Climbing the Cook’s Ridge trail I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!”
So, who was right? Were either of us right?
In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my human conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.
I didn’t ask my partner about her thought process. I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at swiss cheese. Yes, she may have thought, this tree stump looks most like swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.
Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.
We all do this. A lot. We use our own internal thoughts and ideas to describe the external, particularly when encountering the novel or new. The creatures that live in the holes (if any even do) have no conception of apartment building. The holes in this stump were most likely not created in the same process that results in holes in swiss cheese.
The trouble with using our own internal thoughts and ideas to describe the external is that we can begin to think of our descriptions as objective fact. For example, we may describe someone else as “liberal” or “conservative” using our internal ideas of those terms. Our definitions may not be the same as another person’s definition.
We also do this with the one I call God. (I use the term “God” to describe the loving, non-coercive essence that connects each of us, that lives within each of us, and that encourages all that is to respond in each moment to respond in the most-loving way.) For me, the Christian narrative helps me to make sense of the divine. The person of Jesus serves as my teacher, rabbi, guru, and model for how to respond lovingly and become who I am created to be.
However, if I become so tied to the Christian narrative as objective fact that I do not respond in love to others, then I’ve not only become idolatrous, I’ve missed the truth: the love and interconnectedness that underlies all that is.
If I become so convinced of the rightness of my description of the hole-y tree stump as Rodent Apartment versus my hiking partner’s Swiss Cheese, I risk severing our relationship. That’s serious business when it is neither.