3,000 years ago, an unknown artist, perhaps the world’s first cartographer, created an extraordinary map of the city of Nippur, the cultural center of the Sumerian civilization.
There are several remarkable aspects of this map. For one, it is the first map known to have been drawn to scale - no mean intellectual and mathematical feat if it had never been done before. For another, it includes features such as the Euphrates river (the left-most double-lined “canal”) and the Ur Gate. (Abraham’s hometown was Ur - perhaps this very one, 100 miles southeast of Nippur.) But the most stunning element of this map may just be its perspective - from above. For the fact is, no human at that time could have seen the city from this perspective.
This view, as scientific and precise as it is, is a fabrication, a leap of the artist’s imagination.
Yesterday I was in NY at a wonderful afternoon of learning co-sponsored by COEJL (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) and the Finkelstein Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The subject was environmental ethics. Along with the engaging and little-known Jewish texts that we studied, we also heard from Dr Robert Pollack, Director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University. In his power point presentation, Dr. Pollack had a slide which showed the universe, all of it, from what can only be considered a divine perspective. The viewer was outside the universe, which was drawn something like a short-bottomed ice cream cone lying on its side. For a moment, like for the viewer of the city of Nippur, we are taken outside of our limited reality, and asked to look back in at all of it at once.
The view of the universe reminded me of the map of Nippur, and I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two representations 3,000 years apart, so very different and yet so very much alike. For they both emanated from, and celebrated, the same human impulse: our expansive imagination.
This is what makes humanity unique: we can imagine what we have never seen and never known. We can project, plan, hope and dream. That, in part, is what enabled us to climb out of the caves and make the homes, the canals, the cities, the gates, the maps, the blueprints that gave us this blessed world we live in today.
Yet it is, paradoxically, the impoverishment of the human imagination that is stifling our acknowledgement and response to the dark side of all this wonder. We are not properly imagining the harm that the gift of our genius and progress is creating. We are not properly imagining the view of our world in the wake of its degradation by our actions. And we are not properly imagining what a renewed world, built on less instead of more, would look like.
Scientists tell us that if everyone on earth today, about 7 billion of us, were to live the way most Americans live, we would need 5 earths to satisfy the demand. If we fully used our imaginations to understand that, we would change our ways.
Needless to say, we do not have spare earths hanging around. But we do have endless imagination. Let’s put that remarkable attribute to use to help us both heal the world, and enrich our lives. For in truth, these two can only happen together.