The map is not the territory

February 3, 2013

in Some Things to Think About

When Martha my teacher / coach taught me the rudiments of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), she gave me a model for how the human mind works. Whether or not you agree with this model, you must admit that some of its ideas are quite provocative:

  • Our memories and emotions profoundly influence our behaviours
  • The way we use language shapes our thinking
  • A good deal of what happens in our mind is unconscious

One of the ideas that Martha emphasised was “The map is not the territory.” By this she meant that each person lives in a world that touches on but is not the same as “what is” or external reality. All of us filter out aspects of reality — generalize, delete and distort what comes into our senses into something that fits our model of the world. We create our own “map” of reality — our unique mental model — so we can follow it and live more easily. It is a constant temptation to believe that our “map” is 100% accurate and actually is identical with the territory of “what is” or reality. That is simply not possible. The human mind is built to work like this — as a “mapping” or pattern recognition device simplifying reality — and we cannot escape being human. What does this have to do with living in a “grace filled world?”

The Christian “map” and God’s “territory”

Christians are human — and therefore must have a map of the world to function.  Christians also believe they live in God’s Kingdom and depend on God’s grace in a profound way to find their  way into and around the Kingdom. How do we put these two ideas together? It seems to me that there are two basic alternatives:

  1. Christians must create a different kind of “map” for themselves which includes aspects of the Kingdom (at least as far as it can be experienced in this world). In other words, through the normal human growth processes, Christians encounter God in other Christians, the Bible, etc and use their freedom to create a Christian “map” to follow.
  2. God must intervene and inject some special features into the Christian “map” to help us find our way into and then around the Kingdom. This alternative means that God gives humans gifts of insight and other graces to expand their “map” This alternative says that supernatural forces add to or even override the normal human growth processes.

Putting it this way, it seems to me that God would never override human freedom even to achieve a good end — a human mental model (“map”) that includes the Kingdom. No matter how much we Christians would like to depend on God to steer us through the world with some special infallible “map” we are no different then any other human being. We must build our own map to include God’s Kingdom, or it won’t be there when we need it. This reality creates an urgency for Christians to form their “map”  — their mental model for the world and the Kingdom — according to God’s reality.

Creating a Christian “map”

How do we create our Christian “map” of reality? By using and combining three different sources as we grow in our faith — our own efforts, those of the church, and those of God. We must have all three — else we begin to run the risk that our Christian “map” will be just our own construction and not reflect God’s reality. These three sources work in many ways; I will highlight one way for each source to give you an idea of what I believe growth in faith means.

  •  Our own efforts. Basically this means we take our growth as Christians seriously, and “work out our salvation in fear and trembling.” Human growth takes effort; everyone knows that. Education, physical wellness and fitness, even spiritual meditation all require an individual to spend time and energy on growth. “No pain, no gain.” If a Christian never reads, reflects or prays they are unlikely to create a mature “map” of the world and the Kingdom.
  • The church. Over and above what an individual Christian does, the church is a primary factor in Christian growth. If a local church neglects the growth of its congregation, then the “maps” of its members will be immature and possibly even wrong. Christian education, sacraments, liturgy and fellowship are essential to every Christian’s growth. There is no wisdom in the statement “I am Christian but I don’t go to church.” Yes, you might have been baptised but you also may still be a Christian “infant” as far as your Christian “map” of the world and the Kingdom are concerned.
  • God’s grace. Notwithstanding the first two sources, no Christian can create a valid “map” of the Kingdom without God’s involvement. Even Jesus withdrew periodically to be with the Father. Why? The answer is that the Christian “map” is mysterious and alive. It is not simply the way the human mind processes data and recognises patterns (although it is that too). The Christian “map” is more like a relationship than a model, handbook or guide.  This relationship transforms the “map” we humanly construct because our “coach” (not an NLP guru like Martha) is there with us . We are not alone, using our map to navigate the world and the Kingdom. “God is my co-pilot” might be a reasonable image, helping us as we create and use our “map” to grow and guide our lives toward an often unseen purpose. Prayer is the common way we experience God and mature as Christians.

The point of this post — and my entire Grace Filled World blog — is to awaken Christians (including myself!) to the serious task of taking responsibility for our growth in the faith.

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