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  • Writer's pictureGreg Dover

Greg's Weekly Word: "longitude"

Do you remember images like this one from your geography lessons in elementary or middle school? Ever wonder why it's important to identify the parallel at 23 degrees, 26 minutes north of the equator as the "Tropic of Cancer"?

As I've been leading our third-grader through his social studies work, I've become reacquainted with latitude and longitude. (Although I'm still not sure about the Tropic of Cancer.)

If you haven't been forced to relearn these concepts while helping your child with their schoolwork, here's a little refresher: latitude refers to the lines running east and west, parallel to the equator, and longitude refers to the lines running north and south, perpendicular to the equator.

Of course, these aren't actual lines on the earth's surface. If you were standing on the equator you wouldn't see a line on the ground beneath your feet (unless someone drew or painted one there). Latitude and longitude are imagined lines to denote a position on the globe, measured in degrees. And because it is a globe, these lines aren't flat and straight. They are arcs that bend to follow the curvature of the earth, which you can see when the globe is flattened onto a two-dimensional map.

As my son and I have worked through his social studies assignments, I've also been reminded of the longitudinal studies I read about when I was a psychology major in college. These were studies that repeatedly observed the same variables over years, or decades, or even lifetimes.

The quote above is actually a paraphrase of part of a sermon by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker in 1853. Parker said,

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.

In recent days and weeks, I often find myself wondering if the universe is inherently a moral one. From 200,000 citizens dead from downplayed disease, to yet another black American killed at white hands (and justice not only delayed, but outright denied)... From profits continuing to hold more value than people, to political power trumping any concern for an impact on individuals' lives... From wilder fires and stronger storms due to a global climate crisis, to war and oppression and poverty and hunger at almost every point of latitude and longitude around the globe...

Like Parker, we probably don't understand the moral universe. Like those imagined lines that crisscross our planet, we may not be able to see its arc with our eyes. Especially in times such as these.

But perhaps we can divine a bent toward justice - even if it takes years and decades and lifetimes - following the curvature of God's promises and purposes, even if only by degrees at a time.

And maybe, along those same lines, we can find our position in God's world and our place in God's work.

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