Roosters for the Common Good

A few Fridays ago, earlier than I’d care to admit, I went over to my friend Dave’s to murder chickens. I know I should say roosters because they were.  And I should say slaughter because that’s what we call it. And to be honest, even though I definitely helped, I shouldn’t say we, because I never wielded the knife. Not that I wouldn’t or that I have anything bad to say about this experience. I don’t. Five roosters met their end in the crispness of that morning, but they died as well as deliberate killing could end a life. In fact, their deaths convinced me that a good death is a possibility for farm animals. Meat is murder, but humans and the animals that we live with share a peculiar and highly asymmetrical relationship. We do not ordinarily expect that a story that ends with one character killing the other ends well. I believe that this is exactly the story that we need to tell about how we live with domesticated animals.

All summer long those Roosters abundantly frolicked, hung out, ate, drank, roosted, pecked, clucked and generally lived a good life. This life was only possible for these individuals if it ended with their becoming meat. They would not have been brought into existence otherwise. My friend Dave cares for these animals, feeding them the right amount of food and supplements. He gives them limestone for their gizzard (without it they couldn’t “chew” their food). And he knows how to kill them well. I didn’t take the knife that morning partly because it wouldn’t respect the rooster; their death came about more easily given Dave’s experience. Even so, his cut was a bit less decisive for the first of five roosters, and, as he was dying, he craned his neck up and met my gaze.

It is quite the thing to look at someone in the eye as they are dying. The last time I had done it was with my cat Tiamat, and then I was reduced to a huddled mass of flesh, crouched up on the floor, bawling. But my relationship to my friend of 15 years was different in intensity to my relationship with the Rooster I had only met a couple of times, and honestly couldn’t tell apart from his compatriots.   The Rooster was in many senses my neighbor, in his dependence on Dave and for the weekend that Dave was up north, on me, in his geographical proximity to me, and in my connectedness to him through Dave.

I looked at my neighbor the Rooster and held that his gaze and thought two things. This is murder what we are doing. It’s worth it. That night I went home and devoured the chicken leg Dave had given me, confident that he’d been given an abundant and good life and that he now was giving me a good supper.

There is a part of this story that I don’t want to tell you. In fact, I wrote much of the sermon having comfortably decided that you didn’t need to hear it. But since this meditation is basically one short sharp knife thrust for truth I omit it at my peril.

The Monday after the Friday I was getting ready for bed and relating some of the details of the Friday to Susan. I’d been thinking about the Roosters all weekend long and I was processing. I remember that I’d been cold all day, putting on layer after layer to try and keep warm. And then I realized it. In a second my body temperature rose at least 10 degrees and I was flush with heat. Uggh. I forgot to feed them. They’d been more than 48 hours without fresh food and water. I’d been entrusted with their care, and I’d failed to be a good neighbor. I rushed, with Susan in tow, the short drive to the Roosters. I ran up to their pen. They were o.k.

I am with you this morning walking on a line pulled taut by the meaning we give to words. Murder, Slaughter, Chicken, Rooster, Neighbor, Friend, Giving, Truth, Abundance.

But if Walter Brueggeman is right in Journey to the Common Good, It makes all the difference to notice how this line is drawn. In his book Brueggeman is focused on the movement of people in Egypt during Joseph’s time from peasantry to slavery.  Brueggeman is particularly hard on Joseph for all the ways in which Joseph buys into the logic of empire in his sojourn in Egypt. When he nominates himself for food czar, Joseph gets compared to Richard Cheney who led the search committee to find a vice-presidential candidate and nominated himself.

Genesis 41:33 reads,

Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.

Joseph is the able administrator who buys into executes Pharaoh’s policy of world food domination. This is a policy born of Pharaoh’s nightmares, which Joseph has interpreted. And it is a policy which oversees the transition of all of Egypt from peasantry to slavery. In the first year of the famine, the peasant pay their money for food. In the second year, with their money gone, they give their cattle. Brueggeman notes that this is what Marx would later term the “means of production”. Finally in the third year, they surrender their freedom. The peasants become slaves are grateful.

Genesis 47:25 reads,

They said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh.”

This is a story of anxiety. Bruggeman notes,

Those who are living in anxiety and fear, most especially fear of scarcity, have no time or energy for the common good. Anxiety is no adequate basis for the common good. (p. 7)

This is the story out of which the Exodus experience happens. Anxiety has come bursting out of Pharaoh’s nightmare to rest on his subjects, and for our perspective as Christians and Jews, particularly on Joseph’s brother’s descendants. All of Joseph’s machinations have not been able to save his family for a new king rose over Egypt; and he knew not Joseph.

In response to this anxiety God liberates those who are willing to turn their back on anxiety and trust in God’s abundance. This transition is heralded by Shiprah and Puah who we heard about in today’s scripture reading.  Their abundant generosity gives life to a generation of Hebrew men. Shiprah and Puah are models of the common good. From here the people will soon be wandering in the wilderness accepting God’s abundance in the form of bread and quail which miraculously appears each day in an abundant amount. But the people are not to get anxious about whether or not their will be enough. Anxiety is for Pharaoh. God demands obedience to abundance, and that the people turn away from scarcity and embrace generosity. At Sinai God gives the ten commandments, basing them on the people’s experience of abundance and expecting them to be generous to their neighbor.

This is Brueggman’s trajectory in the beginning of Journey to the Common Good  It follows the long arc of this story and offers the shift from anxiety to abundance to neighborliness as a model for the common good.  He offers these reflections as a counterpoint to the rise of empire in our country post 9/11.

In what remains I want to extend his model of the common good to the animals we live with and are bound to by the long arc of the process of domestication. We have historically thought of domestication as a process of humans controlling and forcibly domesticating other animals. Recent science suggests that the process was probably much more mutual. Domestication is an asymmetrical process of learning to live with another species in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Just as Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt and traded money, cattle and ultimately freedom for food and protection, at some point several chickens, but also some sheep, horses, dogs and cats left their lives in the wild and joined the new experiment of life with humans. This has been a remarkably successful strategy. There are many more domestic animals than wild. Did you know that domestic chickens make many more sounds than their wild counterparts? In general, living in a bigger group demands more brain power, and more speech than living in smaller group.

At some point though these animals found that their gifts began to be forcibly taken. I think that there is a loose parallel between the shift from peasant to slave to liberation in the experience of farm animals today. They have shifted from domestication to factory farming and for a lucky few liberation at pens like my friend Dave’s. However liberation is still only a dream for the vast majority of factory farmed animals. I’m not going to turn your stomachs with a recitation of the brutally cruel things that we subject factory farmed animals to. I will say that any pursuit of the common good is going to need to ultimately destroy the factory farm once and for all.

Is domestication really a good thing for these animals? Was life in Egypt a good thing for Jacob’s family? The answer to these questions needs to be complex. We do not control every aspect of our lives. Should Jacob’s family have prayed for manna? I think that the move to Egypt was not a problem, even aspects of Joseph’s work in giving people food were not a problem. But when Egypt prospers because of a famine, it’s a problem. Joseph is guilty for participating in this. Are the slaves guilty for not resisting? Are factory farmed animals guilty for not trying to escape?

There are a lot of difficult questions here. Teasing out the direct comparisons between Egypt and contemporary American power and wealth and between Jacob’s descendants and domesticated animals is tricky. What kind of will is at play in the life of a Rooster who choose a domesticated life? They don’t run away and seek instead to make their life in the forest. Can our literal consumption of the Rooster actually make the Rooster’s life more abundant?

I have tried to not be metaphorical at all in this sermon. When I am speaking about animals and a life of abundance I literally mean for us to focus on specific Roosters and think about the ways that our lives are made more abundant when we live with these Roosters and about these Roosters lead a better, more abundant life, a  life with more ends and flourishing then they would be able to experience alone. I have tried to not be metaphorical, but maybe there is a metaphorical or allegorical lesson here.

Perhaps we are an allegory of the chicken. When we think about the possibilities of our lives under empire, are we aided when we become a metaphor of the domesticated animal? If we think of ourselves as farmed, of being fattened for the slaughter, we might actually have a better idea of the real circumstances of our lives. Much of my life in this country is blessed, and blessed by the specific pursuits of this empire. I love technology, I’m going to buy a gold iPhone 5s soon, I’m going to use it for some really good things, at points I’m going to use it to pursue the common good. But its’ production and my consumption of it are also markers of my slavery. If I recognize that, then, in the end, I can also see that it is just so much limestone for my gizzard. It is a sign of my domestication, a sign of how I am cared for, and perhaps most decisively to what, to whom I am bound.

Amen

Being an Audience in an Age of Distraction

Given as part of a panel at Bluffton University. 

What does it mean to be an audience? I think that this is a fascinating question. The biblical text that I always think of when I think of being an audience is The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5.1-2 reports,

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: -

Who is Jesus’ audience for this sermon? There are crowds, and Jesus goes up a mountain (so that they can hear him? or at least see him?). There are also the disciples who come to Jesus. Jesus could be teaching the crowds, but why then does Matthew report that the disciples come to Jesus? Jesus’ teaching could be just for the disciples, but then why does he teach now when there are so many people around? Or is the audience for Jesus’ words us now in this time and space? I think that the audience was the people that were paying attention.

We are never sure who the audience is for something that we say; likewise a forum like this one has an audience here and now, but also an audience beyond this time and space in the conversations that you share with people about this forum. Let me call these the concrete audience (each of you that is here now) and the virtual audience (people that will be almost here by virtue of participating in conversation about this event).

Audiences can be distracted in many ways. Some of these are technological, some aren’t.

I am assuming that you want to be here. If you don’t want to be here you should leave. If you need arts and lecture credit but don’t want to be here find a way to get arts and lecture credit for things that you want to go to. You are in college; you should want to go to enough of what we offer to meet the credit in your four years here.

Some of you would like to be listening to me, but you are instead all, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually sitting next to her at forum today and I didn’t even try to plan it that way and it totally must be meant to be but I wish I was wearing a nicer shirt.”

Anyone can be distracted at anytime.

I can see you, the concrete audience, being distracted by technology in a number of ways. Technologies of amplification, space and interruption are distracting you.

Jesus didn’t have a microphone back in the day but he spoke on a hillside to crowds of people. How did they hear?

I have an example, but I need you all to be very quiet for it. Can we try that for a second? Be as still and quiet as you can be.

(step away)

You can hear me now, but it takes some effort. It also takes your attention. Part of working to hear me is paying attention to what I am saying. If you want to be listening, and your neighbor is being loud, well tough luck.

(back)

Amplification makes it easier to hear, and in making it easier allows you to pay less attention. Perhaps we should do away with microphones. It would, surprisingly, probably help us pay attention and be less distracted. Distraction is not an option in a non-amplified world.

When Jesus spoke were people comfortable on the hillside? Were there distractions like birds or cats or impending rainstorms? The technology of a mount is different than the technology of a space like this gym or a space like Yoder recital hall. I find it much easier to pay attention in Yoder than in here. That space orients my attention to the front, to the stage. The seats are meant for me to look at one space. These seats such as they are meant to watch volleyball or basketball. This isn’t an excuse for not paying attention; your job as an audience is always to pay attention; but it does show you a barrier that you have. Churchill said, “We build our building s and our buildings build us.”

This brings us to the final distraction I want to think about; cell phones. Take out your cell phone and hold it up. Let’s say that I had the screen behind me showing the twitter hashtag #audience and that I asked you to react to what I was saying by tweeting with that hashtag. What would happen?

1). My presentation would have just gotten a whole lot more interactive.

That would be cool; but notice how hard it is to learn how to use a new technology well.  Some of you don’t know what a hashtag is. Some of you don’t have twitter on your phone. Rather than just asking for reactions I should probably have well thought through questions and I should be able to react to them on the fly.  This could work but it would be hard.

2). The audience would have just gotten a whole lot bigger.

We would, by virtue of our size as a group momentarily take over the hashtag #audience and people beyond Bluffton would get a sense of what we were talking about. We also could bring the discussion tangibly to others after this event. The benefits of cell phone style technology for the virtual audience are huge.

3). By interacting with the material for this forum you would be using your cell phone to pay more attention, not less, to what was being said. You would become a more attentive audience.

However, none of this can happen while you use your cell phone as an interruption machine. You’d need to not read texts, or emails, or facebook, or twitter other than through our hashtag.  If you are texting your roommate right now you aren’t being an audience, you are talking to your roommate. Just as technology can extend the audience virtually, it can also constrain the concrete audience. If your speaker doesn’t give you a good reason to use your cellphone; or if you aren’t good at trusting yourself with the technology; it’s probably better to just turn it off.

It is hard to know how we are being distracted, but we can learn, and once we learn we can choose to pay attention. Being able to pay attention is what makes us an audience.

An Antidote to Cynicism, or, Why I teach college, now that I know.

A common feeling among my peers, best summed up by Kate Blanchard in the Chronicle, is one of mild depression upon receiving tenure. The dynamics of my despair were shaped by an intense course load, significant pressure to spend substantial time mentoring my students, a marked decline in my students in even basic writing skills, an even sharper decline in critical thinking ability and the knowledge that I was participating in giving them an huge debt load by the end of college. The work is hard, the rewards few, but more importantly I am giving my students this huge debt and for what. I teach religion, that most useless of disciplines, at a denominational school that only serves 14% of that denominations members. My aspirations for my students upon their graduation; voluntary service. I want them to give something back to the world after their four years of “luxury”. It’s genuinely hard to give something back when you are in significant debt. I know this.

And so I listen to Rick Santorum brand me and my students as elitists on the stump, to David Levy indict my hard work in the Washington Post, and to Peter Morici brand my work as a liberal art-ist as useless on Marketplace Money. They are all deeply wrong, but until now; until the last cases of plagiarism have been caught and sent and away empty, my grades handed in, my students bundled off for the summer, and my own relationship with my pillow restored; until now I have not had the energy to think about why.

In the midst of my depression I asked a senior college administrator at midwest college with a better reputation than my own what he thinks about my predicament. He gave a good answer. With the demise of the public square, the failure of the media and newspapers in particular, he said that the small liberal arts college is the last hope of American democracy. It is the last place in which people can be formed into citizens who care about others and in that caring work towards the common weal.

He might be right, and, that answer helped my anomie. But I know that there are other, cheaper, more productive places which encourage a similar growth. They may not steward the special approach to time that the small college, or the university generally offers. (I mean here the ability to consider an idea carefully, at length and without regard to a bottom line.) But these places do exist for those who want to find them.

The thing that we do that does not happen elsewhere is the encouragement of students, en masse, to think. This is not as easy as it sounds. The last thing I had to grade this spring was the exam from my introductory religion course. The common refrain in this set of handwritten essays was that in this course students had been encouraged to think differently, or more broadly, or deeper, or in a more focused way on what they thought that they knew about the Bible. I realized that the important thing about these exams was not the content that students remembered (in most cases very little), the synthesis or analysis present (oh, for a world in which we still cared even a bit about logic), or even that they thought differently, broadly or deeply (very few were actually able to show evidence of this). The important thing was that this course made them think. It was a beginning in attuning their mind to deeper desires, a reference to D.H. Lawrence. “we [have] a double set of desires, the shallow and the profound, the personal, superficial, temporary desires, and the inner, impersonal, great desires that are fulfilled in long periods of time. The desires of the moment are easy to recognise, but the others, the deeper ones, are difficult. It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears.”

This beginning in thinking that happened for my students, and it happens reliably, if only in small ways, is a beginning in recognizing that the world is not quite what it seems to be, and that what passes for politics and economics in this world is only a pale glimmer of what real discussions and production could be. I am deeply grateful to my students for trying to catch what ever part of this that they can each year. I hope more try.

I do not harbor any illusions that education will save the world, that my students will change it, or that we aren’t going to be extinct in a 100 years. I am not in control of these things. But in a world in which presidential candidates call education snobbery, out of touch former university chancellors attack 80 hour work weeks as relaxed, and respected economists who teach at universities openly attack thought, I know that in my work, slowly, some people are learning to think, deeply, and might question, for a little while, the shrill echo in their ear.

Baccalaureate Address: Bluffton University

Good Morning,

 

I am deeply humbled by the honor, privilege and responsibility that accrues to me upon being chosen as this years baccalaureate speaker. I’m deeply grateful to you, graduating class of 2012. In fact, in some ways, I’m speechless, and really that’s kind of awkward for all of us.  I’m caught by the desire to show you one more thing about the world but at the end of these years of your education what can I say?

 

Now many of you are expecting me to talk about animals and I did ask my cat what I should say this morning. She looked at me quizzically, with an expression that recognized the difficulty of the task, and then in an attempt to be more helpful, said, “meow.” I’ve decided not to go in that direction.

 

Some of you are thinking, perhaps Trevor will have a story about the narwhal, the whale with one long tusk. That’s right, there is a creature with one long beautiful horn protruding from the centre of its head and it is as real as the fact that you are graduating today. Doesn’t that make you want to laugh?

 

Appropriately, the narwhal is an animal symbolic of transformation. In the Inuit (the correct term for Eskimo) legend a blind son with a wicked mother finds his sight slowly improving only to have his mother insist on his continued helplessness. He then regains all of his sight with the help of a red loon who encourages him not to reveal his sightedness to his mother until he is visit by a pod of beluga whales in late summer. When the whales come the boy goes to the ocean with his harpoon. His worried mother follows. He asks her to tie the rope on the end of harpoon to her waist to hold the animal he is about to spear. He then expertly spears the largest whale and she is carried out to sea and becomes the narwhal.

 

In a recent late summer you all also left much kinder parents, families, and lives and underwent a transformation like the blind boy in the legend, or like the blind man in the scripture for today’s service. You came from many different places, in many different ways, with many different plans, to study at this university. You all also asked to see. For what is education if it is not learning how to see the world?

 

Some of you have studied for four years straight out of high school, others transferred in. Some of you are in your twenties but others of you have come back to school. Some of you are receiving bachelor’s degrees and some master’s degrees.  All of you are accomplished, and you have accomplished significant things while you have been here. I could speak to your accomplishment but it is uneven spread across many different degree programs, and in theatrical, musical, literary, artistic, athletic and spiritual endeavors. I could speak to your future accomplishments, but it’s difficult to predict the future, and while I and many of the funny looking people on the stage with me think that you will go on and do great things, my guess is that that looks to you like so much vainglory in this moment.  Also, the history of the baccalaureate address is that of a sermon, and we’ve had enough of sermons that encourage young people to go out and conquer the world, even if I tell you to conquer it with love.

 

And so, what I want to do this morning, is reflect on these two young men who asked to see. Because what is education if not learning how to see the world. I might suggest Alexander von Humboldt as a model to you. Humboldt was a prolific scientist working at the dawn of a number of natural sciences as they took their modern form. Highly precise instruments and long practice in observing the world around him led to “discovery” after “discovery” as Humboldt learned to see his world in ways in which it had been seen before. From the Jurassic period, to a theory of climate, to significant observations of plants, animals and people Humboldt attempted to see the world holistically. Long before its abolition in this country Humboldt spoke against slavery and at the height of colonialism he opposed its worst excesses. Like the narwhal, which can dive miles deep into the ocean Humboldt dove deeply into his world. Humboldt was able to see his world uniquely perhaps because of his own differences from the people around him. In any event he is a good example for you in that, like Jeremy Lin, he was deeply practiced and focused and was therefore ready to succeed when his opportunity arose.

 

But you do not live in a world in which “conquering” and “discovering” should take centre stage. And success is a word that you need to redefine rather than seek after. In many ways you live in a discordant world of madness dominated by a need for calm and healing. Conflicts around climate, race, gender, creed, and love dominate our headlines. How can you work to see all at peace in health and freedom? How in the weak, worn, dreary, stormy life around you can you point to God’s guiding, holding, lingering presence? How might you see the world so that the public health of our society, of your communities and of your selves might flourish?

 

I could not do better than to follow the four speakers that have preceded me this weekend. They are evidence that while much of our work here at Bluffton has been to encourage you to see the world straight on, to understand its workings and movings, to set you as instruments of peace in the midst of hurt and rancor, that we have also been about helping you to see something else; a world of laughter and beauty. Beauty and laughter give us the gift seeing the world sideways. And this is a gift which knows no ending.

 

Chalsi Eastman spoke of her work bringing a prayer labyrinth to Bluffton. A prayer labyrinth is a particularly beautiful way to see the world. In a labyrinth we pray our way to the centre of our lives stone by stone, knowing that in prayer there are no tricks, no dead ends, but only communion and praise.  Alex Woodring reminded us that some of our greatest learning are the results of our failures. The right attitude towards our failure not only gives us the ability to heal ourselves into the person that will do better the next time. The right attitude to failure also gives us an endless supply of humor. We do well also to laugh at our mistakes. Emily Shellabarger invokes the sage who divides our time into laughter and weeping. And we realize that in transistions these are intimately connected.   They stem from the same desire which animates our spirit.. Tim Yoder talks about the beauty of teaching students music and of stirring the desire to learn in his student. Desire is at the heart of beauty. And this beauty repeats itself. From Tim to his students in the cards and gifts he received. Beauty does this everyday.

 

The answers of these four speakers are also my answer.  This is how to see the world. See it with beauty and laughter.

 

The rich and endless store of beauty gives us an inexhaustible source of interest, focus, attention, and of course, creativity. I would even go so far as to say that beauty is the meaning of life. As Elaine Scarry says, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” When we encounter beauty it arrests us and stops us short in the ordinary patterns of our lives. When we work towards creating beauty we start to see the whole of our lives as the beautiful things that they are. Our ordinary becomes sublime. When we see the world as a beautiful place we praise God. We name ourselves with the name that the Inuit gave to the Narwhal; the one that points to the sky. Be ready to see beauty as you leave here.

 

We know that laughter makes us healthier. Laughter puts the world in perspective. It gives us a vantage point from which we can dive deeply into the world. And everything that laughter does for our view of the world it also does for us. It lets us take ourselves less seriously. This is not a threat to accomplishment. But when our lives are torn by sadness humor can heal our wounds with a tuneful balm. Be ready to laugh as you leave here.

 

The blind man’s faith was ignored by the people around him. They could not or would not see the beauty in him. Just before this story the disciples are reportedly unable to understand the parables and proverbs that Jesus has been saying. I think that they could not or would not see the humor in them. Luke brings understanding and seeing together and connects faith to laughter and beauty. He shows us how to see the world and by seeing to go healing, teaching, and reclaiming, serving God by serving all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You are what you eat, you eat what you are.

It’s a sunny day here in Ann Arbor. My routine on mornings like this is to go out and look at my garden. Days when the first thing that I see are flowers and ferns busting up through last autumns fallen leaves are good days. I’ve made myself some coffee, roasted by my neighbor John Roos who sells this fair trade organic coffee in brown paper packages with individually silk-screened labels. I take my coffee outside and stumble around my yard, forcing my eyes open and encouraging the squirrels not to desolate the ornamental grasses as much this year.

Since last December these small ambles have an extra poignancy. Last December my cat Tiamat died. I’d lived with her for 15 years and she had become one of my best friends. I buried her in the fortunately thawed soil and planted wildflowers around her grave the next spring. The wildflowers are not in bloom yet but I still stop at the stacked flagstone grave marker and remember my friend. I remember holding her in my arms, bawling, as the vet euthanized her. It’s still strange to me that I could choose the date of Tiamat’s death, that it would have been cruel not to end her suffering. But that’s the asymmetrical pattern of animal human relationships. That’s been the pattern for 15,000 years.

I eat meat, it is ethical to eat meat, because of my relationship to animals. The long history of domestication is one in which humans and animals have bound ourselves together in a strangely beautiful and codependent dance of mutual suffering and flourishing. My participation in that dance is one that I am morally obligated to continue. If I did not eat meat, and use animal products, whole species would vanish from the earth.

I do not keep meat in my house, mostly because my wife and I are perfectly happy eating vegetables. But I do eat meat without hesitation, in restaurants, at the college where I teach, and in the homes of friends. Not exactly without hesitation. I usually say a small, silent, eyes-open prayer upon the flesh I am about to consume commending the soul of the creature I am about to eat into God’s hands. I believe that all creatures have souls. I will argue at the Society of Christian Ethics in January that animals are persons, that because they promote human community they are in fact better candidates for personhood than corporations. We should eat animals because they are like us, and because we are like them.

Dogs and humans behave more like each other than humans and other primates. 15,000 years of coevolution has made us resemble each other. That process is not solely one of humans shaping animal destiny. We are also shaped by the “choices” of the animals that we live with. It is a reasonable choice for the pig, the cow, the chicken to live under human protection in exchange for food. It is a reasonable choice for the lamb to give of her wool, her life, to live in human community.

Death is not a barrier to the flourishing of relationship. In fact, as I am reminded this Good Friday, sometimes death makes relationship possible. And it is not animals alone who suffer at human hands. One example, shared diseases like rabies or toxoplasmosis, must suffice.

This is not an argument for cannibalism, for humans eating dogs or for pigs eating humans. Relationships between different animals occur in different ways and are honored in different ways. It is an argument against all factory farming, and for intimate animal husbandry. It may be that eating animals is outdated, that our relationship can grow beyond consuming their flesh to solely using their products. Perhaps this is only an argument for eating pigs. Perhaps we should keep pigs as pets, or in zoos and be done with our carnivorousness. There is a part of me that would be made very happy by that shift.

But that shift would not own the ways in which humans and animals have chosen each other in time and space. It would not own the different ways we are in relationship.

….

This is a longer version of an essay I’ll submit to a NYT contest on why it is ethical to eat meat. Thanks to Jennifer Arnold for suggesting I’d have something to say.

 

 

Discernment and Community in the Twitter Age

Discernment and Community in the Twitter Age
A presentation for Dominican University’s Siena Centre’s Albertus Magnus Lecture series
October 13, 2011

Good Evening,
I’m grateful for the opportunity to come to Chicago and speak to you tonight … I have long admired your university in the personalities of a number of good friends that have worked here, and, ever since my own graduate education at Loyola University Chicago, the general approach of Roman Catholics to the pursuit of wisdom. There is, to be sure, a wisdom in my own tradition, the tradition that I am here to talk to you about tonight, but it is not as organized, and therefore surely not as celebrated at the work of your society and the larger tradition which holds it. So let me offer my unabashed thanks for your being you. And to … for facilitating this pursuit of wisdom in hosting me here tonight.
My tradition has a generally dim view of education. The most conservative of these groups stop formal education in the 8th grade. The most liberal of these groups sponsor their own colleges and seminaries, like the school I teach at in Bluffton, Ohio, but in order to gain education beyond the master’s level in disciplines other than theology, peace making, education or curiously business, I needed to set out on my own path and attend a Catholic School. I could have gone to a state school or a protestant school, but, really, why would I have done that? Mennonites now have doctorates in many fields, but Mennonites with doctorates are held with more suspicion than celebration in the church that we belong to.
Why is this?
It is not that we don’t value wisdom, or learning, but that the type of wisdom and learning that is valued is that which can be made plain to anyone.
Specialized theories, or methods, or equipment or cynicism; the stock and trade of all advanced academic work; are always held suspect because these methods can contain their own kind of pride, the discussions they entail exclude some people and they are not therefore generally observable, and, they might suggest an approach to the world which is doubtful rather than yielded.
Knowledge about the bible, about the history of the tradition, about how to farm, or raise a family, about how to build up community, to walk simply on the earth, to avoid conflict, to follow Jesus; these things constitute wisdom.
In my journey at university towards tenure and promotion, my service to the church in publications in church periodicals, sermons at churches, or service on church committees is valued as much as publication in esoteric academic journals. There are a number of Mennonite academics who have rejected positions at Harvard and its ilk to continue serving at a church school.
If I needed to discern the central theme in Amish and Mennonite life that informs our approach to new information technology it is something very much like what I’ve identified here: humble and plain, open and yielded.
So I’d like you to notice three things in what I’ve said so far. There is a spectrum of Amish and Mennonite approaches to similar questions. There is a general suspicion of worldly ways of doing things. I really like how you do things; which pins me on one extreme end of the spectrum.
Let me begin again; this time with a little history, so that I can locate the topics that I want to connect tonight, and give you a few points of departure.
The early 16th century was a time of huge political, social, religious, and technological upheaval. I doubt living then felt anything like living now feels, but historically the 16th and 21st centuries have real commonalities. The invention of the printing press poised society on the cusp of great change. The religious reformers of the 16th century took advantage of this change by translating bibles into the vernacular and opening up questions about the nature of religious authority.
Luther and Zwingli are the well known figures at the vanguard of this change and each saw their movements gain state support and solidify quickly into institutionalized movement which loosely paralleled the existing catholic church.
At the same time a group of even more radical reformers in Switzerland and Germany started to coalesce around several interrelated ideas: adult baptism on confession of faith (hence the term Anabaptist which means re-baptizer), strict adherence to the scripture as interpreted in the spirit’s presence in community, and a simple life marked most particularly by refusal to act violently. Anabaptists were yielded to their faith in baptism, to each other and scripture in their interpretation, and to their enemies in their pacifism. They were in the most part plain, open and yielded.
The refusal to act violently and adult baptism parts clashed starkly with all other forms of religious and social organization at the time. Adult baptism is inherently democratic and it can establish a kind of community that can, due to the voluntary initiation of its members, expect much of its followers. Pacifism has always been distrusted by authorities responsible for the maintenance of social order. These two things together suggested, probably quite accurately, that these Anabaptists could not be trusted. In 16th century Germany, much like 21st century Syria or Tunisia, this meant death to dissidents. Anabaptists were killed en masse, and the stories of these martyrdoms gave this movement both confidence in its convictions and a quietest spirit. Under the leadership of Menno Simons who saw that the movement would need to go underground to survive, the radical Anabaptists of the 16th century gave way to the Mennonites of the 17th. At the end of the 17th century Jakob Amman, concerned with lax discipline among the Swiss Mennonites of his day, led a schismatic element away from the main Mennonite church. At the beginning of the 18th century many Mennonites and Amish emigrated to this country. Their beliefs and practices were in the most part similar but developing along two parallel tracks.
The reason I can stand up here operating a powerpoint giving a talk written in equal parts on my MacBook Pro and iPad2 after having driven here this morning in my car without embodying contradiction is a set of schisms that occurred in Mennonite areas in Canada and the United states at the end of the 19th century. Educational reforms like Sunday School, increasing acculturation and technology use among Mennonites generally led Old Order groups to separate in order to preserve their communities as they knew them.

So here is a graphical representation of the spectrum of groups that I’ve been talking about tonight. All of these groups exist in decent but very moderate numbers in the USA today. There are 250,000 Amish, 40,000 Conservative Mennonites, and 110,000 in the Mennonite Church USA and 30,000 in the Mennonite Brethren. There are probably about 100,000 Old Order Mennonites but they are really uncounted.
There are four Mennonite denominations. Mennonite Church USA and the US Mennonite Brethren are the most liberal and have relationships and communications with churches both Catholic and Protestant. Then there are two very small denominations, the Conservative Mennonite Conference and the Evangelical Mennonite Conference. There are also many other conservative Mennonite groups that are not unified by any kind of denominational grouping or relationship to other churches. There are probably an additional thirty groups of in each of the Conservative Mennonite, Amish and Old Orders boxes on this chart. So, It’s not like the plurality of Catholic Religious Orders but there is still probably a joke in there somewhere. There is no Amish or Old Order denomination. There are again many different groups as the Amish and Old Orders are very schismatic often dividing over questions of technology use. The divisiveness of Amish and Old Order Mennonites is an interesting aspect of their discernment. Sometimes, almost in order to explore two different patterns of community life, a community will choose to divide intending to reunite when they can. Sometime this happens within 30 or 50 years, sometimes hundreds of years later, sometimes not at all.
The really noticeable difference between Amish and Old Orders and Conservative Mennonite Groups and the Mennonite Church USA, marked on your chart by the difference in color is that the Amish and Old Orders are plain. They wear plain dress, drive horse and buggy, or perhaps a car with its bumper painted black to emphasize its plainness. Conservative Mennonites and the MCUSA do not look any different from the rest of society. We are not plain but simple.
For all Amish and Mennonites the church is the basic and fundamental religious unit, more important than regional, national or international relationships, even if those other relationship are important. The Mennonite Church USA does meet bi-annually to conduct business by delegate session, but even the statements it issues are always seen as provisional. We think that the Apostles Creed was well written but basically we are a group of confessional not creedal churches.

I said earlier I was on one extreme of this chart. Here I am.
This rock and roll (that is, highly selective and abbreviated) history will have to suffice in order to introduce you to my people. It would be too much to develop the patterns of discernment and community among all three groups simultaneously, so let me instead seek to work on two topics in succession. First, how do Amish and Old Order Mennonites engage technology. Second, how, or should, Mennonites, for that matter any Christian, engage technology. To do this I’m going to propose three rules. These rules are genuine, in that I think they should be, in that I do them and in that they practice an approach that is yielded to technology. But the are kind of funny, and I offer them cognizant that I’m not in regular patterns of accountability with most of you. I’m easy to ignore. Having done my due diligence to the world as it actually is let me from now on use “Amish” for the conservative end of this spectrum and “Mennonite” for the other end.
I think that the interest in the Amish in terms of their approach to technology is explained well by questions like these, taken from the description of this series of lectures.
Can theology articulate ethical norms for the development and use of technology in a way that will protect the integrity of creation and the dignity of the human person? Has our culture forfeited its responsibility for prudential judgment and moral restraint in the face of dazzling scientific discovery? How do we begin to think through the potential side effects of scientific advances before moving ahead with blind optimism?
If we are really concerned about things like ethical norms for the use of technology, a forfeited culture, moral restraint, potential side effects and blind optimism, then it makes sense that we attend to a culture that by all appearances has not forfeited its responsibility to engage in moral restraint and is the very opposite of blindly optimistic about technology.
The horse and buggy is a symbol of moral restraint and technological withdrawal. However the truth about the Amish is much more subtle that this. They have not simply withdrawn from technology. They have withdrawn, that is separated themselves from, the world. Not the world as created by God, but the world of human society. The separation here is from all that is profane into a sacred community in which you are expected to do everything you can to live as if the Kingdom of God were here now. By way of the eucharist Catholics move from the profane to the sacred weekly at mass. In general, Amish and for that matter Mennonites, do this once, at baptism. All things are always sacred for the Amish, although the term sacred would come off as a bit haughty to them. The Amish use of technology is therefore all about building that community. Donald Kraybill suggests the Amish interact with technology in three ways: acceptance, adaptive, and rejection.
The Amish are happy to accept new technologies from battery operated calculators, to inline roller skates to gas barbecues as long as they are deemed helpful and benign to the community. Notice that there is no threat to community from any of these technologies.
Other technologies can be accepted if they can be adapted to the regulations of the community. Amish communities are governed by the Ordnung, an unwritten oral collection of rules and regulations that govern the life of the community. These are absorbed by young people informally as they grow up and accepted at baptism. Understandings of technology become adopted into the Ordnung. For instance, Tractors are a problem because they act too much like cars and cars take you away from your community, and isolate you while you are inside it. Some communities allow tractors but only with steel wheels. That way they can’t be taken on the road. Some communities have adapted to tractors with pneumatic tires as they have acculturated to the difference between tractor and car. These communities would all have different Ordnungs but everyone would know exactly what was accepted and not. If a member strayed from the consensus, or if the community decided that their technology was offensive, they would be asked to put the item in question away, that is, to sell it.
Technologies that encourage agriculture or business are much more easily accepted. Balers are retrofitted with gasoline engines that can then be pulled by horses. Pneumatic powered tools are becoming more an more common, typically running off of gas generators. Electricity is run to barns (but not houses) in order to keep milk cold to meet state regulations. In each of these cases compromises are made in order to either allow farming to continue or to increase agricultural efficiency without changing the mode of agricultural production.
The Amish will quickly reject technologies that will likely be detrimental to the community. Communication technologies are more carefully screened than any other type of technology because of the connection to the outside world and its corrupting influences. Television’s one way conduit into the home is probably the most egregious example of a corrupting influences. I know many Mennonite homes that won’t have a television for the reasons that there simply isn’t enough that good to watch on TV. The similarity between a television and a computer monitor is one of the primary reasons that computers were initially suspect. Like the old joke that Mennonites won’t have sex standing up because it might lead to dancing, the Amish initially rejected the computer not because of its own potential problems but because it seemed too much like television.
Kevin Kelly suggests four aspects to how the Amish make decision around technology. They are selective. They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory, and they reject more than they accept. Innovators pioneer the adoption of new technologies but the community makes the final decision. The maintenance of the community and separation from the world are the leading factors in making these decisions.
These factors end up with a situation in which for at least some Amish, technological experimentation is the rule and not the exception. Electricity is typically banned because it connects the community to the outside world and creates an unacceptable dependency. Some innovate by utilize electricity that comes from 12 volt sources from batteries rather than 110 volt power from public utility lines. Others use gasoline powered pneumatic technology is then adapted to run anything from kitchen blenders to entire wood shops.
Note the importance of surveillance in this example. The Amish are not, at any point, going to create their own batteries or gasoline. But gasoline is a consumable that can be purchased, along with other supplies, and used in discrete amounts. At least part of the problem with electricity is the wires that run from the road to the Amish persons house. The plainness of the Amish life is very environmentally sensitive, but environmentalism is not the point, community is.
Surveillance is also important in thinking about the use of telephones among the Amish. Having a telephone is not necessarily a problem. It facilitates business calls and can be helpful in emergencies.
The Amish do not want to depend on the world, but they are not fatalistic either. They will use hospitals even receiving expensive advanced care. They won’t hold health insurance, preferring to pay in cash for the services rendered. Sometimes, the community needs to extend a broad net to collect enough to pay a bill. Individual debt is no problem for the Amish, as long as it was not incurred by the individual.
Having a telephone inside your house allows for non-surveillable telephone conversations. Having a telephone shack built out by your shop or barn is more open and yielded. Some of these phone shacks can be very nice built with space for more than one person. It can be nice to have someone wait with you in the rain. These conversations need to be scheduled in advance. Cell phones then create an interesting quandary. They are even more surveillable, as anyone who has ridden on the CTA knows. But they are also much more individualistic, which is not a good thing. The community member who only uses their cell phone in the presence of others would be even more virtuous than the person who talks in a phone shack. Still, most telephone calls are to the a business contact in the outside world. Telephoning another Amish would be seen as detrimental to the community because it replaces a visit. The Amish look to innovators to test new technologies and the innovators, often people who really enjoy technology, get to use the new things for at least a little while. The innovator needs to be careful though because every member is also the reputation of the community. The Amish person becomes who they are through interactions with other people.
The responsibility for managing this experimental consensus and overseeing the Ordnung lies with the bishop. A functional bishop does not set the direction for the community but rather knows what the most conservative member think and moderates a compromised position that accepts, adapts and rejects according to what the whole community can live with. I say compromised, but yielded would be a better word. The best general example of this is in the pattern of use rather than ownership among the Amish. Many will much more easily use a technology than own it. It is much easier to be yielded to something that you don’t own.
Finally, its important to note that there are points in which the Amish as a group are technological pioneers. I mentioned earlier that the martyr stories are very important to Amish and Mennonites. These exist in a book called the Martyr’s Mirror. In 1745, Jacob Gottschalk, the first Mennonite bishop in the Americas, arranged with the Ephrata Cloister to have them translate the “Martyrs’ Mirror” from Dutch into German and to print it. The work took 15 men three years to finish and in 1749, at 1512 pages, it was bar none the largest most technologically significant publishing venture in the Americas. When the technology is needed, there is not hesitation, even among the most conservative Amish to employ it.
The technology then is never evil intrinsically from an Amish perspective. In this way they have absolutely no Luddite tendencies. Technologies are all simply instruments which are either used for ill or for good.
It is helpful here to make a distinction between instrumentalism and determinism in reference to technology. To put it simply, determinists believe that technologies have inherent values. Our tools shape our use of them for good or ill, perhaps more than our intention. Determinists believe that the fast pace of our society is because our tools promote speed. Determinists believe that guns kill people. When people don’t think about how they use technology they aren’t going to be able to control it. It will control them.
A strict instrumentalist believes that technologies have no inherent value. How we use the instrument shapes the morality of its use. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Cellphones aren’t irritating, people who use cellphones are irritating. Partly because I am very optimistic about the possibilities that come with new technology, I think that the best thinking about technology is modified instrumentalism. I do definitely believe, with the determinists, that some tools shape their users. The difference between the gun and the cellphone is important. Guns are only good at killing people or at least injuring people. When guns are used for protection, defense, or safety, they do so by killing or threatening to kill people. Guns have determined uses. Cellphones are less determined.

An Amish person would never develop this philosophy of technology but in the end we would be in quite close agreement about how to make decisions.

There are many similarities, I think, between how I think about technology and how an Amish would. The key difference is that my community does not become offended by my technology use. People make fun of me when I play video games, but noone suggests I stop, or play differently. This is the difference between plain and simple. This is perhaps where we have forfeited our responsibility, by not calling each other to account for how we use technology.

So, how do we get it back?

Accept, for the purposes of this evenings discussion, an argument that I want to make but don’t have time to develop. The yieldedness of the Amish from technology to allow for the unencumbered forming and maintaining of community is analogous to the yieldedness of a Mennonite to technology in searching for technological utility in forming and maintaining community. You can substitute in any other faith for Mennonite in my analogy but you need to retain a focally central community.

If this analogy holds then the responsibility of our community is to find ways to use the technologies that we encounter to build rather than isolate ourselves from each other. I’m going to talk about three technologies that are relatively new and suggest a few rules for using them as a way of concluding this talk.

I’m not going to talk to you about facebook because Cathi Falsani did that last year. But I think you should all have facebook accounts. Here’s why. We think that it is responsible for details of our lives to be kept private from others. And, in some ways, privacy is really important. We need to protect our children and other vulnerable people from exploitation and the kind of information you can get on the internet surely facilitates some kinds of exploitation. But in general, I believe that the question of privacy is a red herring for Christians. We should not have anything to hide. On the contrary we should want everyone to know and be converted by our lives. This is why I think that every Christian should be on facebook.

Using facebook as it is now is not particularly virtuous, but we have difficulty in the church with privacy, with individualism and with money. Would it be a good discipline if we again shared, as I’ve heard we once did, our yearly income and tithing? What if churches built a small web applications to add to our facebook pages that reported our individual income to other members of our small group, congregation or diocese. Or if we didn’t want to use facebook, what if this kind of functionality were standard on church websites, even if it were in a members only system. My point is that the kind of sharing that facebook encourages could really strengthen bonds of Christian friendship and accountability in important ways if people committed to using the technology carefully.

Twitter took the internet by storm a couple of years ago. It is made for cellphones since all it can do is post messages 140 characters in length, or less. I’ve noticed that when I read something that comes from someone I trust I am willing to spend much more time on it. Twitter, at first glance, might seem like the worst offender in the contest for dividing up my attention, which can be a problem with the internet as anyone who has read Nicholas Carr’s Is Google making us stupid knows. But on the day of the awarding of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize I was reading things written by Liu Xia wife of the awardee Liu Xiaobo. The best coverage of the fall of the Tunisian government was hosted by the quirky website boingboing. People I respect on twitter had compared various coverage and posted this. It became easy for me to read exactly what I wanted to on the subject. This was for me much more dramatic on the night Osama bin Laden was killed. Because of who I follow I mostly read calls to not glory in a human beings death.

Of course the role that twitter itself played in the actual fall of the Tunisian government is much more significant. Youtube, facebook and twitter convey information and ideas at light speed around the world. The internet is probably the most important tool in making globalization happen.

It is also a tool of destabilization for governments the world over. Inflexible regimes like the one in Tunis fall and twitter is as important a tool in doing this as any other single too. Stable, flexible governments like Sweden or Switzerland aren’t affected as much. It remains to be seen how countries like ours will fair and the Occupy Wall Street Protests are a key example of this. One thing that is really interesting about the Occupy Wall Street internet presence is that it is driven in part by twitter, but twitter is also an instrument in spreading confusion and misinformation about the protestors. A twitter mob is easy to start if people join in, but a twitter counter-mob is just as easy to start if people join in. A number of the hash tags that people have used to spread information about Occupy Wall Street have been coopted and spread confusion rather than instruction.

To the extent that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was an evil dictator, I’m glad he’s gone. If regime change means a better life for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien in that country we can be grateful to twitter. However in the end, as Christians, while we are concerned about the world we should not place our hope in twitter. Our hope in is God. Still, if we learn how to use it twitter might become a better news source than CNN, NPR, or the Vatican. It could do this just because it combines information for each of these sources. Should we insist that our leaders tweet? Christians need to be able to talk publicly about their faith. Our leaders already need to be good at this. So one of my rules, but I say this somewhat tongue in cheek, and only with respect, is that the Pope should tweet. I also think that the President Carroll, Vice President Kennedy, Provost Johnson-Odim, Dean Carlson, and other thought leaders on campus should tweet as part of their jobs. These should not be purely information accounts. They should be both personal and professional.

My last rule, is that you should play or that you should watch someone with more experience play Glitch. I suggest Glitch because it is social, free, non-violent, and highly imaginative. Actually, any Massively Multi-Player Online Game will do. Next Tuesday you’ll be able to play as a pet on The Sims 3, and there are priest characters on World of Warcraft. All you ever have to do is heal. These environments are typically very highly developed and very compelling. I remember once after having spent much time navigating the world in World of Warcraft in my night elf priest avatar (a really tall character in the game), navigating the world in a gnome avatar (a really short character in the game). At one point you need to get onto a boat. I felt viscerally like I was going to fall in the water because my legs were too short.
Before you think that I’ve come totally unhinged, consider the importance of practice and imagination. The Christian life is one that demands great imagination if it is to be done well. This is all the more the case when we try to live this life in the world. To some extent the great virtue of Amish life is that it contains the imagination. The imagination of the Amish community is real but bounded in ways that mine yours simply isn’t. How can I practice at having an unbounded imagination? One good way to exercise my imagination is to interact with others in a virtual space. Jane McGonigal, in her book Reality is Broken, suggests a number of fixes for our real world that playing games effect.
Let me list just a few
• Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.
• Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something that we’re good at and enjoy.
• Compared with games, reality is lonely and isolating. Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch.
• Compared with games, reality is unambitious. Games help us define awe-inspiring goals and tackle seemingly impossible social missions together.

Rich online environments, like those found in good Massively Multi-Player Online Game, have real benefits. For instance, an important part of my Christian life is my pacifism. Games like Glitch could be a good opportunity for me to get practice at virtues like pacifism that are hard to practice in the everyday world. Imagine if games put me in situations that I didn’t anticipate but could navigate without using force. Glitch does this. Could I carry my skills from the game into real life? Well, NFL football players have been adapting their real world game play based on skills that they have learned by repeated playing of their own characters in games like Madden Football. There was a runner who burned time on the clock in a real NFL game by running along the 1 yard line before scoring a touchdown; a move which would have only seemed like risky grandstanding had he not discovered how well it worked in the video game.
These games are also very social. The computer manages the participation of a massive number of simultaneous real world participants. If we all had laptops could all go onto Glitch right now and play together, interacting with each other and many other people in the game world. How would this shape our interaction with each other. You might be sitting by someone you don’t know right now. But you probably aren’t going to talk to them after my lecture. A game might make you practice modes of interaction that the Apostle Paul avers for all Christians. It might show those modes of interaction to many many people.
What would it look like if churches held a annual game playing day? Experienced and novice game players could gather for a day, play, but then talk about how community was formed or maintained by the day. What if the results of the day led to decisions to then use or refrain from using particular games. I’ll admit that I don’t know of Christian communities that do this. And we can’t count on the Amish here. There is a seriousness and boundedness of their pattern of community that is not open to this type of discernment or play.
Actually, in some ways I think that in the stewardship of your imagination you are already somewhat ahead of me. Your university has a Vice President of Mission and a Centre like this one where you can explore ideas like this and keep your mission and purpose close at hand.You can explore the possible uses of science and then discern it’s use in a community. Blessings in this work and in all that you do together.

entitlement

so, i don’t know anything about parenting, but I was talking to my sister (we both teach college) about the way that students can seem really entitled these days. (a student disagreed with her about a hard rule by saying, “agree to disagree”) and so we wondered about why parents spoil their children. and she mentioned the comment of a friend that suggested guilt. and that was interesting to me because when i think of the differences between what my parents had and what they gave us it makes me recognize that no matter how much i whined about wanting things my parents knew i would survive; they had on much, much less. but if i’d had kids and they had whined, i might have wondered about how much i could give them. i really had everything i needed and more. i might have badly spoiled my children. they might have ended up entitled. that would suck for their professors.

neko cat: understanding symbolic representation

In my house, with the addition of neko two weekends ago, we have been shifting our patterns of life, as people do whenever we add a new person to our families. We have been learning, and re-learning, many of the patterns of feline-human personal interaction. One of the most interesting new learnings has been neko’s particular gift for understanding symbolic representation.

When is a mouse a mouse? This question raises a particular problems in metaphysics,  ontolology, language, and taxonomy. The question depends greatly on your perspective, of course. From the mouse’s perspective the question is at least about who I am comfortable around.

Cave - Mouse Nest 2

From the animal researcher’s perspective, a mouse is a highly controlled commodity often with genes that have been manipulated in one way or another. One interesting “strain” of “mouse” in this context is the “humanized” “mouse” whose genes have a human gene knocked in.

It seems like a mouse’s mouseness is in the last example is something that humans seek to control. A mouse in the wild is not a good “mouse” in the lab. And I imagine that representations of mice in art are often thought of as linguistic in this way. We arbitrarily call the thing that looks like a mouse a mouse even though we know it is not really a mouse.

Here are two of these mice. The one on the right is a SmartyKat Jitter Critter, which has been dosed with catnip, and is “intended” as a cat toy. And I’m pleased to say that it works pretty well. The main question that I’m interested in at this point is why it works well. Does it work because it is dosed with catnip? Because it is soft and open to feline destruction? Because it looks like a mouse? My guess is that most people are fine with positive answer to the first two questions. But most people think that this mouse’s mouseness is incidental to its success as a cat toy. From the cat’s perspective, this is probably not a mouse. On the left we have a metal mouse given to us as a decoration for our house. The only resemblance that this mouse bears to the Jitter Critter is in its shape. However, Neko likes playing with it just as much.

Now this video does show her playing with the Jitter Critter … but right after she had been playing with the metal mouse which is on the floor having been knocked off of its ordinary perch. It seems that for Neko, mouseness is all about looking like a mouse.

overgiving

What holds true for the soil-that you must give it more than you take away-also holds true for nations, institutions, marriage, friendship, education, in short for human culture as a whole, which comes into being and maintains itself in time only as long as it cultivators overgive of themselves      - Robert Pogue Harrison in Gardens, p. 33.

My students, but I only start with them because they are in the position, professionally, of trying to understand, often have difficultly with the concept of an economy of abundance or gift. How is it they ask that the true economy is not one of scarcity when that is all we can see. My example is always forgiveness. There is never a limit on how much we can forgive, nor on how often we can be forgiven.

But perhaps the better example is gardening. The true gardener for RPH is the person who is able to pay attention to, and to cultivate, the soil. It is in reference to the soil that he is able to say that you must give more than you take away. The true gardener delights in the soil, in the soil’s ability to grow plants; but with a focus to the soil not in anticipation for the plants. And this is perhaps how economies of abundance work. To participate we must give more than we take away. But if we do this, we will (hopefully without expecting), receive more than we could have imagined.

 

metaphorical crucifixion, triple AAA rated

sometimes i think that the crucifixion must be purely metaphorical. here’s what i mean. i don’t mean that it didn’t happen. i believe in the historical crucifixion. but i also recognize that it’s really difficult for that brute historical fact to have much practical meaning for me. whatever it means it doesn’t mean that I seek crucifixion for myself. i need to follow jesus, even unto death, but seeking to imitate the pattern of that death has been wrong at least since ignatius of antioch.

so i think about the world that i live in. a world that exists without crucifixions except in the most bizarre of instances. and i think about what lead jesus to the cross. and i think that at least part of what lead jesus to the cross was a dogged determination to speak truth to power. and i think about the nature of that power then and the nature of that power now. and i think that that power is represented no more clearly than in the hubris of Standard and Poor’s who this week despite a 2 trillion dollar error in calculation downgraded the USA’s credit standing. this is the same Standard and Poor’s who choose not to downgrade the credit standing of all those companies who were burdened with tons of toxic debt in 2007. i count it as pure evil when you choose to play with reputation in this way. it could make a real difference in the lives of the poor if the USA finds itself financially encumbered. the country as a whole is in a real way the last resort for the financial system. if you want to protect the poor you should prop up their last resort as much as you can. when you choose not to do this right after you have protected the wealthy (i recognize the domino effect argument and stuff. but the USA has to always be the last domino, right??) you are evil.

so what does it mean to me, in the wake of the lunacy and evil in our financial system that jesus was crucified? well, since it seems pretty clear that jesus was crucified so that i don’t have to be, it doesn’t mean that i need to seek my own financial ruin in response to the evil of the system i happen to live in. i am freed, by the blood of Christ, to seek a different path, that is simultaneously a following of Christ just as it is it’s own liberated thing.

i think that anyone who takes the time to really care, in the midst of the evil i am trying to describe here,  loses their happiness in cloud of despair. the poor die and the powerful find new ways to kill them. but i am freed from this despair, freed to what? to anesthetize myself against reality? this is a pretty good option and the prevalence of great new cable shows that have summer runs (i’m thinking in plain sight, white collar) work pretty well for this. i could play video games? this is an even better option, especially when it is, as jane mcgonigal writes, the way for me to discover a new better reality and to fix my world. more and more, though, i think that it must be the pursuit of beauty. i think that the transmutation of Christ’s suffering into the beauty of my freedom is the most heartbreaking and liberating reality that has ever existed. this is the metaphor of my salvation. it is not an easy path to follow when the ugliness of Standard and Poor’s is thrust in front of me every day. but that is the path that follows best jesus.