In Part 1 of this series, we pondered the need to see ourselves and our traditions “not from the center but rather from the periphery,” suggesting this shift in perspectives—looking in rather than securely looking out—begins a remarkable expansion of understanding of your faith, spirituality, and world. Learning how to view from the “outside in” is key to every aspect of our growth. Let me explain.
When we turn from immersion in our ordinary experience toward an outer-space view of our whole lives, we are likely to experience what astronaut-philosopher Frank White (1987) termed the “Overview Effect” in interviews with fellow space-traveling astronauts. Those who had seen Earth from space disclosed a consistent pattern of expanding personal insight, overflowing into the complex mid-twentieth century culture that never seemed to get enough of that stunning 1972 “Blue Marble” print.
Through this photograph—no matter how widely traveled or read—humanity was actually seeing itself for the very first time. Suddenly, the vast Earthen territory we had perceived became a small marble suspended in the vacuum of an uninhabitable space. Looking in after millennia of looking out from the small patch of land we called home changed everything.
This is why Christianity needs to see itself from its periphery: we understand who we really are when we relinquish the limited view of the illusory center and head to “outer space.”
Looking in on ourselves, our relationships, and our institutions—rather than simply being embedded in them—is essential for our growth. To know who we are, we need to move beyond the perceptual illusions that so forcefully, yet often imperceptibly, limit our understanding of what is really there. This is risky, and accessing this new view requires a turbulent ride into an unknown, threatening, and ever-so-thin margin. Only by adventuring to this transforming edge can we experience the “Overview Effect.”
Shifting Our Senses
Since a religious tradition is not a planet we can see in space photos, we need help to begin considering how to “see” the whole more abstractly. We will need comparisons, metaphors, and imagination to experience the transformational “Overview Effect.”
We will find, in this task, wisdom of saints, sages, and mystics a guiding example of how a contemplative vision transforms its seer. As Bernard Lonergan (1972) noted,
any notable change of horizon is done, not on the basis of that horizon, but by envisaging a quite different and, at first sight, incomprehensible alternative” (p. 224).
Since of many of us do not consider ourselves to be privileged with mystical vision, we may need to get at this much more concretely. To do so, we can appeal to another of the human senses as our starting point: hearing. The kind of transforming, “overview” vision we need first requires a type of extended listening, an earnest attempt to learn the language of that “incomprehensible” other. Let’s start there.
Listening to the Incomprehensible
Seeking to understand our present context and calling requires an ability to hear the multiple languages the Christian tradition speaks, understands and interprets. This is a move away from the secure clarity of the center toward the disruptive cacophony of uncertainty.
Shifting one’s vision first requires a new kind of listening, translating and comprehending a measure of the multiple languages our tradition has birthed. Such theological multilingualism is a gift transcending Christianity, of course, as I have proposed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Christian tradition, replete with centuries of development, expands its self-understanding—and its theological wisdom—by listening to its own voices.
In this way, our vision moves away from looking out from a univocal center as we turn to look into ourselves from the periphery.By hearing, we discover what we could never experience in an isolated illusion of common-sense experience. Only by learning the “unknown tongues” so variably voicing our traditions’ wisdom can we begin to see who we actually are.
Learning an Integral Christian Multilingualism
To facilitate learning this challenging theological multilingualism, I will offer a series of longer articles in five thematic parts:
- First, we lay a foundation, grasping basics of how Christianity understands “theology” itself. This preliminary understanding is crucial to our process.
- Second, we expand the horizon of how the differentiating “Tower of Babel” of our many, often incomprehensible spiritual and theological languages offers a significant key to seeing our whole.
- Third, we sketch an orienting geography of how Christianity’s many families have developed over time. This gives us a preliminary sketch of how we might see ourselves from “space.”
- Fourth, we survey aspects of the process of how varied theological languages both divide and unify their respective speakers, seeking to understand both their venerable and unintelligible features.
- Fifth and finally, we summarily explore how five theological perspectives found across the Christian denominations help us experience a personally transformative “Overview Effect.”
Adequate grasp of the complex, two-thousand year accumulation of Christianity’s comprehensive understanding of itself requires us to stand at multiple margins. Standing at the periphery, we can attentively gaze, listen, and speak in a surprisingly multilingual voice.
Learning an Integral Christian Multilingualism is our metaphorical spacecraft to the farthest reaches of our perimeter, a place we can begin to see the whole/parts of who we really are.
Lonergan, B. J. F. (1972). Method in theology. Minneapolis: Seabury.
Spardaro, A. (2014). Wake up the world: Conversation with Pope Francis about the religious life. La Civilta Cattolica(I), 3-17.
White, F. (1998). The overview effect: Space exploration and human evolution (2nd ed.). Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
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