Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Parable of the Cartographer

Once upon a time, there was a Cartographer. He was a bright, successful man, well-regarded in his field, and he had (as cartographers so often do) a map.

This was not just any map. This was the map, relied upon by billions of people across the world. It was widely considered, even by those who didn't consult it regularly, to be absolutely the finest tool for navigation available. Admittedly, not all of those of people used the map in exactly the same way; but the Cartographer had studied for years to learn how to read the map correctly and had been much applauded for his ability to decipher its complexities.

One day, the Cartographer was out walking when he heard someone calling out to him. He was, at it happens, walking from his workshop in Springfield, Illinois to the town of Phoenix. He had, of course, brought his copy of the map with him, and he was using it to find his way. So, naturally, the cartographer looked for the source of the voice and found a farmer standing next to him.

"Begging your pardon," said the farmer, "but you're walking through my field, and you're crushing some of my plants."

The cartographer consulted the map, then turned back to the farmer. "That is unfortunate," he said, "but I am on my way to Phoenix; and the map says I must proceed this way."

The farmer wasn't sure what to say to this. He, too, held the map in high regard; and he could tell by the Cartographer's scholarly clothes that the Cartographer had spent a lot more time studying the map than he had. "Well," he said, "if that's what the map says..."

So the Cartographer bade him good day, and continued to follow the map.

Some time later the Cartographer was passing through a town when he again heard someone calling out to him. He stopped and looked around, and found that a man and a woman had stopped him. The man wore a carpenter's toolbelt, and the woman wore the simple skirt and apron of a professional maid. "May I help you?" he asked, thinking that perhaps they were lost and had stopped to ask him for guidance from the map.

"You," said the man, "need to look where you're going. In the last few minutes you've forced four people to detour around you, and bumped into two others. You nearly knocked one lady over!"

"Have I?" asked the Cartographer. He had noticed no such thing, and was startled and a little irritated to be accused of such behavior.

"Oh, yes indeed," answered the woman. "I saw it with my own eyes. You bumped into them just as he said, and no mistake about it."

"Ah," said the Cartographer. "Well." He was, truth be told, a little aggravated at being accosted over something like this; didn't these people have any sense of priorities? "You must understand, I am following the map."

The carpenter scowled and walked away, but the maid asked: "But sir, could you perhaps use your map to find some other way to get where you're going? One that isn't so hard on other people?"

The Cartographer reminded himself that she was, of course, sadly uneducated in these matters. To educate her, he replied: "I'm sorry, my dear, but the map shows us the one correct route. I cannot divert from it." She only stared at him, looking puzzled.

So he bade her good day, and continued to the follow the map.

Later still, as he was approaching Phoenix, he heard yet another voice. He stopped again, and looked to see where it was coming from. This time he found a woman beside him, and she was waving her arms and screaming invectives at him. Finding that she at last had his attention, she demanded: "What do you think you're doing!?"

Well, the Cartographer wasn't used to being addressed in this manner, and he didn't like it one bit. So he drew himself up and said, "Ma'am, I am following the map."

"You are walking on my children!" she replied. "They were out here playing, and you came right up and walked over them! You are hurting my children!"

"Well," he replied. "I don't see how that's possible. I am following the map, and the map shows us the correct route. Naturally it wouldn't show us that path if it was in any way wrong."

"The map?" she asked. "Doesn't it say, 'Don't hurt anyone in your travels'? Look. Right up there, just under the compass rose."

"It does indeed," he agreed, "and that is clear evidence of the value of the map. Moreover, the map clearly shows that this is the way to reach my destination, so this is the path I must follow."

The woman studied him in silence. Just as he was about to bid her farewell, she said: "My husband is an explorer, and I know a thing or two about maps. And the one thing I've seen, over and over, is that no map in the world can help you if you don't stop and orient yourself to the terrain. Doesn't matter how skilled you are at reading it, either. You have to check the terrain." She paused. "Most strangers passing through here, I'd invite 'em in for food and drink, a bit of rest from the heat of the day. But you, sir, don't seem to be the kind of man who changes direction easily, and my kin and I want nothing to do with you."

With that she turned away, gathered up her children, and found her own way back to her home.

I write this in reaction to Fred Clark's rather neat vivisection of Bishop Paprocki's talk on same sex marriage and the question-and-answer session that apparently followed.

Bishop Paprocki may protest that his "position is not a question of anecdotal stories" and that his opponent "presented her case from an emotional position" as opposed to "the church's stance [which] comes from the position of faith and reason", but (assuming even minimal accuracy on the part of the National Catholic Register) neither of those protests is relevant. The people supporting the right of same-sex (etc.) couples to wed are not trying to sway his opinion with anecdotal stories; nor are they arguing on the basis of illogical emotion. They are trying to draw his attention to the terrain.


  1. I just want to say I really love this and it's relevant, not just to marriage equality, but so many other things that come down to following faith vs treating people decently, and I wish I could make a lot of people read it.

  2. Yes - I wrote it in response to that, but any time abstract rules become more important than their effects on actual people, there's a problem.


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