Check Your Lens!

Last week, I wrote about how you are able to take the perspective of the “other”. The shorthand, poetic phrase that has found its way into song lyrics and classic books, namely Joe South and Atticus Finch, is “walk a mile in my shoes” and “climb into his skin and walk around in it”. That promises to give you a glimpse, an insight into the world of the other person. Your chance of taking them seriously as a real person, rather than as an object or a part of a transaction, increases exponentially if you do this work….and it is work.

Now, let’s turn our attention to another piece of the work of self-awareness.

I am talking about the world view we have, the lens by which we see the world.

As we come to the world as persons, we bring our biases along with us. Some folks seem to get defensive if you suggest that they are biased. Truth is, we all are….it goes with the territory of being a human. What makes a difference is whether or not you are aware of your biases so that you can guard against being blindsided by them and can keep them in front of you.

I have identified four biases that form our perspective. Our image of God, our image of the world, our image of self, and out image of the Other. All of these images begin to be formed from the moment of our birth and come from our experience of the world. Some content is “fed” to us by those who raise us, the people we interact with at the beginning of our formation. They, too, were formed and they are unconsciously passing on their values and ways of seeing the world. This is not a sinister enterprise, again, it’s just the way it is.

Even as an infant and child, we are surrounded by the culture in which we are embedded, receiving messages about what the world is like, the values that are important, how we should behave, and even more, how we should not. We are receptive, and learn not only the language but the nuances. If you doubt me, I present the classically South of God phrase that contains multiple meanings: Bless your heart. Taking a look at these images can give you clues as to these lenses that we all have, images that determine what we see when we encounter the world, and what we don’t see. These images form our bias.

Let’s begin with the image of God. I recently taught a class on faith development to a congregation in Austin, Texas, thanks to the technology of Zoom. I asked them to think back to their “Image of God” when they were children. They were good sports in playing ball with their “cyber teacher”, taking their time to remember back to their childhood, and how they imagined God to be. Many, who had grown up in South of God churches, saw God as a judge up in the sky, a kind of large parent figure who was looking down, from “up there” in heaven, to catch you doing something wrong. One person imaged a large Jurassic “eye in the sky” looking at us, with an eye out for our screw ups. Another person who grew up in the Roman church got his image from his parents’ coffee table book of the Michelangelo image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, of God reaching out to touch the hand of man. I would have loved to have gone more deeply with him as to how this powerful image “felt”, but I missed that opportunity. It was a rich exchange with a lively group of folks….that’s what they call their class, the Lively Class…..truth in advertising.

It was a gift to me to be given the opportunity to interview people about such things during my years as a researcher at the Center for Faith Development. I was able to listen to their childhood images of God, how that changed in adolescence, and how they are currenting “seeing” God…..or not. The insight in all this conversation is that our images change, they develop, alter, or if I can use the dreaded “C” word, CHANGE.

Just for grins, how has your image of God changed? How are you thinking about God these days? How do you conceptualize God in this time of COVID? What sense do you make out of the way God is or is not present in the world? Is God active in the world, and if so, how? These questions tend to surface our image of how we see God and how our lives are affected by our image.

This image of God affects our image of the way we see our existence. The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, notes the power of the image we have of the world, of our human existence:

“We would do well to get in touch with our own operative worldview. It is there anyway, so we might as well know what this highly influential window on reality is. It’s what really motivates us. Our de facto worldview determines what catches our attention and what we don’t notice at all. It’s largely unconscious and yet it drives us to do this and not that. It is surely important to become conscious of such a primary lens or we will never know what we don’t see and why we see other things out of perspective.” from Richard Rohr’s A Gospel Lens

Along with our “image of God”, we have this image of the world, the way that it is, or more colloquially “the lay of the land.” Erik Erikson noted that our view of the world begins with our primary caretaker, often times our mother. Is the world trustworthy? Will the world respond to my needs and give me what I long for, beginning with food and nurture, and then extending into regard, belonging, and significance. This process of formation continues to be supported or amended by the experience of the child in the world. But, this process is ongoing. A lot of my time as a priest and therapist had to do with the work of helping people integrate new experience into their world view so that it all makes sense. Sometimes that was as easy as blessing the change as “good”, but other times it involved some heavy lifting with deep transformation.

My office was packed after 9/11 as the images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, on OUR shores. It rocked the world of people who, to point, felt relatively safe and secure. The vulnerability did not “fit” people’s way of seeing the world. Some framed the disruption in terms of their image of God, namely, “where was God?”, begging the theodicy question of why do bad things happen if God is good. Many people were asking more basic questions of trust: is the world a safe place to live? Are we safe? Those of us who now routinely take off our shoes for inspection when entering an airport can see the result of those deep questions that alter our images of the way the world is?

What is your image of the world? How do you see the nature of life? Is there a purpose to our lives here on Earth? To what end are you spending your life and being spent? Are there values inherent in our life? What are your non-negotiables? How do you see this world that we share?

I once had an improv character that I used in my college days, skewering the ubiquitous television evangelist that harangued the airwaves. My character was named the Rev. Billy Sol Angel, an amalgam of Ernest Angley, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson, although the accent was clearly that of my beloved Billy Graham. A favorite line I would eventually get to in my riff was: I just love it when young people come to me and ask, “Billy….what’s it all about?”. And after a proper pause (comedy is all about timing) my character would offer in a Carolina South of God accent, “I don’t know.”.

Truth, it was a question I was furiously asking myself in the vortex of the relativism that most colleges students encounter as they bump up against a panoply of systems of truth that challenge the one you had inherited from your home team. It was pointing to the process of coming to an adult ownership of what you believe about the life you are living.

That question, my existential query, sent me headlong in to a search to figure it out both in my academic inquiry and in my experiential learning, what in the world is going on. I’m still working on it. How about you? What do you tell yourself about the nature of reality? How does the way you are investing your time and energy testify to what is important to you, what is crucial? And how has that changed in the last twelve months as we have lived in the threat of pandemic?

Earlier in my writings, I have explored the image that we have of our self. These images, positive and negative, are deep within and both support and ambush at times. But it’s beneficial if we know what they are. Just who are you when you are not being a role that you play on the world stage? Who are you behind the mask, the persona that you present to the world? My mentor, Carlyle Marney, used to piercingly probe, “Who are you when you are not a minister, a pastor, a priest?” Right to the heart of the matter, what lies beneath the surface. Who are you, really?

And last week, I talked some of our image of the other. How do you see other human beings that share this living space with you. Are they objects that are to be used, utilized to get what you need to be done? Are they mere actors in the transactions that you are making, or are they people that have their own dreams and goal, anxieties and fears? How do you treat them, with respect and dignity, or a inconveniences to be managed? I have learned that the way people treat others reveal a great deal about a person. I found out early, being a hired hand of sorts, just how seriously does a person’s regard for you as a human being go. I observe, especially in a service situation, like that of a restaurant, how people treat one another. How is that for you?

Four lenses. Image of God, image of the world, image of self, image of the other. How are your lenses helping you to see what is really going on in the world? How are your lenses blurring or filtering your vision as to what is really going on? It’s a worthy endeavor, though at times, painful, to take a look at the lenses through which you see your world. I invite you to join me in the uniquely human work of self-reflection by examining those lenses we all have, our biases.

I heard somebody say recently that when they take a long, hard look at the world, they feel disillusioned. I thought about it for awhile and then realized the depth of what was being said. If you are “disillusioned”, it suggests you lost your illusion, that is, you had been operating out of an illusion, and now you see reality. It’s curious to me. Why is that not a good thing, to be rid of a false sense of the way things are? To be liberated from the illusions that have kept you from the truth. With that understanding in tow, I long to be disillusioned!

Cleaning your lenses may disillusion you, and thus, open your eyes to the world, your Self, your neighbor, and maybe even God. I think that it is worth our attention. Blessings.

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