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The Infinite and the Finite

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One of the enduring problems of philosophy and science is the infinite and the finite. Not unlike the “one and the many”[1] dilemma, philosophers have argued through the ages that one must be correct. Either reality is one (singularity) or it is many (plurality). The Christian doctrine of the Trinity however, lays the axe at the root of the tree and claims that it is both. Ultimate Reality, i.e. God, is both one and three, singularity and plurality. The problem of the infinite and the finite finds a similar resolution within the pages of the Bible.

For many thinkers through the ages, they thought it was absurd that an infinite God could be comprehended or even pondered by finite men. There is a sense where this is true. The finite is, by way of comparison, infinitely less capable of ascertaining the infinite. They argued that the same is true in the opposite direction. The infinite has no common ground with the finite, so infinity knows nothing of finitude. In other words, how can a being that has no beginning or end relate to a being that does. The two have no common ground, the argument goes, so essentially, it is futile in trying to reconcile the two. Two parables by the early twentieth century Bohemian author Franz Kafka exemplify this conundrum well.

The first parable, “Before the Law,” reveals Kafka’s belief that man cannot reach God. The short parable introduces us to man standing outside a gate attempting to gain admittance to “the Law.” The gatekeeper tells him that he can’t allow it. At every turn the man is denied entrance and finally in desperation near the end of his life he asks the gatekeeper a question that never occurred to him before: “Everyone strives to reach the Law, so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” Kafka’s answer to the man belies a widespread belief among the finite. “The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: ‘No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.’” [2]

The second parable comes from the short story, “The Great Wall of China.” In this parable, the Emperor has a message for you—“the humble subject”—and immediately sends a messenger to bring it to you. The messenger swiftly dodges obstacles and long distances in his attempt to bring the Emperor’s important message to you, but sadly, will never reach you:

But instead how vainly does he [the messenger] wear out his strength; still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed; and after the courts the second outer palace; and once more stairs and courts; and once more another palace; and so on for thousands of years; and if at last he should burst through the outermost gate--but never, never can that happen--the imperial capital would lie before him, the center of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment. Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.[3]

Kafka’s two parables show his view (which also represents a vast many others) of the infinte and finite dilemma from both sides. “Before the Law” gives us the finite perspective of the infinite, and “The Great Wall” looks from the perspective of the infinite. Both find that the other is unreachable and both end in despondency. But is this the true nature of things? Is ultimate reality finite or infinite? Does it matter? Does the Bible speak to these things? Obviously, I believe it does and we will explore these and other questions in greater depth over the next few weeks.

For a helpful discussion of the "one and the many" please see Pushing the Antithesis, the Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen (pages: 81-85)
Franz Kafka, “Before the Law,” The Complete Stories (New York, NY: Schocken Books, [1971] 1995), 4.
[3] Frank Kafka, "The Great Wall of China," THe Complete Stories (New York, NY: Schocken Books, [1971] 1995), 244.

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