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.


Cliché though it might be, everyone knows spring is a time of birth and re-birth; the first blush of warmth regenerates you, pervades your limbs with something far more potent than the smell of a new car. Missouri has austere weather and tends to give you the worst of everything -- you may get a foot of snow in the winter and a summer that regularly tops 100 degrees, as we did this past summer and winter. The advantage of this is that you are kept in an almost constant state of longing. A few weeks ago, when I was shuffling around in a foot of snow with a beard of ice, carrying buckets of feed to pigs and chickens, I was longing for spring. A few months before that, I was running around a stadium with a case of beer in 110 degree weather longing for the fall.

Though I sometimes envy the perpetually perfect temperatures on the west coast, I'm not entirely certain such consistency is spiritually healthy. We need time to commune with the gloom of life, to walk into stiff, unfriendly winds, to get in touch with our inner puritan, to feel like sinners in the hands of an angry God. It's a safe trip as long as we get reminded a few months later that mercy wins in the end and the Sun eventually returns. It is no coincidence that spiritually we associate California with cloying answers and polyannaish philosophies. Evil, as Aquinas and Abdu'l-Baha agree, does not have an independent existence of its own, evil being merely the privation of good. Nevertheless, it is sobering to live for a time in the shadow of good.

Along with the seasons I am experiencing my own rebirth lately, and it has come by and large because of plans of mine God has seen fit to thwart. In hindsight, the things I am most thankful for are my plans that God foiled, or my dreams that He spoiled; God is the Great Planner and Dreamer, and we are merely amateurs--therefore, He must also be the Great Spoiler, the Great Burster of Bubbles. Those whom He loves, He chastises.

As Baha'u'llah says in the Hidden Words:
O SON OF MAN! If thou lovest Me, turn away from thyself; and if thou seekest My pleasure, regard not thine own; that thou mayest die in Me and I may eternally live in thee.
Christ reminds us that to lose our lives for His sake is no loss, but rather to be born again in Him; it is the promise of rebirth that makes the sacrifice of ourselves become our renewal.