Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thoughts on Ecology

I've been thinking some about ecology lately. Well, not ecology, exactly, but nature and the care of the physical world around us. What is our responsibilty for the state of the planet? Should we care about things like global warming, or just keep doing what we're doing and try to recycle occasionally? How does what vehicles we drive and how much we consume affect us as spiritual beings?

One book I've read recently that wrestles with these kinds of questions is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. If I were to describe it, it would probably sound kind of boring, but it isn't. It uses the ancient form of the dialogue, where two or more characters converse about something. There is usually a story, of sorts, but it mostly serves as setup for the conversation. Greek philosophers and other premodern thinkers used it often, but I think it kind of went out of fashion during the modern era. Now that postmodernism seems to be taking the foreground (for what postmodernism is exactly, look elsewhere. I'm barely getting a grasp on it myself), the dialogue is coming back. I think it's a better way to talk about an issue than simply straightforward opinion. It allows deeper analysis, back-and-forth, argument. And it's usually a bit easier to maintain the reader's interest, especially if the topic is kind of heady and pedantic. All of that is just my rough opinion, anyway.

Now then. Ishmael consists of a dialogue between the unnamed narrator and an apparently telepathic gorilla named, appropriately, Ishmael. The talk is mostly of matters ecological, how to keep the human race from destroying the planet. It's an important question that deserves serious treatment. The human race has generally been of the opinion that we can do what we jolly well please with nature. I don't exactly know how it plays out in cultures other than my own Western one, but people have often (in my opinion, wrongly) interpreted the Bible's story of God telling man to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it" as a kind of carte blanche free-for-all to exploit nature. In a moment, I will explain why I don't believe this is a right interpretation.

Ishmael fascinatingly expounds on one interpretation of the book of Genesis' story of the Fall, and of Cain and Abel that I thought was incredibly interesting. The gist of it is that the Fall has to do with agriculture, with the human race's need to control our own destiny instead of living in the hands of the gods or God. I'm unconvinced that this is all the story means (one of the features of mythology being that it can mean many different things) but I think there is much truth to this interpretation.

(As an aside, it is worth noting that although I believe wholeheartedly in God, follow Jesus as His Son, and take the Bible to be inspired by God, I nonetheless think of most of Genesis as mythology. Only because of modern concepts of truth does that seem incongruous. To say something is mythological is not to say it isn't true. C.S. Lewis described mythology as "truth refracted through the lens of human imagination." Ishmael explores much of this characterization of mythology, particularly the way evolution and Darwinism and science have created their own sort of mythology about human destiny. My point is, although I don't take much of Genesis literally, I take it quite seriously.)

While I certainly enjoyed the entire book, and recommend it to anyone with an interest in philosophy, ecology, theology, etc., in the end I agreed more with the first two-thirds than the last section. This is because most of the the book is spent exploring the problems with the ambient human philosophy of conquest, whereas the latter portion discusses solutions. I found this part less convincing than the first. For one thing, I don't quite buy Ishmael's analysis of so-called primitive cultures. I'm not convinced there isn't as much crime, hopelessness, etc. as there is in the civilized world, albeit on a smaller scale. I fully admit I haven't studied the matter in great detail, and am not an anthropologist of any sort but the most amateurish people-watcher. Still, I somehow doubt the Bushmen and Aborigines and South American tribes lead as idyllic lives as the book suggests.

There were many passage/ideas that I found to be quite interesting. Ishmael's conceit that we need to find a way to run civilizations the way we do planes is one of them. The idea is that we don't break the law of gravity when we fly airplanes. We take advantage of other laws of nature (aerodynamics) to fly. But we're still subject to gravity when we do so. In the same way, we can't run a civilization by breaking the laws of the animal kingdom (competition, survival of the fittest, finding an ecological niche, and whatnot). We may, however (clever monkeys that we are) be able to live within those laws but still have medicine, computers, Philly Cheesesteaks and all the other benefits of "civilization". At least, I think that's what he meant.

I've already written more than I meant to, and I'm kind of at work, so I'll break off here. But I'll publish more soon about what I think is a Christian response to the challenges raised in Ishmael. I don't want to argue with the book so much as add another voice to the dialogue. As a follower of Jesus, I think that the Church has been entirely irresponsible on the subject of ecology and nature. I hope we can correct that in the coming century.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Some time ago my blog-buddy James recommended I read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I now have and thoroughly enjoyed it, even if I didn't entirely agree with all its conclusions. I'll have a more substantial post on this later when I've had time to digest it a little bit. For the time being suffice it to say it's about ecology and human history and civilization and the Neolithic Revolution.

Also a gorilla.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


So, I can be kind of stubborn. Ornery, even. An ass. Thing is, I'm not sure whether that's a virtue or a vice. Maybe it can be both. When one is right about something, stubbornness can be a handy thing in the face of opposition. And it comes in handy when attempting something difficult that may require a lot of attempts before one succeeds.

Still, it can also be pretty bad. If you're wrong about something, stubbornness may prevent you from seeing it. Being wrong is one thing; everybody's wrong sometimes, everybody screws up. But to be wrong and unable to admit it because you're just you're in real trouble. For instance, it's pretty clear that the Bush administration was wrong about WMD's in Iraq. Fair enough. International intelligence is a tricky thing, and you can't expect perfection, even (or especially) from a president. But to then ignore that wrongness, to not admit mistakes, and then to compound those mistakes...yeah.

I guess you have to find the line between confidence and arrogance. To be confident is good. Steadfast. To not be swayed by others' opinions, to hold onto whatever it is that tells you about truth. Your conscience, your convictions. As a Christian, I believe God Himself whispers in my ear, if I get still enough to hear Him. To be confident in that is a good thing.

But to be arrogant, to ignore the voices around you entirely, to be so sure of yourself you can never admit any wrongdoing, that's dangerous. I believe God speaks to me, but I don't believe i always hear Him right. And I certainly don't believe I'm the only one He talks to. That's arrogance.

I'm hoping I can find the place where I can be confident in who I am without being an arrogant ass.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Sunday, December 4, 2005

The Streets

Last night I went out with some friends for what we're calling the Downtown Ministry. Basically we go to downtown (Orlando) and take clothes or food or whatever to the people living on the streets. We don't pass out lameass tracts or do anything most churches would consider "witnessing". We just hang out and talk to folks.

Jesus always met physical needs along with spiritual ones. We try to meet basic needs like food and clothing, but also emotional ones. People avoid the homeless. Pay attention to yourself, and you'll notice how you intentionally don't look at homeless people. Or people are jerks. Even those with good intentions can sometimes be condescending. We try to just restore some of the dignity of being a human being to our friends downtown.

It was really good. Like most "outreach" or whatever, I'm sure I took away a lot more than I gave. I didn't have any kind of epiphany about the poor or amazing spiritual experience. I just met some people, and talked (and learned how to listen) awhile. I highly recommend it.

Friday, December 2, 2005

Lessons from the Knife Drawer

You know that thing in your knife drawer that looks like a metal pole on a stick? The one you sometimes run along the blade to "sharpen" it?

You're not sharpening it. You're honing it.

If you want to sharpen the blade, take it to a knife sharpener. They actually scrape off metal so as to make the blade sharper. What you're actually doing with the honer is straightening the blade. Over time it gets bent, the edge pushed over a little bit, like Free Willy's dorsal fin. The honer straightens the blade back out, redirects it so it can be useful again.

Our lives work the same way. They're constantly getting knocked off-kilter, out of focus by the grind of our existence. If we want to stay focused on God so we can be of use to Him, we have to redirect our lives day by day. And it's that usual list of stuff: prayer, meditation, read the Bible, etc. that does the trick. Seems easy enough.

So why can't I seem to do it?

I have no discipline. I sleep in until the very last possible moment before I have to get up. It's rare that I actually pray in the morning, or even take two seconds to say hi to God before I'm off to "my" day, doing what I "have" to do. (Those quotes mean sarcasm.)

I'm trying. At least I think I am. It's just really tough. Following Jesus means living life intentionally for others. It means thinking of yourself last, and that takes thought. Our natural inclination is to think about ourselves first of all, then maybe others. Maybe. I really want to live my life in the way that Jesus wants me to. I want to live on less money so I can give more away. I want to be aware of injustice in the world so I can fight it, or at the very least not contribute to it. (i.e. Blood diamonds, stuff like that). I want to live in an environmentally responsible way so as not to ruin God's beautiful Earth. I want to be a true Jesus person.

And that's hard as balls.