Using a map

As I’m about to stay in the Lake District for a week, I have been checking my maps of the area, which have already been well -used for my exploration of its valleys amd fells. I cannot imagine that any area of the UK is so covered with paths, some ancient, like the Roman High Street between Brougham and Ambleside, some mediaval, like the many “corpse roads,” others more modern, reflecting the recent sports of walking and climbing, but all of them are recorded in the Ordnance Survey maps of the area, although the appearance of a path on the map does not guarantee that it exists on the ground.

Such discrepancies are quickly discovered by those who are addicted to using map and compass rather than the various GPS navigation aids, which are increasingly popular. Using a good map with the help of a compass is adventure: the map may be out of date; landowners may have altered the landscape; weather conditions may be difficult for accurate map reading or direction finding; necessary skills such as taking and following a compass bearing may have atrophied; and incredibly, it’s possible to mistake one’s starting point.

On the other hand, there is great pleasure in recognising the features shown on the maps, the copses of trees, the course of burns or becks, the presence of ancient objects like standing stones, or more recent ones like abandoned mines, the small tarns, the  suddenly increasing gradient of a slope, the recognition of a particular summit as it comes into view. Naturally enough, there is ofetn disagreement between walking partners as to the correct interpretation of the map in relation to the reality, but these arguments have themselves become one of the traditional pleasures of this activity.

Of course, not all countries are lucky enough to have maps as good as British OS. I’ve found myself on Spanish, French or Italian mountains where the official mapping is so poor that it’s best to walk by one’s own understanding of the terrain, and to proceed with some caution. On those occasions the wisdom I’ve gained through using maps stands me in good stead for understanding what I see without them.

Many before me have compared the Christian tradition, the Bible, or the teaching of Jesus to a map, and I don’t want be trite, but it seems to be a reasonable metaphor which helps believers to maintain the real importance of say, the Bible, without becoming fundmentalist. And yes, that metaphor rests on a more fundamental comparison between the way of faith and a journey.

If indeed we see the way of faith as a particular journey through life, then we can see the Bible as a collection of maps, made at different times, for navigating a various kinds of terrain: our moral decisions for example; our dealings with negative emotions like hatred, lust or despair; our social and political belonging; our search for justice, or meaning; our defeats and exiles, and so on. These mappings are the fruit of others’ journeys in their own time and place, but if used well, they can help us recognise features of our “landscapes of life”, suggesting strategies which may be cautious or adventurous depending on circumstance, and which point towards some goodness. The Bible stories or commands require the reader to have skills of interpretation, as maps do of their readers, and to have courage in applying these to their own journey. The relationship between map and territory is not fixed: even more than is the case with maps of the earth, the territory may have changed, the circumstance of the journeyer in faith is always unique, and his/ her skills in navigation will vary, so that different travellers may take different routes, but the Bible/ Map is never irrelevant: it always offers guidance as to objective, direction and route, but it never imposes them: the will and skill of the traveller are always engaged.

There is absolutely nothing new in any of this, The Bible itself like many profound books, depicts true life as a journey, as for example, an exodus from slavery, a journey into the unknown or walking in the footsteps of a teacher, never more clearly perhaps than in these words:

” They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them,” ( Hebrews 11)

In a time when more and more the options for faith seem to be liberal vagueness or fundamentalist certainty, the metaphor of the map which does not determine each footstep but requires the adventure of faith, looks like a good option.


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