Friday, June 20, 2014

A Map is Not the Territory

"Wilderness Path"

The desert wilderness outside our home is riddled with an abundance of hiking trails. In fact if you are adventurous enough you can hike from one end of the valley to the other, over steep mountains and though miles of rocky sandy terrain.  Some of the trails are clearly marked, but for most of them you need some sort of a trail map to help guide you along the way. 

The other day as I came across a whole drawer full of trail maps that we have used from time to time in our jaunts into the wilderness, it struck me that, while the maps are helpful guides, they can't even begin to capture the experience of actually walking along those wilderness trails.

How can a map show you what it's like to look out at the vast expanse of the desert valley floor while standing on top of a mountain? How can a map even come close to capturing the profound silence that thunders in your ears as you hike deep into the desert, or the experience of being stopped in your tracks by a herd of longhorn sheep standing in your path?  How can a map capture the experience of walking through a field of wildflowers, the sight of blooming cacti, blossoms on bushes as the desert bursts into spring?

As I looked into my drawer full of maps,  a phrase I have used many times in the past came to my mind

The map is not the territory

As a college professor I would frequently remind my students that the words we use are nothing more than "maps." And maps are not to be confused with the territory to which they point. 

My office in my home is stacked up with books full of millions of words,  my kindle is so full of books that I wonder if I am getting to the point where I will someday run out of available space. When I sit at my desk the stacks of books that surround me offer me some comfort, like a well-worn sweater or a favorite old shirt. Many of these books have been with me for most of my adult life. They are filled with words about "God" and "church," "religion," and "faith,"and it would be so easy for me to live in the world of these comfortable words. 

But I have come to realize that these books of words are nothing more than maps, of little or no use unless they help point me to walk into the territory where, with an uncluttered mind and open heart I give my "self" to the mystery, to the experience of a Holy Presence that cannot possibly be explained away by a few paltry words. 

Saint Thomas Aquinas was a Christian theologian of the 13th century- arguably the most notable, most prolific and most influential theologian and philosopher ever produced by the Western church. He wrote commentaries, manuals, treatises, and guides systematically defining everything you might ever want to ask about God and the relationship of God to humankind.  

At the end of his life, lying on his his deathbed surrounded by his stacks of all the many books he wrote, Aquinas pointed to them and said that they were nothing but a pile of "straw." All the great systems of theology he devised  (still read to this very day) were little more than "maps," feeble attempts to help point to the great undefinable, unnamable mystery we call "God." 

It reminds me of one of my favorite Zen sayings:

Truth has nothing to do with words.
Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky.
Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger.
The finger can point to the moon. However the finger is not the moon.
To look at the moon it's necessary to gaze beyond the finger.

I think I need to dig out one of my maps and do some hiking in the wilderness today.


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