Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Is 1 Corinthians 10:31 Possible Today?

I am working through Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. I have the book through interlibrary loan and it is due tomorrow. I'm not even halfway through it. I like the idea of not supporting capitalism and cluttering my apartment with more books, but I might purchase the book (used, from a local bookseller who purchases book from anywhere to sell me). The book is great.

I already think eating is an ethical issue. The Apostle Paul recommended we give glory to God, whether we eat or drink (1 Cor. 10:31). His concern was food offered to gods/idols and then sold in the markets. Paul's context is not our context, unless we (very seriously) think of how the foods we purchase in the market come from the feet of such gods as Mammon, Capitalism, Convenience, and Oil, among others.

For now, I want to take Paul out of that context, which should not be the sin some might think it is. Paul's words, like most people's, say more than he realized.

"Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God." With the help of Michael Pollan (and my ecosteward internship this summer), I am recurrently considering whether my eating and drinking can glorify God. Paul might allow you to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but what does God say about eating meat produced in a way that degrades the earth, whose fullness belongs to God, whose fullness humans are commanded to care for (1 Cor. 10:26; Ps. 24:1; Gen. 2:15)?

I wish meat was the end of the story and the end of Pollan's book. I can give up meat. Being a vegetarian doesn't serve Convenience, but it is doable. Unfortunately, being a vegetarian doesn't proscribe serving Mammon, Capitalism, and Oil. The human omnivore lives a dilemma at the smorgasbord before which the affluent of us choose and plan our meals.

If meat were the problem, I would go vegetarian. If chemicals were the problem, I would go organic. If globalization were the problem, I would go local. If slave labor and unfair prices were the problem, I would go fair trade. Well, scratch that last one. OK, scratch the last three. Vegetarianism is easy. Going completely local, completely organic, and completely fair trade are a lot harder and, in some cases, unhealthy (trying to lose weight, gain muscle, and eat ethically are proving increasingly hard in combination)--and perhaps even impossible.

Not everyone has access to local foods. Others have limited access. How often is local food organic? How often is organic food local? Besides, Pollan has removed my blinders: organic doesn't mean better. Or, maybe it means better, but not good, not quite ethical.

Reflecting on his visit to the place young cows go to become steak and hamburger, Pollan says:
Hungry was the last thing I felt. Yet I'm sure that after enough time goes by, and the stink of this place is gone from my nostrils, I will eat feedlot beef again. Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting (84).

Forgetting and forgiving aren't always connected, but when reading Pollan's words I thought about forgiveness. Can I forgive or forget about those who make it nearly impossible for me eat godly? Should I forgive those lost in the intricate webs of capitalism, petrochemicals, herbicides, pesticides, pollution, convenience, and consumerism or should I try to forgive those who left these problems as our inheritance? Can I be mad at the God who allows these problems to ferment into unavoidable realities, the God who does not keep me from temptation, despite my prayers? If I can, can I forgive that God?

I'm not always sure if my eating and drinking practices glorify God, but they sure put me in conversation with God a lot. Maybe the conversation, or, perhaps, the struggle is better, anyways.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

E Pluribus Unum & an Argument with My Dad

Tonight I tried to tell a friend I was "over" a past event. This idea was freeing: instead of tremendous pain, I told my friend, I remembered this past event with nostalgia, confusion, and anger. I actually used the word "anger." Quickly, I tried to change it to "frustration," but the stronger word stuck in my mind.

Later I recalled an argument I had with my dad when I was a teenager. I don't remember what the argument was concerning. We were both upset with each other and I remember my dad walking into the room where I was brooding. He said something to the following effect: "If you're going to be a pastor someday, you need to realize people get angry when they're hurt."

My father's statement didn't help the situation me, although I do not recall reacting verbally or visually to his statement. He implied he was angry because he was hurt by me. I became more upset when he didn't realize I was angry because I, too, was hurt.

My mind now drifts to polemics--when one person or group appears to be so opposite from another person or group that they appear to be like different poles on the same magnet. They are as opposite as perceivably possible, but they cannot stop from interacting with each other vehemently.

I suppose many people hurt when they understand their God being demeaned by a certain person's beliefs. From experience, I know those certain people can hurt in reaction to the other person's hurt. When you think my beliefs demean God, I hear you calling my concept of God just as impotent as you think I'm calling your concept of God. Perhaps both think the other's god is impotent. Perhaps neither do. (In the previous sentences, "god" connotes "concept/perception of that which is God, but cannot be contained by the word 'God.'" That is, we believe in god, but we worship God. Our theologies construct god, but all truth is God's truth.)

I have no analysis beyond the above observation from my father: "people get angry when they're hurt." Perhaps people get angry for other reasons, too. I'm sure you could trace all anger to a source other than hurt or you could trace all sources of anger to hurt. We can play semantics until we're blue in the face and worked our typing fingers to the bones.

People get angry. People get hurt. So many get angry and hurt about the same things about which we get angry and hurt. As with the poles of a magnet, those involved in polemics are much closer to their opponent than they realize. If only we can accept that bond instead of fighting against it. Poles belong with their opposite--they reach their potential in community with the Other, not in community with the same.

Community cannot be constructed out of the same. Community exists only in diversity. There is no unum without e pluribus.

I don't know how the argument with my dad resolved. I do know we are still different and still in a great relationship. Some things just need to be put in the past for good.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Agape Isn't Love: Translation & Loving God

Ancient Greek doesn't have a word for love.

Your Greek textbook and a zillion preachers will disagree, but despite the odds, I stand firm: Greek doesn't have a word for love.

Certainly, Greek has a number of words we translate as love, but none of them are words for love. Greek existed well before any form of English. How foolish to say Greek would have any words "for love," as if a group of people sat around inventing the language and decided to create a number of words "for love."

As English speakers, it is easy to understand "love" as one complex emotion, no matter how often we differentiate between different sorts of love. The vast permutations of love are just that: variations on a theme, not different emotions.

I cannot imagine the Ancient Greeks had any concept of what we call "love," which is not to say the didn't love, they just didn't understand what we call love. They had concepts of agape, philia, eros, and sturge. They may have even sensed similarities between these emotions, much in the way we understand similarities between like, love, passion, and hate. At the end of the Gospel According to John, Jesus asks Peter, "Do you agape me more than these?" (I'm not conjugating these verbs, for simplicity's sake).

Peter answers, "Yes, Lord, you know I philia you."

Jesus asks the question again, but differently. "Do you agape me?" Peter answers the same.

Then a third time Jesus asks the question, except not the same question. This time Jesus asks, "Do you philia me?" When Peter responds, he still uses the word philia.

Some connection exists here between philia and agape, a connection preachers make much ado over. Perhaps some of the ado is warranted, perhaps some of it isn't. I'm not concerned so much with what preachers make of this passage.

I'm concerned with us thinking Jesus and Peter were talking about two different kinds of love. John didn't simply switch between words "for love" for variety's sake. When you write, do you sometimes switch between the phrase "he fell" and "he has fallen," since both are phrases for the word "nafal" in Hebrew? I know I often use the following phrases nearly interchangeably when making subtle points like John 21: "He will remember," "He remembers," and "He used to remember." After all, they are all phrases for "yizcor" in Hebrew.

I'm not just making some unnecessary point. OK, you understand how self-centered our language regarding translation is, which is great. Precision is a good aim in communication, no matter how impossible it is.

Marva Dawn mentions a few words in Greek we translate as "love." The last word she lists is agape. "This last love, of course, is the richest of all." But agape isn't love. To adapt a saying from Dr. Gerald Keown, "Agape is agape." Agape is not love, because it is nothing else but agape. We misunderstand the biblical authors if we think they had a hierarchy of love with agape at the top and eros or some other love at the bottom.

We misunderstand love and agape if we think the Greek language outshines English because it has multiple nuances "for love." The point is getting closer, my friends. In our station, living thousands of years after the Greeks, we are blessed to enrich our understanding of the overarching concept of love. For us, love does encompass agape, philia, eros, and storge. Love is not agape, because agape is too narrow. However, we understand agape is a part of love. It is love as much as philia and eros are love.

Instead of picking up on the many differences between them, we can love doritos, love pets, love justice, love family, love friends, love through sex, love neighbor, love earth, and love God. Instead of focusing on the differences, our language helps us focus on the similarities. Sometimes we even confuse ourselves, replacing a desire for sexual love with a love for doritos, a desire for familial love with an unholy love for sex (which is different than love through sex).

Sometimes, we can purposefully and beautifully confuse these loves, expressing our love for God through our love for food in Eucharist, through our love of our neighbors, through our love of our families, through our love for God's creation, through our love of sexual language, through our love of humor, through our love for ourselves.

When we spend too much time on permutating love, we think we can only love God by some abstract concept of "agape-ing" God: through singing praises to God, through thanking God for things, through praying to God, through attending events centered on talking about God, through attending Christian schools, through going to church.

Certainly, the Greeks have aided us with the beauty of their language and their different words for what we call love. The concept of agape is also a great gift. It is a word I treasure, but not in the isolated (non)sense listed above where we forsake love for the sake of a mistaken agape.

Let us not forget the beauty of our own language. Let us love God by loving, something no biblical author could communicate, because of the limitations of their language. If we get too wrapped up in "agape-ing" God, we don't love God. If we intend to love God, we need to do it through loving everyone and everything else, too.