I’m writing this article in the study of some German friends, having arrived from Adelaide in Australia to their little German village, Bad Mergentheim, yesterday. Maybe it’s partly because of the jetlag, but this place is making my wife and I feel really befuddled.
See, Adelaide has a strong German heritage, because German Pietists came to Adelaide in the nineteenth century. When they arrived, they obviously wanted to feel at home, so they built their homes in areas with similar climates to Germany, using German architectural designs. The outer suburbs of Adelaide like Hahndorf, Lobethal, and the Barossa are also filled with food inspired by Germany: there are German pubs with German meals, German beers, German sausages. Many of the older wineries seriously look like nineteenth-century German castles. So I’m used to all this stuff… kinda.
When Leanne and I were being driven from Frankfurt to this little town, we drove through many villages and towns that look a lot like what I’ve seen around Adelaide. It’s just that it’s more “real” here, if that makes sense. In Adelaide, it look superimposed, a replica, almost fake – no, that’s not fair, it’s not fake. After all, for the German immigrants, it’s a latching onto what was real for them before.
The thing is, we are in the place they were latching onto, but we’re only used to the replica. So my wife routinely asked on the drive, “So do real people live in those houses? Or is it just a replica village?” Our friend would look at her quizzically and say, “Of course it’s real!”, because she lives in one of those houses herself.
This got me thinking of Plato’s Analogy of the Cave. Plato describes a bunch of people locked in a cave, who eternally face the wall of the cave, not the sun streaming from the cave-mouth behind them. They see the shadow of things that pass by the mouth of the cave, and their own shadows on the wall, and think that the shadows are the reality – it’s all they know. One day, one of them escapes, turns around, and goes outside to see the real world. He sees the realities from which the shadows have come from. Elated by his discovery, he returns to tell his compatriots still stuck in the cave, so they can be liberated into the reality outside the cave-mouth too. Sadly, though, they don’t believe him – they think he’s mad.
Christians have often resonated with Plato’s analogy, because of our sense that, while this world in which we live is real, there is something more real beyond it. C. S. Lewis, for example, wrote about that in his book on the afterlife, The Great Divorce. In his vision of heaven, grass is really green, rain drops so real they are heavier than we could imagine now. More than that, people are more real there – they are the complete, whole reality, the culmination of their life here. The hope of the Christian is not to escape this reality, but enter into a deeper one.
Our German holiday shows me that, perhaps one reason why people – Christian or not – struggle to comprehend, appreciate or accept that hope, is because they can only see the “real” in front of them. Tangibility is an attractive option to base your reality upon. Indeed, the only reason any Christian can begin to appreciate the higher reality, is because One Who is from there, came here, and showed us the way. He also told us that if we follow that way – which is actually Himself (“I am the Way”, He said in John 14:6) – He is preparing a place for us to participate in that reality. The realest reality.
I just hope they have really good Bavarian pretzels there, they’re delicious.