‘Abstract’, from the Latin abstractus, meaning “drawn away, detached”.
In some concepts, god is seen as immanent – meaning inside and permeating through everything. This god would agree with the saying “don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” … because an immanent god is a part of – rather than apart from – the person walking that mile. And more, an immanent god is part of everyone met on that road, part of the shoes in which the mile is walked and part of the road itself.
This is very different from Christian, Judaic and Islamic theology for example, where God is an abstraction, largely removed from the world. ‘He’ sits outside of his creation, the divine separated out from the mundane. And when we die this detached god will apparently judge us, deciding whether or not we have met his externally set standards.
Yet beyond abstract concepts of god, our world is currently dominated by the abstract in many other ways – the scientific world-view for instance. This values detachment and ‘objectivity’ … thus (for instance) deeming experimentation on animals to be acceptable, even for trivial purposes like the testing of cosmetics.
Our world is also dominated by centralised systems of government … detached systems in which the regions and localities (and individual people) become largely abstractions that can thus be herded about and socially engineered with little regard for their actual well-being or best interests.
Vice-versa, each central government becomes largely a remote abstraction to most of the people that live under it, not least because they have little or no power over that government (nor any real connection to it) aside from – if they are lucky – a single vote once every 4 or 5 years to choose one mass-scale party over another of similar flavour.
Governed by the abstract, the world becomes a place where social, psychological and behavioural ‘norms’ are tightly defined and deemed to exist concretely. This is because, within a world-view that’s focused on the abstract – on generalities detached from the diversity of real life – it’s easy for judgmental attitudes and the tyranny of the majority to hold sway, creating social pressure towards standardisation and uniformity. Thus, for example, the fact that heterosexuals form the majority is elevated (in many societies and cultures) into the abstract ‘principle’ that homosexuality is unnatural, an aberration outside of the ‘norm’.
But with ‘norms’, of course, you create a swarm of other ‘abnormalities’: pagan religion seen as an aberration, Shia Islam defined as heretical by Sunni Islam (and vice versa), smoking marijuana seen as deviant … and so on and on.
Nor is it mere coincidence that the current dominance of the abstract sits alongside the current general dominance of the male of the species. Men kill for abstract notions like ‘national pride’ or ‘defending God’s principles’. Whilst women, in an act of immanent, concrete reality – no mere abstraction here – carry new life in their wombs for nine months and then give birth.
We need to re-balance. Let’s move away from the abstract and the detached hierarchies and judgmental attitudes this promotes. Let’s move towards the local, the individual and the particular. Let’s move towards the immanent, to the here-and-now, to the internal as not disconnected from the external.
And let’s not judge a person until we’ve actually walked a mile in their shoes.
Besides, the worst case scenario with this last approach is that we’re a mile away from them and we’ve got their shoes 🙂