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Maps, Mysteries and Monsters

I remember the first time I used Google Earth. It was an incredible moment: for the first time I could zoom around the world checking out mountains and lakes and buildings and people and beaches and airports and islands... I was invited to a birds eye view of the Grand Canyons, the Great Wall of China, or the Manhattan skyscrapers. And in that moment, with that whole world beckoning, I did Michael McIntyre has pointed out that we all did the first time on Google Earth: I found my home.

I spend ages letting the dial up internet slowly add to the frazzled image, seemingly pixel by pixel, until I could make out our house and the driveway and a white deck chair that sat in the back garden.

It's hard for me to imagine back to the time when people were still exploring and discovering the earth and its continents and oceans and mountains and distant shores. Today, I'm much more used to our 21st century world where every inch of the planet is viewable on a device in my pocket. But of course, it wasn't always like that.

It's interesting to consider what people did with their maps while they were still discovering continents and islands. Up until the 14th century, generally the maps had no empty spaces, despite not yet being able to depict the whole globe. They would just end the map at the end of what they had thus far explored. Or, they would draw scary mythical monsters in the unknown spaces.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces. This change might indicate either the influence of the scientific method and that they were aware their maps didn't yet represent the whole world. Or, that they had their imperialist eye on the unconquered space...

Irrespective, the shift of paradigm is fascinating to me. As I thought about this cartographical revolution it made me think about me and you and us and theology and culture and the bible... I'll try to explain.

When I look back on 17 year old Clark, I am astounded (and embarrassed) by how 'certain' I was. I remember preaching and teaching in Christian fellowships at school and chatting in small groups from various church settings. I had spent the last few years building up my theology (by 'theology' I mean what I thought was true about myself and creation and the creator and the origins and future of all things) and talked and discussed and prayed and worshipped from that theological framework.

It was like my 'theological map' had no gaps on it.

No space demarcated for mystery. No acceptance that the whole 'globe' had not yet been discovered, explored, understood.

At times, perhaps there were mythical monsters on my theological map: foreign ideas that didn't really gel with my theological worldview. Questions that were best left unasked.

But over time I've been forced to confront some of these mythical monsters. Over time I came to change my mind on some things. And I've tried to grow, and extend and expand.

I know that I haven't yet discovered the 'whole map'. But I think I have gone through a revolution in how I view my theological framework. I now feel much more aware of how much I don't know, despite having learnt so much since I was 17. I still like to understand things well, and feel like my thoughts and beliefs make sense and are coherent. But I'm learning to hold things more lightly, more open handedly.

I heard Greg Boyd say that the Western church has often presented faith and belief in a 'house of cards' framework. With this sort of approach, you build out your 'theological map' in a way that if one little piece comes out, you feel that the whole thing might come tumbling down. This makes people very defensive and opposed to dialogue and debate. It creates a fear that leaves people holding onto their views with eyes closed and hands clenched shut. It polarises us and create echo chambers where we only hear views that agree with us. Greg Boyd suggests we should try and hold our theology as concentric circles with the person of Jesus in the centre, and then levels of theological beliefs going out from that point, with more important beliefs closer, and less important beliefs in the outer circles. This means we're much more open to being wrong on some things, and much more willing to engage in thoughtful conversation: there's not that fear that everything might come tumbling down.

What does all this mean for us? Here's three invitations I've been thinking about: perhaps helpful considerations for some others too:

1) Lighten up

It's hard for me to accept that much of what I believe today I might one day disagree with. But when I do accept that, it helps me to live more humbly and more open-handedly: more willing to listen to and engage with other perspectives. I think I'm less angry and less fearful, and more joyful and excited.

2) Embrace the weird

The Bible is a weird, confusing, complex collection of poems and letters and stories and songs. Let's not pretend that it all makes simple clear sense to any one of us. We need to read and reread, by ourselves and with others, to engage, pray, wrestle, discuss and debate.

I think there's enough in the bible that is clear enough to begin and continue a journey of faith. But, I'm reminding myself not to see the bible filled with scary monsters to be avoided, but rather new countries and islands and mountains to be discovered.

3) Discover different

It might be helpful for you and me to find something we disagree with and to engage with it. Maybe this week we should find a podcast, a book, or blog post - something from a very different framework of reality - and engage with it and let it force new questions. Philosophers sometimes talk of this as extending our cognitive 'horizon'.

I'm having to do lots of this with my Masters in Theology which I'm currently studying. Sometimes it's fun and easy - sometimes deeply challenging. But always worthwhile.

3) Get exploring

More and more, I'm convinced that the journey of real spirituality is much less about holding the right beliefs. Yes beliefs matter. But, beliefs are formed, reformed and outworked in real lives exploring the Creator and creation - including all people and everything on our planet. I'm seeking to see my faith outworked in active love.


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