Friday, June 4, 2010

The Gulf Disaster and the Search for Ethical Insight: Where Are Answers to Be Found?

I haven’t blogged yet about what’s happening in the Gulf because this story is painfully personal for me.  I still have not returned to New Orleans, following Katrina.  I do not know that I can do so—that I can see the aftereffects of the destruction of that city—and cope with what I see.  Photographs and videos have been enough to show me the horror.  Enough to let me know that I am still not prepared to see it first-hand.

New Orleans is, in key respects, my spiritual home.  I went to college there, found love there, nurtured soul there.  As I finished my graduate work in theology, providence returned me, fatefully, to teach at Xavier University, and the same providence found Steve a job in the same city the following year.  When we had entered graduate school, we had taken for granted that we would not likely find jobs in the same place when we graduated—that finishing our doctorates would mean the end of our life together. 

The quirky, malicious providence that threw us together again as we began our careers as theologians assured that the trajectory of those careers would run right through our lives as a gay couple, and the lives of everyone else in the world who is gay and struggling for liberation at this point in history.  The providence that kept us together as theologians has forced us to make the story of our lives as a gay couple central to our theological reflection, despite all of our efforts to keep that part of our lives (and ourselves) closeted as we do theology.

No ocean can contain all the words I need to describe the significance I find, then, in the historic city at the mouth of the Mississippi.  My parents honeymooned in New Orleans.  As a Louisianan, my father loved the city.  He had long historic ties to it.  One of his great-great grandfathers, a black sheep of the Calhoun family network of the South Carolina upcountry, came to New Orleans when a steamboat that he co-owned in Nashville, which plied wares between the two great Southern river cities, sank on the Tennessee River in 1821. 

New Orleans was a place to reinvent oneself in those years, a place where characters with shady pasts in the real America of Protestant gravitas and hard work could dream of sudden wealth, as coffee and sugar poured onto the docks from points south, and cotton, corn, wheat, and pelts flowed downriver from the settlements of the upper South and Midwest.  Gold everywhere for the taking, if one found a way to take.

Throughout his life, anytime his habit of wheeling and dealing brought him into financial and legal trouble, this scoundrel ancestor hied himself to the city of self-reinvention, of dreamy dreams forgotten by care.  In the late 1850s, when he sought to disinherit his son in order to claim slaves left to the son by his mother’s will, our black sheep vanished in the middle of the Pointe Coupee Parish trial to determine his son’s paternity, popping up in New Orleans a day or so later as he tried to sell the contested slaves and thereby render the court’s decision about their ownership null and void.

My mother’s family also has old stories about New Orleans.  Her Irish great-grandfather arrived there on Christmas day 1852, followed in the next year by his wife and children.  A story told and retold as I was growing up was how surprised and happy the immigrant ancestor was to see his wife and children walking down the street the day they got off the boat in New Orleans.  They had not been able to contact him with news of their coming.  The luck of the Irish, we told ourselves, to find each other that way in a big, bustling city full of newcomers . . . .

My parents took their honeymoon in New Orleans.  During my growing-up years, our summer vacations followed a predictable path: we’d drive first to New Orleans (visiting relatives along the way) for several days of walking in the French Quarter and eating at our favorite restaurants.

Then we’d head west to Galveston, Corpus Christi, and Padre Island, where my father had cousins.  Or we’d go east to Gulfport or Biloxi.  To the redneck Riviera.  The Gulf beaches of Texas and Mississippi were the beach, as I grew up, the only beaches I knew as a child, other than the enticing sandbars on islands in the lazy, familiar Ouachita River in south Arkansas where we fished and swam throughout the summer.

And so the story of the destruction of the Gulf Coast is personal to me.  As I’m sure it is to millions of others, since none of us is unaffected by an ecological disaster of epic proportions in any part of the world. 

But personal to me because intertwined with my own history.  And so the keen loss I feel as I see pictures of the wildlife coated by oil as the gusher continues beneath the sea is a loss of a part of myself.  A loss that leaves me tongue-tied, since what is shattered by environmental destruction is always irretrievably shattered.

It won’t be brought back.  Not by any amount of keening or rage.  It’s gone.  Forever.

If I were going to engage in ethical analysis of an environmental disaster of this magnitude (of a disaster that might have been avoided, because humans have caused it), I think that’s where I’d take my starting point: loss.  I’d begin by noting all that we’re now losing as the oil continues to pour forth, covering the surface of a large body of water teeming with life, coating beaches from Louisiana to Florida, destroying the wildlife of both sea and land.

We don’t have a clue what we’re losing now.  We can’t have a clue, because we don’t have the omniscient perspective that permits us either to know all that is being destroyed, or the consequences of that destruction.

What we can say with certainty—though without certainty premised on full knowledge of all ramifications of our claim—is that we are now losing parts of a whole that will make us all the poorer.  We are losing vital (vita: life, the spark of life) parts of a global ecosystem that cannot be disturbed without altering balances necessary to sustain life for all of us.

That’s a tremendous loss.  It’s an unthinkable loss.  And it’s one with which we’re already coping, everywhere on the planet, even without this monumental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  The destruction in the Gulf is only our latest mirror of the destruction going on everywhere in the world these years, whether we recognize or acknowledge the destruction or not.

We cannot know how much we’re losing, because we are not capable of knowing, in any total and final way, either all that we’re losing, or all the effects of what we’re losing.

One of the underlying points of my critical reflections several days ago about the I-know-and-believe-everything approach to Catholic orthodoxy is that we cannot know and believe everything in the crude way that many “orthodox” Christians claim to know and believe today.  In fact, the claim to know and believe everything inculcates moral crudeness in those who make such a claim, insofar as they imagine that they can have done with further probing for information and with further assessment of the claim to truth that the information available to us makes on us. Because they already know.

In his critique of biblical literalism, the great Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth makes this point brilliantly.  Barth notes that, though on the face of it, the literalist approach to the scriptures claims to value each and every aspect of the written Word of God in a way that goes beyond the laxity of other believers, what literalism effectively does is strip from God’s Word its shattering otherness, by making this Word accessible to us.  By giving us the illusion that we understand it.

By making it like us.  By assuming that the Word of God is patent and easily understood.  That we can capture its significance in the words of, say, a catechism or a list of doctrines.  That we can shut up the meaning of the scriptures and have done with the task of trying to fathom that meaning any further, as new historical developments call for new probes into the significance of the bible and Christian doctrine for new periods of history.

Fundamentalism ultimately debases the coinage of God’s Word, reducing the rich, strange, unfathomable otherness and diversity of that Word to a manageable little packet of information that allows us to imagine we have heard it all.  That we know and believe everything—unlike our careless brothers and sisters who want to keep nattering on about what the Word of God says to us today.  

Yet more light and truth, indeed: God said it.  I believe it.  And that’s that.

The I-know-and-believe-everything school of “orthodoxy” produces moral laziness, in short.  It inculcates moral crudeness because, while we don’t bother to know better, we assume that we already know.  That we don’t need to learn or understand more.  Because we already have the answers.

It is that kind of moral laziness that explains how we could have destroyed the ecological balances of the world with such alacrity in the modern period.  Without asking how anyone contributing to such destruction of the conditions necessary to sustain life on the earth could possibly imagine himself or herself to be a responsible moral agent.

Don’t look for theologians or ethicists to help us begin to understand what is happening in the Gulf today, and all it portends for us as a human community, as well as for the wider community of life in which we as humans are enmeshed.  The gaps in our knowledge (and our imagination) that desperately need to be filled if we are to become anywhere near morally conscious people: those will have to be filled, as they have always been, by artists and writers.  With their ready-made answers and powerful, monied I-believe-everything pressure groups, the churches and the believers they now house simply don’t have the information we need, to engage in the level of moral analysis the disaster in the Gulf demands of us. 

The graphic is a series of photographs of destruction of Gulf wildlife filed yesterday by AP photographer Charles Riedel, about which Amanda Terkel has blogged at Think Progress.