Monday, May 23, 2011

A Baha'i Trilemma?

Baha'i gardens in Haifa, taken by David Shankbone.
I have always been struck by the stories of Christ calling the disciples in the gospels; here is Peter, bent over his fishing, or Matthew, making his rounds of collecting taxes for the Romans and, all at once, they hear Christ's words: "follow me," and no sooner is it said than the net and the ledger sheet is laid aside and they are following a man they have never met to who-knows-where. What sort of person does it take to leave everything and follow? What sort of man does it take to call and be obeyed so instantly?

Religions invariably become recognizable and comfortable institutions in time, with well-defined expectations and heavy theological tomes to line a bookshelf. But before all that, there is a teacher and a disciple, an unknown beckoning and a seeker willing to leave the everyday behind -- how many of us have the sort of personalities to lay down our nets and follow?

We would be right to be cautious, because not all the teachers who can issue that sort of call, and not all the people who will follow, are necessarily rightly guided. Examples are not hard to find of charismatic men leading trusting disciples to perdition, not salvation. Jim Jones, an ardent communist and atheist who used religious charlatanry to dupe his followers into joining his socialist utopia in Guyana, where he predated sexually on men and women and eventually orchestrated a mass suicide which was the single greatest loss of American life in peace time until 9/11. Shoko Asahara, whose Aum Shinrikyo cult released poison sarin gas in a crowded Tokyo subway in the hopes of touching off Armageddon. David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, who collected around himself separatists who amassed a cache of weaponry and then died by the scores in a conflagration after the federal government cornered him while trying to investigate claims that he was molesting the children of his followers. Or the leader of the Heaven's Gate cult, Marshall Applewhite, who organized a mass suicide in the hopes of catching a ride on a UFO following in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. Significantly, all of these men claimed to be the Second Coming of Christ.

"Lord, liar or lunatic" is the fundamental problem, as the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis put it. Someone who advanced the kind of claims that Christ did could not have simply been a wise but merely human teacher, like Confucius or Plato. Based on his to claims to divinity, he must have been either a crooked mountebank, a raving lunatic, or God. But if he was a mere charlatan, why have his moral teachings astonished the world with their perspicacity? Why would a charlatan face a cruel death for the sake of a lie? And madmen don't found great religions or enlighten then world with their teachings. The ones that even come close, like Jim Jones or Charles Manson, usually succumb to their debilities. Therefore, the only plausible claim is that Jesus really was God.

The Baha'i faith would modify this picture somewhat. Lewis was committed to the traditional Christian belief that Christ was God incarnate; as the Nicene Creed expressed it, Jesus was co-substantial with God. Baha'is hold it to be impossible that God, who is infinite, could in any substantial sense become finite. On the other hand, Baha'is do hold that Christ was a Manifestation of God, a perfect human mirror of God's essence. One can look into a mirror and say, "I see God," because the mirror reflects God as a mirror might perfectly reflect the sun; but the mirror is not co-substantial with the sun.

Nevertheless, the force of the trilemma is unimpaired from the Baha'i perspective. One must be either a lunatic or an outrageous liar to claim the sort of divinity that Christ claimed and it not be true. But Baha'is would point out that it was not only Jesus who made such claims! Baha'u'llah claimed to be the Second Coming of Christ -- was he a Lord, liar or lunatic? The more I learn about his life and teachings, the less plausible the "liar" or "lunatic" options sound...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let the competition commence!

I have been to a few commencement ceremonies, and recently I had the privilege of attending my sister's graduation from community college. On the whole, I have noticed a few constants: there are the student speeches, which usually sound as if they are reciting the menu to a restaurant they have never been to; parents engaged in a great deal of vulgar hooting when their child's name is read, as if he were the academic equivalent of Albert Pujols or Justin Bieber; the students, basking in this temporary, ritualized sort of celebrity.

Another feature is the "elder statesman" speech. Often, though not always, delivered by some political figure of stature, its content is strictly dictated by an unspoken but pervasive formula. It begins with a word or two of background, to the effect of, "We live in a rapidly changing, globalized world." There is certainly some truth to this, and the students feel a twinge of pleasurable recognition of this idea so often repeated by the media, political figures, and in other fora of public opinion. This is quickly followed by what we might call the education-as-international-competition trope: "And America needs well educated citizens to compete with the rest of the world." One might even get the impression that this is all America needs education for, and, were it not for this Hobbesean international arena, we would much rather be doing something else. The point is usually driven home with a tricolon: "We must out-research, out-develop, and out-work the rest of the world."

"We're ready to crush the world!"
This picture of the international economy as a zero-sum scramble for scarce resources is far more blatant in its aggression than most of the signals the academy sends on these issues. Schools on every level talk a good game about forming tolerant, enlightened global citizens. Perhaps all that is supposed to mean is, "We intend to form you to feel comfortable going anywhere in the world to set up the system that will allow America to win and exploit their natural resources," whether with the help of a briefcase or a bayonet. You will be prepared to function as a cog in the global technocracy that will allow us, dadgum it, to win!

It does not seem difficult to imagine a different message that could be sent at commencement -- a different portrait, one of America in need of educated citizens to help it cooperate with and understand the rest of the world for the sake of common goals, like peace and justice. Citizens to help us live within our environmental means in a way that leads to thrift, abundance and a just distribution of resources. Then we could truly "begin."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hath the Foodie a Conscience?

Two very eloquent articles in The Atlantic focus a critical eye on the conscience--or, as the authors would argue, the lack thereof--of the "foodie" movement. James McWilliams' short article was inspired by B. R. Myers' phillipic, written with a vocabulary as sharp as its moral categories.

The real pleasure in Myers' writing is his willingness to mount an attack on the food movement using the language of virtue, peppered with references to Aquinas and religious tradition. Often the food debate is presented as a battle between industrial-utilitarian calculators at Bunge or Monsanto and folks like Wendell Berry or Michael Pollan, who deploy more traditional moral categories. Myers' castigation, written with perspicuity worthy of a 17th century divine, is a refreshing approach.

How sustainable now, brown cow?
Author: Daniel Schwen
While both McWilliams and Myers are frequently on-target when it comes to their critique of the excesses of the  food movement, both fail to really engage with how a sustainable food system ought to function. One assumption they both make, for example, is that meat production is necessarily more sustainable than organic vegetable or fruit production.

The reality is more complicated. Cows, it is true, are not efficient converters of feed into meat, and therefore are comparatively wasteful competitors when it comes to grain, which would otherwise go to feeding people. However, cows, like other ruminants, are capable of a miraculous chemical process whereby they can convert grass, something pretty thoroughly inedible, into beef, which is delightfully so.

Now, organic vegetable production can to a certain extent take advantage of parallel processes. For example, an organic farmer can mow his grass, compost it, and then turn it into biological matter that can grow tasty vegetables. However, this takes a lot longer, and takes a lot more labor, not to mention gasoline for the mowing devices. Moreover, good composting usually requires a source of rich nitrogen -- animal manures being an obvious choice!

Even pigs are not an open-and-shut case. They aren't ruminants, and they aren't particularly efficient converters of grain, and so, like grain-fed cows, they compete with poor human beings for food resources. Unsustainable, right? Yes, if you're feeding them on just grain. But pigs can eat and utilize a wide range of food resources, including a wide variety of waste food, from culled crops to kitchen scraps -- including tea bags!

Even the most efficient vegetable operation has crop failures and culls. Depending on the individual farmer's marketing strategy, he may even have to cull crops that are otherwise quite edible but not "pretty." Grocery stores, for one example, are notoriously picky about having pretty vegetables. True, culls are compostable, but the composting process can take weeks or even months (and will usually need a rich nitrogen source), whereas a pig will happily turn waste vegetables into rich organic matter in roughly twenty-four hours -- not to mention it will turn them into pork in a good six months.

So foodies with a penchant for meat shouldn't necessarily feel guilty. A well-conceived animal farming operation converts things that people can't or won't eat (like grass and waste food) into fertile soil and tasty food. An efficient grass-fed beef operation will use solar power more effectively (and therefore be a good deal more sustainable) than a poorly run vegetable farm.

There is no doubt that the foodie movement, when taken to excesses, is subject to the vicious gluttony and status-worship that Myers so delightfully skewers. But moving beyond appearances and peccadilloes, and taking a serious look at the mechanics of a good food system, the foodie movement basically has it right: solar-powered, soil-friendly vegetables and meats, which are often more abundant and delicious, have decisive advantages over the conventional alternatives.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Positive Ecology

In the previous post I brought up our tendency to frame human virtue in negative terms (things to be refrained from or eliminated) rather than positive; certainly, this applies as well toward our view of ecology: we tend primarily to see it in terms of what we should give up or refrain from, in terms of what is "not sustainable." Less often do we think about how an ecological approach can lead to abundance, even (gasp!) profit, or how it just makes so darn much sense to do things in nature's way. For that reason, I think, the above talk is so particularly refreshing.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Enjoyment, not Tolerance

William Blake
The word "tolerance" is often used as if it were the key virtue pertaining to human diversity -- diversity of race, religion, cultural background, and so forth. Yet if we reflect on how the word is used otherwise, it seems like a somewhat odd choice, since typically we only take about tolerating something bad, not something good. Nobody takes about tolerating nice weather, or tolerating a delicious meal. Rather, we tolerate headaches, rainy days, rude in-laws. Therefore, the implicit assumption behind the word "tolerance" is that human diversity is something we would rather be without, though, for whatever reason, we have decided to put up with it.

Perhaps in some cases this really does describe our way of thinking. When it comes to religion, for instance, we might prefer that everyone were of our (true) belief, but as it stands we are willing to tolerate diversity of cult and creed for the sake of freedom of belief. In some cases of cultural diversity, we might tolerate certain customs we find aberrant or distasteful (though not blatantly immoral) for the sake of getting along. You might detest the taste of goat, but you're willing to tolerate that in some cultures it is a staple food (particularly when those cultures live on the first floor and you on the second).

However, it seems like we are giving short shrift to human diversity if we fail to realize that the proper response to it is often enjoyment, not "tolerance." The fact that people come in different shapes and colors is a beautiful, God-given fact, not a disagreeable inconvenience. "Tolerating" white and black human beings is like tolerating white and black flowers. The diverse forms of dance, cuisine or even cinema that prevail all around the world should be a source of pleasure, as they so often are. Is having Greek, Indian, Italian, Mexican, French, Lebanese and Southern Soul Food restaurants within easy reach a cause for tolerance, or enjoyment?

Tolerance, though, is not the only virtue we cast in negative terms. "Chastity" too often means "not having sex," rather than having sex the way it's meant to be had--in the context of a loving and serious commitment of body, mind and soul--and not otherwise. "Sobriety" often means "not getting drunk or high," rather than as having the cheerful clarity of mind which is the consequence of such abstinence. In the realm of human diversity, too, the problem is framed only as the battle against racism and prejudice. That is assuredly a battle that must be fought, but it can be won only in positive terms -- by actually going out and being friends, neighbors or even family (in the case of marriage) with people of other races, cultures and religions.

Abdu'l-Baha, when he visited the United States, advocated interracial marriage (illegal at the time in many states) as a concrete expression of human unity. He explains that human diversity is the ornament, and not the weakness, of humankind:
As difference in degree of capacity exists among human souls, as difference in capability is found, therefore, individualities will differ one from another. But in reality this is a reason for unity and not for discord and enmity. If the flowers of a garden were all of one color, the effect would be monotonous to the eye; but if the colors are variegated, it is most pleasing and wonderful. The difference in adornment of color and capacity of reflection among the flowers gives the garden its beauty and charm. Therefore, although we are of different individualities, . . . let us strive like flowers of the same divine garden to live together in harmony. Even though each soul has its own individual perfume and color, all are reflecting the same light, all contributing fragrance to the same breeze which blows through the garden, all continuing to grow in complete harmony and accord.
-- quoted in "Unity in Diversity."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Food Matters

My wife and I recently returned from a four-month stint in southwest Missouri, where we lived and worked on an organic farm in exchange for room, board and an education in natural agriculture. It was a great experience, and I would heartily recommend WWOOFing to anyone interested in farming, food, or even just cheap travel.

Being in a grocery store now feels very different than it used to. Turnips, swiss chard, arugula or even bak choy do not intimidate as they once did. Having seen animals as small as turkeys or geese and as large as a hog weighing several hundred pounds get butchered, and of course helping out myself, cuts of meat are not the obscure, inert puzzle pieces they once were, but recognizable parts of a once living whole. The prospect of cooking a whole chicken is much more welcome, especially since now I know one carcass should be good for at least three meals, if handled properly.

The wife and I are now weighing the possibilities of starting our own farm in the future, and in the mean time investigating internships (ATTRA has a database of them, most with a stipend for living expenses) and even programs like Food Corps to get some more experience:

Lately I've been considering the spiritual nature of agriculture, and particularly how conscientious CSAs might be used as vehicles to bring together people of different races and creeds. Of course, as many religious teachers remind us, any craft or science, conscientiously engaged in, can be an act of worship:
Strive as much as possible to become proficient in the science of agriculture, for in accordance with the divine teachings the acquisition of sciences and the perfection of arts are considered acts of worship. If a man engageth with all his power in the acquisition of a science or in the perfection of an art, it is as if he has been worshipping God in churches and temples.
-- Abdu'l-Baha.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Abdu'l-Baha on Being Born Again

That is why Christ said, “Act in such a way that you may find eternal life, and that you may be born of water and the spirit, so that you may enter into the Kingdom.”

The rewards of this life are the virtues and perfections which adorn the reality of man. For example, he was dark and becomes luminous; he was ignorant and becomes wise; he was neglectful and becomes vigilant; he was asleep and becomes awakened; he was dead and becomes living; he was blind and becomes a seer; he was deaf and becomes a hearer; he was earthly and becomes heavenly; he was material and becomes spiritual. Through these rewards he gains spiritual birth and becomes a new creature. He becomes the manifestation of the verse in the Gospel where it is said of the disciples that they “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” —that is to say, they were delivered from the animal characteristics and qualities which are the characteristics of human nature, and they became qualified with the divine characteristics, which are the bounty of God. This is the meaning of the second birth.
-- Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions.