This is Part One of the ongoing series “Maps and Territories.”
It is very easy for us to raise our beliefs above God.
Let me take an example from my own life. When I was younger, I deeply and firmly believed that Christianity and the Bible were perfectly and exactly true. This in itself was not a problem – indeed, I still believe this – but I was still slightly too young to understand about metaphor and figurative language. This led me to believe certain things which I now suspect were misinterpretations on my part. One such conviction, which I now disagree with, was that the earth was created in literally six days ten thousand years ago.
I once mentioned this belief to some of my friends. Two of them, one knowledgeable in science and the other in Biblical studies, remarked that they didn’t think that was the case. The aspiring scientist showed me convincing evidence that the earth was actually several billion years older than I had thought, and the young Bible scholar showed me that Genesis was fairly clearly meant to be read as metaphor, and had been so interpreted for centuries.
I had two choices. I could have examined their evidence – they could have been wrong, after all – and then changed my mind accordingly. This would have been the common sense approach.
Instead, I turned to my friends and said, “No! My God says the earth was created in six days, and I’m going to believe that no matter what you say.” You see my dangerous error – I thought I was being faithful, when I was really being willfully stubborn. But my faith was not in the God of the universe, for I was ignoring the evidence the universe was giving me; nor the God of the Bible, for I ignored the evidence of my Bible scholar friend as well.
No, my faith was directed to myself, to my own beliefs. I had created an idol without even noticing it, an idol of my own thought, and I would defend that idol even to the point of turning away from the real God’s beautiful nature and creation. My only defense is that I really, truly did believe that I was trying to be faithful to God – I was simply misguided in what that looked like. I was less guilty of sin and more guilty of confusion.
It’s also important to realize, however, that my idolatry did not stem from having what I now think were incorrect opinions. Rather, my error was in refusing to reconsider my beliefs. It might even still be the case that the Earth is, in fact, only ten thousand years old – anything is possible – but all the information I had been given said otherwise. Before being confronted with my friends’ evidence I was actually being virtuous in believing what I believed. I was using all the information I had to get a better idea of who God was. But as soon as I refused to keep doing that, I started going wrong. I stopped pursuing God and began to guard my theories about Him instead.
There is an old saying that says, “The map is not the territory.” That is, a representation of something is not the thing itself. It can be helpful for us to imagine our beliefs as a sort of map, a map that corresponds to the real world. We must shape our thoughts to reality in the same way that a chart must be shaped to the land it displays. My problem could be described in this way: I had mistaken my map for the territory. I had forgotten that my beliefs about God were not the same as God Himself, and had therefore thought that changing my mind would be abandoning God, when it was really abandoning my probably mistaken opinions. To abandon God is a lack of faith; but to abandon our beliefs in light of new evidence is proper faith, faith directed towards truth.
For the next few weeks, we’re going to explore what it means to think of our beliefs this way, and how we can avoid my mistake of mixing up my map and territory, my beliefs and reality. Our first question, however, should be this – where did this confusion of mine come from?