A Broader Perspective

From the point of view of a road, it is hard to understand what is going on in the road system as a whole. You see an open road in front of you, and so you drive [1]. The car in front of you hits its break, and so do you. At times you may see traffic going smoothly right in front of you, but in the distance the stopped cars are a clue that traffic has stopped. What is the reason? Did a member of the Thai royal family decide it was time to take a quick drive, demanding all of the roads be clear for the course of their journey, until they pass? Was there a car accident on the other side of the road, or a stalled car, that has drawn the attention of rubberneckers, or is there a cop car pulling over a speeding driver while its bumper is slightly in the lane, forcing a slowdown to avoid or change lanes? Is there more traffic on a road at a given time because everyone is leaving early for a three day weekend, or because an obscure shortcut is closed, forcing people that would normally trickle through side roads onto the busy freeway? Is it a Thursday morning? These are questions that are easy to have, and hard to answer, when we are red blood cells among the traffic circulation system.

But if we were flying in a Cessna or a helicopter, we would see the beauty of the system as a whole. We would see the cars grinding to a halt because there was emergency construction blocking a lane, causing the pile up to go for miles. We would see the intersection with a one car accident in a light rain because a driver had decided to do an African bush taxi maneuver to his incredulous passenger, a misguided effort at showing off that will only end in a few hundred dollars, at least, of front-end damage to the car, a traffic ticket for reckless driving, a lot of mutinous drivers if they are aware of the source of the slowdown, and a spot on the evening news or the traffic updates of local radio stations. On a good day, we would see the traffic running smoothly without difficulty, just as we can see the blood cells course through the veins and arteries with the right equipment. When we change the perspective, so that we are looking at it or down on it rather than looking from or through it, then we are better able to see the system as a whole. We will even be able to see ahead, to tell the future, as we will see the traffic patterns before they become visible to the drivers on the road, who are careening into disaster without being aware of it until it is too late. Yet we can barely see the cars at all, and are not able to tell one gray Corolla knock-off from another. Something is lost in detail even as it is gained in overall pattern recognition. If we want to see the bigger picture, we cannot see as much detail. If we want to focus on the details, we lose the larger scope. There are always tradeoffs to human understanding and attention.

This is not a problem for traffic alone. The field of economics has a similar divide between seeing the forest and examining trees. The forest as a whole is in the realm of macroeconomics, where the economic behavior and health of entire economic systems is in view. The trees themselves are within the purview of microeconomics, which looks at the detailed economic viability of small-scale systems like individual businesses or households. We as people live our lives in these small units. It is of little use that the economy as a whole is doing well if we are working for a company that lays off many employees, perhaps including ourselves, who lose their jobs. Likewise, the sort of life we live if we are part of the small percentage of population without high-speed internet or cable television will likely be far different from the average. We calculate how life is in a given country based on numbers—per capita income according to nominal Gross Domestic Product or purchasing power parity, but we live our lives in the particular—that particular apartment complex raising its rents $60 a month or that condo whose tenants are stressed out because their lease was just terminated in the midst of an intense housing shortage, that street closed for months due to pothole repairs, this local congregation pondering how long they will be able to meet in a public school because of their beliefs regarding the endurance of God’s moral law. And on and on it goes.

Even in the field of theology this particular matter is a large problem, and one that applies very dramatically to our own lives. Theologians, because they like to use big words, call one of these perspectives transcendence, and the other immanence. The first two chapters of Genesis give us a picture of the two in sharp relief. Genesis 1 is about transcendence. The Father and the preincarnate Jesus Christ say, “Let us make man in our own image” while the earth is being delivered from chaos and disorder and being filled with abundant and quirky life. Genesis 2, on the other hand, is about immanence, as Adam is crafted individually by our Creator, placed in a particular garden (namely Eden) and given a particular set of responsibilities to name the animals, dress and tend the garden, and not under any circumstances to take the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil for fruit. After being shown of his loneliness through naming the animals, he is put in surgery and God forms a specific wife for him, namely Eve, and the two are given to each other in marriage, naked and unashamed, in innocence. Transcendence is about the big picture, the universal themes, the grand narrative, and immanence is about the details and the particulars. God is in charge of both the grand overarching narratives and their little quirky embellishments that provide distinction. He made the universe, and also formed us in our mother’s womb, recognizing our nature before we even draw breath. We can resolve the tension between these matters neither one way nor the other; we must accept both the big picture and the small picture as being essential in our existence, and that God is the Lord of both views and perspectives of life.

What does this mean in life? Most of the time in life, we live in the near-sighted perspective of the immanent. This is not being particularly ignorant or selfish on our part. We are instructed, after all, to petition to God to give us our daily bread. Employers are commanded in both Exodus and Deuteronomy [2] to pay their workers at the end of the day because of the insecurity of the lives of wage earners. Most of us live an existence of little backup. If something goes wrong, there is usually very little to tide us over—we might be able to handle a rare and moderate sized crisis, or more frequent minor ones, but they are likely to stretch us to the limit, and we are often unable to cope with the truly massive difficulties that can fall upon us all. We live lives in the micro sphere—we ponder what route to take to and from work, wonder where we will go to eat or buy groceries, what list of errands we have the time and resources and energy to run on a particular day, or even in the larger decisions, we are choosing what congregation to attend Sabbath services, what job offer to accept to what company, or whether to pursue a relationship with a particular person. These are the decisions in which our lives are made. If our worlds may at times be oppressively small, they were meant to be. We can only focus on a few relationships and a few details at a time. We are quickly overwhelmed by too many choices, and need to find ways to pare down complexity so that we can grasp it.

Our attempts at dealing with matters on the macro scale do not inspire a great deal of confidence. We make grand regulations and struggle to enforce them in the face of local conditions that scream out for exceptions. We make grand and sweeping pronouncements about entire populations of people, only to find ourselves bedeviled by complexity and distinction. We make stereotypes and thus trivialize the humanity of the real people that we interact with along the course of life. We see in data and statistics salvation from understanding details, not realizing that the data and the inferences drawn from it are only valid to the extent that the data is accurate on the small scale in which it is put into a computer by a low-status frontline employee. If the micro is not attended to, the macro will not function correctly, and worse, we will not know enough about what is going on to do anything about it. Yet if we only focus on the micro, we will be keeping busy our entire lives and never doing anything of consequence because what we are doing is not scalable and is not working with institutions and communities. If we are not faithful in little things, we will not see the big picture accurately.  And even if we spend our lives serving institutions, we can lose sight of the individuals sitting in chairs in individual congregations, and the care they need as specific people. We can spend our time fighting fires and the innumerable crisis of individual lives, and that work is like putting water in a bucket full of holes, or we can focus on institutional prestige and find that we have become wicked shepherds and scoundrels whose bigger picture, ultimately, was all about our own power and place and pride of position. There is danger in both ditches, and we must steer along a difficult road keeping both immanence and transcendence in mind.

What are we then to do? We must become students of best practices, seeking out wisdom in how to live and in diligently applying that wisdom to the difficulties of life. We must become teachers of those best practices we know, able to provide guidance and counsel and mentoring to others, and helping them to teach others as well and become good leaders in their own right, in the knowledge that while we might be insecure about our own positions, that there is so much in this world that needs to be done so urgently that there is no shortage of work for any willing hands, or for anyone who has been gifted by God to perform certain tasks. We must never forget that we do not serve the abstraction of brethren or fellow humanity, but we serve specific brethren and the people we are around. We are not called to love people in the abstract, but the individual people around us, who sit in traffic with us, who live in our homes and neighborhoods, who work with us, who sit in our congregations, some of whom, perhaps even including we ourselves, are difficult to love. We must never forget both that the individual person in front of us, or in front of the mirror, is a future child of the Most High God, and is worthy of our love and respect accordingly. We must also never forget that when we are commanded to love others as ourselves, to put in particular faces and names to that command, to remind us that it is not a commandment about generalities, but about loving all the peculiar people around us as we love ourselves, with a giving of the doubt, with respect and outgoing concern, and with patience and longsuffering. It is only by keeping both the bigger picture and the smaller one in mind that we are capable of having the perspective to overcome life’s turbulence, as well as a focus on the people and places, often in very constricted space, wherein our destiny is forged through the everyday decisions that we make.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/naming-our-abuse-driving-again/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/cause-if-you-get-it-wrong-youll-get-it-right-next-time/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/24/accident-report/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/cleopatra-isnt-the-only-queen-of-denial/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/13/thats-a-waste-of-good-chicken/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/what-would-you-have-me-do/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/a-tour-of-the-logistics/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/deuteronomy-2414-15-the-wages-you-have-withheld-by-fraud/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Broader Perspective

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Naming Our Abuse Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: We’re From The Government, And We’re Here To Help | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: When I Get Where I’m Going | Edge Induced Cohesion

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