Some time ago, (read: about a decade, actually no, more than a decade... I'm in that stage of life where I'm discovering that a decade doesn't take me back to my childhood, but to early adulthood, so read: about a decade and a half ago) I was hanging out with my family and family friends, it was a summers day, and there was much frivolity and fun to be had (I've been watching a lot of Call the Midwife recently, and I think its narration is rubbing off on me).
Anyway, I was being a brat and my dad and the dad of our family friends grabbed me to throw me in the pool. One had my arms and the other my legs, they carried me up and got to the side of the pool, and then they began to swing, 1 - 2 - 3... and here's the thing, after however many 10s of thousands of years of human civilisation, however many expressions of government, however many groundbreaking moments of genius, inspiration, and innovation, human society has still yet to agree and unify on one key issue... when counting to three... do you go on three or after three?
Unfortunately, the two dads in question made up a microcosm of this global disunity and one let go 'on three' and the other held on, waiting for 'after three'... I found myself caught between the tension of the world, and, more literally, caught half in the pool and half out. My head, shoulders, and arms in the water - legs in the air - and back on the edge of the slate. As easy as 1-2-3... my back begs to differ.
Things have a way of meaning the exact same thing and yet something completely different at once. My dad and his friend both knew what they were doing. They knew what they meant when they began to swing, they just didn't know that the other, while using the exact same language and action, meant something quite different.
And neither was incorrect in what they thought they were doing, their shortcoming was only in their (mis)understanding of the other, and that everything is interpretation, even 1-2-3.
I couldn't find who developed the above image, I see it shared around pretty regularly. Regardless, it's great. It goes to the heart of postmodernity and the idea of irreducible plurality. As the world simultaneously grows bigger and smaller, and we become more aware of each other, we are beginning to discover how contingent our beliefs and practices are on the time and place of our birth. As Caputo says when speaking on religion, if I were born in another place or another time in history, chances are I would be singing very different sacred songs and using very different words for God, etc. Whether I see the planks as three or four, has much less to do with me than perhaps we'd like to admit, and far more to do with where(when) I've come from.
This should be a cause for humility, for openness, for dialogue. It gives us cause to go beyond the outer, stated belief and move toward examining how the belief functions in the person/peoples/our own life. In the above picture, it isn't so important how many planks they see, but how their seeing influences their being and doing. What we believe is a very contingent and fluid thing, yet how that belief functions in our lives, how it draws us into (or away from) action, how it calls us to reflect on ourselves, and how it affects our relations with others (and the world) is, for me, of far greater import, and much more warranting of discussion.
The how trumps the what... at least I think that was the moral of the pool story.