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We Among Others: Ivory Towers, Smoke Stacks, and Favelas

Everyone is someone; an individual, separate and distinct.  This is excellent and praiseworthy. What is just as excellent and praiseworthy, and perhaps even more so, is that everyone is someone not only in themselves, but in each other as well.  What I mean by this is that people are meant to live with one another and in each other’s life.  We are not meant to be alone (re: Genesis 2? Obvi…), but that does not dismiss the reality that for the most part we are alone.  While we all share in the experience of humanity, and all that entails, we recognize that each of us are alone in our own experience of it.  That is to say, we each have an experience that belongs to us and us alone.

What we do with that matters tremendously to theologizing, and is the discussion of the evening. How do we recognize our individuality, our individual beliefs, and our individual perspectives.  There are three strata that I want to guide you through in thinking about our individuality in theologizing, and so I convey a little parable.

The Ivory Tower, Fantasia

Imagine that you are floating down from space and into the atmosphere.  The first thing you see is an ever-widening expanse of clouds from horizon to horizon, but piercing up through the clouds is a single solitary spire.  It is an Ivory Tower: a pristine work of beauty, so pure and magnificent.  All imperfections have been sandblasted from its exterior, revealing a worshipful brilliance. It stands above the world, breaking through the clouds, reaching on towards the heavens.  It stands alone, untouchable, but reaching ever higher towards the celestial unattainable.

Los Angeles, 2019

Let us leave the ivory tower to its own mission and beauty and descend beneath the clouds.  Breaking through the white cumulus we feel the sting of acid rain and choke on the smog.  We see smoke stacks, plethoras of smoke stacks from horizon to horizon, piercing out from the cityscape below.  They are many, but each purges its own sour gas, smoke, and fire at each other and into a overencompassing cloud of stench and pollution.  There is no stopping these stacks, for each must work nonstop to make their own progress and to produce more gas. Surrounded by each other, but alone.

Dharavi Slums, Mumbai

However, under the smog produced by the smoke stacks lies the city below.  Favelas are jammed into what space is not used by the ivory tower and smoke stacks.  Here people live in close quarters, and constantly in contact with each other, and learn to live together.  They are not removed from each other like the towers that surround them.  They do not and cannot rise above to produce the suffocating smog like the smoke stacks, and they cannot rise above the clouds like the ivory tower. So, they remain with each other.  Individual, but together.

What does this parable illustrate for theologizing?

Some are like the ivory tower: the get wrapped up in pursuing the truth that they ignore all other voices and get absorbed in the selfishness of the pursuit.  They see only themselves and the truth, and will shut out everything else that gets in the way.  They will barricade themselves into their tower so that their well will not get tainted.

Some are like the smoke stacks.  They make a similar choice as the ivory tower, that being pursuing the truth on their own and for selfish reasons.  However, unlike the ivory tower, the smoke stacks see other people doing the same thing, and so instead of growing higher towards the truth, they become embattled with others pursuing the truth, spewing hate onto others and polluting the well of discourse and dialogue.

Finally, some are like those in the favelas. They recognize the futility of the pursuit of the ivory tower and the smoke stacks, and choose to remain with the people.  They see the pursuit of truth as one with others, and so living together is the best way to understand and uncover the truth.

The pursuit of truth is not unilateral, it is not between an individual and truth.  That is not how we are. We are meant to share life together, and share in all of it.  The mysteries of life are meant to be discovered and wondered over together.  No one ought to be an ivory tower, no one ought to be a smoke stack.  We ought to be invested with the people around us and grow together.

How does this look, doing theology together?  We will unpack that next time!
Published locally at Caribou Coffee, Arden Hills, MN.

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