Environment


Images from recent excursions.

Some of the sights from our snowshoeing expedition yesterday at Salmon River, NY (click pictures for full size):

Trinity

Stillwater

Footbridge

Salmon River

White pathway

Falls

Falls, again

Through the trees

crows.jpgCity living doesn’t often provide the opportunity to sit in quiet and try to hear the sounds of nature in the stillness. This morning afforded me the rare opportunity, though. After getting ready for my day, I was able to sit in silence and enjoy some lectio before heading to the university to teach.

I read a short passage from the Psalter (Ps. 137). It’s an exilic Psalm, written by someone despairing of being away from home in a strange land, someone who wondered how to make the best of their new environment. I kept returning, over and over, to the first four verses:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

I have been thinking lately of New Hampshire, reflecting on the White Mountains, the former years of deep snows, the seacoast, the lake behind my house, the woodlot and swamp on the other side, and have been hearing songbirds perched in the giant white pines. This time of year the lake will, of course, be frozen over, and fathers will be taking their sons out to the ice to build a little campfire and try to reel up some perch, bass, bluegill, and crappies. I wish I could be out in my woods, trudging along the paths in the snow with my snowshoes, rather than holed up in a tiny apartment in the city, with nothing but the sounds of trucks, jet planes, snowplows, and arguments.

After I closed my text, I sat back in my chair, and suddenly noticed the silence. There were no trucks, no planes, no human voices, music. But it wasn’t silence. Instead, I heard what I have not noticed in my three years here. Outside my window, the clear call of a half-dozen black crows mingled with the chirping of house finches and sparrows.

I do not know where the crows live, but they are an ubiquitous presence here, often doing a better job of keeping our street clean than than property management or city workers. I do know where the sparrows and finches live, though; they live in the bushes surrounding my building and in the attic.

While I was sitting, enjoying the caw! caw! caw! of the crows and the unmistakable chirping and peeping of the smaller birds, I felt as if they were answering the question posed by the Psalmist. My feathered friends were singing the Lord’s song in an alien place. Crows and birds are not native to city apartment buildings. But they have learned to call this place their home, much better than I am these days. And so the two of us live in exile, one longing to return home, the other building sukkot, knowing that however long they stay here, they will be provided for and carry out their existence in the best way they can, in this place.

Hollis Schoolhouse in New HampshireLast week I wrote a bit of my personal, experiential observations of our local homeschool coop. So tonight I’m looking to make good on the promise I made that I’d write a follow-up that was more analytical and reflective. So be warned: this is more of an essay than the last piece, but I think it’s a useful exercise for me and perhaps for others as well.

As a preface to my analysis of Homeschooling, I should state up front what I feel the business of education is, or perhaps more accurately, what I believe it ought to be, whether it is college and university education, graduate education, or grade-school education. At the end of the day, my evaluation of education draws most of its inspiration from Wendell Berry, who has not really written systematically about his educational philosophy (so far as I know), but who nevertheless has plenty to say about it scattered throughout his writings. My thoughts on it, likewise, are directly related to my work in the academy, which is to say that it influences what I do in my teaching on the one hand and that my subjects of study shape the reasons I teach at all.

Like Berry, I see the education of young people as being centered on developing the creativity of the individual person in a way that encourages responsible action in the local community and the larger society as a whole. Education needs to embrace a role that leads students develop their humanity in relation to other people and to the physical land where they live. What we teach should be somehow connected to where we are in life (geographically and otherwise) and to where students are. Berry would say that education’s primary role is to instill knowledge that is experiential, relational, creative and imaginative, democratic, local in its orientation, and fundamentally interactive with the natural ecology of where we live. Just so. To the extent that education is individual-centered, I maintain that this individualism (in the classic liberal sense of developing the full potential of the student) is, nevertheless, rooted in the local community in that the “potential” is precisely the ability of the student to contribute to the life of the community through his or her own gifts, place, and so on. Finally, the purposes of education needs to encompass the concepts of goodness and wholeness, which is to say that we need to teach our young people the ability to judge what is good and whole.

Wendell BerryMuch of contemporary education, however, focuses on the development of “skills” that will make people productive not in their own local community, wherever that may be, but in the global industrial and consumer-capitalist economy. I agree again, here, with Berry, who argues that schools – by which Berry means public schools – are “mind dominated” by outside forces (the global industrial/capitalist doctrine) that essentially dictate what students are to take away from their education. In my work in New Testament, Judaism, Greco-Roman religion, Early Christianity, and Islam, scholars know this kind of imposed “mind domination” by the terms of “cultural hegemony,” stemming from work of Antonio Gramsci. Cultural hegemony is the essentially the ability of those in power (from small communities to global industry and national governments) to package thoughts. It is the ability to control “knowledge production” by packaging the hegmonic power’s ideology into the distillation and dissemination of culture. (more…)

Powwow River, NH

Well, anyway,
you can’t clear a
forest and then
wonder where all
the deer went.

Francis SchaefferOne thing that I hear a lot about is idea of “a” or “the” Christian worldview. In high school I voraciously read everything I could find by the late Francis Schaeffer, to many the patron saint of the idea of a Christian worldview. In college, the “Christian worldview” seemed to be the operational principle behind the entire curriculum. I still read about it in our alumni newsletters and magazines, and see or hear about conferences where “Christian worldview” is the entire focus. It’s an ubiquitous phrase on the radio, and it’s all over the various newsletters and other types of mailings we get several times a week. And thanks to an old friend, who recently emailed me his enthusiastic endorsement of “The Truth Project,” which I had forgotten about and which is intimately affiliated with James Dobson and Focus on the Family, it’s kind of recaptured my imagination for the moment. In other words, a “blogworthy” topic.

So, I have to make a confession.

I have absolutely no idea what it is, and even less of an idea of where to find it.

But I do know what people think they mean when they refer to “a” or “the Christian worldview.” Not coincidentally, it is primarily conservative and evangelical Protestants who have been the leaders in this pack, since its primary characteristic is its dedication to the Bible. In fact, although there are (and should be) major differences between a “Christian worldview” and a “Biblical Worldview,” in most of the discussions I have seen or heard in print, online, and on-the-air the two of them are used interchangably. Rhetorically, this has the effect of saying that a Christian worldview is a Biblical one, and if a worldview is not fundamentally based on the foundation of the Bible, it is definitely not Christian. It ignores the possibility that one can have a profoundly Biblical worldview and not necessarily be a Christian worldview; and it also cannot conceive of the possibility (even likelihood, unfortunately) that a profoundly Christian worldview is not at all biblical, no matter how much Bible goes into such a worldview’s prooftext(s).

It is also worth pointing out that I can understand why many think that such a thing exists and why, if we could actually achieve it, it would solve all the social and moral ills of our society, which in turn would bring us back to formative Christian ideals of the United States in the 18th century. It is a rhetorical move against increasing tendencies to secularize the founding fathers of the United States; by demonstrating that the Fathers in fact were Biblical in their religion and morality, combined with the above observations that a Biblical worldview must necessarily be a Christian one, these modern-day apologists are able to essentially impose a particular twentieth century interpretation of Christian faith to enlightened Deists who would be flabbergasted to know what is being done to them today for predominantly sectarian Christian political interests. In other words, the idea of a Christian worldview serves rhetorical and political purposes for those who hold to its possibility. But this is not helpful, because in a nation that Constitutionally cannot mandate any particular faith as “preferred,” let alone enforced, there are simply too many varieties of Christian experience for a singular Christian worldview, as much as I might admittedly wish for otherwise from time to time.

So. “The” Christian worldview is simply not possible. We just need to ask “which one should it be?” The “liberal” one? Or the “evangelical” one? Or perhaps we want to go with a denominationally sanctioned worldview. The Methodist one? The Presbyterian? Or the Baptist one? Or, even if we settled on The Baptist Christian Worldview, would it be the Southern Baptist, the General Associatoin of Regular Baptist, the Conservative Baptist, the American Baptist, or Independent Baptist, Fundamental Baptist … and so forth.

But I did give myself an out; I said “a singular Christian worldview” about eight lines up. If there can be no question of “the” Christian worldview, what about “a” Christian worldview, and allow for the fact that there are many Christian worldviews that, unfortunately, think tanks like Focus and Truth Project and Battle Cry and so on would cringe at being associated with as “Christian worldviews?”

I actually do not really like the term worldview all that much. I see it as a convenient catch-all term for pigeon-holing “group think.” For this is basically what a worldview is. It is a way of admitting that we all have a way in which we view life that consists of the sum total of our experiences as individuals and as members in various networks of communities. Each of us probably has an individual worldview that might consist of “categorical imperatives,” to use Kant’s phrase, which are either adopted wholesale and uncritically by what we have experienced, or which are hard-earned and fought out through serious criticism of our experiences as individuals within communal histories. In this light, to earn this kind of worldview is to earn a way of coming to terms with who we are as individuals and as members. We are always both. It is possible to speak, perhaps, of my worldview, and it may be possible to speak of the specific worldview of a local community in place. But as a rhetorical and political term, and an apologetic one, it pigeon-holes groups who fall outside of what “we” think and who are in opposition to us.

I do not believe that there is such a thing as “the Christian worldview,” but I do think there is the Christian Apologist’s Worldview that, despite making a lot of noise, in no way speaks for the rest of those of us who do not consider ourselves members of that ideological community. In another post, after we’re done with exams and papers and so forth, I’ll follow this up with the importance of local education in developing an authentic worldview that leads to ethical action and that I believe might justifiably be called A Christian and A Biblical worldview that may even be consistent with a worldview of the founding fathers.

Black Sheep

Baaaaaa. Gotta be a few others of us around somewhere…

Hint: check out the categories for this one.

Kermit the Frog Unpigged!Kermit’s serenade from the first season of Sesame Street in 1970 finds itself as the title of Jill Hudson Neal’s article in today’s Washington Post. The family and I have been getting frustrated with our recognition that on a student budget “It ain’t easy being green.” (Cue the music…)

Anyhow. April is upon us, which means 30 days of guilt-inducing environmental propaganda being tacked onto the 40+ days of Lent that mercifully end next week. The family and I have been trying to come up with budget-possible ways to do our part. But, as Neal says, “And choose the organic eggs instead of whatever’s on sale? Please, that $4 will buy me a grande soy latte.” I’m not into $4 coffee, but the same four bucks gets me 48 eggs instead of 12 where we usually get our groceries.

The thing is that my house wants to go into it wholesale. Get all the food via the Community Supported Agriculture distros. What we can’t get there, hit the co-op store. (Sadly, I’m not aware of even a Trader Joe’s out here; any Syracuse-area readers, if you know of one, let me know, OK?) Or hit the local farm stands when they’re open. Heck, if you got the yard space, get a cow and some goats. And I’m just talking food here; our kids are out of them, but we used cloth diapers, we use cloth napkins at dinner, avoid disposable eatery, and wash a ton of our clothes by hand. In our homeschooling circles, chemical cleaners are out; natural-based organic cleaners are in.

It’s all great stuff. And, for a grad student with a family, prohibitively expensive. Alas. It’s very frustrating; Jill, we share your pain and frustration. It’s so easy and tempting to take the “The-last-days-are-coming-and-it’s-all-going-to-blow-anyway-no-matter-what-we-do” philosophy of my youth and which I still hear (unfortunately) in more conservative Christian circles. But even in those circles, the environmental health drive is there, even among those who subscribe to the aforementioned “end times” perspective on it. Instead of focusing on “saving the earth” and on community ethics, the focus is on individual health and morality. I used to think that this was a very selfish and not especially biblical way to look at it. I still to do, to some extent. But now that I literally can’t afford to shop anywhere other than Aldi’s or Sav-A-Lot and we make regular use of the food pantry in order to eat anything remotely healthy, I can appreciate the individualistic sentiment a little more.

Rather than throw the environmentalism, individualism, and communitarian babies out with the bathwater, what we’ve kind of decided to do is “Think Little,” as my favorite poet puts it. In order to support and encourage the larger whole, we need to start with ourselves. A fusion of the spiritual ethics of starting with our own selves in our OWN spiritual state before talking about the spiritual state of others (Jim Dobson, are you listening??) with environmental concern and the state of our own physical health.

This is common ground. Regardless of where we fall in the whole global warming and environmentalist issues, I would like to think that our own health would prompt us to make better, more healthy and more economically sane choices of what we eat, what we drive (and how often) and how we clean in our own lives and families. And then, when the time is right, we can perhaps do more, both for ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

Sing on, Kermit.

The Old School HouseAfter a great weekend of hiking, bird watching (and squirrel-watching), and just visiting with my folks, my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, as well as my own family, I’m finally getting back to the Aedificium.

I kind of need to fess up a little. I’ve got a TON of things on my mind these days, ranging from school life to food production and consumption to money and economics to the education of my children and my own students to the state of the Christian faith to domestic politics, social justice, and foreign policy of our own nation. In between my work, my family, various church activities, and, when we can get away to do it, my walks in the woods, I’ve been blogging and returning to Wendell Berry.

I’m currently engaged in a project on concepts of “imperial” vs. “indigenous” or “local” education, and in the course of reading I’ve come across this gem, from Mr. Berry’s essay “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear:”

“The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” — which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.” (emphasis mine)

There is so much in this quote that I almost don’t even know where to start, except to say that the first reaction for this educator and former librarian (a.k.a., “industrial and capital information specialist”) is a defensive one. The entire information industry (and make no mistake, it is an industry) depends on job-training and research. But the defensiveness is short-lived for me. Library schools no longer teach students knowledge-management, but information management, and even while I was in library school I could see how dependent the library profession was on the technology industry in all its various guises. To an extent I think that this has to happen, but the thing is that this technology industry has infected elementary schools.

As an archivist and librarian, my emphasis was always less on the technology and the information industry than trying to carve out a space in the institution a space for those materials that preserved and promoted a kind of ethical history of whoever I was working for, and how the institution’s history fits into (or did not fit into) the kind of “moral tide” of its community and of the nation. Which is to say, of course, that for institutional librarians and archivists, the selection of “information” to manage is a political, economic, and ethical act.

As an educator, I have long held to the belief that Berry articulates here, that education’s proper use is to enable cultivate an ethic of responsibility in the lives of young people (and of older ones as well). But again, expressed this way, teaching is a political, economic, and ethical act. If educators are to be entrusted with the responsibility to teach “young people to put their lives in order” and to “know what things are more important than other things,” we have to realize the subjective nature of the educational endeavor. It is an awesome responsibility, and if teaching is taken seriously, as it is in my household, it should scare the living bejeezus out of those of us who have it as a calling.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, as a Christian, I am constantly evaluating two things; first, whether or not Christianity, as it is currently preached, practiced, and understood by millions in this country, is compatible with the educational goal of enabling citizens (and not just “Christian Citizens”) “to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible,” and second, if it’s not, then Why not? and What can we do about it? What went wrong, and where? Isn’t the entire heart of gospel ethics rooted in this call? In the life and teachings of Jesus as well as the Prophets?

William Sloane Coffin, Jr., in the “Quote of the Moment” pane up on the top right,” noted that while he was not particularly optimistic, he was full of hope, and I have to admit that this expresses my own position on the issues I raised in that last paragraph. I am a cynic about Christianity’s ability to contribute to economic, political, social, and cultural responsibility as it is currently preached, practiced, and understood. I’m not especially optimistic that its current dominant “manifestation” here in the 21st century can adjust itself to meeting that responsibility either. But I have hope, because I’m seeing numerous individual, community, and even church efforts that share this hope and are beginning to live radically different expressions of our faith that do live out the radical ethic of Christ, one that we educators can employ in our mission not to inform, but enable.

Teachers, let’s get to work.

Harlan Hubbard’s “Pastoral Kentucky Hillside With Sheep”

From A Timbered Choir, 1991:1 (p. 125-6).

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We’d oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, or
A healthy whore. Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty become
What we have feared to be.

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