A meditation on what Mark 8 teaches us about seeing
By W. Marshall Johnston
We usually think of our gift of sight as one integrated sense. Most of us are able to see what is around us in a very detailed way. We are aware that there are degrees of acuity from how well we can see near and far to whether we can see colors. I have passable but increasingly deteriorating vision, and I have had multiple surgeries, four on my left eye. So I am especially prone to think about the value of sight.
There is another aspect of how we see: our brain’s ability to make sense of the images that strike our retinas. Ever since I heard of neurologist Oliver Sacks’ work in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (Summit 1995), I knew that there was an intriguing mystery here. What is the process by which we translate light patterns to recognizable details?
The descriptive phrase from science writer Michael Shermer that we are “pattern-seeking, storytelling animals” has furthered my interest. In his review of Robert Wright’s book Nonzero, Shermer says: “We look for and find patterns in our world and in our lives, then weave narratives around those patterns to bring them to life and give them meaning.”
Seeing the “walking trees”
It took me years to realize that, of course, there are biblical passages that most successfully unpack the dimensions of this valuable human ability. While I was discussing the idea of pattern making with some friends, a passage from the Gospels seemed to illuminate the idea perfectly. After Jesus’ feeding of 4,000 in Mark 8, he meets a blind man at Bethsaida. Here is the NRSV translation of the passage (Mark 8:22-26):
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
I am a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy work: When I encounter the “trees walking,” I involuntarily see the Ents of Fangorn Forest. And I believe that this two-stage miracle, unique in the Gospels, conveys even more about how we see, and thus what we see, than I at first realized.
It is easy to use this miracle as a way to explain that there are stages to our progress in the faith—a very orthodox idea. It is worthwhile also to understand that discernment is more than simply immediate impressions. And theologians enjoy discussing issues like whether this man was blind from birth or how this healing fits into the framework of healing miracles in Mark.
However, I find that, for me, this miracle reveals the truth of how and why we are able to see. We first must have the physical ability to perceive light, shape and motion, but we must also have the mental ability to interpret these perceptions.
The gift of real sight
To understand how our ability to make patterns affects what we see, one need only consider instances of recognition. We all have had the experience of seeing an interesting looking person coming around a corner, only in that same moment to realize it is our spouse. Or imagine what we would make of a car if we did not have context for it.
A fascinating illustration from my area of study is Odysseus and the winnowing fan. Since Poseidon still has a grudge against Odysseus after his return to Ithaca, we are told that the god of the sea requires Odysseus to take an oar and walk inland until he comes to a people who will mistake the oar for a winnowing fan. There he is to build a temple. Odysseus travels far to find people who have no pattern into which to fit the idea of an oar.
There is also an analogy to the two stages of vision in how we learn difficult material. In languages, narratives, physical evidence, etc., bright people can learn the best methods and the application of those methods, but it is often a great challenge to do both in sequence. This difficulty seems to occur in contexts ranging from recognizing founder-patterns in Roman history to teasing out subjunctive phrases in Latin. Passages may look like “trees walking” even to very bright students, unless we use our full measure of clearer sight.
Even with the gift of real sight we, being fallen creatures, do not have flawless discernment. We can see dangerous patterns and hazy conspiracies as well as the work of God and his creation that he has put in our care. Our sight can be a blessing or a curse as we choose to use it. When I see a student with a complaint, I can see someone with real concerns and aspirations, or I can see an unwanted interruption. More importantly, when we see a person of another ethnicity in an unexpected place, we can see a possibly dangerous encounter or a child of God.
The surrounding context of this passage in Mark is an eloquent expression of these two parts to our sight. Before the above passage Jesus deals with the physical needs of his people (feeding the 4,000), and afterward conveys his transcendent identity. Just as his saliva is taken from that part of him that is fully man, Jesus sees to the sustenance of his followers. After the miracle, he challenges his followers to identify who he is. Peter alone understands that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the Savior who with his hands can grant that gift that allows not just sight but insight—and, if we listen to the still, small voice, he provides wisdom.
We can see that we need a savior, but it is easy to understand why that vision sometimes leads people to a solution such as Jim Jones or David Koresh. Simple answers can appeal more than the realization that our mortal journey provides a “dark glass” (in Paul and Augustine’s term), as this world can appear to us. Our desire to have clarity, rather than to undertake the complexities of kingdom-service, does not often go so far astray as these pernicious figures, but we must be on guard. It has been my privilege to serve at a Mennonite Brethren school this last decade and to learn better discernment through listening, reflecting and seeing in community.
W. Marshall Johnston is associate professor of history at Fresno Pacific University where he teaches ancient history and classics in the School of Humanities, Religion and Social Science.