Theological echolocation: trying to find people and places to call ‘home’

One of the tasks that many people struggle with in their search for meaning is locating people and places where they can feel at home.  This notion of ‘home’ is deep within us – that place where we experience peace, we are embraced by those around us, and the language and movements around us feel in resonance with who we are made to be or, better yet, called to be.

My daughter was recently doing a report on bats and the way some members of the animal kingdom have an ability called ‘biosonar’ or ‘echolocation’.  Similar to sonar used in submarines, echolocation is a biological event that creates context and discerns meaning:

Echolocation, also called biosonar, is the biological sonar used by several animals, most notably microchiropteran bats and odontocetes (toothed whales and dolphins), but has also been demonstrated in simpler form in other groups such as shrews, one genus of megachiropteran bats (Rousettus) and two cave dwelling bird groups, the so called cave swiftlets in the genus Aerodramus (formerly Collocalia) and the unrelated Oilbird Steatornis caripensis

One way to think of echolocation is the ability to send out a distinct signal that when it hits an object with bounce back in waves that will form the shape and contour of the surface that the sound came in contact with.  In bats it looks like this:


This seems relatively basic – sound goes out, sound returns.   The bat balances the dissonance of the echo in a stereophonic means between its right and left ear resulting a mental picture of that which cannot be seen with the eye, but is still apprehendable to the mind.

I think there is a ‘theological biosonar’ of sorts as well. As people try to make connections with others, find faith communities within which to call ‘home’, and to get a sense of place in both theological and sociological meaning, we all send out signals hoping that the image that echoes back is one of home.

Contemporary Shibbóleths – deep calling out to deep

We all use certain phrases, terms, actions or ‘shibbóleths’ (שִׁבֹּלֶת) to ‘feel people out’ as it were and determine our location in reference to self and others.  Do we belong? Is this a place called ‘home’? The notion of a shibbóleth is like this notion of echolocation.  The term is taken from Judges 12 in the Hebrew Bible:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שיבולת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סיבולת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.

The term “Shibboleth” (שיבולת) and “Sibboleth” (סיבולת) are so similar yet the difference would mean life and death.  Sure, we can wrap ourselves up in frustration at the ‘little things’ that people hold so tightly to, yet when it comes down to whether this is a place to be trusted or a place to fear… the little things matter quite a bit.

Petty though they may be, I have started thinking about my sense of echolocation – what are the shibbóleths that I listen for in order to get a sense of whether I am ‘home’ or not? What are the sometimes odd, quirky things that I hold to that have become a tuning fork for whether the place I am at is a place to call ‘home’?

Some of the things I have come up with (like most of life – it is a mix of the serious and mundane) are as follows:

- Equal access of both men and women to all forms of ministry

- high value of social justice and holistic responsibility

- salvation as living a ‘faith of Jesus’ rather than merely ‘faith in Jesus’

- both Tillich *and* Barth have things to contribute to the theological conversation

- more serious novels contain theological depth and conviction than most theological texts

- churches that don’t let kids put artwork on their walls need to turn the keys over to the next generation

- tattoos and comic books matter

- even numbered Star Trek films are superior to odd numbered ones and the original three Star Wars films are a dish best served on VHS tape

- if more contemporary Christian music (CCM) had the vision and artistic integrity of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Nick Cave I might listen

- watching It’s a Wonderful LifeThe Paper Chase and Moulin Rouge once a year is not repetitive

- writing in books is part of reading a book well

- three television shows in the past decade worth deep discussion are The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe

- having a coffee shop that you go to regularly and not shared with others because you want a ‘fortress of solitude’ from the places you dwell is not a bad thing

- Monty Python never gets old

- Partick Thistle rather than Rangers vs. Celtic

- adulthood is overrated… childhood is not

- shopping malls are soul-sucking prisons of doom

- Porter and Stout are the only options for grown ups

- any dog less than 30 lbs should be called a ‘cat’

- two greatest living theological writers in America at present are Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King

- April may be the cruelest month… but August is the greatest one

- Any advent liturgy that doesn’t dwell deeply on the genealogies of Matthew and Luke is akin to starting with season 2 of Battlestar Galactica… simply wrong.

- The one thing I agree with Michael Jackson on is that ‘children are our future’

- While ‘Highlander’ was a fairly lame movie, the ideas of blending Scottish and Japanese cultures with the question of humanity facing immortality is epic

- French press trumps drip; matcha green tea trumps earl grey

- “Yes” to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything and Almost Famous

- Being a reformed pastor and theologian doesn’t mean embracing a Synod of Dort legalism and reminding people that Wesley and Calvin have much more in common than not.

OK… that’s a start…

what would *you* add?

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3 Responses to Theological echolocation: trying to find people and places to call ‘home’

  1. mikezosel says:

    Great post. I would add:

    -Commitment to the bodily resurrection of Christ and the activity of God in history

    -A balance between high liturgical tradition and a willingness to innovate/be flexible

    -Anywhere where Kierkegaard and/or Dostoyevsky is on the bookshelf

    Thanks for bringing this up, and for always inviting thoughtful response.

  2. teamchauncey says:

    Loved it. Mike’s are great. I would also add:

    -A willingness to listen for the purpose of understanding.

    -Thoughtful questions that are hard to answer.

    -Trinitarian theological emphasis found in and through liturgy.

    -Allowing for some things (God in particular ) to be mysterious.

    -Calvin and Hobbes. All of them.

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