I’m reading a book about the role women map makers have played in the making of maps throughout history.
I don’t know much about maps or the history of cartography, and I’m not terribly interested in that field of study but it is fairly fascinating to read this author’s attempt to look back on what many would consider to be a fairly object line of work (the creation of maps) and see the way that bias, oppression, and inequality have shaped
(a) who makes the maps (SPOILER: overwhelmingly men and few women) and
(b) the way we (literally, with globes and maps as well as figuratively) look at the world around us.
The author writes that, historically and in the present day, the social location of map makers has had a profound shaping influence on the maps that are produced, and that maps play a shaping and formative role on those who view, use, and study the maps.
I grew up learning that maps were pretty much objective documents – that a map maker would take known borders, actual topography, and the widely used names of places and record them onto some kind of medium for others to access and study and use.
I had no idea how many borders were either currently disputed or had violent and oppressive histories of dispute. I had no concept of how powerful and audacious is the act of naming. I did not understand, in other words, that maps were subjective and perspective-propagating artifacts.
Essentially, I did not understand that neither you nor I nor we are objective. You stand where you stand and I stand where I stand and we see differently because of that.
Anything we create is created from a place of subjectivity.
Anything we read is read from a place of subjectivity.
Anything we interpret is interpreted from a place of subjectivity.
We are subject to our subjectivity and the most powerful subjectivities are the ones we are not aware of.
This idea – often termed Social Location or Standpoint Theory – is one of the most profound challenges to both learning and teaching. We are uniquely shaped by our own experiences and “location,” and our experiences and location demand an incredible amount of humility in how we go about our everyday lives.
Understanding the importance of one’s social location, and the humility demanded by it, is critical for the Church (and those leading and participating in the life of the Church).
Like my early exposure to maps, I was taught that the Bible was an objective document. While complex, there was a simple strand of logical truth that could be universally identifiable and plainly understood by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Understanding the Bible in this way reduced faith to mathematics: as long as you present the right formula of verses to someone, nothing can stand in the way of them accepting and believing what you believe.
The problem is that I’m not very good at math and I don’t think math is very fun. And, despite what the economists believe, the world’s complexity cannot be reduced to numbers or linear equations.
Hear me on this, I believe the Bible and God’s unveiling story are true – but the truth of faith is far more beautiful than any simple, objective, mathematical truth. There’s a reason Paul writes to the Philippians and exhorts them to “focus their thoughts” on not just what is true, but those things that are true while also being excellent, admirable, holy, just, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).