Monday, May 28, 2007


There has been little time lately for my to draw out the threads I hoped to find in some of my recent reading. As some of the pieces may be of some help to others, before I begin weaving my own poor cloth, here’s a partial list.

Love and Sacrifice

Wormwood’s Doxy and Tobias Haller have each written marvelous essays and sermons on love and sacrifice. They intersect, briefly, at the point of Haller’s epigram:
“Sin is asserting one’s individuality at the expense of others. Virtue is asserting one’s individuality on behalf of others.”
(Haller on Sin and Virtue. ) To which Doxy responded with her own remarks Sin and Virtue, and Haller responded with More on Sin and Virtue.

What serve as marvelous bookends to this conversation are Doxy’s subsequent Just Love and Haller’s earlier Sermon for the feast of Saint Aelred

The upshot is that they both speak of love in thought-provoking ways but from considerably different angles. Doxy takes off from this distinction between love and sacrifice:
I am frequently taken to task by conservatives, who accuse me of ignoring the God of Judgment in favor of the God of Love. Their beef with me seems to stem from their view that loving is easy, but the sacrifice required to give God what He wants (and it’s almost always HE) is difficult.

What I take from their arguments is this:
Any idiot can love. Only a holy person can sacrifice.

Which makes me wonder if they’ve ever loved anyone in their lives
What follows is yet another example of how Paige(aka Doxy) strikes from the heart, her thoughts and words brimming of the struggles and joys of real, everyday human relationships with God and others. The deep thoughts are always present but not without being securely grounded in the stuff of real life and emotions.

Tobias, as always, combines passion and logic with near perfection and not only exposes and dissects the perverse views of nature and natural law expressed by conservatives on the subject of homosexuality, he turns their notions of the unnatural upside down and points out that while sex is one of the most “natural” features of human life, one that we share with a vast array of plants and animals, “what the Gospel shows us is the astonishing truth that love is unnatural.” He goes on to say:
God had imbued human hearts with love: which is not a creature, but the image of God’s self. Love is the gift which gave us the capacity to see and feel beyond our needs, beyond the needs even of our family or clan or society, the knowledge that we are not simply creatures living off each other, but creatures living for each other; that life is not based ultimately upon need but upon gift, and that life is not about the accumulation of assets and the preservation of the self or the species, but about the compassionate generosity that sacrifices even life itself for the sake of the beloved. God made us human, when to us, out of all creation, he gave this incredible energy that goes by the name of love. It is love itself, unnatural and counterintuitive love, which at its greatest sacrifices even its own life so that the beloved might live; it is love, the gift of God and the supernatural spark of the divine likeness that glows within each human soul, that makes human life truly human and most truly alive. It is love beyond price that makes life worth living, and worth giving up.

And when the time was ripe, God showed us this love in person, perfected in Jesus, who commands us to love each other the way he loved us: which is to say, not for what he could get out of us, but for what he could give us. God’s love is not based on need — God doesn’t need anything — but is rather God’s gift, stemming from God’s own nature, God who
is love. The natural law of self-interest was merely God’s creature used to build up creation. But love is God’s self: and the love of God is not about transaction, but incarnation.

And when he had taught us this, we ceased being mere servants — who do as they are told but do not know why — and became friends, who do as they are commanded not in ignorance or out of fear, but out of trust, and in the knowledge of the love of God, who gave us life at our genesis, and gave us life again in the revelation of the Son of God, the beginning and the end, who became not only our savior, but our friend, who shared our life and of his great mercy allowed us to share in his.
This is only one piece of rich and complex whole. I can’t resist adding this last bit near the end which weaves together the earlier discussion of nature, unnatural love, and God’s gifts back towards human sexuality:
Today we have a great opportunity, not just to keep our ecclesiastical kettle from boiling over, but to preserve the world anew, and to teach the mystery of charity to a world hungry for love but steeped in self-interest. Our world has forgotten Sirach’s wisdom, that true friendship is beyond price and cannot be bought or sold in the marketplace.

And I firmly believe that gays and lesbians — whether they have legalized their domestic partnerships, had their unions blessed, or gone off to Canada to get married — can be teachers in this new school of charity for the church and the world, to offer a teaching as powerful as what the monastery taught in the days of Aelred.

And I don’t just mean more Queer Eye for the Straight Church — we’ve been there and done that for centuries; writing the hymns, playing and singing the music, crafting and leading the liturgies, designing the buildings and generally making the church more attractive than it would have been without us. No, what I mean is far more serious and far more challenging. I’m talking about the practice of the presence of God, who in Jesus Christ commands us to love each other as he loved us, with the love that does not abide in relationships built on quid-pro-quo or cost and benefit.

For I believe with all my heart that same-sex couples not only
can show forth the great mystery of mutual love as well as different-sex couples do (or fail to do), but may well be able to do it better, and with greater freedom. Free from the shackles of biological determinism by which human cultures have falsely and conventionally come to believe that men and women are naturally and separately suited only for particular roles and destined as means to particular ends, we can emphatically declare and show forth in our lives that human beings are not roles, nor are they means to an end: whether that end be the brief spasm of sexual release or the procreation of a family, the maintenance of a home, or of a society. For as long as marriage is seen primarily for what one gets out of it: as a contract for the interchange of property or the grant of rights, for the building of a family or a home, for the maintenance of the social status quo — rather than for what goes into it: as a covenant of the mutual gift of two persons to each other for no reason other than for love, as long as we see the union of two hearts and minds primarily for its extrinsic worth rather than for its intrinsic value, it will be branded with the hallmark of commerce, rather than blessed as the sign and sacrament of generosity.

Such true freedom and mutuality are difficult when church and society still harp on what they call “appropriate” roles for men and women, when they place their trust in a nuclear family that even at its best was not the means by which God chose to enter creation when the time came to come among us as one of us. True freedom and mutuality are difficult when people talk the talk of self-sacrifice, but walk the walk of imposing sacrifice
on others — and how many women have been told it is their natural lot to suffer in silence when men take advantage of them or neglect them, all in the hopes that it will make those men more “domesticated.” True mutuality is most difficult precisely when people are perceived to be unequal, complementary or incomplete.

And this is why gays and lesbians, free from any necessary or conventionally preassigned roles, can staff the school of truly mutual love and friendship, most especially love nourished by friendship.

And, my friends, the greatest irony of all is that such loving relationships, same-sex and different-sex,
will save the world, just as the monasteries did through the troubled times of the middle ages, not because that is what they set out to do, not as means to that end, but because God wills it so, and has willed it so from the beginning, when he saw that it was not good to be alone. For just as only self-interest could build the world, only love can finally save and preserve the world. The rabbis were right: the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination to self, plays its role in building up the world; but love is at the heart of tikkun olam, our partnership with God our friend in preserving and bringing to perfection the great work of creation. As Saint Paul’s spiritual grandfather Rabbi Hillel, reflecting on both the inclination to self and the love of others, said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

This speaks truth, in spades. But all the talk of nature, natural law, what is human and not, triggered some old thoughts and ideas, the way I was trained to think of how humans think, talk, and act with regard to themselves and their relations with the unnatural world. In short – the off topic tangent that takes off and leaves me wondering whether it has anyting to do with where I started. Anyway… this tangent was:

The Meadow Mouse

Aldo Leopold, forester, ecologist, and enviornmentalist, wrote his Sand County Almanac after living and working in the vicinity of Madison, Wisconsin (one of my many second homes). That work contains yet another epigram on Sin and Virtue:

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

This is, I suppose, a variant of natural law, but it is not, as I see it, contrary to what Tobias has said. The emphasis is on conserving and maintaining healthy relationships with our non-human neighbors. It implies humility above all, derived from our understanding of both our limits and powers as human beings. It asks us to look, listen, and observe carefully, to do no harm or the least harm, whenever possible, to conserve, not waste, the riches of the natural and physical world around and within us.

It does, however, bring into question the remark Tobias attributed to (Alfred North?) Whitehead, “Life is perpetual theft,” which Tobias takes to mean “To a greater or lesser degree all of us live at the expense of other creatures.” While it is true that we consume all sorts of natural resources, often with great destructive greed, our use of water, oxygen, sunlight and the like is not simply a zero-sum game in which we take and others suffer in direct proportion. While it may not be all of who and what we are, we humans do have roles to play in the biotic community, roles which we cannot and should not want to escape. Those roles are not the stuff of narrow, humanly conceived determinism or cut-throat competition (our perversely human views of natural selection and the functions of biological life and death, now and across eternity). Our roles just as easily, and arguably more accurately, can be portrayed as that of fellow citizens.

We, however, like others, such as the meadow mouse and the hawk, tend to think and live as if we are the only members of the community, at least the only ones that count. Sand County Almanac famously begins with these observations:

A meadow mouse, startled by my approach, darts damply across the skunk track. Why is he abroad in daylight? Probably because he feels grieved about the thaw. Today his maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted grass under the snow, are tunnels no more, but only paths exposed to public view and ridicule. Indeed the thawing sun has mocked the basic premises of the microtine economic system!

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

* * *

A rough-legged hawk comes sailing over the meadow ahead. Now he stops, hovers like a kingfisher, and then drops like a feathered bomb into the marsh. He does not rise again, so I am sure he has caught, and is now eating, some worried mouse-engineer who could not wait until night to inspect the damage to his well-ordered world.

The rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may catch mice. He came down out of the Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press 1949) p. 4.

This opening passage takes the human view – longer, broader, encompassing both mouse and hawk (and deer and skunk, muskrat and rabbit, and many others). We like giant Gullivers can see both the comedy and the tragedy of the mouse who scurries and worries, but in the end, succumbs to death and his role as prey and fuel for the hawk. But the Lilliputian perspective ironically refers to human beings, who themselves are worried engineers, building and tending to their own tunnels, engaged in their own lifelong efforts to be free of want and fear. And just like the meadow and the hawk, we humans tend to see the features and functions of the natural world only in terms of how they may best serve us, especially in the short-term, in response to our immediate wants and needs. We may be capable of seeing and thinking in terms far broader and longer than our fellow citizens, but our view, necessarily the only view we have (if left to our own devices), is grounded in reference to ourselves.

All this is very interesting and thought-provoking in terms of biology, conservation, and ecopsychology, and ethics. But reading works like these critically can also bring some larger, or at least different, insights. For various reasons, we humans tend to think and act like our minds are something distinct and apart from our bodies, that our unique capabilties for self-consciousness, memory, deliberation and choice, come from and exist somewhere else. Consequently, what we construct with our minds and communicate in words is seen as somehow different from the houses and bridges and tunnels we build with our hands and tools.

One more perspective on the observations of Sand County Almanac, with its constant interplay between human and the non-human, is that the thoughts and words of the narrator are really much the same as the meadow mouse’s tunnel, subject to both scrutiny and wonder when viewed from afar, but also integral parts of how we carry on our own peculiarly human efforts to be free from want and fear. That perspective is given, in his own imitable fashion, by Peter Fritzell, Professor emeritus of English at Lawrence University in the following lecture on Sand County Almanac.

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