Life + Culture

Microscopes Make the World Larger

Microscopes Make the World Larger

Typically at Desiring God we encourage you to reach for your telescope, not your microscope. Our desire is to help you see and savor the Triune God in all of his manifold glory. And too often his glory is a twinkling little star in the distant firmament of our self-preoccupied consciousness. When that’s the case, we need telescope magnification, since in reality God is massive, bright and awe-full beyond our comprehension and we need to get things back in proper perspective.

But today, I’d like to address a different issue and encourage you to get out a microscope. For microscopes, applied to the right things, also can help us recover a proper perspective.

Speeding Around a Small, Small World

Over recent centuries, our collective knowledge of the cosmos along with everything else has increased astronomically. Now we know that in size comparison, our solar system is to the universe what an atom is to our solar system. One result of this knowledge is that we have a tendency to view everything through what I’ll call a telescopic perspective: we live, as they say at Walt Disney, in “a small, small world.”

Not only that, but technological advancement now allows us to live and move in our small world at high velocity and high volume. We can travel great distances at great speed in cars and planes, seeing many brief glimpses of our tiny world. And when we aren’t traveling, we are squeezing into our short days as much activity, browsing as much information, and interacting briefly with as many social relationships as we can.

We live in a small world at high speed. And the problem is that this way of living tends to produce spiritual barrenness rather than richness.

The Big Picture

That’s why G.K. Chesterton, ahead of his time as usual, was sounding this warning more than a century ago and telling us to get our microscopes back out:

The truth is that exploration and enlargement make the world smaller. The telegraph and the steamboat make the world smaller. The telescope makes the world smaller; it is only the microscope that makes it larger. Before long the world will be cloven with a war between the telescopists and the microscopists. The first study large things and live in a small world; the second study small things and live in a large world.

Chesterton wasn’t bemoaning technological advancement and cosmological discovery. He was bemoaning our tendency to believe that always viewing life through the telescope and zipping around frenetically trying learn, see, and experience a little about a lot of things makes for a more sophisticated, richer life. It doesn’t.

The big picture of the world or a country or a culture or a garden or person is by definition superficial. Flying itself helps us see very little of the world. Book summaries don’t tell us the whole story. Facebook alone won’t help us nurture deep, intimate friendships. They increase speed and volume. But they tend to make the world smaller.

Rather, we must augment our big picture perspectives and high speed, high volume approaches with patient, slow-paced, careful, prolonged observation, examination, and reflection as well as time-intensive discussion. These are things that reveal glories that we’ll never see merely through our telescopes alone. They can function as microscopes, helping us see far more wonders right around us in things we thought we knew, things we’re used to, things we have become bored with. These microscopes help enlarge our world.

Make Room for Microscopes

There is no easy way to incorporate more microscopic observation into our fast-pace, superficial, lives. It takes deliberate, even ruthless effort. I’m very good at it, but I am determined to get better.

The most important microscopes we have, the ones that can’t be neglected, are Bible reading and prayer—which, in a different metaphor, also become telescopes, helping us see our massive God as he is, not distortedly small.

But reading, journaling, pondering, unhurried conversations, long, slow walks, pausing to notice flowers, trees, clouds, laughter, birdsongs, breezes, children, architecture, the wonder of rain, the taste of food, and getting sufficient sleep — these are the kinds of things we must make a place for if we want spiritual richness. They all reveal aspects of God’s fullness (Psalm 24:1).

Our world may be cosmically small, but it is not cosmically insignificant. The Creator and Sustainer of this vast universe (John 1:1-3) once walked this tiny planet (John 1:14). And he has filled it with glory. But we will miss much of the glory if we only look through a telescope and if we move too fast too much of the time.

The Rolling Stones Are Dead

One last word from Chesterton to us, the rolling stone generations living decades after him:

In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, "Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?" But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

Too much rolling leads to lifelessness. Life and true knowledge often grows in stillness (Psalm 46:10).


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