Tag Archives: Belief

Sacred Days and Desecrated Days

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

– from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

black-friday-smyrna-vinings.jpgThis year during Thanksgiving there were a number of stores having sales on Thursday already. This prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is nothing sacred?” This is an oft-heard complaint about the way that different aspects of our culture have continued to creep into what many consider to be sacred times. Whether its American football played on Sundays or other activities planned for Wednesday evenings (traditionally reserved for many churches to have mid-week services) or children’s and school’s sports games planned for all of the above, many people ask the same question as my friend, “Is nothing sacred?”

Holy Days or Holidays
During this time of the holidays, at the height of the religious calendar of the consumer religion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of sacred days and spaces. The word “holiday” is a shortening of “holy day”. This truncating of the word seems symbolic of the loss of this sacred time as the word’s meaning is obscured by its decreased stature. In Australia, Canada and the UK the word “holiday” is used to mean vacation, as in “I went on holiday to Hawaii.” Now holiday just means a day off from work.

We have holidays that are purely secular. While they may be important and worthwhile, they have no roots in religious observances and can thus not be considered “holy days”. These include many of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” such as Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day. Mother’s Day, while not a religious holiday, has its roots in the anti-war movement. Labor Day was initiated by labor groups and unions to celebrate and remember workers, but Grover Cleveland chose the current date in order to distance the day from the more radical International Workers’ Day. Now it’s seen as a day for cook outs to celebrate the end of summer and the last day that it’s fashionable for women to wear white.

There is Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Initially this holiday celebrated the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a solemn occasion to remember the true cost of war. Now it has become a celebration to rally the country around ever expanding militarism. It originally commemorated the ending of war, but is now used to justify our ongoing and unending involvement in conflicts around the world.

thanksgiving-cartoon.gif

The Real Earth Day
Finally we have Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations of indigenous people and Europeans. The mythological beginnings of the United States’ tradition with pilgrims and native people sitting down to share a meal almost certainly never happened, though apparently the “Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish” when they were starving (Wikipedia). The myth of Thanksgiving is that European settlers and Native peoples got along just fine.

The roots of the tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest is not unique to any particular religion or people. On the contrary it seems to be universal across cultures and religions through history. What is divergent is not stores being open on Thanksgiving, but that the vestiges of the harvest celebration with seasonal foods is barely recognized or acknowledged. It is telling that Thanksgiving is known primarily for the overconsumption of food and consumer goods. Granted many people spend quality time with their family and take time to express what they are thankful for. Remarkably absent from the majority of thanks is any reference to the harvest, seasonal food or land that sustains our lives every day.

The point of all this is that 1) holidays no longer signify only days with traditionally religious significance and 2) holidays tend to shift from their original meanings toward something else.

Is “Nothing” Sacred?
Thanksgiving cartoon.jpgThe question is, “What is the something else towards which our holy days and holidays have shifted?” I would suggest that it is not that we have shifted away from religion toward secularism, but that we have moved from one religious system to another. There is not an absence of religious significance. Instead what we have are competing systems of religious significance and meaning.

William Cavanaugh argues in Being Consumed that consumerism is not actually an attachment to things. On the surface it appears that the consumer religion is about accumulation and materialism, but on a deeper level it is more about a detachment from things as we are constantly in pursuit of the new and the next thing. In this sense “nothing” is sacred as all objects are emptied of their meaning. In the consumer religion it is the absence of meaning in objects, places and times that is sacred. The meaning is supplied by the act of shopping, buying, desiring and repeating the ritual. Which begs the question, “Is this religious violence?”

So, it is a mistake to ask about the sanctity of holidays when stores open on Thanksgiving. The growth economy demands its offerings and sacrifices as well. Therefore to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “There are no unsacred days; Only sacred days and desecrated days.”

Images from smyrnavinings.com, joyoftech.com, and http://lindaraxa.blogspot.com

Two Kingdoms: Low German Mennonites in Charagua, Bolivia

This may not relate much to the general topic of this blog (though that’s never stopped me before), but it does have to do with my work in Bolivia. By the end of this post I might find a way to tie it back to food, theology and consumerism.

Under the new Bolivian Constitution there is a process by which communities can become autonomous zones. There are various versions of autonomy for different groups. In 2009 the Charagua Municipality voted to become one of 11 autonomous zones in the country. They are forming an “autonomous indigenous zone”, which in the actual language of the constitution also includes “campesinos”, or small farmers, in order to make it apply more generally to an area. Charagua municipality is primarily composed of Guaranis who live in rural villages scattered throughout the area. The second largest group is actually the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) living on four colonies located just east of Charagua Estación where we live. In the main city of Charagua and the Estación there are Quechuas, Aymaras and non-indigenous Spanish-speaking Bolivians. This means that there are five main languages spoken in the area: Guarani, Quechua, Aymara, Spanish and Low German.

Since 2009 the community has formed an Assembly for Autonomy that is in the process of creating a structure that will govern this area. There are conflicts between those living in the urban center that did not vote for autonomy and the majority Guarani population that live in rural areas and did. These have to be worked out over time. Instead of simply imposing the wishes of the majority Guarani, the Assembly is trying to include all of the parties affected by this change in constructing an Assembly that represents everyone in Charagua Municipality.

While LGMs desire to continue their tradition of living “Stille im Land (Quiet in the Land)” by not participating in the autonomy process, they are the second largest population in the area and probably the largest economic producers. At the end of July the Assembly working on the Autonomy process invited the LGMs to meet with them to inform them about the process, ask for their input and participation. Both the coordinator for the MCC Low German Program and the Country Representative for Bolivia came to the meeting to help with translation for the LGMs. Since the coordinator is still learning Spanish and the Country Rep doesn’t speak Low German they both had to help translate using English in the middle to translate between the two of them. It was a long morning with so many languages, but very interesting. Overall the meeting went very well and was respectful on all sides.

One of the convictions of faith in the LGM’s tradition is that they should not participate in government in any way. This has to do with their understanding of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. Many Christians have some form of a two kingdom theology, at least in theory, but in practice they do not make the kinds of distinctions that the Anabaptist tradition has made. More progressive Mennonites (a branch of the Anabaptist tree) make a distinction between the two kingdoms, for example, by refusing military service, but would believe that Christians can and should vote and even participate in government by holding office (though there is much disagreement over the particulars). Clearly, the LGMs have chosen a much harder distinction by living in colonies and abstaining from any involvement in government or politics.

This, however, does not mean that they reject the authority of the government (as some anarchist mennonites might do). Instead they submit to the authority of the government, as ordained by God. The government is a necessary reality to rule over the kingdoms of the world and as people who live in the world the LGMs submit themselves to the authority of these governing bodies, even as they refuse to participate in them. At the meeting they expressed their thankfulness for the information and the work of the Assembly, but did not want to participate in the process. They said they would submit themselves to whatever the governing authorities decided. Whether or not you agree with their method for embodying the kingdom or even their theology, their practice of the kingdom certainly encompasses the whole of their lives. This was difficult for some people to understand, but they were respectful of their convictions.

Their colony system is their attempt to live as faithfully as possible to the convictions of their ancestors and their tradition in embodying the kingdom of God in their lives together. What has made this possible is the agreement, or Privilegium, that they have had with the Bolivian government since 1962 which gives them certain privileges such as exemption from military service, their own educational system in their own language, their own judicial system and land. Since the new Bolivian Constitution was approved all previous agreements now have to be revisited and either re-approved, changed or rejected. So, in many ways LGMs have been able to live in Bolivia under their own version of autonomy for almost fifty years. This is similar to what the Guaranis are creating in Charagua. Yet, this new autonomous zone will encompass another autonomous zone that has existed for over fifty years.

It seems clear to me that these two “kingdoms” will likely come into more conflict at some time in the future. Conflict is not a bad thing, but something that can hopefully be dealt with constructively. First, I have already mentioned that the LGMs are a huge economic factor in the national economy of Bolivia and particularly in Charagua. They currently do not pay taxes to the government and do not desire to do so, but several people mentioned that citizenship (78% of LGMs are citizens in Bolivia) comes with both rights and responsibilities. We will have to wait to see how this plays out in the future.

In many ways it seems likely that things will continue much as they have for fifty years, but there may be important issues, such as taxes or land, that will test the ability of these two groups with very different worldviews to find the common ground to coexist. The history of the LGMs is one in which time after time they have decided to move to different countries because of changes in their agreements with the governing authorities. There may only be so many more places for them to move before they will have to find a way to deal with the world as it changes around them while maintaining their most treasured traditions and community life.

The question of how to work out the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world we live in is certainly a difficult one. You can find faithful Christians advocating everything from one extreme of complete accommodation to culture to the LGM version of detachment and isolation from the world into closed communities. For those of us who believe that decentralization and the support of local and regional systems for food production and economic activity are essential for a sustainable future the kind of autonomy sought by both communities are helpful in figuring out how to make this dream a reality in the future. If we hope to move from a world obsessed by the bigness of globalization, consumerism and a growth economy to one that thrives on the diversity of small businesses, communities, decentralized authority we will need the mechanism of autonomous zones that make it possible for people to make their own decisions about things that affect them. Increased participation in local issues, economy, production, organization and governance is necessary to strengthen local and regional economies. Autonomous zones might be the thing that makes it not only possible, but necessary for people to take control of their own lives and communities.

There. I tied it back to the theme of this blog after all.

Reconciling With Darwin

Stephen Jay Gould took on biological determinism, racism, scientific objectivity, scientific progress, science and religion and much more in his 1977 book Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History. The primary thrust of this book was to help us come to terms with Darwin and the implications of his ideas for our understanding of ourselves and our world.

The Western world has yet to make its peace with Darwin and the implications of evolutionary theory. The hippocampus debate merely illustrates, in light relief, the greatest impediment to this reconciliation–our unwillingness to accept continuity between ourselves and nature, our ardent search for a criterion to assert our uniqueness. (50)

I believe that though there has been progress, this continues to be the case in 2011. This book is primarily about science and conversations within science about Darwinian theory, but it touches on religious beliefs and views in a number of surprising ways. I’ve had an interesting ongoing conversation with a good friend of mine about the relationship and nature of both science and religion. I think this is one of the most important conversations that we need to have, particularly as we are facing the crises of climate change and stretching our natural systems beyond the breaking point. Gould believes that the answer lies in Darwin’s theory itself.

I suggest that the true Darwinian spirit might salvage our depleted world by denying a favorite theme of Western arrogance–that we are meant to have control and dominion over the earth and its life because we are the loftiest product of a preordained process. (13)

This is true for both religious and scientific-minded people, as well as capitalists, economists, Marxists, atheists and almost everyone, but the indigenous peoples of the world. It is a mind set which drives our experiment with civilization, agriculture and technology. Gould claims that this is why Darwin waited so long before publishing The Origin of Species. In that first book he only hints at the implications of his theory and waits until Descent of Man to begin to unpack what this means for our way of thinking about ourselves in relationship to nature. The real scandal of Darwin’s evolution was not that it dethroned the idea of creation. Other evolutionists of the time allowed room for God to simply use evolution instead of creation, as many continue to today.

The real scandal was that Darwin’s explanation of the mechanism by which evolution took place, random variation and natural selection, did away, not only with the need for a Creator, but with the special, exalted place of human beings in the great pyramid of creation. While Darwin does away with a particular notion of God, and I believe rightly so, I don’t see his concept of the human beings creatureliness in contradiction with how I read the Genesis story. Indeed, later on in the book Gould also states,

I return, then, to Linnaeus’s compromise–we are both ordinary and special. The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brains. (257)

I have basically stated the same view at other times. We are no more than creatures, but we are certainly unique among creatures. Gould points out that Darwin intentionally refrained from using “higher” or “lower” terminology to describe lifeforms. Instead, it is clear that prokaryotic organisms are perfectly adapted to their own environment and we would not survive in their place because we are terribly suited to their environment. In another passage Gould puts it this way,

What we criticize in ourselves, we attribute to our animal past…What we prize and strive for, we consider as a unique overlay, conceived by our rationality and imposed upon an unwilling body…Little more than ancient prejudice supports this common belief…It has roots in an attitude that I attack in several of these essays: our desire to view the history of life as progressive and to place ourselves on top of the heap (with all the prerogatives of domination). We seek a criterion for our uniqueness, settle (naturally) upon our minds, and define the noble results of human consciousness as something intrinsically apart from biology. (261)

I have made this same argument many times, not from a scientific perspective, but a religious one, though thoroughly informed by what I know about ecology and agriculture. Now, Gould is an avowed atheist and arrives at his understanding about the world from his knowledge as a scientist. Yet, he refrains from the militant anti-religious zealotry of others by rigorously applying sound principles on both scientific theories and history. He even points out that religious people who held beliefs about the world, which we laugh at now, were sometimes dedicated scientists in their time applying what they knew of science. In his chapter called “The Reverend Thomas’ Dirty Little Planet” he describes the fantastic theories of Thomas Burnet which tried to explain the events described in the Bible, such as Noah’s flood, in rational scientific terms. Writing in 1681 “Burnet’s tale may be fanciful, but his actors are the ordinary physical forces of desiccation, evaporation, precipitation and combustion” (144).
The point here is to remember that our perspective on scientific truth and progress, particularly when reading history, is colored by our current beliefs. This doesn’t mean science has no basis. The reason Gould uses this example is precisely because this religious explanation insisted on rational explanation and was persecuted by the “dogmatists and antirationalists” of his time, not the theists.

But the actual relationship between religion and science is far more complex and varied. Often, religion has actively encouraged science. If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism. (141)

The book is full of interesting stories from the history of scientific thought and development that expound on this theme. Another example was the rationality of beliefs about geologic formation prior to the modern understanding of continental drift. Given the evidence at the time, continental drift was more fantastic than other beliefs held at the time which seem ridiculous now. This leads to one of my favorite lines of the book, that describes the stance that I think both religion and science should take.

Common sense is a very poor guide to scientific insight for it represents cultural prejudice more often than it reflects the native honesty of a small boy before the naked emperor. (109)

I have said often, though perhaps not on the blog, that I don’t believe in common sense. I don’t know what it is or where it comes from. Common sense is a nonsensical appeal to non-existent wisdom. Standing before the emperor and being willing to speak aloud the fact that he is naked is no small task for religion or science, because as social creatures we are bent towards conformity. However, we have reached a place where as a species we face the fate of lemmings if we do not speak up.

Throughout the book Gould makes claims about the world and evolutionary theory based on what science can tell us right now (or at least in 1977). Yet the last sentence of the book reveals the kind of stance he takes as a scientist, always willing to be swayed by evidence and never wishing to become an irrational dogmatist.

I will rejoice in the multifariousness of nature and leave the chimera of certainty to politicians and preachers. (271)

This, I believe, is the humble stance of the human being that is both “ordinary and special”, unique among creatures, but not apart or above in any way. This is the kind of thinking our world needs for its own salvation. Perhaps part of the reconciling work of Christ in our time (for the church) is redeeming Darwin by accepting his ideas as they are and then recognizing them in our own tradition, choosing to reject the ways of thinking and acting in our religions, societies and nations that have led and still lead to domination and violence in all its multiplicity.