Caring for the earth in a secular world  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

            From the start the environmental movement has included voices that wanted to bear witness to a spiritual dimension in the stewardship of the planet. Sometimes that dimension seems to amount to little more than the awe human beings sense when faced with the grandeur, beauty and order of the world. At other times various eastern monistic or naturalistic pagan notions are introduced, wanting to account for the fact that more than technical, scientific, economic, and political issues are at stake. I sympathize with these efforts because I am convinced that not only does creation, in the words of the ancient Hebrew poet, “declare the glory of God,” but that, even more starkly, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” We are stewards of God’s good world, and the foundational command to work and tenderly care for the earth remains in effect.
            In recent years the mainstream movement to care for the earth has tended, at least in my hearing in the media, to become increasingly secularized and politicized. Although there are important and lovely exceptions, even many of the voices in the church have been cast in this mold.
            One voice that has resisted this unfortunate tendency is Wendell Berry. He speaks quietly but powerfully from a distinctly Christian perspective, and does so in a way that even those who reject the faith often pause to listen. Thus I was glad when the February 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine—a periodical not known for its sympathy to historic Christianity—arrived with a lengthy excerpt from Berry’s new book, Our Only World.
            A brief excerpt from that excerpt:

            We need to acknowledge the formlessness inherent in the analytic science that divides creatures into organs, cells, and ever smaller parts or particles according to its technological capacities.
            I recognize the possibility and existence of this knowledge, even its usefulness, but I also recognize the narrowness of its usefulness and the damage it does. I can see that in a sense it is true, but also that its truth is small and far from complete.
            In and by all my thoughts and acts, I am opposed to any claim that such knowledge is adequate to the sustenance of human life or the health of the ecosphere.
            Do even the professionals and experts believe in it, in the sense of acting on it in their daily lives? I doubt that they do.
            To this science, the body is an assembly of parts provisionally joined, a “basket case” sure enough. A mountain is a heap of “resources” unfortunately mixed with substances that are not marketable.
            There is an always-significant difference between knowing and believing. We may know that the earth turns, but we believe, as we say, that the sun rises. We know by evidence, or by trust in people who have examined the evidence in a way that we trust is trustworthy. We may sometimes be persuaded to believe by reason, but within the welter of our experience reason is limited and weak. We believe always by coming, in some sense, to see. We believe in what is apparent, in what we can imagine or “picture” in our minds, in what we feel to be true, in what our hearts tell us, in experience, in stories — above all, perhaps, in stories.
            We can, to be sure, see parts and so believe in them. But there has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth. Genesis is right: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The phrase “be alone” is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.
            We are thus as likely to be wrong in what we know as in what we believe.
            We may know, or think we know, and often say, that humans are “only” animals, but we teach our children specifically human virtues — evidently because we believe that they are not “only” animals.
            Another question of knowledge and belief that keeps returning to my mind is this: Are there not some things that cannot be known apart from belief? This question refers not just to matters of religion — as in Job 19:25: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” — but also to ordinary motives of family and community life, such as love, compassion, and forgiveness. Do people who believe that such motives are genetically determined have the same knowledge as people who believe that they are the results of choice, culture, cultivation, and discipline? Or: Do people who believe in the sanctity or intrinsic worth of the world and its creatures have the same knowledge as people who recognize only market value? If there is no way to measure or prove such differences of knowledge, that does at least prove one of my points: There is more to us than some of us suppose.
            We may know the anatomy of the body down to the anatomy of atoms, and yet we love and instruct our children as whole persons. And we accept an obligation to help them to preserve their wholeness, which is to say their health. This is not an obligation that we can safely transfer to the subdivided and anatomizing medical industry, not even for the sake of cures. Cures, to industrial medicine, are marketable products extractable from bodies. To cure in this sense is not to heal. To heal is to make whole, and is not so ideologically definable or so technologically possible or so handily billable.
            This applies as well to the industries of landscapes: agriculture, forestry, and mining. Once they have been industrialized, these enterprises no longer recognize landscapes as wholes, let alone as the homes of people and other creatures. They regard landscapes as sources of extractable products. They become forms of surface mining. They have “efficiently” shed any other interest or concern.
            We have come to this by way of the disembodiment of thought — a mentalization, almost a puritanization, of thought — that deprives us of the physical basis for a sympathy that might join us kindly to landscapes and their creatures, including their human creatures. This purity or sublimity of thought is hard to understand, for it has come about under the sponsorship of materialism. Perhaps it happened because materialists, instead of assigning ultimate value to materiality as would have been reasonable, have abstracted “material” to “mechanical,” and thus have removed from it all bodily or creaturely attributes. Or perhaps the abstracting impulse branched in either of two directions: one toward the mechanical, the other toward the financial, which is to say toward the so-called economy of money as opposed to the actual economy (oikonomia, or “house-keeping”) of goods. Either way the result is the same: the scientific-industrial culture, founded nominally upon materialism, arrives at a sort of fundamentalist disdain for material reality. The living world is then treated as dead matter, the worth of which is determined exclusively by the market.

            This highly credentialed, highly politicized disdain, now allied with the similar disdain of highly spiritualized religions, is limitlessly destructive. We cannot say that its destructiveness has been unnoticed as it has been happening, or that the dissolutions, and the dissoluteness, of mechanical thought have not been, by some, well understood. The poet William Butler Yeats prayed: “God guard me from the thoughts men think / In the mind alone” (“A Prayer for Old Age”).

Ideas worth pondering—Leon Wieseltier  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

In “Among the Disrupted,” the cover essay for the New York Times Book Review (January 18, 2015) Leon Wieseltier laments how devices are often valued over books, technology seems ascendant over the humanities, hunger for instant information has replaced the long search for wisdom, and the meaning of humanity has been reduced to the mechanistic. All worthy concerns, I would say, even if you or I would parse things differently in places from Mr. Wieseltier.

You can read his essay here.

And to get you started pondering the ideas Wieseltier raises, here are few quotes from “Among the Disrupted”:

            “Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all thing must pass, but this is ridiculous.”

            “The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past.”

            “Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life.”

            “The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

            “Every technology is used before it is completely understood. There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences. We are living in that lag, and it is a right time to keep our heads and reflect. We have much to gain and much to lose. In the media, for example, the general inebriation about the multiplicity of platforms has distracted many people from the scruple that questions of quality on the new platforms should be no different from questions of quality on the old platforms. Otherwise a quantitative expansion will result in a qualitative contraction. The new devices do not in themselves authorize a revision of the standards of evidence and argument and style that we championed in the old devices.”

Unbroken: The Power of Forgiveness  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , , ,

If you have not read the book, Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, or seen the movie directed by Angelina Jolie, we recommend you do so. It’s a story too good to be missed.

And there is a six minute short available free online, Unbroken: The Power of Forgiveness, that digs a little deeper into the story. We recommend it as well.

My friend John Seel alerted me to the short film in an email, writing, “in partnership with Unbroken and NBC Universal, the John Templeton Foundation released a 6-minute film that explores Louis’ story further and amplifies Unbroken’s themes of faith, resilience, and the power of forgiveness. The film resides on a site we created on the Power of Forgiveness and the film will also appear on the Unbroken DVD. The film was directed by Oscar-winning director, Ross Kauffman.”

You can see the short film here.

Film comment: Edge of Tomorrow: Live, Die Repeat (2014)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

            One of the reasons science fiction is a cinematic genre with enormous potential to shape the imaginations of viewers is that it can explore mysteries that are normally out of reach within the horizons of ordinary dramas. Those who tend to be dismissive of science fiction are revealing more about their class prejudices than they are about their literary or intellectual discernment.
It’s possible for characters to speculate about the nature of time over morning coffee, for example, but it’s difficult to turn time itself into the drama. Flashbacks, flash forwards, and other such techniques can give the appearance of playing with time, but in the end the viewer can sort out the time-line of the story, always set in normal chronological time.
            Edge of Tomorrow, the newest adventure starring Tom Cruise, actually plays with the nature of time itself. Earth is invaded by an alien that learn as a day proceeds, and can reboot that day to take advantage of what it has learned. It can never be defeated, since it can always refight every battle with the knowledge it needs to be victorious. But then the unexpected happens: an ordinary human soldier inadvertently slips into the alien’s time loop. He too can learn in his defeat, and then be booted repeatedly to live the same day over. If you are thinking Groundhog Day (1993) meets the apocalypse, you won’t be far off.
            There is a lot going for Edge of Tomorrow. Apocalyptic stories are popular. There is some strong acting: Emily Blunt (as Rita), Brendan Gleeson (General Brigham), and Bill Paxton (Master Sergeant Farell) play their roles brilliantly. The first third of the film reveals the director didn’t take things too seriously, including scenes and dialogue that made me laugh aloud. The film has the quality of an exciting video game, with endless possibilities to reboot and eventually win. And the mystery of time is attractive even if we do not have a philosophical bent. We live in time, fit in it as creatures, yet yearn to be free of it, worrying about wasting it, wishing there were a few more hours in our day, or that we could “do it over” and this time keep from screwing things up so badly.
            Sadly, Edge of Tomorrow is a failure as a film. There is simply too much that is so implausible that it became difficult for me to buy into the plot. Cruise, as Major Cage, sports an unkempt haircut that no military unit would tolerate. Worse, after being tasered by MPs while being arrested for refusing General Brigham’s order he comes back to consciousness lying on a pile of duffle bags in the middle of huge, sprawling military base. Now, I haven’t been in the military nor tasered nor arrested by MPs, but somehow Cage’s end point doesn’t strike me as likely. Major Cage is a combat novice, volunteering to do PR for the army so he wouldn’t need to fight, yet soon becomes a warrior of legend. Aliens are tricky beasts, but this one was utterly unbelievable, able to reboot time but consisting of metallic squid-like fighters telepathically linked to a huge underwater glob pulsing with light. It would have been far better to show nothing at all. And the movie’s happy ending is not that the human race is saved (by Cruise/Cage, of course) but that he is now free to romance Rita.
            So, you might be asking, why write so much about a film I am not really recommending? The reason is I believe the mysteries of reality—like time—are one of what Charles Taylor calls a “cross-pressure” for our secular age. When the default position is to find all meaning, morality, and fulfillment within a worldview that discounts the existence of God, such mysteries tend to haunt human beings, bringing a whispered hint that perhaps there is some slight possibility that the transcendent is real. That what we believe to be impossible and implausible might in fact be true.
            The difficulty, from a Christian perspective, is that at a time when our culture needs to explore such things, much of the church is incapable of entering the conversation. The primary reason, it seems to me, is that we tend to think wrongly about God. We think of him as a separate being, out there, known by us to be spirit, absolute truth and righteousness, from everlasting the same. Our difficulty is that we imagine we have a handle on what God is because we interact with other beings all the time, so we are familiar with beings and comfortable with them. God is simply bigger than all other beings—indeed he is the very biggest of all. As David Bentley Hart points out in The Experience of God, however, this imagining is actually closer to believing in the ancient Greek notion of a demiurge than it is the biblical idea of God. We don’t mean to, but our thinking about God is simply too limiting, and limited.
            “God is eternal,” Hart insists, “not in the sense of possessing limitless duration but in the sense of transcending time altogether. Time is the measure of finitude, of change, of the passage from potentiality to actuality. God, however, being infinite actual being, is necessarily what Sikhism calls the Akhal Purukh, the One beyond time, comprehending all times within his eternal ‘now’; all things are present to him eternally in a simple act of perfect and immediate knowledge” (p. 136). As God told Moses, he is the “I am.” Our error comes when we try to grasp this and end up situating God’s infinity in the flow of time that we experience and know. So, for example, events separated in time, we assume, must be simultaneous with God. But, Hart says, they are not “really ‘simultaneous’ with God at all—he has no time to be simultaneous with” (p. 137). To experience events as simultaneous is to experience them in time, just at the same time. But God transcends time altogether. Or consider the notion of choice, such as God’s decision to create in the beginning. We experience the freedom to choose as an event in the flow of time, but must not translate that to God. “His freedom,” Hart says, can be understood as consisting not in some temporal act of decision that overcomes some prior state of indecision, but in the infinite liberty with which he manifest himself in the creation he wills from everlasting” (p. 139).
            That this is difficult to comprehend should not surprise us, since we are finite creatures talking about an infinite God. The fact that we are unfamiliar with such notions should suggest that perhaps our thinking about God has become so simplistic as to be unworthy of belief, to say nothing of being unworthy of God. And the infinity of God suggest we might have reason to believe that Christianity provides a singularly satisfying account of reality and its mysteries—so satisfying that it staggers the imagination.
            Time and the mysteries it presents to finite creatures are indeed signals or hints of transcendence, and so will naturally appear in the stories we tell that try to make sense of life and reality. Some of those stories will be better than others, but the topic will always be a great place to begin a conversation about the things that matter most.

            Edge of Tomorrow (directed by Doug Limon, U.S.A., 113 minutes; 2014. Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material.)