What is the Good of Education?

The argument in the piece below is considerably overdrawn at points—not least inasmuch as it carries out an impressively erudite level of analysis and social criticism which must be due, at least in part, to some pretty extraordinary educators. Aside from biting the hand from which food once came, Harris raises important questions about what education does. Specifically, he called into question two paradigms in which I freely admit that I am fully immersed. The first—actually a point made by the book under Harris’ review (Class Dissmissed by John Marsh)—is that education is a socio-political force that works toward equality. The assumption runs thus: if you are fed up with structural injustices that play out along race, class, or gender lines, then funding and supporting education is one of the best ways to begin to level the playing field. The second—a point which belongs to Harris himself—is that education teaches the critical reasoning skills that prevents bullies and tyrants from perpetrating terrible acts. Again, I think that Harris overdraws his argument a bit—surely things would not have been better in the run up to our invasion of Iraq if fewer people in the States were well-educated, but his point stands that education mostly allowed the enlightened left to cry wolf while the war machine rolled right on by.

Marsh, who depicts himself as a veteran of left-wing politics, should know better than to put much stock in teaching students to be critical media consumers. Recognizing and exposing the Bush administration’s falsehoods — as brash and obvious as they were frequent — didn’t do the left much good: It didn’t avert or halt the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, it didn’t stop the tax cuts for the wealthy, and it hasn’t forced us to confront climate change. With more public access to information than ever before, fact-checking can be a cinch, and well-funded nonprofit organizations and popular television shows have devoted themselves to exposing public lies using primary-source documents. But the plutocracy is as bad as ever. In a time when, as Marsh admits, the facts about inequality won’t make a bit of difference on the policy front, how does reading Macbeth help students protect themselves against tyranny?

via School’s Out Forever – The New Inquiry.

I commend the whole piece as a goad for further thought and reflection—mine included.

Legislating against Homosexuality :: Black and White

This is one of those columns that I read hoping and praying that it’s a complete farce. Unfortunately, so far as I can tell, it’s not. A Kenyan journalist suggests that Ugandans and other African Christians are adopting a strong anti-homosexual political agenda, at least in part, because of their adoption of a colonial paradigm in which the American (read: “white”) leadership is somehow inherently superior.

Wherever you come out in the wash on the issue as it pertains to homosexuality—though minimally, I want to adamantly challenge the idea that legislation is the proper vehicle for the agenda—the racial component of this story is chilling. It reinforces for me the need to be explicit and intelligent about the intersection of theological discourse and racial injustice—the latter being far, far, more deeply rooted in the former than most of the racially-privileged ever realize.

Anyone want to buy a hundred copies of James Cone and mail them to Uganda?

h/t: Immanent Frame

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 3 of 3)

[Back to part 2]

In this vein, we can now move from Christology toward ecclesiology in order to think about the sort of community that inculcates the vision of dominion-as-service. The church, marked by the anointing of the Holy Spirit through its baptism, is the point of continuity between the old creation and the creation of a new heavens and a new earth.[5] The “body of Christ” is the hint of the new in the midst of the old, the kernel of wheat, which having fallen to the ground, may soon sprout with a manifold harvest. As such, the ecclesial community is where the dominion of God breaks in on the corrupted exercise of an idolatrous and demonic dominion. The church’s calling to follow the Lord entails a radical reorientation of the old creation toward the new through repentance and obedience. The community gathered in Jesus Christ interprets the present world in a new light, the light of the coming dominion of God; in that light, the church community discerns the virtues that mark the harmonious life of that dominion and inculcates them in its members in the present. The individual people of the church find their own particular role within the mission of the whole body while that common mission joins disparate lives together by instilling the virtues that are necessary for a common enterprise.

When an ecological understanding of the dominion of God and the life of the church community are brought together, two things happen: First, the anthropologically unrealistic and ecologically destructive erosion of communities under the auspices of market capitalism is arrested and countered. In order to sustain perpetual growth (the ideological bottom line of market capitalism), the units of ownership and identity must be continually broken down to smaller and more homogenous levels. The limit of this trajectory is the society in which common ownership, or sharing, is reduced to a minimum. A few examples: Every American family seems to have its own lawnmower, but how often are all of them in use at once? Cell phones undoubtedly bring a gain in personal convenience, but the phone companies are the greater beneficiaries when a family no longer shares a single phone, but every member carries his or her own (not to mention old multi-family “party-lines”). In the past, music was primarily shared in public performance (whether in an opera hall or in a tavern), but has become increasingly commodified in formats where individuals purchase songs that are subsequently “illegal” to share. In terms of identity, the free market desires that society in which every individual (and persons are emphatically conceptualized as individuals) actively constructs and expresses his or her own identity by means of purchases and fashionably-up-to-date status markers. Identity is less and less expressed in stable social terms (family, religion, heritage) and is increasingly expressed by material possessions and interchangeable voluntary associations. To express identity in terms of ecological relationships would be incomprehensible—despite the undeniable fact that our lives are inseparable from the ecosystems we inhabit (even if only remotely). Still, “I live in a wetland with fox and ducks and reeds,” is not a culturally viable answer to the question “Who are you?”

In contrast, in a robust church community identity is held in common, the gift of Christ’s name and the transformative work of the Spirit. The fellowship of the church is an ideal venue for shared ownership and mutual assistance. Furthermore, in a church community which has not reconciled itself to the cultural influence of capitalism, (as a non-binding voluntary association of individuals looking for some product—“religion”—to consume), a counter-vision of human society and humanity’s place in the planetary ecosystem can take root. A community that expects to see the old creation transformed into the new creation in the dominion of God becomes conscious of the foolishness of a sense of material entitlement, of self-centered human exceptionalism, and of individualist constructions of identity. All we living creatures, after all, come from the same dirt!

Second, as a geographically and temporally extended community with some integrity the church is a venue for the inculcation of virtue. The work of Alasdair MacIntyre has demonstrated that virtues can only be generated within communities where action, purpose, and identity are mutually intelligible on the basis of shared interpretations of experience.[6] The church is just such a community where virtues may arise and find mutual reinforcement in the shared lives of the members. In terms of ecological ethics, many people have recognized that a virtue-based approach is crucial.[7] Rights and obligations are helpful, but only insofar as they delineate boundaries that should not be crossed; they are legislative rather than formative. Thus, while Nash’s preference for rights language leads him toward helpful suggestions for legal action (a necessary step to be sure), the fundamental problems are more deeply rooted than a re-conception of ecological “rights and responsibilities” can address.[8] The scope of the ecological crisis requires more than rearranging the boundaries and limits, a little tightening of our belts. The frequency with which the word “conversion” appears—even in adamantly secular venues—testifies that a deeper re-orientation is needed. Not only to we need to back off from the line marking just how much degradation our planet can sustain before it collapses, but we need to begin living in such a way that we contribute to the health of the planet as a whole. Limits and boundaries have pragmatic value, but must be seen as secondary to the virtues that sustain a moral orientation and guide thought and action at a deeper level. Ethics is a matter of identity, and only subsequently a matter of actions.[9]

For that reason, the scope of the church’s vision—stretching from the gift of creation to the hope of new heavens and a new earth—is precisely the sort of ecologically-grounded identity which can sustain the human community’s effort to address the ecological crisis it has perpetrated, and inculcate the virtues necessary to address it with some measure of success. The church community is already familiar with the language and practice of conversion; it must now understand in greater detail the ecological dimension of salvation. In the dominion of God, human beings are set free to be creative agents of healing and restoration; they are released from the compulsion to consume the world that sustains our fellow creatures—the very beings we are here to serve.

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[5] James Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), 135-36.

[6] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

[7] Nash, Loving Nature, 64-67. See also Steven Bouma-Prediger. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 138-160.

[8] The argument for a rights-based ecological ethic can be found in Nash, 169-70, 173-76.

[9] The lurking question in my mind with regard to a virtue-based ethic is whether the community that coherently sustains virtue in its members can do so without recourse to a system of honor and shame. 

 

seven hundred billion

“Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor.”

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National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1986, §24.

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (Part 2 of 3)

[Back to part 1]

The remainder of this essay seeks connections between Christian doctrine and ecological sensitivity as an ethical imperative relative to our fellow creatures (in addition to the more obvious, but anthropocentric connection to social justice within human relations). That doctrine provides spiritual orientation, rational augmentation, and virtue-based motivation for the ethical imperative to care for creation. James Nash’s Loving Nature and the chapter by Christine F. Hinze may provide sounding boards for the discussion as it progresses. From an ecological perspective, one may advance the strong thesis that Christian doctrine provides a more realistic picture of ecosystemic relationships than the theories of either the secular nation state or economic market capitalism.

The Latin word for “Lord” is “dominus.” One of the first honorific titles ascribed to Jesus is “Lord.” Jesus’ disciple Thomas, for instance, exclaims “my Lord and my God” when he recognizes the resurrected Christ.[3] The same Latin root, however, is often employed in the English translation of the Hebrew word kabash from Genesis 1:26-28 and rendered as “dominion.” The notion of human dominion within creation has been used as justification for exploitative overuse of creation’s resources and the abuse of its creatures; it is a notorious concept in environmentalist circles, and has been dealt with at length by a number of ecologically sensitive biblical scholars and theologians. Clearly, for good or for ill, here is a connection between doctrine and ecology! My present concern with the concept is not a systematic doctrinal treatment, exposition of its historical impact, or an exegetical study that might open up earth-friendly dimensions of the text in Genesis. Rather in line with the etymology above, I want to suggest a Christological re-reading of the notion of dominion that ecologically re-orients its practice through fresh moral and spiritual concerns.

The difference between human beings and other creatures on the planet is clear, if not in terms of rational and emotional faculties, then at least in the scope and perversity of destruction wrought. Dominion is an empirical reality even if (as many argue) it should not be a theological imperative. Within the planetary community, most everyone is subject to the will and whims of human beings for better or worse. Of course, hairless bipeds cannot conquer everything, and death, disease, and depravity are still universal—though most humans labor to circumvent at least two out of the three. The most pressing question then, is not, “Should human beings exercise dominion?” but rather, “How should human beings exercise the dominion they have already seized?”

The heart of Jesus’ ministry, most biblical scholars agree, was the announcement of the “kingdom of God.” The semantic range of the Hebrew kabash (“dominion”) and the Greek basileia (“kingdom”) do not entirely correspond, but there is sufficient overlap that we could arguably speak of Jesus’ inauguration of the “dominion of God.” The Lord (dominus) brings anticipatory signs of God’s dominion. This connection presents a very fruitful twist! For Christians, Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection become the functional model for human dominion. In the pattern of Jesus’ dominion, human dominion must become a kenotic enterprise of service to other creatures. If Jesus gave his life in the course of announcing the favorable day of the Lord in which sight is restored to the blind, freedom given to the captives, good news delivered to the poor (later to be vindicated in his resurrection), then on that pattern human dominion must entail a concern for the well-being of all creatures and the integrity of their natural homes—especially where they are damaged or threatened. The violent connotations of the word kabash (“stomping, subduing”) can be seen in Jesus’ forceful response to demons and diseases; in his direct confrontation of self-righteousness, idolatry, and abuse of power; and in his driving out of the temple merchants. Yet, all of his stomping around and subduing of death and sin was quite clearly in service to the human beings involved and for the sake of their liberation. Jesus’ violence (if it can be so-called) is not exploitative or self-serving. So too human dominion, if it is to participate in the dominion of God must eschew self-serving exploitation to bring life and wholeness wherever it is exercised.[4] God’s place in the human community through Jesus Christ becomes the foundational model for the place of human beings in the planetary community with regard to the function of authority and difference.

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[3] John 20:28.

[4] I find this way of thinking to be tremendously helpful and appropriately subversive of the typical misuse of the dominion concept. Nevertheless, several important questions remain (and unfortunately remain beyond the scope of this paper to resolve. How can humans think about taking the life of a creature for food in this mode of dominion? Does this ordering require a (problematic) notion of analogical hierarchy (as God is to humanity, humanity is to creation)? Does this pattern reinforce the essentialized false distinction between “humanity” and “nature” that already pervades our thought? 

[On to part 3]

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 1 of 3)

Over the next few days I will post a reflection paper written for a course in ecological theology. The assignment was to draw connections between Christian doctrine, ecological integrity, and social justice.

To study the history of the human race is to encounter a startling variety of brutalities and barbarisms. When we learn about the Roman Empire and the pax romana, we inevitably hear rumors of the ardor surrounding the ritual blood and gore of the Empire’s arenas. The high-mannered civilization of Victorian England appears resplendent with strong moral fiber, but cast a long dark shadow over lands where putatively ignorant natives were either enlightened (by assimilation) or pressed into service. In the seemingly endless iterations of this dual theme, we marvel that people capable of such beauty and sensitivity can simultaneously be so crude, myopic, and morally deranged. In the unprecedented technological development and material standards living in North Atlantic culture (now making inroads as global culture through the machinations of the free market), what is the latent barbarism to which we are, presumably, anaesthetized?

When the students of 2200 or 2500 or 2700 AD recount the life of the 20th and 21st centuries, will they find that our short-sighted obsession with ever-expanding economic growth in the face of obvious ecological and social harm simply beggars belief? Will they ask how people could be so foolish as to undercut their own health and happiness while coercing billions of others with the whims and wastes of their greed in enforced and anonymous silence? Our seeming ignorance of the insoluble link between ecological integrity and social justice (or our willingness to disregard both) may be the most shameful aspect of our society’s legacy.

The public speaking advice to “imagine your audience naked” can be performed as a global antidote to pretense. The beggar from Delhi’s slums and the corporate officer in the Leer-jet overhead are, despite the “different worlds” they inhabit members of the same species—complete with moles, holes, wrinkles, and hair in bodily nooks. A little ecological imagination is a tremendous way to relativize the power relations that attend differences in class, wealth, or education! Despite modern (and pretentious) attempts to think about human history apart from creation—casting nature in the role of passive backdrop, raw material for development, or muse for aesthetic inspiration—human beings are organisms that arise from the dirt in order to breath air, take nutrients from plant and animal flesh, excrete their wastes, reproduce, socialize, and die back to the dust.[1]  Human history is natural history; there is no realistic trajectory of “progress” that leaves the integrity of the whole planet out of the picture.

Concurrent with the forgoing thoughts, [the assigned reading from] Professor Christine Hinze and James Nash establishes the inseparability of social justice and ecological integrity. The degradation of the natural world cannot but affect the people whose lives are inseparable from nature. From the perspective of the whole human species, ecological degradation is nothing less than suicidal self-endangerment. Injustice becomes apparent insofar as the wealthy and powerful are better able to insulate their lives from the effects of their folly, temporarily passing their impact off onto others. Christine Firer-Hinze argues, “If my ecological location includes my body, and my survival as an embodied, spiritual being depends on certain positive relations to my physical environment, then it is not possible to speak morally about human dignity apart from ecological concern.”[2]  The degree to which we actually honor the human dignity of others, then, is revealed by the way in which we protect the ecosystems and land in which others live, or by our failure to do so. Thus, the impulse to look after the health of the planet is not an aesthetic preference for those fortunate enough to enjoy “wilderness.” It is first of all a moral imperative relative to our fellow humans. Furthermore, it is a task with deep moral and spiritual consequence relative to creatures co-inhabiting the planet and the land on which they live. We cannot be whole and healthy human beings in abstraction from our place in the ecological order; thus, human flourishing (including salvation!) must be described in terms of re-integration with the natural world—or, more biblically, peace in the land.

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[1] Jürgen Moltmann (rather unusually) describes postmodern thought, not as the deconstruction of gender, identity, culture, or political discourse, nor as the final abandonment of metaphysics but rather as an attempt to think ecologically. Breaking the illusion that human history can be thought over-against nature as a line tracing human progress re-introduces the ecological interplay of every species of life with every other. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), xvi, 194-95. Or, as Joseph Sittler is reputed to have said often, “All the createds are relateds.”

[2] Christine Firer Hinze, “Catholic Social Teaching and Ecological Ethics” in And God Saw that it was Good, ed. Christiansen and Grazer. (Washington DC: US Catholic Conference, 1996), 176.

The Academy and the Poor (Part 3 of 3)

(Back to Part 2

5. In the end, I still dislike framing the question in terms of justification, as if there is a right path (presumably paved with gold) to be found. Are the activities of reading, writing, and teaching just in the face of the world’s poor? I am tempted to answer simply and quickly, “no.” Nothing can be justified in the face of five year-olds dying of malnutrition and diarrhea or young girls violently robbed of virginity by uncles and cousins. To be blunt, the whole situation is shitty and we are all implicated. We all, academics included, need to hang our heads in shame—and redouble our efforts to eradicate such blatant evils. But how are we to go about dealing with these problems? Obviously, we should not isolate ourselves from the world’s horrors (frequenting only “the nice parts of town”), and when we are in position to act directly (by providing food or intervening on behalf of the vulnerable), we ought to do it. But we also need to see more clearly the tangled network of problems (cultural, social, economic, political, spiritual, ecological) that make these horrors more likely to occur, and take steps to counter them. And we all need to see it, at least in part, which is why we need skilled teachers in many disciplines. The analysis, conversation, and collaborative action that this requires is a larger and (unfortunately) much slower project.

And even beyond the quest to overcome specific problems with exact solutions, academic inquiry is no worse-off in a quest to justify its own continued existence than is, say, painting, playing the cello, attending an opera, or debating the merits of some piece of legislation. One of Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison has been haunting my thoughts for months, “The only thing I am really clear about in the whole problem is that a ‘culture’ that breaks down in the face of danger is no culture. Culture must be able to face danger and death….By finding forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror?” The gist of Bonhoeffer’s statement (assuming I understand it), is that any activity that cannot be carried with us into the hardest and most broken parts of the world is not worth bringing along at all. Culture, in this sense, cannot be diversions that ignore suffering (like the Buchenwald zoo) or the dissipated merriment of cynics resigned to a dark “fate” (fiddling while the Titanic sinks). But, it is possible, I dare say necessary, to put expression to profound moments of beauty, rage, fear, and reverence even where taking the time to do so seems, at first glance, superfluous. What else might the first seeds of redemption (a “re-deeming,” a new birth of meaning) in the present look like? It is impossible for any of us to hold shattered lives together in a seamless narrative of “meaning,” but giving some fragments of meaning space to expand—whether howling lament or salvaged scraps of laughter-is perhaps to find God’s Spirit at work already. I do not want to be a part of any theology that floats by the slums on a luxury cruise-liner, or tours them on an air-conditioned bus. Rather, I want to find theology “in the face of danger and death,” to search out “forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror.” Anything less is no theology at all.