Taylor: Seeing bigger picture in a tiny fragment

All these people had one thing in common—an ability to look at the part and see the whole.

Everyone knows that Isaac Newton discovered the theory of gravity when an apple fell on his head.

Whether the story is factually true or largely mythical, the event caused him to wonder why that apple should fall down, not up. From his wondering emerged a fuller understanding of how the universe hangs together.

Physicist Frithof Capra looked at a beach, and saw the Dance of Shiva—the cycle of creation and destruction—taking place.

Mystic Julian of Norwich looked at a humble hazelnut and realized that it encapsulated her theology of God’s relationship with humans.

Poet William Blake wrote:

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

All these people had one thing in common—an ability to look at the part and see the whole.

Not everyone can do it.

At a men’s breakfast recently, the program organizer asked participants to describe a single significant event that had influenced the rest of their lives. Several in the group—I wasn’t keeping count—couldn’t do it.

They had certainly had significant events in their lives. But they didn’t seem able to isolate one part that revealed the whole. They had to tell their whole life story—abbreviated, of course, but still starting from “I was born in….”

They were like tourists who have to include the full spread of a city, the prairies, the mountains, into a single photograph.

And yet a close-up of dew on a single rose may document the beauty of a garden better than a picture of the whole spread. Stiletto heels clicking on a sidewalk may say as much about a city as a panorama of soaring office towers.

The concept of part and whole has been popularized recently by holographic images and fractals.

If you cut an ordinary photograph into smaller bits, all you have is fragments, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No single piece contains the entire image.

But if you break the carrier of a holographic image into pieces, you will still have the whole image in each piece—not as sharp as the original, but recognizably complete.

Fractals do the same, but mathematically. No matter how finely you zoom in on the output of the formula, the pattern recurs. It doesn’t necessarily repeat. Each iteration is not identical. But each is recognizably part of a coherent whole.

Fractals have no beginning. And no end point. They just are.

Newton and Capra, Julian and Blake, created the equivalent of fractals and holographs with words and ideas, long before such things were technically possible.

So did Jesus of Nazareth, in his parables. Scholars and preachers have developed infinite interpretations of each parable. But perhaps, like fractals or holographs, they are all small representations of the same theme: “This is the way you should live.”

Early Christians were known as people of The Way.

But if Blake makes no sense to you, Jesus probably won’t either.