Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Trap of Righteousness

Various and sundry modern authors of note have written tracts about how we assess the value of technology. E.F Schumacher, Jerry Mander, Scott Savage, Wendell Berry and Katie Alvord come to mind. A multitude of rubrics for determining the appropriateness of a given technology have been proposed. Most of them are eloquent and comprehensible. A few are Byzantine or unnecessarily complex. All of them disqualify just about the entirety of modern technology.
One of the reasons that creating a sustainable future is a spiritual undertaking is that a spiritual perspective immediately means that we are focused on the process of life, and not merely the outcome of our actions. If this sounds like the exact opposite of religion obsessed not with how we live in this life, but whether we are admitted to an exclusive club after death, I won’t apologize: I believe that perspective to be anti-spiritual as well as defeatist. It certainly fails the old Quaker test of, “Is there life in it?” The Kin-dom of God is at hand, yo!
The implication of a process-based approach is that if we can determine the criteria for right livelihood, right relationship, gospel order, or sustainability—however we term that harmony—it will not only give us clues as to how to do things, but what it is meet that we should do. Much of our appropriate technology thinking takes as given our current lifestyles and values, and tries to figure out how to carry them on in a sustainable manner. We ask, how can we decrease the footprint of our travel from San Diego to Chicago. We don’t ask why the hell we need to go to Chicago four times a year.
Quakers assume that Simplicity is an important spiritual discipline for the individual. This is not to say that the concern about slave labor, or the overwork of stagecoach horses is not a key element of compassion, but that the simplicity we practice is really the act of holding God at the center of our lives, and not admitting impediments to our relationship to the Divine. When this becomes truly primary, we are ready to take quantum leaps into the unknown. We are ready to be Fools for God, walking when we could ride, taking Amtrak when we could fly, working fewer hours and for less income than we might, in order to put our priorities on our highest values, dreams, aspirations, leadings. The rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of original sin and the belief that Jesus’ atonement restored the covenant between God and humanity that was in the Garden set the stage for a belief that striving for Gospel Order is the business of our lives. This is what has seemed so naïve about Quakers over the last three and a half centuries. We are most famous for focusing on the abolishment of war, yet living sustainably on planet earth is no more utopian or naïve that trying to live without war. In fact, we may find that part of why we have not succeeded in outgrowing war is that our attitude about exploitation of Earth was constantly in the way.
In pursuit of right relationship, I have tried to eradicate the “Seeds of War” against the biosphere (which includes people, don’t forget) in my life. It has been a disappointingly unsuccessful effort. Last summer at a Joanna Macy intensive retreat for “The Work That Reconnects,” I went into the circle of the Truth Mandala and surrendered my own desire for righteousness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and yet there is no moral ground to stand on in our society!” I cried out. “I am compromised at every turn. The shirt on my back is made of the most heavily pesticided crop in America—cotton. Industrial mining gave me the stainless steel and seventeen jewels that make up my wristwatch. Feedlot cows died for burgers and the shoe leather I wear on my feet, petroleum makes up my eyeglasses, and all of it built by exploited labor.”
I have spoken of the challenge of righteousness before in a previous blog about John Woolman: “John Woolman and the Plastic Bottle or What Would John Woolman Do?”. It would seem that righteousness was within Woolman’s reach. “Right order” might work better, but remember that righteousness is not the same as self-righteousness, which I have also been accused of.
I want to say here that just because I gave up in the ritual space the obsession with righteousness, that doesn’t mean that I gave it up once and for all. Rather, I began a process of repeatedly giving it up, for the tendency to seek it is deeply ingrained in me. John Punshon first chided me during the question and answer period after a plenary address of his at Friends General Conference, saying, “I see, young man, that you are one who hungers and thirsts after righteousness.” The process of surrendering righteousness has, in the ironic (or paradoxical) way of the work of Spirit, also meant that I have had some openings in the realm of moving my life into right relationship. Life is a messy and complex business, and easy answers give way to new questions. Righteousness also fails the test of "is there life in it?"
This is where the beans come in. Frijoles. Yes, brother, I am talking about the magical fruit, yo! The more you eat…
Read on…


Blogger timschon said...

I knew you would come around to my way of thinking eventually: Blogging about beans is the most righteous thing you can do..

5:18 AM, December 22, 2005  
Blogger david said...

I like Jacques Ellul actually.

He isn't on the eco-side of this. He's Christian anarchism. He asks questions like -- technology is a system to insulate ourselves from what is uncomfortable or dangerous. So what does a particular piece of technology protect us from?

That kind of analysis is especially interesting when applied to communications tech. But it raises the spiritual questions too -- technology also extends the power and reach of our bodies and senses and so one thing tech protects us from is our own vulnerability. Its about power.

This kind of analysis does not lead to abandoning technology but rather awareness of the spiritual implications of using it.

It also (for me) leads toa sking additional questions like: am I trying to solve spiritual or social or interpersonal problems with technical solutions. Technical solutions tend to lead to symptom relief when applied to spiritual/social troubles.

4:47 AM, December 31, 2005  
Blogger Joe G. said...

Wow, a lot of food for thought here. When you put issues around technology, sustainability, and "ecological" concerns this way (and the way kwake does), suddenly a "Testimony" on living on the earth seems in good keeping with what God has lead Friends to be and do. I don't know, past "minutes" on such a Testimony read more like platform statements by the Green Party or essays by New Agey types influenced by the Dali Lama (by the way, nothing against any of those things I listed - it just didn't seem to "fit" in with where or how God has lead us in the past). Yep, much food for thought. Thanks for this post.

10:07 AM, January 01, 2006  

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