The Map is Not the Territory

I mentioned at the end of the last post that I hoped in this series on Knowing God to provide something of a map for the topic. While I hadn’t been thinking in these terms when I wrote that, it helpfully reminded me of the saying of Alfred Korzybski, “The map is not the territory.” The idea can be expressed in other metaphors: “The word is not the thing” (also Korzybski), “The menu is not the meal” (Alan Watts), and perhaps most famously in René Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images,” with its image of a pipe captioned Ceci n’est pas une pipe (‘This is not a pipe’).

The idea in all of these expressions is that we need to take care not to confuse the symbol and the symbolized. A map is a helpful collection of meaningful symbols: I wouldn’t want to visit Paris without a good map of the city. But it is most definitely not the city itself. The map can tell you (very helpfully) to take the road to the right instead of the road slightly more to the right, but it can’t tell you what that road smells like on a beautiful fall day, the sounds of the cars and vespas zooming past, or the feel of the pavement beneath your feet.

It’s helpful to remind ourselves at the outset of a project like this that knowledge about God is very different from knowledge of God. Theology is a beautiful and beneficial area of study. But knowing theology is not knowing God. Reading ten commentaries is not reading Scripture. Studying meditation is not meditation.

This gap between symbol and symbolized isn’t a problem. The point of a map isn’t to replicate the territory but to help us navigate it. In fact, too much information or too great a likeness can be more confusing than helpful. In order to navigate new-to-us territory, we need a good map that provides us the right amounts of the right information. I remember once trying to navigate a city with a map designed to highlight its various A&W locations; for most of my stay, the information most salient to the map was completely unhelpful to me.

The same is true about theology, a discipline that can very easily get bogged down in the details of its maps, some of which are about as helpful as navigating a city with a map published by A&W. The point of a map isn’t to show off how familiar you are with the territory, but helping others explore it for themselves; the same is true of good theology. And with God far more than a city there is absolutely no substitute for the real thing.

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