Rotate a Map and say Amen

It’s almost like a roller-coaster experience. To rotate a map and crop it. It definitely is exciting. Even thrilling. Although  I know it might sound funny, and it indeed is. So the following elaboration is only semi-serious. However, I am not exaggerating if I say there’s almost something spiritual about it. To see a map with a different orientation makes us discover the fundamentally arbitrary character of the existence of precisely such a coastline, territory, and surface. As if we have just found some philosophically important characteristic of our world: Its randomness.

A step into a Chestertonian fairytale

One could say there’s some Chestertonity in rotating a map. Once you spin the map, you find yourself in a true Wonderland. “Whoa! So this is where I live? That is my fatherland? And all of those neighbouring plains – these are the unknown lands which still await for us to explore them?” With a mouse click, we transform the soulless north-oriented map into a Tolkienian Middle world, a Narnian land of moral battles for the Good, a homeland of a forgotten tribe. You name it!

A well-informed Taliban

I remember seeing an image of an Afghanistan Taliban minister of environment, sitting behind the office desk with his rifle in his hands, looking at the plastic globe as if it was some sinful misinformation tool. As if he knew much better where he was at the moment than all of the geographers of this world. He was sitting there with a mission, with a calling. He might have never entertained the thought of the world being a soulless space and the Earth a giant dead stone. Instead, he knew: Where the wind comes from, there are our allies. Where the sun sets, the miserable nonbelievers are waiting to be converted. His position was ethically informed. He was there, in the world of immediate, almost spatially felt responsibility, unlike us, the moderns, who often see our position as some spatially determined and somewhat random characteristic that could as well be different. 

And I thought to myself: That’s a man who lives in a world without North-oriented maps. His “being-in-the-world”, as Heidegger would say, was much more spiritually and philosophically reflected. He aspired me to rotate a map and to confuse my sense of spatial-physical certainty.

Locating us in the Divine

By rotating a map, it is much easier to grasp the fundamental truth about how we ultimately live in the palm of the Highest. We, the Moderns, seem to be used to genuinely believing that we can locate ourselves on the map of the world – or the universe, for that matter. We genuinely believe that North is “up there”. And that Italy has a shape of a boot. And that we are – hereHere as in I-can-show-you-on-the-map-Where.

A rotated map reminds us of the utmost arbitrariness and the prime (Divine) Freedom that made our world the way it has.

The foreignness as the entry of the numinous

On the other hand, as much as I find rotating and framing maps fascinating, I also find them somewhat disturbing. As if the map was saying: “That’s not right!” As if I was witnessing something of a deterioration, defamation. Something blasphemous, utterly foreign, out of this world. As if it led me to the conclusion: “So it’s all been a lie?” This aspect connects my project of rotating a map with the religious and spiritual realms. And it leads us to Schleiermacher’s description of the numinous (spiritual). He defines it as the reality that arouses both “fascinance” and horror (lat. fascinance et tremendum).

The mystery of the Freedom behind arbitrariness

Furthermore – I wonder if this enthusiasm about rotating maps has something to do with the characteristically modern conception of the world (and universe) as a mechanism (i.e. the so-called “mechanistic conception of the universe”, as developed and theorized by early Enlightenment scientists and philosophers). Once we conceptualize the Universum as a closed mechanism, it does not matter where you stand in it. It’s a machine, a thing. There is nothing about the arbitrariness of my position that arouses interest. It is. You are there. The arbitrariness of my situatedness in it, the answer to the question “where is it that I am?” loses its mysteriousness. The mystery gets overlooked. The possibility of awareness of the mystery of being-in-the-world is gone.

Could we say that this fascination of mine arouses questions about the supposedly dead Universum? Through the arbitrariness that reveals itself to us when we rotate a map, we can suspect the free and, therefore, personal and living character of the Divine, the Nonexistent, the God.

So let us rotate a map. Let us see all things anew. (Rev 21:5)