“The Myth of Empty Space” by Dallas Willard

I was at my extended family’s house yesterday and saw Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy on a side table. It is a bookish home, and I’m a bookish person, so I’m often flipping over books and picking up where people leave off. It has been 15 years since I’ve looked at The Divine Conspiracy–I’m no longer certain that I’ve ever actually read it–but I was curious because my brother-in-law is reading it with energy. I didn’t have time to read the whole thing, so I just read the footnotes (see the bookish comment above; it’s a geek thing). He uses a C.S. Lewis quote in a way not unlike my “There is No Such Thing as Space.” While my use had to do with the War of Worldviews that Lewis was engaged in, Willard moves it to the realm of the human experience of God. I thought it would be interesting to see the quote in the context Willard gives it, considering Willard’s growing influence among searching evangelicals.

God Wants to Be Seen

Similarly, God is, without special theophanies [special God appearances], seen everywhere by those who long have lived for him. No doubt God wants us to see him. That is a part of his nature as outpouring love. Love always wants to be known. Thus he seeks for those who could safely and rightly worship him.God wants to be present to our minds with all the force of objects given clearly to ordinary perception.

In a beautiful passage Julian of Norwich tells of how once her “understanding was let down into the bottom of the sea,” where she saw “green hills and valleys.” The meaning she derived was this:

If a man or woman were there under the wide waters, if he could see God, as God is continually with man, he would be safe in soul and body, and come to no harm. And furthermore, he would have more consolation and strength than all this world can tell. For it is God’s will that we believe that we see him continually, though it seems to us that the sight be only partial; and through this belief he makes us always to gain more grace, for God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.

Seeing is no simple thing, of course. Often a great deal of knowledge, experience, imagination, patience, and receptivity are required. Some people, it seems, are never able to see bacteria or cell structure through the microscope. But seeing is all the more difficult in spiritual things, where the objects, unlike bacteria or cells, must be willing to be seen.

Persons rarely become present where they are not heartily wanted. Certainly that is true for you and me. We prefer to be wanted, warmly wanted, before we reveal our souls—or even come to a party. The ability to see and the practice of seeing God and God’s world comes through a process of seeking and growing in intimacy with him.

But as we can expect to make progress in the seeing of any subject matter, so also it is with God. Toward the end of his life Brother Lawrence remarked, “I must, in a little time, go to God. What comforts me in this life is that I now see Him by faith; and I see Him in such a
manner as might make me say sometimes, I believe no more, but I see.” The heavens progressively open to us as our character and understanding are increasingly attuned to the realities of God’s rule from the heavens.

The Myth of Empty Space

So we should assume that space is anything but empty. This is central to the understanding of Jesus because it is central to the understanding of the rule of God from the heavens, which is his kingdom among us. Traveling through space and not finding God does not mean that space is empty any more than traveling through my body and not
finding me means that I am not here.

out of the silent planet by c.s. lewisIn Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis gives an imaginative description of how one of his main characters, Ransom, experiences a “progressive lightening and exultation of heart” as the airship carrying him moves away from the earth:

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam…. He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more!

Some may object that this is only literature. Yes, but it is nonetheless helpful in loosening the baseless images that, without scientific validation of any sort, flood in from the culture of pseudoscience to paralyze faith. Sometimes important things can be presented in literature or art that cannot be effectively conveyed in any other way.

Certainly mere space travel is not the way to discover the divine richness that fills all creation. That discovery comes through personal seeking and spiritual reorientation, as well as God’s responsive act of making himself present to those ready to receive. Only then we cry with the Seraphim, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” as we find “the whole earth full of his glory.”

In a striking comparison, Ole Hallesby points out that the air our body requires envelops us on every hand. To receive it we need only breathe. Likewise, “The ‘air’ which our souls need also envelops all of us at all times and on all sides. God is round about us in Christ on every hand, with his many-sided and all-sufficient grace. All we need to do is to open our hearts.”

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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11 Responses to “The Myth of Empty Space” by Dallas Willard

  1. jubilare says:

    Whew. Love, love, love this!
    ” We prefer to be wanted, warmly wanted, before we reveal our souls—or even come to a party. ” I feel dull for coming to this understanding so slowly, but… humanity looks at God so much from an internal perspective. What is God to us? How do we feel about God? And this can be so ingrained in us that it is hard for us to even realize that empathy is a God-given thing… which means that God feels, and therefore we can, and should, consider God’s perspective, at least as much as our limited understanding allows.

    “Some may object that this is only literature.” Yes… though I’ve always been astounded by the images we have, now, of “space” that seem to bear out Lewis’s imaginings. Science may one day catch up/catch on. ^_^


  2. Dawn says:

    I think I need to read Dallas Willard.

    I loved this: In a striking comparison, Ole Hallesby points out that the air our body requires envelops us on every hand. To receive it we need only breathe. Likewise, “The ‘air’ which our souls need also envelops all of us at all times and on all sides. God is round about us in Christ on every hand, with his many-sided and all-sufficient grace. All we need to do is to open our hearts.”

    Is it a cheat to quote the conclusion? Regardless, I have tried to practice in the ever presence of God for a few years now. Sometimes it becomes a cop-out. “Yeah, yeah, I know God is here. Moving on.” But when I truly practice that mindfulness of God, I truly am more empathetic, more just, more loving.


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  7. keebslac1234 says:

    An image pops up for me, reading this. I have seen a wrestling coach mime to his wrestlers in breaks in the action — With exaggerated movements he models the breaths he wants his athletes to take. It’s important to oxygenate.Sometimes, too, I have to be reminded to “breathe” in the richness of God’s presence, as you and your commenters point out, the concept of God in the very air in which we are enveloped and which can help us see by its effect on the surroundings.


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