Suspended in a Web

Today, as I was searching online for books for summer reading, I came across The Interpretation of Cultures by noted anthropologist Clifford Geertz. While reading through the book utilizing the “look inside” feature, I was struck by Geertz words, which were inspired by sociologist Max Weber, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” Geertz approach to culture is semiotic, which is to say that his study of culture is centered upon systems of signification by which humans make meaning and accordingly regulate behavior and relationships.

I draw attention to this Weberian inspired quote by Geertz, because, as I said, I am drawn to it. On the one hand it expresses a nice turn of phrase, and on the other, it seems pregnant with possibilities for understanding humanity and the human condition. Along with this, it resonates with my religious experience, insofar is I am Anglican, which is to say that I am liturgical, which is to say that I deeply connect with patterned and symbolic expressions of faith and devotion.

When I think about this web in which we are suspended that we ourselves have spun, I see in it an expression of being made in God’s image. God is the “creator of all things, seen and unseen,” and like him we are creators, not just of art, architecture, and institutions, but in some profound sense we are creators of the world we inhabit. We construct the categories by which we divide and sort the world, and through this process of dividing and sorting we construct meaning. This is the world we create.

I realize that some out there might see this as a capitulation to postmodern presuppostions, and that I have run headlong into an embrace of relativism. The threat, of course, is that ultimately this kind of thinking denies the reality of an objective God who has endowed the world with meaning to discover. I am sympathetic to these concerns, however, I am not sure that my assertion necessarily leads to this denial. I cannot completely resolve this tension except to say that perhaps God has made us dynamic, perhaps he has endowed us with creative powers so that we would have a hand in the construction of the world that he has placed us in. In short, our ability to construct meaning, even a multiplicity of meanings, was intended by God to be the means by which his manifold grace and glory could be expressed through the multifacets of many cultures, which together create one brilliant diamond that refracts and sparkles with the glory of God.

2 Responses to “Suspended in a Web”

  1. K.L.B.  

    E pluribus unum – Though many, (we are) one. Our national motto is also expressed in Scripture thusly:

    “In the same way, even though we are many individuals, Christ makes us one body and individuals who are connected to each other.” – Romans 12;4,5 (God’s Word Translation)
    “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” – 1 Cor 10:17 (American King James Version)

    In the Genesis account, it is recorded that God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Genesis 1:26a (American King James Version) There is a line of thinking that says we are co-creators with God. I think it somewhat right, insofar as if we are made according to the design (i.e., “in His image”) or similitude (having the same qualities) then the ability to create is one of them. I think that idea is borne out in verse 28 where it’s indicated that “God blessed them” and ordered them to “be fruitful and multiply.” Note that it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command – an order to act, to perform a certain thing, to behave in a certain manner or fashion.

    Recently, I sent to you a note seeking your thoughts on an explanation of the spiritual significance of a stained glass window in an Episcopal church which I photographed here in town (Huntsville, AL) where I live. I made the photograph last year when I had returned for a visit. Interestingly, I have only read your blog entry afterwards. To many casual observers, the window is simply a nondescript (though beautifully colored and designed) handiwork.

    I think it fascinating that in some regard we (you and I) seem to have (vis-à-vis, you through this blog entry, and I through my photo blog entry – and both unknown to each other) a mysterious connection of the search for meaning through symbolism.

    On my photograph entitled “Quintuple & Triquetra – window (read the note!)” ( I wrote the following: “The symbolism of these windows often escapes modern viewers, even many Christians.

    [Translation: ignorant=pagan – From the Late Latin (ca. 1375) “paganus” in classical Latin meaning “rustic, villager, civilian” from a ‘country district’ (an area NOT populated with schools or learning institutions) – and whom is “fixed,” or “fastened” (from the related “pangere”) to their lifestyle – and therefore by extension, an uneducated and ignorant “country bumpkin.” A person “fixed” or “fastened” to an ignorant or unlearned belief.]

    “The window is comprised of five circles, each circle divided into four equal parts, with an equilateral, three pointed device superiorly to them all. Throughout the entire design, symmetry is evident, as are the numbers three, four and five.

    “In context, in early Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cultures, hierarchical ordinance was assigned to the letters of the alphabet. “Hebrews did not develop the symbols to represent numbers until the postexilic period (after 539 B.C.).” Thus in Hebrew alef was one, bet was two, and tav was the last. In the Greek, alpha was one, beta was two, etc. and omega was the last. Numbers had significance associated with the nature of the Almighty, His nature, creation and of humanity, which were represented with the written language, rather than by abstract symbols.

    “By extension, Christianity “adopted” much of the same symbolism. Three symbolized holiness, while five symbolized partial completion. Five and three is eight, symbolic of new beginnings. On the fourth day, God created “lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night.” Therefore, the number four symbolized thought of the Earth, and heaven as the throne of God.””

    In a great sense, I think that modernity has lost much of our historical understanding of symbolism. Or at least, it has changed significantly and departed drastically from that which our forebears had, and understood.

    The good thing about it is, that God hasn’t changed. Though perhaps we have changed – as you suggest, “God has made us dynamic” – there is an aphorism that states “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

    Recently, a friend and his wife stopped by to visit briefly as they drove through the neighborhood. (The details, though fascinating, are unnecessary.) He noted that “things hadn’t changed,” to which I shared the adage above, noting a few obvious and significant changes and adding the reverse, which suggests that “since they remain the same, perhaps they truly have changed.”

    Our search for significance through signification, inherently looks backwards – it remembers. God, on the other hand, looks forward.

  2. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin – You gave me lots to respond to, but I will just focus on your closing comment regarding God looking forward. Certainly God does look forward, insofar as the Xian faith has an eschatological orientation. We look forward to when God’s work through Christ is consummated and the reality of the Cross comes to completion such that the broken world is transformed by the righteousness of God. However, an integral part of Xian spirituality is remembrance, as in “Do this in remembrance of me.” In affirmation of what I hear you saying, we are not called to remember our past, but rather the mighty deeds of God. which provide a foundation for our hope in the future.