How can we respond to the climate change crisis from disciplines that aren’t in the sciences?

Climate change is both a wicked problem and a grand challenge.  These are OSU Dance Professor Norah Zuniga Shaw’s words, and, as she pointed out to the Ministerium a few weeks ago, most people don’t feel personally equipped to do anything about wicked problems and grand challenges.  We all know that climate change is a reality, but, beyond recycling and watching our energy footprint, most of us feel that there’s very little that we, personally, can do about it.  Particularly at a time when we are overwhelmed by change.  New technologies, new social behaviors, and the collapse of old institutions can leave us feeling lost at sea.  But for Norah, this means that it’s time to take stock of our gifts, abilities, and choices, rather than to despair.

“What do you do to respond to uncertainty and change?” She asked us, and then asked us to list out some answers to that question.  This was what she calls a “priming process,” in which a problem is stated (we live in a time of great change) and people are invited to name the agency they already have (list the responses).  As a pedagogical method, these priming processes come out of the world of dance, and especially out of the work of one of Norah’s mentors, the West Coast dancer Simone Forti.  They allow groups to have a certain kind of conversation and then see what kinds of associations arise from those conversations.

Having been primed in this way, we were then asked to think about that huge, overwhelming question of climate change, and relate it to our own disciplines.  Since most of us in the Ministerium are clergy, lay religious leaders, and theologians, it came as no surprise that many of our disciplines had to do with God and community.  But Norah pushed us to think beyond our work and consider our practices and our identities as well.  She handed out a worksheet that had three simple questions, and space to answer them.

How do we confront ecological crisis through __________?  (Make a quick list of your disciplines, working methods, experience you bring, and who taught you.)

What are your practices of taking action/making/doing and what role might your practices play in activating alternative futures? (List your practices and where you learned them, try not to edit yourself, just write what comes.)

What do you know already about climate change as a _____________ and who else can you turn to for answers? (List your relevant identities, relevant geographies, disciplinary groundings, relationships, and what you already know from these positions.)

Norah used these methods with dance students to create the piece “Let’s Make Climate Change.”  She found that bringing the topic of climate change into the studio helped students engage with it.  Suddenly a wicked problem was scaled to a size where they could respond to it by using their gifts, not just as dancers but as students, young people, women and men, children, romantic partners, and everything else that comprised their identities.  And the things that they already did, those daily practices that we all have, could be brought to bear on the problem.

We’re all in the position of those dancers.  We have gifts and positions within our wider culture that help us address any problem.  We have daily practices that have great power.  Solutions to any problem arise when a great number of people bring their diverse abilities to bear on it, when they name their personal responses and bring these responses together into grand collaborations.

Does God play dice with the universe?

The study of physics has had an indelible effect on human affairs and philosophical thinking. The 20th century was no exception as physics experienced two revolutions: Einstein’s theory of relativity and the revolution in our understanding of atoms and other elementary particles. This latter topic is usually called quantum mechanics and the subject is the source of much discussion in philosophical and theological circles since it involves a variety of truly mysterious and paradoxical phenomena.

Chris Orban, who is an assistant professor of physics at OSU, gave us an overview the physical and philosophical thinking that came prior to the advent of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century. As Chris discussed, after Newton and Laplace, the earth and the cosmos were understood to be a kind of “world machine” or “clockwork universe” that operates in a highly predictable way according to the laws of physics. This understanding led many church-goers in the 18th and 19th centuries to an idea of God as a kind of watch maker who created the world and set it into motion, but who may or may not need to intervene as this universe takes the course it was designed to take.

Chris argues that this idea has had a profound effect. By creating a detached and distant picture of God, this would have helped lay the groundwork for the Enlightenment. The “clockwork universe” idea may also have had a strong effect on the past and present reluctance of American audiences to accept evolution as fact. The first American interlocutor of Darwin’s theory of evolution was a Harvard botanist and protestant church member named Asa Gray. In defending Darwin’s theory to religious audiences, he had the unenviable job of explaining that this clockwork universe must have been designed by God from the very beginning to use scarcity and competition as a means for producing biodiversity. “Nature, red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson would say.

Although Einstein was not an especially religious man, he too had an idea that God (or whatever God is) determined the laws of physics at the beginning of time and set the universe in motion. Einstein’s goal was to understand the symmetries of nature so well that he could understand whether God could have made the laws of physics in any other way than they currently are.

The phrase “God does not play dice!” is attributed to Einstein in a series of discussions he had with the physicist Neils Bohr over the way that quantum mechanics introduces a degree of randomness into the world. Quantum mechanics removes the absolute predictability of the “world machine”. Einstein once said that he found quantum mechanics to be so strange that he spent more time thinking about it than his own theory of relativity. Chris drew from a chapter on Niels Bohr in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb to explain that although Bohr too was not an especially religious man, he dismissed Einstein’s assertion. He argued that the universe can operate however it operates. Decades of subsequent investigation have continued to confirm the notion that the affairs of atoms are intrinsically unpredictable on the smallest scales, which was the scientific basis of Bohr’s response.

The ramifications for this understanding of the world are as far reaching as the clockwork universe idea that came before it and Bohr spent time considering a renewed understanding of free will and other concepts in the light of quantum mechanics. Bohr once said that “[Philosophy] was, in a way, my life”, which is a reference both to his contributions to quantum mechanics and to the philosophical discussions he experienced growing up as a child of a biology professor at the University of Copehagen. A collection of Bohr’s speeches and writing can be found in his book Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge.

“What we are sculpting is ourselves” – Duane McDiarmid on Art & Action

Start with two images, both from the Vietnam War, both famous.  One is an Eddie Adams photo of a South Vietnamese police chief shooting a man in the head.  The other is Malcolm Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire to protest the war.  For Ohio University art professor Duane McDiarmid, these two photos became symbolic of two different approaches to action.  Duane believes that life is defined by action, and that there are always ramifications for the actions that people take.  During our February luncheon, he told the Ministerium that art is the action of the artist, and not only those discreet actions that take place in either the studio or gallery.  Instead, the art is found in any action that an artist takes.  For Duane, this means that no action can go unexamined, and surety is always problematic.  The South Vietnamese police chief is very certain of his point of view, and acts on that certainty.  The Buddhist monk understands that all action exerts a price, and he’s awesomely and terrifyingly willing to feel the effects of his activities on his own body.  Duane aligns himself with the monk.  He wants to acknowledge the effects of his artistic actions on his own person, even as he hopes that they will have effects that reverberate beyond his personhood.
I first met Duane when some of his pieces were featured as part of a social practice art show at the EASE Gallery.  He told me about his “Mismatched Drapes Project,” which began during a long drive from Athens to Santa Fe.  Feeling sleepy, he pulled into an empty lot and fell asleep in his car.  When he woke in the morning, he found that he was parked outside of an abandoned church, and went in to explore.  He discovered graffiti and debris left by a motorcycle gang that was using the church as a headquarters.  He was curious to find himself judging the gang, people he’d never met and knew nothing about, beyond the fact that they littered drug paraphernalia about on the floor and defecated on the carpet.  Noticing some old orange velvet curtains that were torn down from the wall, he acted on an impulse and took one.  Then he got back in his car and resumed his drive to Sante Fe, thinking about what he’d done and why he’d done it.
A little ways down the road, he passed an old abandoned hotel, and decided to stop and check that out, as well.  He found that it was being used by vagrants and by gay men who were seeking anonymous sex.  Again, he found himself facing his own judgement of these men, and again he discovered a found object, in this case a pornographic magazine, that he took without really knowing why.  Back in the car, he thought about judgement, and proprietorship, and the way that groups work.  Who really had ownership of the abandoned church and the hotel?  Weren’t the people who were actually using the spaces the true proprietors?  Could he think of the groups that were inhabiting these places as true communities?  And which of the communities that he belonged to had taught him to look down on and exclude these people?
It was from these experiences and thoughts that the Mismatched Drapes Project was born.  Arriving in Santa Fe, Duane decided that he would make a new curtain for the biker gang, and a quilt for the men in the hotel.  He wanted these objects to refer back to the original proprietors (the church that hung the drapes, the hotel when it was functioning) and to speak to the current proprietors.  When he delivered these two pieces of art, he did so at a time when no one was in the spaces, and with the understanding that he was truly giving them away.  He could have no further investment in where they went or what people did with them.  He wanted the arrival of these objects in the church and the hotel to be seen as a mystery, even as a miracle, to the people who would receive them.  And he designed private rituals that he enacted as he was giving the art objects away.  His intention was to join these communities of bikers and gay men without ever meeting them.  Join them through giving as an act of communion.
Duane told us over lunch that one of the ancient roles of art is “to displace trouble, so that you can look at it and heal it.”  One of the troubles that he’s trying to displace is the kind of deep prejudice we experience when encountering the truly other.  Later, he found an abandoned indian trading post, and found himself engaging in a project that displaced a different but similar trouble, that of the unjust trade relationships that led to the subjugation of Native American peoples.  As he worked on turning a half desiccated God’s Eye that he found in the ruins into a blanket that he would return to the site, he thought about his own participation in these trade relationships, and that the very act of taking an object from a place and making an object to replace it involved him in a kind of trade.  He realized that there is a very thin line between participation and manipulation.
As he talked to us, it became clear that his mind is always dwelling on the ramifications and implications of the actions that he takes.  It’s a very full, and also a sometimes exhausting, way to live one’s life.  It’s also, in essence, a spiritual way of living, as self awareness and examination of motivations are a deep part of any authentic spirituality.  Duane tells his sculpture students that “what we are sculpting is ourselves.”  In the end, that’s true of all of us, and the tools Duane uses – introspection, self-awareness, creativity – are the tools of the Buddhist monk and the saint.

Why do even the poorest people make art?

A year ago, Jim Miner, who’s on the Ministerium planning team, suggested that we tour the Schumacher Gallery at Capitol University in lieu of meeting for lunch this December. He’d recently visited the gallery and was very impressed by their collection of Inuit art. As we talked about it, we began to wonder why the Inuit made art, given that, historically, they were always living on the edge of survival, in one of the harshest environments on earth. Jim set out to find someone who could answer this question, and was fortunate in striking up a conversation with David Gentilini, who is the assistant to the gallery’s director.

When we met in the gallery, David told us that art is the first form of any human tradition. It communicates both practical and religious ideas, and as an example of this he showed us several soap stone sculptures made by Inuit artists in the early twentieth century. These sculptures vividly illustrated some of the religious ideas of the Inuit shamans, whose role was both to pass on practical knowledge, like where to hunt, and to ritualize the lives of their people. The Inuit people believed that human beings were composed of three equally important parts: a body, a name, and a spirit. Some of the sculptures showed all three, combined in amazing, convoluted shapes – a spiritual idea rendered in stone.

In addition, David told us, art can become a way to have control over something, when little else in one’s environment is controllable. Watching as something takes shape in your hands is an incredibly reassuring experience. All of the worries and anxieties of life disappear while one is involved in the act of creation. If this is true for relatively wealthy and secure Americans, how much more true it must be for people who’s existence is always in danger? The artists who made the soap stone statues in the gallery, and the generations of artists who came before them, knew that some part of who they were and what they believed would continue in their work, regardless of what happened to them after they created it.

How do we develop experience-rich language?

Language can open the world to us. This is always true of descriptive language – by describing people and things we come to know them better. But it’s also true of language that isn’t trying to describe, but to convey a meaning or assert an opinion. Something about the world and our relationship to it is expressed in the way we say things, and something about ourselves is revealed in the words that we choose. This became apparent to Erin McGraw as she thought about the way that people express themselves in cyberspace. Often there is a gleeful meanness in the ways that people talk to each other while online, but its not hard to discover deep insecurities at the base of this meanness. People use phrases like “If you’re a student of history, as I am,” to assert their superiority over whoever they’re arguing with, and tell each other that “you’re opinions are just stupid.” And anyone who tries to express a reasonable perspective in the midst of an internet debate will be attacked from both sides, because the dialog isn’t really about learning from each other, it’s about winning a kind of competition. To Erin, these conversations belong to first order imagination. They follow scripts and rest in cliches and are always obedient to a rhetoric of dominance. How, she wondered, could we move beyond such rhetoric to second order imagination, which challenges cliches and moves us to words and ideas that are clearer, more thoughtful, more original, and maybe even wise? How can we use language to open the whole world to us, instead of just the scared little corners we’d like to hide in?

Her answer is that we must relearn the art of revision. When she and I got together to plan her talk to the Ministerium, we knew that we’d want to ask our members to revise a piece of writing as an exercise in avoiding cliche. Erin generously decided that she’d create a piece for us to pull apart. She sent it to me in advance, and I laughed out loud when I read it. It was full of every cliche about suffering and providence that I could imagine, and reading it felt a little convicting, since I’ve heard, and maybe even spoken, some of the platitudes on offer while in worship.

During the meeting, we realized as we were revising Erin’s document that people of faith have to battle cliche on two levels. Being part of the world we live in, we’re immersed in the languages of society, the internet, politics, pop culture, etc. Being part of our faith communities, we’re immersed in the received languages of our traditions. Such language isn’t necessarily bad, but it can become so insular that it loses all ability to communicate beyond the doors of our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. More, it can become shallow, not because the original ideas or formulations were shallow, but because we’ve repeated them so often that we’ve ceased to think about them. A piece of writing, Erin told us, is like a piece of clay. The more one works it, the more malleable it becomes. Revision allows us to sharpen ideas, or to shift them, to disrupt an old way of thinking and allow a new way of thinking in. It allows us to stop merely saying the things that sound good, and start saying the things we really mean. Solid and believable, she told us, is better than flashy. Deep considerations are better than empty ones.

She offered us some principles to guide revisions of our thoughts and statements. Revision, she said, requires patience. When revising, we should be wary of all-or-nothing statements, and entertain the possibility that different points of view might be valid. What we really want is dialog, and it’s hard to achieve this when we use a dominating rhetorical tone. We should keep in mind that cliches started as surprising and new formulations of ideas. They weren’t cliches when first uttered, and Erin pushed that idea to say that cliches were the very first things that human beings made. They were invitations to more creativity and a deeper pursuit of truth. Our problem is that we allowed them to become resting places.

In occurred to me, as she talked, that she was describing revision as a kind of spiritual discipline. One of our members, Michael Jupin, pointed out that the revision process challenges each of us to become more of a self. Cliches don’t differentiate us from the worlds that we inhabit. But to cultivate patience, hold ourselves open to mystery, and invite real relationship with a willingness to be vulnerable and, even, wrong, is to develop that deep humility that the mystics always describe as the key to knowing God. Something about the world and our relationship to it is expressed in the way we say things. Hopefully, when we move beyond cliches, we’ll find ourselves expressing our real beliefs and hopes as honestly as we can.

What does it mean to be wise in today’s world?

The night before, someone had asked me if I thought that life was primarily comedy or primarily tragedy. I said comedy, without really knowing why. Then, as sometimes happens in the most surprising way, I found myself sitting at our Ministerium lunch the very next day, listening as Rabbi Roger Klein supported my sense that life is more comic than sad. Rabbi Klein was talking about wisdom. He had just finished speaking about Richard Sewell’s book, The Vision of Tragedy, in which Sewell asserts that wisdom is a recognition of the tragedies and problems of life, with a corresponding refusal to avoid them, and, most importantly, refusal to submit to them. Now he was speaking about Socrates. Socratic wisdom, he told us, has two main aspects. The first is humility. The second is the sense that life is comedy.

Not, the Rabbi assured us, comedy in a “laugh out loud” mode, but comedy as an ordering principal. He described tragedy and comedy as two species from the same genus. Comedy reflects a fundamentally ordered universe. Tragedy reflects a fundamentally disordered universe. Tragedy reflects the unacceptable contradictions of life, comedy the acceptable contradictions of life. I’ve been taking improv classes for awhile now, and I instinctively understood what he meant. When an improv actor steps out onto the stage, she doesn’t know what prompts she’ll be given or what her scene partners will say or do. She steps out prepared to create a scene from whatever comes her way. She has dedicated herself to the task of finding order in the raw materials of words and emotions and movements, and when we find improv funny, it is not only because of the incidental jokes and ridiculous situations that arise. The true joy that we take in improv arises from the fact that we’re watching order take form out of chaos, and the form that order takes is surprising, sometimes even shocking, but also deeply reassuring, because we human beings can do this. We can, through the simplest actions, reflect a fundamentally ordered universe.

Before talking about Sewell, Rabbi Klein led us through an investigation of David Brooks’s thoughts on wisdom, and Robert Nozick’s. He described Brooks’s point of view as primarily theoretical, given that Brooks is more concerned with thinking through what wisdom is than what it does. There’s a need for the cultivation of factual information and knowledge as we grow to be wise, but also a powerful need for experience. Knowledge gives us the capacity to create and evaluate, but the cultivation of wisdom takes time – it emerges from experience, and, unlike knowledge, it can’t be taught or transferred simply from one person to another. Differing from Brooks, Nozick is more interested in the practical aspects of wisdom. It comes about when we make meaning out of the practical truths that we encounter in the world, and through doing so change our perspective on life. Some of these practical truths are revealed when we attempt to achieve certain goals. We craft means of doing so, become aware of lurking dangers, and eventually come to accept unavoidable limitations. Through this we gain glimmers of self-knowledge. But also through it, if we’re truly wise, we detect, and even participate in, a current of joy. The wise person takes delight in wisdom itself and loves to share it, so that wisdom becomes an overflow of love.

All of these aspects of wisdom are found in scripture. Scripture speaks of the cultivation of the virtues as part of wisdom – do good deeds over and over again until they become your disposition, part of your temperament, inseparable from who you are. Scripture speaks of the transformation of loss, which is part of wisdom. The right response to loss, scripture tells us, is holiness – the redemption of the bad by turning it into something sacred. But most appealingly to me was the idea of comedy. The Bible, Rabbi Klein told us, is comedy, not tragedy. Again and again in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the contradictions of life are reconciled and a necessary order is reasserted, even in the face of violence and horror. The Sinai event is a comedic act, an act of creating a new order out of a devastatingly destructive old order. Resurrection is a comedic act, the act of reconciling the contradictions of life and death. In all cases, these acts of God are an overflowing of love, and in the grand comedy, creation itself flows out from God’s wisdom, and we are invited to learn and imitate it.

How do we form pilgrim communities?

When Greg Hitzhusen was a student at Yale Divinity School, he and a few others started an Outing Club, which took students out onto the campus for weekly meditations, and also took a spring break hiking trip every year. One day, while they were hiking in North Carolina, they came out onto Shining Rock at sunset and saw forested land spreading before them for miles. They had what Greg describes as a collective spiritual experience. This experience was the fruit of the group’s deep investment in their exploration of nature spirituality, and their acceptance of the hard work of being in the wild.

It was a high point of Greg’s many years spent exploring nature spirituality, during which he found many profound teachers. A few years before, he’s taken part in the Yitziah Jewish Outdoor Leadership Training Course, and become fascinated by the spiritual communities that can spring up in the midst of wilderness programs. He concentrated his academic research on similar outdoor environmental ministries, delving into how they thought about their work, both practically and theologically. He found that they all emphasized spiritual growth and renewal, often tying participants’ experiences to the wilderness stories of the Jewish and Christian traditions. His research made him conversant with a number of writers on creation spirituality, such as Stephen Kellert, Ursula Goodenough, and Bron Taylor.

We’d invited him to the Ministerium because we wanted to explore the idea of pilgrim communities, groups of people who come together for a set religious purpose, for a limited amount of time, and then disperse when that purpose is accomplished. Could these outdoor ministries serve as an example of such pilgrim communities, we wondered, and if so, what could we learn from them? Part of our concern was over their accessibility. Is there a way participate in pilgrim communities that are based around nature spirituality, even if one isn’t physically able to go on long hiking trips. or prevented from doing so by family or work responsibilities? Yes, Greg told us, all you need is a group that is intentional about going outside. He told us about the square foot exercise, in which one spends an hour simply meditating on a square foot of ground. Even such a simple thing can lead one to state of wonder and awe, since every small patch of ground is so amazingly various.

But the best practices for forming a pilgrim community in nature do require immersion in the natural world, which is best accomplished through multi-day excursions. Greg said that groups of twelve to fifteen people are best, since they allow for intimacy and variety without becoming unmanageable. A lot of very intentional planning needs to go into a successful trip. It’s a good idea to ground the trip in worship, maybe starting and ending with liturgies within a home trip. This, indeed, is one place where he nuanced our idea of pilgrim communities, since many of the groups that head out on these trips do so from a synagogue or church, a base community which supports them and which they benefit through their pilgrimage.

Once the group has started out on the trail, it’s important to engage them in what Greg calls a “portal” exercise. These are exercises that are meant to mark the liminality of beginnings, where pre-existing concerns and worries are named and then left behind. Through these exercises, a group begins to know itself as a group. Part of a group’s formation is its coming to understand the importance of mutual leadership. Sometimes groups of people assume that, regardless of any rhetoric around learning to trust one’s own leadership, there will, at the end of the day, always be someone there to bail them out. Experienced trail guides know that the only way to counter this assumption is to let group leaders fail, even if it means that they take people for miles in the wrong direction. Through such an experience, they come to understand that their leadership really belongs to them, and isn’t merely a hollow rhetorical device.

During these journeys, participants learn to value something other than peak-chasing. Sometimes the most profound moment doesn’t come on a mountain top, but while wading through weeds and bracken. And on all of these journeys, participants learn what their Jewish and Christian spiritual forerunners always knew – that the wilderness has the capacity of clearing away the distractions of our lives, and helping us notice the presence of God all around us.

Towards the end of his talk, Greg paraphrased Thomas Aquinas, who said that no one thing can adequately reflect the goodness of God, which is why God made all things. Often our faith communities become inward focused, and fall into thinking that they, somehow, know all there is to say about God. But creation is saying something more. Can we, as pilgrim communities, open the book of nature and learn from it?

What is it like to play with new models of religious community?

“Most people who reject faith don’t understand faith as a journey, but as a choice or affirmation.”  Ben Norton was speaking in the parish hall of Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, to a full crowd for our last Ministerium meeting of the academic year.  Ben is a pioneer minister from England, who was visiting the U.S. at the invitation of the Diocese of Southern Ohio to talk about the Fresh Expressions movement and everything that the Church of England has learned from exploring new ways of being church in the last ten years.  He was ordained with the first class of pioneer ministers, so his story is the movement’s story.

Fresh Expressions began with a 2004 report that posited that parish churches alone are no longer able to meet the needs of the highly mobile society of today, and that we need a range of expressions of church to engage with the variety of networks in our communities.  The report advocated for a “mixed economy” of traditional parish churches and new network churches in active partnership across a wide geographical area.  Ben’s work has been creating and sustaining these new network churches, which have commonly come to be called “fresh expressions.”  He’s established Christian communities that meet in bars and homes, creative communities that enact live-action Advent Calendars in abandoned beach huts, and he’s expanded the reach of his ministry to the army, where he serves as a reservist chaplain.  Throughout it all, he’s spent a great deal of time listening to the communities that he works in, assessing their needs and finding ways to collaborate with others to meet those needs.

The American church hasn’t felt the strictures of decline as keenly as the Church of England has, so we’re just beginning our own process of fostering mixed economies.  Yet everyone feels the pressures of societal changes, and it was out of a desire to understand and respond to these changes that we formed the Ministerium.  So Ben was the perfect speaker to close our first year of thinking together and talking together.  How do we help people reimagine faith as a journey, rather than as a set of choices?  If communities are where we learn the lessons of faith, how do foster communities that help their members reflect on those lessons and go out to teach them to others?  In a world of many choices, how do we help people recognize the power of choice and negotiate its dangers and anxieties?  In a society that prefers activity to contemplation and rewards accomplishment and not relationship, how do we convince people to take time for community?  How do we share expertise within faith community structures that are traditionally hierarchical?

At our first Ministerium meeting, we sat together and created a list of very similar questions.  We’ve now spent a year examining some of them, and it can come as no surprise that they’ve generated more questions in their wake.  The questions that loom over us are huge, but as Ben pointed out, we understand them best within community, and within the journey of community we find some, if not all, of the answers we need.  “We need to say, ‘we are the changed world,’” Ben told us, “not, ‘we want to change the world.’”  The world we want, and the understanding we seek, is something that we enact together while journeying together.  Thank you for joining us for this journey, and stay with us next year, as we ask many more questions, and find at least a few answers.

How can we learn to “read” the voice of our culture?

A hand reaches into thin air and seems to grab and hold an invisible object.  A bare foot presses itself to the floor.  The camera pans across a woman and a girl sitting on a sofa.  Then it centers on a man, sitting on a chair in his living room, holding his hands up as if he’s driving.  He’s smiling, as are the woman and girl on the sofa.  He turns his head and looks at the girl’s, then turns again to face in front of him, and his eyes go wide, his smile falls into a grimace of fear.  The fear is on the faces of the woman and girl as well.  They get up from the sofa and go to him, the girl wrapping her arms around his middle, the woman making a strap of her arms from his shoulder to his waist.  The man jerks forward and kicks over the coffee table, sending a bowl of confetti flying, and the pieces of confetti glimmer like shattered glass.  The words “embrace life, always wear your seatbelt” appear on the screen.

This is a public service announcement from Sussex Safer Roads, in the UK.  James Fredal, Associate Professor of English at OSU, showed it to the Ministerium in March as he led us in examining the question of how we can learn to “read” the voice of our culture.  Jim specializes in rhetoric, and teaches graduate students to examine everything from television commercials to ancient texts.  He asked us to consider some contextual questions.  Can we tell, from a piece of rhetoric, who it’s meant to address.  In the case of the Embrace Life PSA, we were able to identify that its model audience is white, male, married, and middle class.  What do we know about the time and place in which a piece of rhetoric was produced?  For the PSA, this was fairly easy, but it gets much harder when one considers historical texts, or texts that speak into a deeply foreign culture.  Why was the piece of rhetoric produced, what need was it meant to speak to?  When we considered the Embrace Life PSA, we were left wondering if there was a rash of automobile deaths among middle aged men in Sussex.  What genre does the piece of rhetoric belong to?  A PSA is a very specific genre, one that’s created by government or public interest groups and meant to effect large cultural change.  All of these things help to define the purpose of a piece of rhetoric, the action that the people who produced it want (or wanted) it’s audience to take.

Like everything else in our society, our rhetoric is changing as the tools for producing it change.  A video, like the Embrace Life PSA, doesn’t lend itself to an abstract reading.  It’s images are specific.  Jim pointed out that describing the video in text, like I did at the start of this essay, could leave us with a more generalized sense of its meaning.  I didn’t say that the man in the PSA was white, that he was clean shaven and wearing a nice shirt, that his living room had wallpaper and comfortable looking furniture – all of the cues that would immediately inform someone who was watching it that it was speaking to a white, middle-class audience.  Images are often more powerful than words, but their very specificity tends to narrow their focus.  And this changes our understanding of what makes for successful rhetoric, which has often followed a pattern of starting specific, going broad, and then returning to specificities.  If everything in a video is specific, it’s hard to generalize about the state of the world.  A young, unmarried, poor man watching that PSA might have walked away thinking that there wasn’t any great reason for him to wear a seatbelt, and that he could wait until he had some money and was married with children.

At the end of Jim’s talk, we turned to a passage from Jeremiah 7.     This made many of us feel that we were on firmer ground, because it was very like the historical/contextual Biblical criticism that we were trained in while in seminary.  None of us were Jeremiah’s original audience, however, and in a very real way, Jeremiah’s rhetoric wasn’t meant for us, but for the people of Judah.  Jim told us that for every piece of rhetoric there is a second persona, whom the rhetoric is addressing directly, and a third persona, all of those who are left out of the direct address.  We are third personas when it comes to Jeremiah’s rant at the gates of the temple.  Which doesn’t mean that it can’t speak to us, only that it speaks to us in a different way, and our response to it will serve a different purpose.

Most of us, and most of the people we serve, live within a greater onslaught of rhetoric than any other people in human history.  Messages are flying around us all the time, and they’re effecting us whether we want them to or not.  Learning to critique these messages can help us to make decisions about their value to us, can help us resist those messages that run counter to our deepest beliefs, and can help us advocate for those who are being negatively effected by the rhetorical thrust of our culture.  Jim told us that he believes that rhetorical analysis is best done in groups, since groups are diverse enough to allow us to see each other’s blind spots and raise the questions that any one of us might not think to ask.  Is there a place in our faith communities for this kind of rhetorical analyses?  Will it help us to emulate Jeremiah and become prophetic voices in our culture?

How Do We Live in a Way that Isn’t Arranged Around the Economy?

We treat the economy as if it were God.  We try to appease it, worry that it will smite us, and don’t really understand it.  We’ve built our ethical systems around it.  This became abundantly clear to Methodist Theological School of Ohio professor Yvonne Zimmerman when she was studying the movement to end human trafficking.  She noticed that many of the advocacy organizations and nonprofits that comprise this movement use an economic argument to oppose contemporary slavery.  People who don’t receive an income can’t be consumers, the rhetoric goes, and this is bad for all of us, since being a consumer helps the economy.  But she began to notice that the rhetoric sometimes goes even further, and equates consumerism with freedom.  And she began to notice other voices in American culture equating consumerism with the freedom to live a full and meaningful life.

If consumerism becomes a human ideal, then we learn to judge our ethical choices in terms of that ideal.  We know we are acting rightly when we act as good consumers, and we expect these actions to make us happier and make the world better.  For religious people this presents an obvious problem.  To deify the market is to turn it into an idol, and to align all of our behaviors so that they serve the market is to worship that idol and blindly act according to its will.    Yvonne wasn’t making an argument against capitalism, or saying that the economy is unimportant.  But she was inviting us to step back from it, to critique the market and its call to consumerism, and to understand that the economy, while neutral in itself, is often used to dominate and oppress people.

Since we live in a country that is often dominated by economic concerns, it sometimes becomes hard for us to use any language but that of the market.  Hence the reliance on consumerist rhetoric by anti-human trafficking groups.  Where, Yvonne wondered, could we find a different language for talking about the purpose of human life, and a different set of ethical standards for understanding whether that purpose is good.  She suggested three voices we might want to pay attention to.  The first voice is Tex Sample, Professor Emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology, who critiques power, self-interest, and the notion of self in our society.  The second voice is Katie Cannon, who discusses in her book Black Womanist Ethics how the goal of slaves and African-Americans living in the Jim Crow south was often survival, rather than success, and how that changed their view of what constitutes an ethical life.  The third voice belongs to David Hilfiker, who lays out a Biblical conception of the value of work.

We were meeting at the Wexner Student Center, the home of OSU Hillel.  When Yvonne asked for our help in critiquing the market and articulating ethical practices that could reorientate us away from the economy and towards God, our host, Rabbi Feivel Strauss, spoke very eloquently about the Sabbath as a time set aside from consumerism, when one neither sells nor buys, neither works nor relies on the work of others.  We were all challenged by Katie Cannon’s work, since she suggests that the centers of power are not the source for moral alternatives, and true moral alternatives often look so alternative that we might not even recognize them as being moral.  We talked about the idea that quiet grace or invisible dignity could be moral precepts that one might live one’s life by, and the difficulties that idealistic, passionate people who want to change society have in accepting these seemingly passive ethics.  We also talked about the value of work, and whether it’s possible to think of that value in non-economic terms.  We didn’t come close to answering the question of how we can live in ways that aren’t arranged around the economy.  It’s too big a question for a single luncheon.  But by beginning the discussion, we began the search for answers, knowing that those answers can’t be arrived at through discussion, but by the ways in which we choose to live our lives.