I have written and spoken at length about a comment made on my campus some years ago by the late, great Jewish novelist Chaim Potok. Potok said that day that “we live in a world of colliding maps.” We all construct our maps of reality out of the bits and scraps of information we have been given by our circumstances of history, culture, training, genetics, family, opportunity, and so on. This is our story.
But we find ourselves floating out there in a universe of meaning with no overarching story to make sense of it all. We find ourselves at best bumping into one another in this world of colliding maps. We bump into each other sometimes violently, sometimes cordially, most of the time with not much civility these days, but we have little in common in a world of colliding maps. The best we can do, Potok told my students, is to “get to know our own map really well.”
David Brooks made just this point some time ago in The New York Times.
“We’re all born late. We’re born into history that is well underway. We’re born into cultures, nations and languages that we didn’t choose. On top of that, we’re born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can’t control. We’re thrust into social conditions that we detest. Often, we react in ways we regret even while we’re doing them.”
Even while I chafe at the underlying determinism in these statements, this is all true, isn’t it? There are huge parts of our lives that are beyond our control. We are blessed by some of those circumstances and we are limited by others. We might even feel cursed at times by forces beyond our control or making.
But Brooks goes on to suggest that surely we can make some choices about our lives. We can actually choose the stories by which we live. We can actually compare those maps bumping around and make a choice about which one we believe is the most viable and life-giving. Can’t we?
Listen to Brooks again:
“But unlike the other animals, people do have a drive to seek coherence and meaning. We have a need to tell ourselves stories that explain it all. We use these stories to supply the metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty.
“Among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world. Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves.
“The stories we select help us, in turn, to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore other things. They lead us to see certain things as sacred and other things as disgusting. They are the frameworks that shape our desires and goals. So while story selection may seem vague and intellectual, it’s actually very powerful. The most important power we have is the power to help select the lens through which we see reality.”
I like these statements a lot. I like the notion of choosing the story by which we will make sense of our lives and the world. I have written a great deal about this notion along the way.
But there are some nuances here and in Potok that poke up between the cracks that I don’t buy. It is easy to move from Brooks’ statements here, clear and helpful though they are, to a view that all we have is “the lens through which we see reality.” You’ve got your lens, and I have mine. Sometimes we are even prone to think the lens is actually the only reality there is.
The additional step I want to take as a Christian is to ask if the story I choose is a story about what is true and good and beautiful. Is it a story of human flourishing? Are the results of living by the story I choose life-giving for my own life, my family, my community, and the world? Is the story I choose anchored on ancient patterns of retelling the story, often adjusting and adapting the story over time, but focused on a center we can claim as actually true?
For me, of course, this is the Christian story. Potok and Brooks are certainly right that my Christian story does indeed float about in a universe of meaning, bumping into other stories, competing for influence in the world. We do indeed live out our faith as Christians in a decidedly pluralistic world.
But that does not lead me then to assume that all stories are therefore true and good and beautiful. The challenge for Christians in our day is to understand that our story is a lens, an organizing story. But we must also continue to grow in understanding that this very lens provides the best possible focus on reality and the truth about human flourishing ever to exist.