Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Earth Is Not Sacred

There. I've said it right up front so that it's clear where I'm going. I'm responding to the resurgence of nature worship so prevalent in our society. The idea that the Earth is sacred, implicit for so many for so long, is coming out explicitly in many areas, so much so that Ellen and I saw that very phrase ("The Earth is sacred") made repeatedly in a brochure published by a diocesan organization and distributed in a parish.

Of course, I'm not objecting to clean air and water, or good stewardship of nature. I'm objecting to the hijacking of the term "sacred".

In modern usage, "sacred" has come to be a kind of superlative expression of value. If something is valuable, we might say it is "special". Something of extra value might be "precious". But to describe something of extreme value, we reach for the word "sacred".

But that's not what the word means. Sacred technically means set apart for special use. It isn't necessarily tied to value of any type (economic, sentimental, etc.), but describes nature of usage. The opposite of "sacred" is not "worthless", but "common".

For instance, let's say a family had an heirloom knife which had been used to cut wedding cakes. Perhaps it had first been used by a great-grandfather at his wedding, and he had set it aside to bring out at his children's weddings. The only purpose of this ceremonial knife was to cut wedding cakes, and stories were told about the various weddings at which it had been used. Perhaps the knife itself was of simple make, with a wooden handle and a cheap steel blade. As a knife, it might be nothing so nice as the well-balanced surgical steel Wusthofs in the block on the counter. But it would be "sacred" - that is, reserved for special use in a certain context. That's what "sacred" means.

Naturally, "sacred" is usually a term associated with religious observance, but it doesn't have to be. As long as man has been conscious of something greater than himself - even if it's only something passed down from a great-grandfather - he has set things aside for special use. Carrots may need to be cut, but do not use that knife. Sheep may need to be pastured, but not in that grove. When God commanded the construction of the Tabernacle, and eventually the Temple, in the Old Testament, He stipulated that there were spaces and implements that were set aside for special use in worship and other ceremonies. All the other spaces and implements could be used for ordinary things.

By this definition, the Earth, in the sense of the world and environment, is not sacred - it is common. In fact, there is nothing more common than the Earth. This is not to say that the Earth is not valuable. It is arguably the most valuable thing we have - but it is meant for ordinary use. We till, and mine, and build upon, and travel over the Earth, conducting our ordinary business. The Earth is valuable, and should be well cared for, but is not sacred.

The pivotal concept is greatness. It is when dealing with things greater than ourselves that the sacred comes into play. That's when we start making distinctions between what is used when dealing with the Greater Thing and what is used when dealing with ordinary things. When anyone invokes the term "sacred", they're making an ontological statement - they're saying something about the nature of things. The heirloom knife may be constructed of ordinary wood and cheap steel, but its usage connects the family members to something greater than themselves - their heritage. The ciborium may look like a bowl, but one would not eat Fruit Loops out of one - and if one did so consciously, it would an ontological statement.

This is where the environmentalists - even the well meaning diocesan ones - are wrong. By referring to the Earth as "sacred", they state implicitly that the Earth is by its nature greater than the men who walk on it. This is not true. The Earth may be as good as men, but it is not greater. Divine revelation tells us that if there's something sacred on the face of the planet, it is mankind. The Earth is entrusted to man's care as something precious and valuable, but if anything is set aside for special use, it is man himself, steward and lord of Creation on God's behalf. Granted, that same revelation tells us that we've fallen from our position, and thus abuse and maltreat that which we were supposed to treasure and cherish, but that did not undo our original nature, and neither did it exult the creation above us. Those who contend that the Earth is by nature greater than mankind are elevating the Earth to a position to be venerated or worshiped - even if they're only doing it unconsciously.

In the long run, this strategy may backfire badly on the nature worshipers. If history tells us anything, it is that men are iconoclasts. They don't want to hear about things greater than they are (just ask God). They tend to eventually tear down temples and defile sacred groves and use holy artifacts to mix wine at orgies. Talk too long and too loud about the sacredness of Earth, and you may end up triggering a response that you don't intend. It might be better to keep Earth in her proper place: as a good thing to be valued for what it is, not elevated to what it is not. Just because something is common doesn't mean it isn't valuable and appreciated (like the Wusthofs). Calling something "sacred" when you intend to say "precious" serves nobody.

Keep the term "sacred" for what it should be used for. Then everything will fall into proper order.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bathing in babies' blood

Just before Moses returned to Egypt on the mission God gave him from the Burning Bush, the Egyptian treatment of the Israelites reached a new low. According to rabbinic legend, the aging Pharaoh came down with leprosy, which made the approach of death not merely frightening but also painful and revolting. His court magicians and physicians advised him that the only cure for this leprosy and aging was to bathe in the blood of babies.

Since the Pharaoh did not want to slaughter his own subjects if he could avoid it, he reached for the easiest alternative: the babies of the Israelite slaves. A baby was slaughtered each day to provide the fresh young blood that would supposedly fend off the flesh-devouring disease and renew his failing youth. This was part of the heavy burden under which the Israelites were groaning when Moses returned in Exodus 4.

This sounds so abhorrent that many moderns refuse to believe it happened, thinking that it must have been imagined in later years by vindictive Israelites in order to demonize the hated Pharaoh. But history shows that these practices were not only known to many cultures, but could be expected from the sort of "balance magic" that was common in those times. The cure for the creeping death of old age was the life and vigor to be found in the blood of the very young.

It is even easier to understand if we recognize that without assurance of redemption, the dread of aging and death is still so strong even today that it will drive people to do exactly what Pharaoh did: sacrifice the innocent and helpless young in hopes of staving off the onset of death. Because isn't this exactly the nature of embryonic stem cell research? Oh, certainly the practicioners have changed. It is no longer the junior priest holding the struggling victim over the silver basin while preparing the killing stroke - now it's the lab technician in the white coat with the pipette. The paradigm has changed as well: we're no longer trying to finesse the cosmic balance, we're trying to coax proteins and enzymes to do what we want them to.

But regardless of particulars, the essentials remain: we're destroying the very young in hopes of gaining an elixr or tonic to stave off old age and death. We may think ourselves less barbaric because the process doesn't require slicing the throats of infants, but the effect is the same. Whether we go for their blood or their genes, the victims are still destroyed - and for the same reason. We attempt to excuse our behaviour by contending that that small cluster of cells isn't "really human" - after all, it has no features, and you need a microscope to see it! But the same excuse was used regarding the Israelite babies - it's not like they were human, they were just whelps of slaves.

And so things will always end when the Divine law is ignored. Those with power will find the will to use it in an attempt to stave off that which they fear, even to the point of murder. They'll assuage their conscience by dressing up their brutality with noble-sounding motives. ("I am the stability of Egypt!" "Create hope for those with illnesses by allowing study of possible cures!"), but it's always the same old thing: the weaker suffer when the strong are faced with something beyond their strength.

So it is that we, in our day and age, find ourselves on the exact same moral plane as Pharaoh, and for much the same reason. I find it no coincidence that this is happening just as my generation - the Baby Boomers - are approaching later middle age, and having to come to grips with their own mortality. We who tried to imagine "no hell below us; above us, only sky" are reading obituaries of friends, and people younger than we. That which we have been running from and denying all our lives is catching up to us. Like Pharaoh, we frantically scramble for the wizards, praying that they will have a cure, willing to submit to it no matter how morally abhorrent. Were we wiser, we would learn from what happened to Pharaoh and his entire nation.

Not that I expect wisdom from those driven by panic.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Victim of Beer Bigotry

I hope anyone who's reading this can tolerate a brief diversion from some of my usual "heavy" topics. I want to beef a little about an all-too-common problem in American culture.

Beer bigotry.

Yup. This culture is hung up on beer. Liquor and wine are there as they always have been, but in most situations the only other alternative is beer.

Oh, I know there are the hard lemonades and Zima-type things and stuff like Smirnoff Ice, but these all have a common foundation: malt.

In other words, they're slightly reworked taste blends on top of brewed malt - which is the same basis as beer. Heck, for that matter even most of your pre-bottled "mixed drinks" like pseudo-margaritas and pseudo-daiquiris are malt based (read the label carefully.)

This puts me in a fix, because I've never been able to develop a taste for brewed malt beverages like beer, even the premium brews. Even distilled malt such as Scotch I can only take so much of. I prefer an alternative, and I don't always like wine. I'd like a real alternative to the aisles and aisles of beer cans and bottles.

Like what?

Oh, how about cider? Hard cider was a very common drink in colonial America - far more common than beer, for that matter. A good cider has about the same alcohol content as beer, but isn't sweet. It's dry, but with a fruit base that hasn't a touch of malt. My favorite is Strongbow cider, imported from England, but that's hard to find and rather expensive. More available is Woodchuck cider, brewed in New England. Our daughter, who passed through Ireland on the way to her semester of study in Europe, reports that Bulmer's Cider is quite tasty.

Ellen and I both love cider - it's something we can sip together. In fact, during our Stratford week, one of the things we love about Bentley's Inn is that they serve draft Strongbow.

But can you find cider in the U.S.? Despite gallant efforts by the Woodchuck people, cider remains a scarce commodity. It's a shame, really. You don't have to hate beer to love cider - it's a nice taste sensation no matter what. Our sons-in-law, who appreciate good beers, also love cider. But there's a beer bigotry that's hard to overcome - so much that some people don't even know that there are alternatives to beer.

This leads to a catch-22 situation: because cider is hardly known, there's little demand, so distributors don't push it, so stores & restaurants don't stock it, so it remains obscure. Example: when one local emporium got a liquor license, they surveyed their customers to ask what kind of boutique beers they should stock (it's that kind of place). Ellen suggested Strongbow, figuring it was sufficiently exotic. They reported back that their distributor carried Strongbow, but recommended they not carry it because "nobody buys it."


See the problem we cider lovers are up against? But there are encouraging signs. Our local grocery stores are starting to stock at least Woodchuck amber. My daughter and I found that E.G. Nick's in Lapeer had Woodchuck on the menu.

I have a suggestion: let's start a "malt alternative" groundswell. You don't have to hate beer to participate, you just have to be open to alternatives. Look for a spot with some cider (brace yourself: it's about the price of premium beer) and give it a try. Odd are that you'll like it, even if you still prefer beer. If we get some demand going, the cider brewers will be encouraged and the distributors will offer more options.

Let's break free of beer bigotry.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Reality gap

The hype. (In particular notice paragraph 11.)

The reality.

Clearly, just what Michigan needs.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Jeremiah 44

Jeremiah 44 contains an interesting exchange between the prophet and some exiles from the land of Judah. The exchange happened after the hammer had dropped - God had finally brought upon the people of Judah the judgment against which He had warned them for so long. The Babylonians had devastated the land, destroyed the Temple, and killed or taken into slavery almost all of the people. Only a few destitute remained, and they are at a loss what to do. They went to Jeremiah to ask him what the Lord said (Ch 42), and the response was to stay in the land, submit to Babylonian rule, and wait. But this wasn't what they want to hear (Ch 43), so they decide to take shelter under the wing of the other major military and political power of the day. They decamp to Egypt, kidnapping Jeremiah and Baruch in the process.

Once down in Egypt, the rebellious Judahites resume the very practice that got them in such trouble: idolatry. Possibly in honor of the annual festival of the Phoenician goddess Astarte, the exiled women start sacrificing to "The Queen of Heaven". You can imagine Jeremiah pulling his hair out as he runs about in a panic (v.1-14), essentially saying "What do you think you're doing!? These practices are the very things that got you in this fix! How can you possibly resume them?"

The response of the women is instructive. It boils down to, "We used to do this back in Jerusalem, and we had plenty to eat and drink then, and lived in security. It's only been since we stopped sacrificing to Astarte that these catastrophes came upon us, so we're going to do it." (They're very careful to state that "everyone was doing it" (v 17), and anyway, their husbands knew what they were doing and approved (v 19) - one gets the impression that they doth protest too much.)

This is the critical point: they got everything "bass ackwards" (as we used to say in the service). Though the prophets had repeatedly warned them that idolatry would result in destruction, they had their mental earplugs in. They didn't want to hear all that depressing talk of death and destruction! Even after the judgment took place, the habit of not listening was too strong. They attributed Divine instructions to human motives (43:1-4) and drew the entirely wrong conclusion from what had befallen them (44:18). Needless to say, their deliberate deafness and faulty logic did not avail them in the end: the Babylonians eventually conquered Egypt, too.

I was reminded of this incident when reading our local newspaper, which came out today with an editorial supporting a ballot proposal here in Michigan. For 30 years we've had a law forbidding the use of embryos, fetuses, and prematurely born babies for destructive medical experimentation. This ballot proposal which the newspaper supports would lift that law, making it legal to destroy little humans to use their tissue for experimentation.

One of the justifications being offered for this is the economic benefits. Michigan is in dire straits thanks to our economic over dependence on the auto industry, and people are grasping for alternatives. The glittering illusion of advanced biotech has everyone salivating, and to many it seems that the only obstacle is this pesky law.

What's the connection between this and Jeremiah 44? Consider this: since the late 1960s, when people started agitating to overturn laws banning abortion in America, over 50 million children have died under the abortionist's knife. All that time we've had God's name on our money and enjoyed the largest, most prosperous economy on the face of the earth.

But God's wrath cannot sleep forever, and one of the first ways He starts getting people's attention is what I call "lifestyle afflictions". In the Old Testament it might be things like droughts or raiders. These days it might be things like unemployment or shaky financial markets. Point being that when people in their easy, comfortable lives get complacent and sinful, God has ways of removing their ease and comfort in order to get their attention.

People can respond to these methods in many ways. If they're wise and listen to God's word, they'll turn from their sin and come back to God. If they're dense and stubborn, they might not make the connection between what they're doing and what they're suffering. But if they're blind and rebellious, they might do what the wicked Judahites did in Egypt: draw the totally opposite conclusion and decide that what they need to do to solve their problems is sin some more.

This is my concern for my state. I'm not trying to say that our current afflictions are necessarily some kind of message from God (though it wouldn't surprise me if they were). I am trying to say that if we think writing murder into our laws will solve our problems, then we're being as foolish as the rebellious Judahites of Jeremiah 44.

And look what happened to them.