Thursday, August 17, 2017

The green face of God – part 2

Part 1 of this two-part post enumerated biblical images of the Holy Spirit as the green face of God that Mark Wallace described in his article, The Green Face of God: Christianity in an Age of Ecocide (Cross Currents, Fall 2000, Vol. 50 Issue 3, 310-331). This point focuses on implications of those images for our ecological stewardship, especially on how human abuse of creation causes God to suffer and the necessity for humans to strive to ameliorate and end that damage as a key reparative element of repentance.
Wallace explained why damaging the biosphere causes God to suffer:
From this viewpoint, as the God who knows death through the cross of Jesus is the crucified God, so also is the Spirit who enfleshes divine presence in nature the wounded Spirit. Jesus' body was inscribed with the marks of human sin even as God's enfleshed presence -- the earth body of the Spirit -- is lacerated by continued assaults upon our planet home. Consider the sad parallels between the crucified Jesus and the cruciform Spirit: the lash marks of human sin cut into the body of the crucified God are now even more graphically displayed across the expanse of the whole planet as the body of the wounded Spirit bears the incisions of further abuse. God is the wounded Spirit even as God is the crucified Christ -- as God suffered on a tree by taking onto Godself humankind's sin, so God continually suffers the agony of death and loss by bringing into Godself the environmental squalor that humankind has wrought.
Genuine repentance always involves a good faith effort to make reparations for the harm that one caused as well as a commitment to cease doing whatever one did to cause the harm. The latter can be difficult with respect to harming the biosphere. Few of us can immediately end all of our reliance upon fossil fuels, depend only upon renewable resources, and so forth. We can, however, commit to an annual self-audit to estimate our carbon footprint and then commit to reducing that footprint over the following year. Low-hanging “fruit” that will reduce one’s carbon footprint include driving fewer miles, wasting less food and other products, buying fewer clothes and other items. Longer term options include living in a smaller dwelling, buying vehicles with higher MPG ratings (or electric vehicles), etc.
Repairing harm done to the biosphere is yet more difficult. Few of us can point to specific harms caused by our individual actions. Incidentally, the weak link between individual actions and ecological damage erodes our motivation to repent, e.g., my driving an extra thousand miles does not cause any measurable environmental harm even though the cumulative effect of all humans with autos driving an extra thousand miles per year does cause measurable harm.
Nevertheless, reparative action remains an essential component of repentance; without reparation, transformation from sinner to saint is retarded if not inhibited. So, what can we do?
Historically, when reparations cannot be made to repair the actual damage a person’s actions have caused, reparations have taken the form of striving to repair similar or associated damage. Consequently, examples of appropriate ecological reparations are:
·       Contributions to and other support of environmental groups’ efforts to reduce ecological harm through lobbying, public advocacy, education efforts, and immersion programs
·       Participation in environment clean up initiatives
·       Replanting cleared areas with trees and lawns with xeriscapes
·       Opposing public policies to expand drilling for oil and natural gas, construction of new coal fired electric generating plants, etc.
All of these actions not only represent small steps to repair ecological damage but are also personally costly because they require expenditure of one’s time and/or leave one with less disposable income.

Wallace ends his article with this prayer, which I very much echo: “May the Holy Spirit, as divine force for sustenance and renewal in all things, come into our hearts and minds and persuade us to work toward a seamless social-environmental ethic of justice toward all God's creatures.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

The green face of God – part 1

A friend recently sent me a link to Mark Wallace’s article, The Green Face of God: Christianity in an Age of Ecocide (Cross Currents, Fall 2000, Vol. 50 Issue 3, 310-331).
Wallace identifies numerous biblical images of the Spirit as an enfleshed aspect of creation:
While some of the biblical writings appear partial to these binary oppositions (for example, Paul's rhetoric of spirit versus flesh), most of the biblical texts undermine this value system by structurally interlocking the terms in the polarity within one another. In particular, on the question of the Spirit, the system of polar oppositions is consistently undermined. Not only do the scriptural texts not prioritize the spiritual over the earthly. Moreover, they figure the Spirit as a creaturely lifeform always already interpenetrated by the material world. Indeed, the body of symbolism that is arguably most central to the scriptural portraiture of the Spirit is suffused with nature imagery. Consider the following tropes for the Spirit within the Bible: the vivifying breath that animates all living things (Gen. 1:2, Ps. 104:29-30), the healing wind that brings power and salvation to those it indwells (Judges 6:34, John 3:6, Acts 2:1-4), the living water that quickens and refreshes all who drink from its eternal springs (John 4:14, 7:37-38), the purgative fire that alternately judges evildoers and ignites the prophetic mission of the early church (Acts 2:1-4, Matt. 3:11-12), and the divine dove, with an olive branch in its mouth, that brings peace and renewal to a broken and divided world (Gen. 8:11, Matt. 3:16, John 1:32). In these texts, the Spirit is pictured as a wild and insurgent natural force who engenders life and healing throughout the biotic order.
Far from being ghostly and bodiless, the Spirit reveals herself in the biblical literatures as an earthly lifeform who labors to create, sustain, and renew humankind and otherkind in solidarity with one another. As the divine wind in Genesis, the dove in the Gospels, or the tongues of flame in Acts, an earth-based understanding of the Spirit will not domesticate the Spirit by locating her activity simply alongside nature; rather, nature itself in all its variety will be construed as the primary mode of being for the Spirit's work in the world. Now the earth's waters and winds and birds and fires will not be regarded only as symbols of the Spirit but rather as sharing in her very being as the Spirit is enfleshed and embodied through natural organisms and processes.
New models of God, especially models of God rooted in biblical imagery are continually necessary because the human context is dynamic, never static. Sallie McFague compellingly makes the case for this proposition in her book, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).

Conceptualizing the Holy Spirit as the green face of God highlights God’s concern for all creation as well as dramatizing the consequences of human actions that damage creation and human responsibility for striving to end and to repair that damage, both key aspects of repentance’s reparative element, explored in my next Ethical Musings post.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Gratitude and listening to our pain

An Ethical Musings’ reader wrote forwarded this first-person description of a friend’s experience with pain caused by cancer, emphasizing social instead of physical pain:
The after-effects of surgery and radiation for my prostate cancer don't cause pain, but they do interfere with my life in various ways. For example, I dribble urine when I cough. To manage this, I wear a pad and empty my bladder often, but I am forced to wear an adult diaper whenever I catch cold or have hay-fever. On occasion, even these measures don't work well. Embarrassment ensues.
Yes, this situation does increase my identification with people who suffer incontinence or have had to undergo more radical changes to their internal plumbing. I should have had such empathy for them all along, of course.
The experience of cancer has led me (driven me?) to a practice of active gratefulness as exemplified by David Steindl-Rast OSB. Again, perhaps I should have been practicing active gratefulness all along, but now is better than never.
In the depths of my bout with cancer, my mind altered first by the cancer and then by the drugs, there was little gratitude and when in my dulled state I did have strong feelings, they were most often grief. However, as my health improved and I took fewer drugs (i.e., had a clearer mind), I became grateful for my life, those who love me, and much else. That gratitude remains a part of my life.

For what might you become more grateful without requiring pain caused by cancer as a catalyst?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Listening to our pain

The Buddha taught that one of the four basic facts of existence is that suffering is endemic to human life. Some suffering is avoidable, e.g., annual flu shots reduce the likelihood of suffering from the flu. Some suffering is reducible or curable, e.g., apologizing to a friend whom one has alienated by insulting may lead to reconciliation and renewed friendship. Other suffering is inevitable, e.g., the knowledge that death limits life. Consequently, relationships inevitably cause suffering even though life without relationships is empty and itself a source of suffering, as Buddhist and Christian hermits consistently experienced.
Instead of seeking to end all suffering, which the Buddhas identified as the goal of enlightenment, Jesus taught that suffering can be redemptive if one grows through her/his suffering. I have experienced this growth through the suffering caused by my neuropathy.
Neuropathy (a disease or dysfunction of the peripheral nerves – in my case, in my hands, lower legs, and feet) has been an adverse side effect of the chemotherapy that put my cancer into remission. Sadly, chemo is not neuropathy’s only cause. Diabetics, for example, may also suffer from neuropathy.
At times, the pain from my neuropathy has been sufficiently intense to prevent me from sleeping. No cure exists for neuropathy. Instead, the best option is to manage the pain through anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, drugs originally intended to prevent seizures, and narcotics including opioids.
Thankfully, my neuropathy is slowly diminishing and I am using fewer drugs to manage my discomfort. Coping with the neuropathy has prompted two lines of thought.
First, my lower legs, ankles, and feet have felt tightly bound as if by an invisible ace bandage. The feeling triggered an associative jump to the ancient Chinese practice of binding women’s feet to indicate high social status and an inability to move normally. Foot binding is not unlike the contemporary Islamist insistence that women garb themselves completely so that no part of their body is visible other than the eyes. Both practices reduce women to objects possessed by men. These practices are equivalent in meaning to the query in many Christian traditions of asking “who gives this woman to this man?” in wedding ceremonies, a question that today’s clergy rightly refuse to include in wedding ceremonies.
Women are people, fully worthy of the same dignity and respect as men.
Too often, men pay only lip service to that declaration of equality. The President of the US apparently has a personal history of groping women, i.e., treating them as sex objects – the evidence supporting this allegation is very strong even though unproven in a court of law. Concomitantly, women are generally paid less than men for performing the same or comparable work in spite of some progress over the last several decades towards equality.
The discomfort that the neuropathic illusion of having bound feet and ankles has caused me has been a powerful reminder of the injustice that so many women experience daily day.
Second, my neuropathy has caused a variety of problems in my hands. Among these problems have been sharp stabbing pains, constant tingling, severe cramping, loss of control, and a deadening of sensation. In the beginning, the pain substantially disturbed my life, particularly by sharp pain that disrupted or prevented sleep. The problems also partially disabled me, degrading my fine motor control and thereby limiting my ability to write, type, button clothes, etc.
As the pain, tingling, and numbing diminished and I slowly regain some of my lost fine motor control, I have discovered that I am more constantly aware of my body and have increased empathy for people who live with disabilities.
Additionally, my personal appreciation for the idea a person is his or her body has grown significantly. Thoughts, feelings, and physiology are inherently and inseparably linked. Neuropathy has a physical basis (diseased or dysfunctional nerves) that can produce a mental illusion discordant with other perceived aspects of reality. For me, illustratively, this has included not only the sensation of bound feet but also an incapacity to discern by feeling alone whether I have succeeded in picking up a small object or whether an object that I am touching is hot or cold.
Testing the coherence of ideas and feelings with other perceptions of reality arguably allows a person to best conceptualize, albeit tentatively, self and the world. Philosophically this testing is foundational for pragmatism, a view at odds with a priori philosophies that emphasize seeking knowledge solely through cognitive processes.
Pragmatism fits the American ethos nicely, emphasizing the practical instead of an unobtainable ideal. I find the path to the abundant life lies in trying to live in a creative tension between the pragmatism of what is possible and the unreachable ideals (at least in this life) that Christianity identifies as aspects of the perfected life, e.g., perfect love, hope, and faith (the theological virtues) and justice, courage, prudence, and temperance (the cardinal virtues).

Is the suffering that you experience redemptive and the source of growth or does it destructively limit your ability to love and to live joyfully?