Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Hook: an Easter reflection

Rusty the old hookTo my Christian friends: Happy Easter!

So, a few weeks ago, in that fuzzy early-morning state in a hotel room far from home, I am dreaming, and in my dream I am listening to "American Pie".  The lyrics seem even more obscure than usual.

And, as we craned our necks to look
The statistician filled his book
What did it cost to bait that hook?
Wait a minute! Where did that come from? Not from any of Don McLean's verses.  I'm no fan of over-interpreting dreams but this one seemed loaded with some kind of significance.

It came to me today that this is an Easter verse.  The "craned necks" are those of the mocking crowds around the cross (Mark 15:29).  The "statistician" who makes another entry in his records is surely Death.  And the hook?  Well, let's turn to Saint Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), reflecting on the victory over the Devil accomplished through Jesus.  He pictures the Devil as a giant fish, which Jesus hooked by using himself as bait: "in order to secure that the ransom on our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it" (that's the Devil, in Gregory's theology), "the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death...that which is opposed to light and life might vanish" (Dogmatic Treatises, chapter XXIV)

It's a strange, even grotesque image, and taken by itself it has a docetic feel to it.  But one thing it does make me think about is how evil's eager greed contributes to its own destruction. As I reflect on the power of greed, in my own life first, and also across the world, to trample and crush, it is easy to think of it as an unstoppable juggernaut.  Gregory reminds me that greed contains with itself the seeds of overreach, of gulping down life by mistake.

Image by Flickr user zetrules, licensed under Creative Commons.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Math for a Sustainable Future at the MAA

A bit more than a week ago I was in Washington, DC, for a meeting at the Mathematical Association of America on the subject "Educating with Math for a Sustainable Future".   (That is the Carriage House, MAA's meeting place, in the photo.  It's just a block or so from Dupont Circle.)

A couple of dozen mathematics educators gathered at the Carriage House under the energetic leadership of Debra Rowe.  Some (like me) were just trying to get in to sustainability-themed mathematics education, others had been engaged with it for years.  Some were pure mathematicians at research universities, some were faculty in geosciences or environmental studies with a mathematical bent, some were high school teachers.  Many - though not all - seemed to share a sense that their colleagues regarded trying to build sustainability concerns into mathematics courses as eccentric, if not actually subversive.

Our task - and I was not really up to speed with this - was to develop curriculum materials that could be widely used across universities and colleges, in the US and elsewhere.  In other words, we were to pioneer materials which other teachers could use "off the shelf".  I was not sure I was ready for this, since I haven't taught my own course yet, and don't know how well my own materials will work.  But, at some point you just have to try!  I learned quite a bit from what others were doing and had some lively discussion about food transportation networks - I think the "network" part of my course is the least developed at present so it was good to have the chance to talk some more about that.

I think the only institution that sent two faculty members was Eastern Mennonite University.  I enjoyed learning a bit more about EMU, its faith,m justice and environmental commitments, and hope that's a conversation I might be able to continue.

At the beginning of the workshop we were exhorted to produce materials which did not just highlight environmental problems but also offered solutions to them - "we don't want to leave students feeling that there is no hope".  Some of us felt that the word "solutions" is too cut-and-dried.  There may not be "solutions" to some of our problems, if by that we mean simple changes which will allow business as usual to continue.  Another way of saying that is that we can't talk about hope unless we know what is worth hoping for.  And that is a matter of theology.  Hope does not disappoint us.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Last Few Yards, Again

Custom Folding USB Flash DrivesI wrote a couple of months ago about the "last few yards" or "last mile" problem - the disproportionate amount of transportation energy used in getting a product on the final stage of its journey, from store to home.  I was thinking of food - and I learned more about food distribution at the recent MAA event,Teaching mathematics for a Sustainable Future, which I'll write about soon - but just today I read a great article on the MPE2013 blog about "the last few yards" in the context of e-shopping.  Here's how it begins:

As more and more purchasing takes place online, I’ve been wondering whether it’s more energy efficient to go out and buy something at a local store or to order it over the internet and have it delivered to my door. And which one has the smaller carbon footprint? Now it’s pretty simple to figure out my cost in time and money, and so like millions of other people I often decide that for me online is cheaper. But I see the cardboard boxes and the packing material filling up the recycle bins where we live, and I notice the delivery trucks every day making deliveries on our block, and I wonder about the differences in the total energy costs of the systems for getting goods from manufacturers to customers.

Well, I have found some studies of exactly these questions, and the answer is: it all depends. But what it depends on is something easy to analyze and to a great extent something that I can control. That key factor is the trip from home to store—how far it is and how I get there.
Read the full article here.

PS: for those who are interested in such things you can now follow this blog via Twitter.  I'm at @johnxroe.

Photo by Flickr user AmsterdamPrinting, licensed under Creative Commons

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My Neighbor's SUV

Chevrolet Launches Sports Version of Captiva SUVSo I'm in the driveway the other afternoon, shoveling away the snow that is piling up fast as one of the recent succession of East Coast winter storms tracks through central Pennsylvania.  The plows have not made it around our neighborhood yet and with four to six inches of new snow the streets are treacherous.  I'm enjoying the blowing flakes and the physical exertion, not to mention the anticipation of a hot cup of tea when I, at least temporarily, finish the job.

The garage door of a nearby house opens and a large SUV emerges cautiously into the whiteness.  It backs down the driveway and turns in the street.  The garage door closes.  "I suppose the driver feels confident enough to set out in that vehicle", I think to myself.

Not so.  The car goes a few yards, then stops and begins to reverse - to the mailbox of the house from which it emerged.  The driver's window rolls down, and a hand reaches out, quickly collecting the afternoon's mail.  The window rolls up again, and the SUV heads back on its twenty-yard return journey into its garage womb.

I can't believe my eyes.

Passing judgment comes easily.  Yet how come I notice the SUV in my neighbor's garage so much more than the frequent-flier miles in my own account? (Matthew 7:3)

It's more appropriate, I think, to reflect on the insulating power of technology.  So many of the young people at the Ben Lowe event last week spoke about how being outside had opened their eyes to the presence of God.  How possible is that experience, if we treat getting the mail during a moderate snowstorm as the equivalent of an EVA from the space shuttle?

Photo by Flickr user gmeurope, licensed under Creative Commons

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ben Lowe's Visit to State College

Last Tuesday (the 12th March), I was privileged to host a conversation between Ben Lowe of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and a small group of students involved in several different campus ministries at Penn State.

YECA's vision statmenet says, in part
We are young evangelicals who follow Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and strive to live out what Jesus said was most important: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. As Christians, we are called to love, serve and protect that which Jesus loves, serves and protects.
In seeking to live as Christ’s disciples, we have come to see the climate crisis as a profound threat to “the least of these” (Mt. 25). Therefore, we find it imperative to speak out on behalf of those communities that are marginalized and disempowered, as well as the entire created order that is groaning for its redemption (Rom 8:23). For us, this is an act of worship and service to our Creator.
We believe the climate crisis can be overcome with God’s help and that He is calling us to take action.
We met over dinner and the conversation and questions flowed fast and freely.  One thing that struck me afresh was how the participants vision for creation care had been molded.  Typically, two kinds of experiences had played a key part: experiences of being outdoors, of sensing God's presence in the created order; and experiences of serving others, especially others impacted by the realities of climate change and environmental degradation.

Ben related these two kinds of experiences to the two great commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor.  How can we say that we love God and have no regard for the creation that he pronounced "very good"? How can we claim to love neighbor and ignore huge changes in the world whose impact falls most hevaily on "the least of these"?

I hope that we can follow up this event with a mini-conference in the fall in the style of Faith for Thought.  If this idea becomes a reality, it will be through the energy and commitment of students like those who took part in the dinner, and others who we weren't able to reach (if this is you and you're reading this, please contact me!)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Looking for GreenFaith Fellows

So, my "class time" in the Green Faith fellowship program is coming to an end.  A couple more webinars (the next one is tomorrow), and an "online graduation ceremony" (sounds fun), and I will be done. Except that I have to complete my "senior project" - that is the Math for Sustainability course that I have been writing about here for a while.

What is the Fellows Program?  It's an opportunity for people from diverse religious communities who are concerned about human stewardship of the created order to learn from one another; and to learn from science, experience, tradition and scripture to formulate their own theological and practical response.  While many of the participants are ordained ministers or the like, many are not: anyone who catalyzes conversation in their faith community can participate.

Under the endlessly energetic, hopeful, and respectful guidance of Fletcher Harper, we have stretched ourselves to hear much that is new and unfamiliar, while often deepening our understanding of our own core convictions.

When I first heard about this program, I instantly knew that I wanted to be part of it.  If the same is true of you, now is the time to sign up for next year.  I would be more than happy to answer any questions you might want to ask - feel free to shoot me an email about that.