identify our blind-spots all the time because we are children of our epoch and have been thoroughly conditioned by our education and our surroundings. Our subjective feelings about what is right, good, virtuous, and healthy cannot always be trusted. We may feel absolutely certain that our views about what is good and what is bad are correct, just as a pilot surrounded only by fog and cloud may feel absolutely certain he was flying rightside-up. But we may be badly mistaken just the same, and might be flying upside-down. And more alarmingly, we may never know this until we finally come in for a landing after our lives end and we pass over to the other side. If we were in fact flying upside-down, the landing will end in disaster. That is why it is so important to have an objective standard for these things, and to fly by the instruments.

For a Christian, the instruments are the Holy Scriptures, as interpreted by the Church throughout the centuries and accessed through the consensus of the Fathers. Today, possibly more than ever, we need to fly by these instruments and not trust our own subjective feelings. Our age is becoming increasingly crazy, and it is easier than ever to fly upside-down while feeling that we are flying rightside-up. I mention two examples out of many: the Church’s teaching about eternal punishment and about sexuality.

Regarding the former, because our epoch has lost its sense of sin, we tend to regard the notion of eternal punishment as inherently immoral. In our secret heart of hearts, we regard everyone has basically good (if perhaps sometimes obviously flawed), and so we are both mystified and repelled at the thought of anyone going to hell. Okay: maybe some punishment could be meted out to bad people for a while after they die (like getting the strap in the Principal’s Office in the old days), but the punishment and suffering must eventually come to an end. We believe that no one must suffer eternally, and we find the notion of eternal suffering morally repugnant.   A God who could countenance allowing anyone to suffer like that, even if the punishment were self-inflicted, would not be a good God. We have, in fact, become rather squeamish about the whole thing, yet we are dead sure that we are right and all previous ages were wrong. We are dead sure we are flying rightside-up.

Regarding the latter, we observe that our epoch has lost both its sense of modesty and restraint, as well as its mooring in universal norms, and so we believe 1. Sex before marriage is perfectly normal and acceptable; and 2. Sex with a person of either gender is also perfectly normal and acceptable. We feel that as long as the sex happens between consenting adults, it is all just fine. This approach to sexuality is so ingrained in our modern Western culture that it is never questioned, and those who do question or reject it are dismissed as quixotic at best and morally dysfunctional at worst. More than this, they are increasingly vilified in the media, and sometimes driven from the public square. Once again, those who accept the modern secular view of sexuality are dead sure they are virtuous and right and it is the others who are flying upside-down.

This is why it is important to fly by the instruments, reading and trusting the Scriptures rather than our own subjective feelings. The Scriptures are crystal clear that an eternal hell will be the fate of some, that sex before marriage is sinful, and that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. Everything in our Western culture screams to us that these traditional teachings are wrong, and that Western culture is currently flying rightside-up. Christians must therefore fly by the instruments, no matter what their feelings tell them. The cost of trying to land upside-down is very high. And we are all of us coming in for a landing soon enough.

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