“As I sit at my desk, I know where I am. I see before me a window; beyond that some trees; beyond that the red roofs of the campus of Stanford University; beyond them . . . the roof tops which mark the town of Palo Alto; beyond that the bare golden hills of the Hamilton Range. I know, however, more than I can see. Behind me, although I am not looking in that direction, I know there is a window, and beyond that . . . the Coast Range; beyond that the Pacific Ocean. Looking ahead of me again, I know that beyond . . . my present horizon, there is a broad valley; . . . a still higher range of mountains; beyond that . . . the Rockies; . . . the eastern seaboard; . . . the Atlantic Ocean; . . . Europe.”
Thus begins a book called The Image by a noteworthy economist and Quaker mystic named Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993). He goes on to extend his image of the world, visualizing it as a globe and then a small speck circling around a bright star, which is the sun, in the company of many other similar specks. And of course he sees the sun as one of millions of other suns or stars in one galaxy among millions of other galaxies. Beyond placing himself within his knowledge of space, he can locate himself in time as well. He lives amid milestones of dates like his birthday, 1776, 1066, the span of civilizations like Rome, Greece, Assyria . . .To sum up, he has a sense of where he is in space and time – that goes far beyond that known by even his great, great, great, great grandfathers. And how does he arrive at his sense of where he is in space and time? By way of messages delivered in so many ways – via science, religion, literature and history.
He is also aware that at any time new messages might stretch his current image of the world, so much so that he might be severely shaken before he can assimilate the change and regain his equilibrium (as when Columbus discovered America and Galileo proved the earth circled the sun and science denied the world was created in seven days and the Church switched to the vernacular Mass and I took courses at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome).
But isn’t this what happens throughout biblical writing? Take the Tower of Babel story. Everyone spoke the same language, which means they lived in a closed universe, so sure of themselves that God made their world multi-lingual so that their cohesiveness disintegrated. Yet out of that confusion came Abraham to open us up to a new, more profound vision of who and where and what and why we are.
Or take the character Job. He conceived of his world as a courtroom. God was the judge, Satan the prosecutor, and human beings liable to punishment if they went astray. Then what happened? Job had never gone astray and yet he suffered drastically. As a consequence his understanding of his world collapsed. He fought hard to maintain it, demanded a hearing before God to protest the injustice of his plight. What happened? God became a tornado that whirled Job about amid so many strange, new images of the universe that Job shut up and, taking in the magnificence of it all, bade a silent farewell to the cramped quarters of his courtroom world. He was ready to submit to a whole new image of God and creation that would require a heart, an awe, an imagination as big as both!