Living in a World of Colliding Maps

The late, great Jewish novelist Chaim Potok said on my campus some years ago that “we live in a world of colliding maps.” I think he is absolutely right about that, though I don’t always like it.

What did he mean by this? In part he meant that each one of us has constructed our own little story, our map, out of the bits and scraps of information we have been given. We are lords over our own maps. And there we are, floating around in a large universe of meaning, bumping into one another from time to time, but with very little compelling sense of connection or direction or congruence. We’re not really sure how we got where we are. We’re not at all sure where we are going.

And we can’t turn to our culture to provide us with an overall narrative to guide the way. No big map out there. No big drama that makes sense of it all.

Potok went on to add what he intended to be an encouragement for our students: “at least get to know your own map very well.” In other words, as long as we live in a decidedly pluralistic world, our only hope is to know our own story well, even as we let others go their own way.

Every time I go out on Google Earth I am amazed. I will zero in on some of the troubled spots of the earth, looking down into the streets of Bagdad or Jerusalem or Nairobi, for example. I might also scan over to see the explosive sprawl of Shanghai and Seoul, looping over into the streets of London and then New York and then across to Seattle. There are maps drawn up, of course, behind every one of these places. And everyone considers their map the right and correct way to look at the world. People are clearly willing to lay down their lives to defend or promote their own map.

But then as I pull back on Google, I can take a long look at the whole marvelous planet, this spectacularly beautiful globe, so green and healthy from this distance, floating as it is in massively big and blue space. And I find myself thinking: Is there a purpose here? Is there a story for the whole thing that brings all of this planet together with some narrative of meaning? Is there hope for this globe, beyond its collisions? Is there a drama of how this globe came to be, how it got to be in this very place, where it is going? Or is it just floating?

I guess my question is whether we have to settle for collision as the only way our world works? This is to settle for power as the only arbiter of truth. If I have more power than you do, then my map wins out as the most true. Nietzsche thought that. But this can’t be, can it?

As a Christian, I believe there is a big drama out there that holds it all together. It is God’s drama. There was a beginning, and in the end, God will make all things right. And I say to myself: At the very least, I’ve got to know this profound story well. I’ve got to study this story. I’ve got to watch attentively for the signs and signals that God’s drama is unfolding. I’ve got to watch so I can see the new things God is doing in the world.

I’ve discovered that’s a way to live meaningfully in a world of colliding maps.