Meditation in 4149 JFSB

This post was written by Paul Westover, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.


In my English 236 class, a GE course on C. S. Lewis, we recently read “Meditation in a Toolshed,” an essay that begins with a simple anecdote: Lewis, standing in his shed, observes a beam of light entering through a crack at the top of the door. He observes the light from the side, watching the motes of dust floating in it, essentially “seeing the beam” but “not seeing things by it.” Then, Lewis resituates himself so that the beam falls directly on his face. He can now see the tree outside, the light filtering through the leaves, the blue sky, and the sun beyond. He realizes, “Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”

The distinction between “looking at” and “looking along” is important throughout Lewis’s writings. He explains in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, that he first came across it in a work of philosophy by Samuel Alexander. There, the contrast was between “enjoyment” and “contemplation.” One could experience (enjoy) something, or one could think about (contemplate) that experience, but one couldn’t do both at once. The best one could do was toggle quickly between the two modes.

Lewis contends that both modes of vision are essential: they produce distinct but complementary kinds of knowledge. A doctor or scientist may tell us a good deal about pain—what happens with neurons or how the body reacts—yet pain has little meaning for someone who has never felt it. We comprehend pain by looking (so to speak) both at it and along it.

Faculty, students, and alumni of our college—most of whom speak multiple languages—may perceive that Lewis’s looking at/along distinction relates (in epistemological terms) to a basic linguistic one that operates in many cultures. I believe all the Romance languages have it[1]savoir vs. connaître, saber vs. conocer, sapere vs. conoscere, etc.—and German does, too: wissen vs. kennen. Essentially, it’s the difference between knowing facts (and/or knowing how to do something) and knowing by acquaintance. You know your age, but you know your friend. You know how to multiply and divide, but you know your hometown. In English, this verbal distinction has all but disappeared, though elements of it survive in terms like wisdom and ken (notice the similarity to German). Nowadays, we use one word, “know,” to mean all sorts of knowing—probably to our occasional confusion. It’s useful to ask (say, when reading scripture) which kind of “know” is intended. And which kind of “knowing” is more important in a testimony meeting?

The distinction between looking at and looking along has obvious theological applications. For instance, the need to learn through experience as well as intellection helps explain why God’s children should come to earth: we could know many things in premortal life, but some learning requires embodiment and the exercise of agency in the face of opposition. To become what God has in mind, we must look along life in this fallen world as well as at it. Following this line of thought, one of my students found that Lewis’s distinction provided a fresh view of Eve’s decision in Eden: “[Eve] was beguiled because she had no way to know just what it would mean to experience evil, hardship, and [death]….Eve could know that her choice would cause her to experience a knowledge of good and evil—looking at—but she did not know what this would feel like—looking along.” If Lewis’s distinction illuminates the Fall, it also helps explain our Rescue from it. Our Savior’s Atonement is, on one level, the ultimate instance (divine and human) of “looking along” (Alma 7:11–12). Christ knows all heights and depths from the inside. This is the end of His Incarnation, the awful fulness of His condescension, the infinite reach of His compassion.

It’s clear that God has boundless knowledge of all kinds—theoretical and experiential, “outside” and “inside”—and that we should strive, in our small way, to acquire the same. At BYU, “a broad university education” centered on the “arts, letters, and sciences” aims at this eternal purpose.[2]  We trust that students will learn by study, faith, and experience, looking at and along many subjects by the light of the Restored Gospel. This vision of education is fundamental to all BYU courses, but perhaps especially to our Honors Unexpected Connections courses, which pair professors from different disciplines to approach topics from different angles. So, for instance, one of my English department colleagues recently collaborated with an astronomer to teach a course on human attempts to understand the cosmos. Reflecting on their inventive curriculum, I’m reminded of a clever at/along passage from Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace Scrubb, amazed upon meeting Ramandu, a retired star, remarks, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu rejoins, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” It’s important to know what stars are made of, how they form, and how they die—the James Webb Space Telescope is giving us new ways to look at stars at this moment, and the result is wonderous. At the same time, it’s important to contemplate what a star is. As Walt Whitman tells us in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” sometimes we need to step away from the telescope and “[Look] up in perfect silence” at the sky, receiving the stars through imagination and feeling.[3]

No discipline focuses entirely at “looking at” or “looking along.” Both kinds of activity are necessary and valuable. Therefore, when partisans disparage one kind of vision or another, we might recall the beam of light in Lewis’s toolshed. Because “the gospel encourages the pursuit of all truth,” as the BYU Mission Statement insists, we must pursue knowledge from all angles.



[1] It may be that this distinction, prevalent in this language family, doesn’t entirely hold in Latin. I’m told that sapere (notice its kinship with words like “savor”) meant “to taste” as well as “to know” or be wise, so that an experiential element was built in. Meanwhile, cognoscere meant “to recognize” as well as “get to know,” so it included an element of cognition, not merely notions of acquaintance or familiarity. I leave it to my Latinist friends to untie my etymological knots, but I come away convinced that these kinds of knowing were always impossible fully to separate.

[2] This description of a “broad university education” comes from the BYU Mission Statement:

[3] Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” from Drum-Taps (1865).

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