Category Archives: Worldview

Rigged Game

This is a little side track from the main theme of this blog, but it involves my own love for slam poetry and other languages.

The 4.6 million English language learners in the United States public school system are in trouble, according to poet Dylan Garity. Calling them “good organs in a sick body,” he believes that their ability to succeed in the U.S. school system is endangered by policies around English education and he’s using the power of the pen—or, in this case, the poetry slam—to get the word out about it.

The poem derives much of its power from its comparisons:

“Learning to read in a new language when you cant even read in your own is like trying to heal a burn victim by drowning them.

We are telling these children who have spent their whole lives in the deep end that they’ll learn how to swim if they just float out a little farther.”

via This Poetry Slam Video Will Make You Care about ESL Education Even If Youve Never Heard of That by Nur Lalji — YES! Magazine.

America the Possible

Along the way, Americans have wreaked havoc on people and planet. Its an understatement to say the Madison Avenue version of The American Dream hasnt worked out too well for most Americans. The results here strongly suggest that its not going to work out better for people elsewhere.

The original version of The American Dream, however, was inspired by The Declaration of Independence and laid out by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. It’s a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

So, where did Americans go wrong? And, can we get back on track?

via America the Possible – Shareable.

What’s For Dinner? (Leviticus 11)

Lev 10:10-11 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.

Leviticus 11 details the dietary laws given to the Israelites. When someone says “food in the Bible” this is probably what first comes to mind for most people, rules about what to eat and what not to eat. This is really answering the question “What Would Jesus Eat?” concretely, because as a Jew he would have observed these dietary laws. The question most people have is…Why? We’ll get there, but the first thing is to understand what exactly the rules are, then how they functioned.

What’s On The Menu?
Leviticus 3-8 explains that among land animals the rule is: split hoof + chews cud = OK. That means ruminants are in (cows, sheep and goats), but rabbits camels, pigs and rock badgers are out. Verses 9-12 concern seafood where the formula is: fins + scales = OK. So, trout, perch, etc. are a go, while eels, dolphins and catfish are off limits. Among birds (13-19) they were mainly concerned with what not to eat: eagles, vultures, owls, kites, osprey, hawks, storks, herons, hoopoes, and bats. Everything else is just fine. The section on insects (20-23) starts off strong, “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you”, and then sighs and says if they have jointed legs for hopping and fly you can eat them. This includes locusts, katydids, crickets and grasshoppers. Finally, verses 29-30 and 41-42 make sure all of our bases are covered and declare unclean “Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming thing that swarms on the ground” (42). This includes snakes, weasels, rats, great lizards, geckos, monitor lizards, wall lizards, skinks or chameleons.

Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?
For most North Americans, after pigs, we haven’t even thought about eating any of the animals that are forbidden here. So, what is going on? I don’t have access to a stack of commentaries here, but even John Wesley understands that these rules functioned “To keep up the wall of partition between the Jews and other nations, which was very necessary for many great and wise purposes” (quoted from free version available for MacSword). Clearly other nations, tribes and peoples around them did not keep these dietary laws and therefore clearly set the Israelites apart as a different people. Verse 45 gives a typical formula in the Torah for why these commands must be followed, “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”

Others have also pointed out the wisdom in many of these laws, which may have something to do with their origin. Pork easily transmits diseases like trichinosis and it was probably safer given conditions for slaughter, cooking, storage, etc. to avoid unnecessary risks. Most of the forbidden birds are scavengers (including the beloved symbol of the United States) which would primarily feed on the carcasses of other animals, creating another possibly dangerous vector for disease (not to mention that carcasses were unclean in general thus tainting those who feed on them). Likewise some of the fish that are forbidden would have been bottom-feeders and considered less sanitary, another way of saying “unclean”. Perhaps in some ways blanket rules are easier to follow. So, eels and dolphins get swept up with bottom-feeders to make things easy (Wesley points out there isn’t a lot of water and fish where the Israelites lived anyway). It’s certainly not because the Israelites pioneered their own “Dolphin-Safe Tuna” brand. So, there may be some biological and epidemiological basis for these laws as well.

Bugs…They’re What’s For Dinner
When it comes to insects it seems obvious to North Americans that you shouldn’t eat them. Yet most of the world includes insects as part of their diet in some way. We have friends working with MCC in Zambia where their 18 month-old son loved to stuff his cheeks full of fried termites. I listened to a TED talk recently by a guy who was a big proponent of eating insects. He pointed out that they are extremely efficient at converting their food into protein, especially when compared with the large animals that we eat for protein, primarily chickens, cows and pigs. I think they produce almost one pound of protein for maybe one to three pounds of food compared with something like 100 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef (my stats may be off, but the true numbers make the same point). They are also very abundant and easy to grow. Another interview on Treehugger described ways to use insects by making a powder and substituting it in recipes. I haven’t tried adopting this practice into my own diet yet, but the logic makes a lot of sense and could go a long way toward a healthier planet.

One last interesting tidbit I found was in verses 37-38 “if a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.” The rule here seems to be “keep dead things out of your garden” which makes a lot of sense. Carcasses in your garden, on the crops you’re trying to grow are going to do damage to those plants. If it happens to fall on seed that hasn’t been planted or germinated, then no big deal. As an avid humanure composter it is important for things to decompose properly. There are microbes, bugs and fungi that do that job in an ecosystem. We do not occupy that space in the ecosystem and neither do our food, plant or animal. So, you don’t want something going through the process of decomposition on or near your food source. Pretty basic stuff, but explains a lot about why dead things were such a no-no.

So, clearly these dietary laws held some embedded wisdom about what foods were safe. They also functioned to distinguish the Israelites from the people surrounding them. Is there anything more that we can glean from these laws about our relationship to our food, the earth and our fellow humans? Anyone who has had dietary restrictions, whether vegetarian or vegan by choice, or kosher or hallal by religious practice, knows that it makes you much more aware of what you are eating. You have to ask questions of your food. My journey with food started 11 years ago when I decided to try a vegetarian diet. As a Texan this meant turning my back on my people. I was very aware of all the things I could no longer eat and my food choices began to take on more importance. So, dietary restrictions at least force us to think about what we are eating.

Holy, Holy, Holy
I began this post with the verse from the previous chapter of Leviticus, because I think it holds something helpful. It says, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.” What does this pairing of “holy and common” and “unclean and clean” mean? First, I think the translation “holy and common” as opposed to “holy and unholy” is helpful. It’s not just holy and something that is the opposite of holy. “Common” is something shared among the people; something to which everyone has access and knowledge. “Holy” is not simply the opposite. It is not something to which we don’t have access or knowledge (though that is partially true). Instead it is something Other. It is something not shared among everyone.

The division between sacred and secular serves to divide the church from the state and create a privatized faith impotent to speak to the Powers. This is not the distinction made here between holy and common. So this idea of distinguishing between the holy and the common is put along side the distinction between things and food that are clean and unclean. These are also not the same distinctions, but apparently they are related. Perhaps it has to do with how we relate to the world around us. The distinction between clean and unclean relates to all that we can know and experience in the world around us (the modern day realm of science), yet all of creation is considered good. The holy gives us some anchor in another reality that in some way reads, interprets, judges and ultimately redeems the common, which is what is divided into clean and unclean. (I’m immediately skeptical that I have just created a hierarchy where there is none, but I’ll go with it.)

In other words, there is something Other that judges and interprets the material world and our relationships within it. There is a Reality underlying what we see, hear, smell, taste and experience that is not separate from it, but Other, transcendent perhaps. Maybe Tillich’s idea of the Ground of Being or the idea that God is the eternal observer that keeps reality from disappearing by constantly perceiving it are shadows of what I’m grasping at like the blind men and the elephant.

I think of the Eucharist. It is a meal of simple elements, bread and wine. These were among the most common foods of the time and shared among people every day. Yet they constitute the most important ritual in the Christian tradition. So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live? What role does the idea of clean and unclean continue to have in our world today? Even though the Jesus movement clearly chose to do away with these restrictions (particularly because of the experience of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, a favorite passage of mine), we still use caution, discernment and cultural cues to decide what to eat and what not to eat. In many ways the question of the ethics of eating is our modern day version of clean (organic, local, sustainable, fair trade, etc.) and unclean (processed, underpaid migrant labor, subsidized, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified, etc.). These lines are not as clearly drawn as those in Leviticus, but what the followers of Jesus seek is, not a new law to replace the old one, but the ability to be led by the Spirit. May we feel that breath and follow the wind into all truth.

Poop, Preaching and Pestilence

I love alliteration, and the above trio of words really does the trick. What could I possibly be talking about? And why on earth would they all start with the same letter? Some things may remain a mystery, but I will try and unmask this one.

As I read The Humanure Handbook, planned and built my own composting toilet system, I was struck by many of the connections the author made between composting your own excrement and spiritual matters. One of the biggest hurdles to humanure composting is that our own dung has a history of causing problems. It’s not really our scat that’s the problem, but how we choose to deal with the inevitable end product of eating and digestion. It turns out that Christianity has often been a part of perpetuating this sanitation problem.

Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan. (Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University quoted in The Humanure Handbook 77)

Many will scoff at the silliness of our predecessors and shrug their shoulders. What else were they to do with their limited understanding of diseases at the time? Perhaps. But it seems to be an unfortunate tendency of our faith (and perhaps faith in general, or even more the human condition) to find convenient scapegoats for the problems that plague us. The best scapegoats are the ones beyond our control. It’s much harder to think critically about the world around us and try to solve problems together with others. Furthermore, Jenkins points out the hypocrisy of this blame game,

The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. ‘The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel.’ (79)

Yes, it is the tell tale sign that we are just making stuff up when we flip an argument on its head when it serves our purpose and then do some impressive mental gymnastics in order to make sense of our own schizophrenic attitudes. The problem here is basic sanitation and how to deal with our own droppings, but we easily muddy the waters with our beliefs by making it about religious nonsense. Lest we think that this is simply a mentality of a bygone era the author has an interesting interview with himself in the final chapter which includes this exchange,

Myself: To give you an example of how clueless Americans are about composting humanure, let me tell you about some missionaries in Central America.

Me: Missionaries?

MS: That’s right. A group of missionaries was visiting an indigenous group in El Salvador and they were appalled by the lack of sanitation. There were no flush toilets anywhere. The available toilet facilities were crude, smelly, fly-infested pit latrines… But they didn’t know what to do. So, they shipped a dozen portable toilets down there at great expense…Well, the village in El Salavador got the portable toilets and the people there set them up. They even used them – until they filled up. The following year, the missionaries visited the village again to see how their new toilets were working.

M: And?

MS: And nothing. The toilets had filled up and the villagers stopped using them. They went back to their pit latrines. [The portable toilets were] filled to the brim with urine and crap, stinking to high heaven, and a fly heaven at that. The missionaries hadn’t thought about what to do with the toilets when they were full. In the U.S., they’re pumped out and the contents taken to a sewage plant. In El Salvador, they were simply abandoned.

M: So what’s your point?

MS: The point is that we don’t have a clue about constructively recycling humanure. Most people in the U.S. have never even had to think about it, let alone do it. If the missionaries had known about composting , they may have been able to help the destitute people in Central America in a meaningful and sustainable way. But they had no idea that humanure is as recyclable as cow manure. (229-230)

While missionaries (which is an unfortunate and problematic term in itself) have adapted and changed in many ways, the Christianity that sends them forth into the world to spread the Gospel continues to be clueless about many things. Only nuts like Pat Robertson blame pestilence on God or Satan anymore, but we still haven’t grasped some basic concepts about the nature of God’s creation, such as nutrient cycles. What’s even more disturbing for me as a Christian is that it’s right there in our own Scripture.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)

Perhaps this is the first compost pile. The first practitioners of humanure composting may have been those wandering Israelites. While I don’t want to bring back stoning, this is one Old Testament law that we could benefit from keeping.

Respect Your Pachamama

Leonardo Boff mentioned the concept of Pachamama in an interview I blogged about recently. This comes from the Andean worldview of indigenous people in South America including many in Bolivia. I’m not an expert on Andean indigenous religion, but I though I’d try to take a stab at describing what I’ve learned about this idea and how it might be helpful to our view of the earth.

Bolivia has the largest population of indigenous people in Latin America (Guatemala has the most in Central America). Most of these people are Aymara and Quechua and come from the altiplano region, a flat plain between the two ridges of the Andes mountain range. There are other indigenous people in Bolivia who come from the lowlands and do not share the Andean worldview which is a point of contention in Bolivian politics.

Most of what I learned about the Andean worldview and concept of Pachamama comes from an incredible Bolivian woman who works at the Maryknoll Institute for Languages in Cochabamba. She is a very visual and tactile person, because the whole time she was explaining this to us she was cutting construction paper and creating these visual representations of what she described. Here’s what I gleaned from our conversation which keep in mind was in Spanish and I’m not yet fluent. Any gaps in understanding our most certainly my fault.

Kicking the Flows201101171442.jpg

The Andean view of the world could best be illustrated with a vin diagram. Some people use three vertical linear levels representing the sky, earth and underworld, but according to this teacher that is probably not an accurate illustration. It is better to use a vin diagram with three circles overlapping. The circles represent the three pachas or realms. The realm of the sky is where birds, clouds and things having to do with the sky live. This realm represents spiritual things like god or ancestors. The pachamama is the realm of the earth. This is the realm that gives us life. It includes animals, plants, humans and the earth. The realm under the earth is considered the underworld. It represents death and the unknown.

These realms are not separate from each other as a vertical linear diagram might indicate. Instead they overlap. Birds live in trees and often get their food from the realm of pachamama, even though they belong to the pacha of the sky. The plants and animals belonging to pachamama need air, sun and rain to live. The underworld is connected to pachamama through the world under our feet. Death is part of the flows that keep balance and the unknown is part of our existence. Honestly, I don’t completely understand the underworld and its relationship to pachamama or the realm of the sky. I tend to put it into categories and boxes that are more familiar to me, mainly agriculture and the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Between each of these realms there is a two-way flow. They overlap, but there is also an exchange between them as described above in the ways they overlap. The ideal is for everything to be in balance between these realms. The center of the vin diagram represents the convergence of these three realms. So, when one of these realms is out of balance it affects the other two. Everything is interconnected.

Even though I feel I don’t understand the underworld realm very well, one example might shed light on how it is perceived. In Bolivia when miners go into mines they will often make an offering to “Tíe” (not sure about spelling). This is like the god or ruler of the underworld and is depicted as a goat-like figure which resembles our caricatures of Satan. When the Spanish Catholics conquered this area of South America and began mining for silver and later tin, it naturally appeared to them that these pagan people were making an offering to the devil. This is not the case.

In the Andean worldview opening a huge hole in the ground and taking things from the realm of the underworld is a pretty scary venture. Not only is this the realm of death and the unknown, but such action interrupts the natural and healthy flows between the three pachas. The offering given to “Tíe” is an effort to correct the imbalance that the miners are participating in, not an offering to the devil.

Worshipping the Earth?

Many of the Christians here in Bolivia and elsewhere quickly become nervous around indigenous religions, because of the way they understand our relationship to the earth. You can see in the above example how foreign this understanding is to Christians. The concern usually revolves around the idea that these religious beliefs and worldview amounts to worshipping the earth. If this means simply giving something the reverence it is due then I agree that the Andean worldview worships the earth. However, the meaning usually implies some sort of pantheism, that they actually believe that the earth is god. This does not seem to be the case in my limited understanding. In fact, I think this mistake is often made when trying to interpret indigenous religions and/or worldviews around the world. Our hermeneutic, or way of interpreting, these beliefs is only in terms of our own Christian doctrines. This causes a lot of confusion. You cannot simply equate cultural and religious symbols on a one-to-one basis. They must first be understood on their own terms as much as possible. Much harm has been done in Christian missions through the centuries, because of this kind of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

What this view of our relationship to the earth reminds us (because I believe it is inherent in our own tradition) that all of creation is interdependent and interconnected. The Western scientific worldview posits a disconnected and independent existence for human beings. Science can (though not necessarily) result in a reductionistic and atomistic view of the world in which everything is broken down into its component parts and interrelationships are often ignored or called anomalies. I’ve talked to an agricultural scientist at the Texas A&M research station in Stephenville who has found this to be true even in his own field which studies animals, plants, crops, etc., but ignores and often does not fund research that studies the relationships between these fields.

I continue to believe that God is the God of the whole world and truth is found in the diversity of human expressions of belief throughout the world. I don’t believe in some sort of universal religion which ultimately does violence to the diversity of human expression, but marvel that truth is revealed also beyond the borders of the church.