Commonplace - Week Beginning 4 August 2019

Farmers and Humanists

Riffing off Alan Jacobs’s Year of Our Lord 1943 and Wendell Berry, Tessa Carman helpfully identifies how farming and attitudes towards farming elucidate the pursuit of humanism in an age of industrialisation and “dynamism”. At root, many of our ailments can be traced to an abhorrence of hard work:

Wendell Berry counters that we are precisely meant to be caretakers: Work the garden, and keep it. But instead, we chafe at the work—slow, hands-on, laborious—required to sustain the garden. It’s easier to use up what we’ve been given, toss away our poisoned homes, and move West—or to another planet—to start the cycle again.

This distaste for this kind of work appears to find its way in how we value different jobs — why is it that people are so desperate to escape from these forms of labour (and for those who have escaped it, why the great fear and anxiety that later generations will return to those trades?):

Why is our tendency not instead to overvalue the manual trades, husbandry, forestry, gardening? Why do we not rather hallow the work that is most foundational, original, and necessary? Tilling the dirt, bearing and caring for children, harvesting and preparing food—without these there is no business, no books, no prayer. There is no Augustine, no Shakespeare, no cathedrals, no banks, no schools, no churches, without topsoil.

She adds,

We aren’t all called to be farmers. But we are all called to keep the Garden. Farming has historically been judged a lowly occupation, and our new technical, industrial age has only exacerbated our contempt. Why? If working the land was one of the first God-given commandments to the first human beings, why our disdain for work that provides basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter? Why do we so often treat care of the earth and the production of life’s necessities—food, clothing, and shelter—effectively as subhuman endeavors, things we do only because we haven’t yet transcended the need to live in a body?

I have often thought that part of the answer is in man’s response to the curse that God had placed in Genesis 3:17-19. Instead of facing up to the curse, individual men try to escape it — let others do the hard work and maybe, just maybe, we can escape from the curse so we don’t have to sweat, we don’t have to face the thorns and thistles. An economy where production often takes place thousands of miles away from where consumption eventually takes place only exacerbates the problem, for now production is a problem for those people “out there”, away from civilisation and the comforts of modernity.

But a realistic perspective on the value of this work and way of life must also include a clear-eyed view of the difficulties of that life. It is often tempting to drop everything and buy some land and start all over, but the truth is that all would quickly come to a halt and collapse because I, a life-long city boy, do not have the skills to keep things going. And though I acknowledge the value of manual work, my access to that sphere of work is very limited and my time is always in short supply.

But perhaps, in some small way, I will be able to cultivate a life that coheres with these fundamental principles, in my own way, in my own place.

Ruskin and Capitalism

In a review of Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters, Alexandra L. Milsom writes about “Reading Ruskin in Cataclysmic Times”. She provides a brief primer of some of Ruskin’s key political/economic ideas. I was struck in particular by Ruskin’s critique of the pursuit of lower and lower prices:

[W]henever we buy, or try to buy, cheap goods … remember we are stealing somebody’s labour. …[T]aking from him the proper reward of his work, and putting it into your pocket. You know well enough that the thing could not have been offered you at that price, unless distress of some kind had forced the producer to part with it. You take advantage of this distress

There is, for me, a tension between a desire to save and a desire to be just. On the one hand, many Christians prize frugality as a virtue. On the other hand, it is very true that the pursuit of low prices often comes at a significant cost for those who produce these goods. How, then, should a just man spend? Ideally, we would pay exactly the right amount for each good, but in a world of imperfect markets, how would we achieve this justice? Should we prefer to err on the side of profligacy or on the side of stinginess? (This assumes that the decision to buy that particular thing is a good decision, the question here being how to choose between different models of the same thing.)

In the same review, she captures a key anxiety of today’s age:

We are no longer building for the long-term because, perhaps, we know there is no longevity left. The next couple generations of children will be paying the mortal price for our decades of fast fashion, cheap food, and disposable plastic.

Perhaps I should read Ruskin next.

The Disease of Digital Classrooms

Tim Parks has quit teaching three years ahead of the retirement age. Why? “There are a number of reasons behind this decision, but one is definitely the changed situation in the classroom. Even at post-graduate level, it is getting more and more difficult to feel that one has the attention of students or that something really useful is happening during the lessons.”

There are deep shifts in how people interact with information:

Learning is more and more a matter of mastering various arbitrary software procedures that then allow information to be accessed and complex operations to be performed without our needing to understand what is entailed in those operations. This activity is then carried on in an environment where it is quite normal to perform two, three, or even four operations at the same time, with a general and constant confusion of the social, the academic, and the occupational.

But perhaps most demoralising is the experience in the classroom. The heartbreak is palpable:

Last year, the university told me they could no longer give me a traditional classroom for my lesson. So I have thirty students behind computer screens attached to the Internet. If I sit behind my desk at the front of the class, or even stand, I cannot see their faces. In their pockets, in their hands, or simply open in front of them, they have their smartphones, their ongoing conversations with their boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, or other friends very likely in other classrooms. There is now a near total interpenetration of every aspect of their lives through the same electronic device.

To keep some kind of purpose and momentum, I walked back and forth here and there, constantly seeking to remind them of my physical presence. But all the time the students have their instruments in front of them that compel their attention. While in the past they would frequently ask questions when there was something they didn’t understand—real interactivity, in fact—now they are mostly silent, or they ask their computers. Any chance of entering into that “passion of instruction” is gone. I decided it was time for me to go with it.

In this “enlightened” classroom, how can a teacher captivate a class? How can a teacher draw out wisdom in students?

The fight against the ever-extending reach of digital technology must be fought in the classroom, but, as this quote shows, must also be fought everywhere that focus is required:

In his 1923 lecture “The Ritual of the Serpent,” Aby Warburg remarked that the invention of the telephone marked the beginning of the end of the idea of a sacred space; from then on, the German scholar predicted, the ancient practice of segregating an area so that it was free from any interference would always be an uphill struggle—every form of ritual requiring total focus would be threatened by invasion from without. And he could hardly have foreseen the mobile phone, let alone the smart phone.

Hope and Child-Bearing

Haley Stewart asks, “Can We Justify Bringing Children into This Dark World?” She considers this first by acknowledging that the anxieties surrounding this issue cannot be easily dismissed:

A Christian’s response to the possibility of suffering—whether it manifests as a painful disease, the fall of the Roman Empire, or global environmental crisis—cannot be trite.

She continues by discussing the theological virtue of hope:

Hope acknowledges that we as individuals and the grand story of God’s redemption of the world are both works in progress. Hope is born out of the reality that we are pilgrims “on the way,” as twentieth-century Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper put it. It is the virtue that recognizes that we are in motion toward our destination but have not yet arrived. We live in the “not yet,” hoping for the completion of what God has promised us. Pieper explains that the proper nature of man is to be created out of nothing and yet to be moving toward existence.

And this hope makes its appearance in child-bearing:

As Christians, we can choose not to accept the suicide of the human race and instead to raise children who will fiercely protect God’s creation. We can live out a protest of defiant hope in our suffering world. What holier protest against evil is there than the glory of new life? Each baby is hope incarnate. Perhaps the most courageous protest we can make in a dark world is to fill the darkness with the light of new life.

Stewart connects this to the birth of the Incarnate God, Jesus:

But this gift of new life might also be manifested as a tiny baby, born into a world that seems dark, a world that is dark. This is the gift that God gave humanity when Jesus was born as Love Incarnate, a helpless infant who would be hunted by a murderous king. This baby would grow to be a man who was executed and tortured although He committed no crime. And yet, the last word of His story was not death. It was written by the hand of Love. This Love makes existence itself truly good, even in a hurting world.

I truly appreciate Stewart’s treatment of the virtue of hope as it relates to child-bearing, but I remain unconvinced, for the simple reason that it is not clear to me what we are hoping for when we have the child. What is it that should be the content of our hope? Is it the hope that the next generation will somehow make things better? Is it the hope that somehow we will avert the impending catastrophe? This is what Stewart appears to suggest when she writes that we can “raise children who will fiercely protect God’s creation”.

Or is it a hope that God will intervene and protect the human race from self-destruction? Is it the eschatological hope that more souls will be added to the Church, to God’s people? Or is it ultimately a hope without a clear content, a hope simply in the goodness of God?

It is perhaps only the last two possibilities that have any certainty about them, but these are not the kinds of hope that would directly relate to having children. Perhaps, though, the witness of bearing children is something entirely different — it is the witness of Job:

Though he slay me, I will hope in him (Job 13:15).

By bearing children in the face of impending disaster, perhaps it is a matter of declaring, “What is good for my children is not a good life, or security, safety or comfort, what is good for my children is that they are, rather than not, and that they will survive their suffering and see God’s face.” But that is a hard word and I shrink back from this. O, ye of little faith.

Anxious Interpretation

Professor Hans Boersma discusses the “fear” that paralyses us when we read Scripture as moderns:

If premodern Christians were afraid to read Scripture because of God’s immanence, we modern Christians are daunted by Scripture because we’ve convinced ourselves of the complexity of appropriating this ancient text. The cause of our dissociation has changed, because awe and reverence have turned into diffidence and skepticism.

As an aside, I appreciated these quotes that Professor Boersma included:

Melito of Sardis writes in a homily dating from 160–70: “This is the Pascha of our salvation: this is the one who in many people endured many things. This is the one who was murdered in Abel, tied up in Isaac, exiled in Jacob, sold in Joseph, exposed in Moses, slaughtered in the lamb, hunted down in David, dishonored in the prophets.” Using similar language, Irenaeus suggests that Christ “was sold with Joseph, and He guided Abraham; was bound along with Isaac, and wandered with Jacob; with Moses He was a Leader, and, respecting the people, Legislator. He preached in the prophets.”

This recalls for me the enigmatic character of Benjamin in A Canticle for Leibowtiz who bore the entire history of Israel in himself. Jesus was the one who bore the entire history of sinful humanity in himself, being made sin on our behalf, so that all can be reconciled to God.