The Western Mappa Mundi: Toward a Holistic Concept of Reality (Essay)
Our greatest existential threat is no longer primarily the tribe or city-state next door, but rather the collective problems we must learn to solve together. Our previous existential threat (the “Other”) created the foundational worldview or conceptual mappa mundi that currently encodes our consciousness, but this worldview is failing us. To survive, and to create a world in which human life is worth living, a new way of conceiving of ourselves, each other, and reality is necessary.
Without realizing it, contemporary global society relates to reality as an objective, external truth handed down from a “Divine Authority” (even for atheists, who see the material world as that external, absolute authority). This is our model for relating to Truth, and this model is creating untold tragedy in the world today.
However, reality does not have to be perceived in this way. Exploring an alternative relationship with truth, one which balances the concept of an “objective” reality, is necessary for humans to live in a global, connected civilization in which the existential threats are no longer primarily other groups of people. Now we face the collective threats of disease, deforestation, climate change, economic collapse, food shortages, and the list goes on. A new threat requires a new strategy.
And a new way forward is possible, but it requires us to venture into the areas of the world map that say “here there be monsters!”
Medieval maps didn’t depict the geographical landscape; they depicted the mental landscape. At the center (i.e. “true, pure, good”) was the Church of Rome. The further you got from the center of Papal authority, the more monstrous and deformed people became.
False, evil, bad. Low or no value.
We still think this way. At that time in the Western world, the Roman Church and its worldview was the objective standard of truth, purity, and goodness. The further one diverged from this standard, the more monstrous one became. The Statue of David is the epitome of this standard. The perfect being. The perfect human. The perfection of God.
We still use this conceptual template, even though the ideas at the center have shifted, slightly.
The contemporary Western human’s mental mappa mundi (world map) is implicit, rather than explicit. Yet we still have a conceptual “center” of “truth, purity, and goodness”, which is considered the pinnacle, or center, in the value hierarchy. These ideas, and the people who represent them, are valued above all others and must be preserved and protected at all costs.
Further, at the center of the Western conceptual mappa mundi (of which the current world map is a product) is “white, male, rich, attractive (in a particular way), objective/scientific.” At the other end of the spectrum of value, you have the least valued, true, and pure. These people are the dark, poor, non-male, unattractive (by the center’s standards), “superstitious” or another kind of religion. They live “monstrous lives.” By monstrous lives, I mean that they are allowed by society to be homeless, slaves, work in cobalt mines, die of preventable diseases, starve to death, etc. because they aren’t valued. They’re disposable.
But when a person or group at the center, or pinnacle, is threatened, the world mobilizes. White boys are acquitted of rape because of their “bright future.” Banks and corporations are bailed out. Healthcare, food, and security is mobilized for the wealthy, while others suffer. Millions of people die of preventable and treatable diseases every year, but those people are disposable, so there is no outcry, no mobilization of resources. It’s not a crisis because their lives don’t matter.
This “standard of goodness” (i.e. value) is a byproduct of the fundamental frame of seeing the world as “objectively true.” Objectivism, or the concept that there is an external, absolute, objective truth which is attainable (through great effort or by being born within its definition), measurable, and demonstrable. This is a complete fiction, however useful it may be (and it is not without merit, but this author would argue that it is very much beyond time to balance it, or upgrade it, with a concept that serves our current reality that requires cooperation, rather than competition).
This foundation concept of “objective truth,” which stems from the traditional religious proposition of “Divine Authority,” creates the condition in the mind of a hierarchy of truth, purity, and goodness. In other words, that which is closer to the center is true, valuable, and good, and that which is further from it is, in short, monstrous. The people and ideas that fall in the outer circles are, at best, disposable, and at worst, a threat that must be met with violence to eradicate. More generally, though, their lives are conceived of by the center as little more than a resource to serve their own needs and desires. Peripheral people are who we grind in the mill of the global market to create the goods we consume, which we use to construct the edifice of our identity we use to associate with the center (why else would someone long to buy a Louis Vuitton bag? Let’s be honest, they’re ugly).
But even worse than accepting the desperate poverty of factory workers, we also revel in the products of slaves in our supply chain. Fun fact: the average American lifestyle requires 50 slaves to support it. Most people would claim to be against slavery, but the fact is, no one is against slavery. Slaves are disposable. We all accept that. If we didn’t, then the world would mobilize to free them, but that’s not what happens, we (each of us) buy that smartphone or comfy cotton underwear, and if we are aware of their sordid source, then we lament the tragedy, but how many take any action, even it is just to not buy that product we covet? Many do take some action, without a doubt, but the vast majority of people don’t know, don’t care to know, and wouldn’t care if they did know. At the end of the day, it’s just a sad reality that we accept, because ultimately, those lives are disposable. (You can go to http://slaveryfootprint.org to find out how many slaves are required to support your lifestyle.)
And yet, despite this horror that our current relationship with reality produces in the lives of billions of people, we are collectively terrified of detaching “truth” from the fiction of an “objective” reality because *gasp and clutch pearls* then anything could be true. Anyone can say anything. Anyone can be anything…
But is this possibility really more terrifying and monstrous than the horror that is the lives of billions of people in the world?
Or do those lives not matter? Clearly, to most, their suffering isn’t important. It’s a cost we are willing to pay because the cost is so low (because the value of these people’s lives is so low, to us).
So, I must ask you, is it such a terrible idea to consider an alternative way to construct our concept of reality? Is Divine Authority manifest as an “objective truth” truly desirable, and even necessary? Is learning how to relate to reality as a subject we’re in relationship with worse than what we already have? Can we find a balance between self and other, black and white?
In my research and writing, I would like to challenge that fear of relating to reality as a subject, rather than an object, as a connective relationship, rather than an external authority.
Would it be so bad if we had to relate to each human individually?
Can we allow each person to self-determine and self-define, instead of judging every single person we meet by a comprehensive set of pre-defined and pre-judged categories (rich, black, educated, gay, slim…)?
Must we sort ourselves into a social hierarchy that has nothing to do with who we are but rather “what” we are, and that “what” being based on a total fiction?
We cling to a fictional concept of reality that destroys billions of lives and that’s ok with us. It’s normal. It’s expected. We take it for granted, but the truth is that it is the purest horror. Yet we live with it every single day! The truth is that we are the monsters, every single person whose heart accepts the crushing of other humans in service to the center as part of the natural order.
In my research, I aim to contribute to laying the foundation of a conceptual mappa mundi that nurtures a culture of relating to each human equally, as a subject with whom we seek connection, rather than as an object we seek to utilize or compete with. In this mental framework, we assume each person is equal to us and is unique in their experience. We don’t define people by what they can do for us or our relative value in the social hierarchy. Rather, we let people tell us who they are and what their truth is. We approach with curiosity with the intention to connect, rather than with judgment with the intention to compete. This framework is the necessary psychological adaptation our species requires to survive.
This type of relationship with reality is wildly different from the “fiat truth” we have inherited from masculine-dominated religions, in which society’s relationship with ultimate truth is mediated exclusively by men, and in which we are all subject to an external “Divine Authority” which is the absolute standard for truth, purity, and goodness. This is the masculine way, as it has been developed by men, for men, and at its center is a “male” god who is the absolute standard for perfection.
But what would a “feminine” perspective of truth look like? What would our relationship with ultimate truth look like if it were mediated by women. The concept and definition of “woman” is subjective and varies widely from person to person and culture to culture. I am not defining the word “woman” for all people, places, and times, but I am using it in the way that serves this study of the feminine experience of God and reality. Can we relate to each other as subject, rather than object, or connection rather than hierarchy?
That being said, what I’m exploring what could be called a feminine theology, a theology of connection and relationship with Reality and what could be called the Divine/God/Truth. The concept of feminine and femininity will be explored in relation to the Divine, rather than in relation to the male or male desire, and Truth will be perceived and related to through this feminine lens.
This is not an anti-religous endeavor. Religion is multifaceted and though some have traditionally dominated it, they do not define it. God, or Ultimate Truth, or whatever you want to call it, is utterly beyond our concepts or structures. To try do define it is to commit the most grievous sin against Truth. It is to commit idolatry, to create a statue, an object, to contain the concept of Truth. Indeed, my aim is to free religion from its shackles, to smash the idols, so we can be free to dive deep into relationship with the Great Mystery. As such, this is rather a deeply religious endeavor.
This essay is the first in a body of work that will explore the Christian religion and the teachings of God, as Christ, through the direct experiences of women mystics and will compare it to the experiences of women in the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition, where women (and not men) are portrayed to have direct access to personal communication with God, as Allah. I will weave in threads of Western philosophical thought, including Kierkegaard, Stroud, and Spinoza, especially as it pertains to the concept of self and subjectivity, and I’ll include an exploration of the latest in neuroscience and the formation of perception and self. I’ll also explore the writings of women, both religious and secular, about our experience of God, self, and reality.
In short, I’ll attempt to offer a new perspective on how to relate to Ultimate Truth in a feminine way, as subject rather than object, and share how that approach can heal some of the most intransigent problems of our era. We no longer live in a society that is served by the tribalist mentality, an Us vs. Them, Self vs. Other, worldview concept. It served its purpose, but we are now global and connected and we must adapt to create a new worldview that supports true pluralism, or we will destroy ourselves and the planet. The current mappa mundi is the greatest existential threat to the survival of the human race. So we need a new way. That way is to listen to women, to learn about Truth through women, and to reach a balance between the masculine and the feminine so that our species can live in a relationship with reality that strives for harmony with ourselves, each other, and the cosmos. It will be an imperfect harmony, because utopia is not attainable, and the very idea of utopia is antithetical to a subject-oriented concept of truth, but it will be a constant seeking of a deeper and more satisfying relationship with Truth, ourselves, and each other so we can hope to create an enduring society that makes human life worth living.
I’m sailing into uncharted waters, searching for treasure, to the places on the map marked “here there be monsters!”
Thank you for your time.
Written by Artemysia-X