Animal Freedom and Cosmopolitan Human Borders

Wildlife knows no man-made political boundaries

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-05-05

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala has just returned from sabbatical, which took him to Israel and Greece.

Birds and other migratory animals are cosmopolitan. They move across borders, following the seasons. Migratory animals remind us that no species owns the world or a particular place. We pass through the world. We don’t possess it. And we share the earth with other humans and species.

Before I returned to Fresno, I visited a Greek wildlife hospital, which treats and houses dozens of injured birds from a variety of species: storks, pelicans, eagles, including many endangered species. These birds fly through Greece from Europe to Africa and back. Even though Greece has many safe havens for such birds — isolated mountains and uninhabited islands — many birds are killed for sport by hunters or inadvertently poisoned. The wildlife refuge houses a sad population of once- beautiful animals who have been permanently disabled by human ignorance.

Healthy birds make amazingly long migrations that take them across heavily contested borders. Every season hundreds of millions of birds pass through Israel and the Palestinian territories. These birds cross borders, which the humans below them cannot cross.

Another important migratory flyway traverses the politically fragmented island of Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean. Millions of migratory birds pass over the border that divides Greek and Turkish parts of the island. Unfortunately, many of them are trapped and eaten in a yearly slaughter that appalls bird lovers.

I had a conversation with some Greeks about the conflict in Cyprus and remaining tensions with Turkey. One woman said that she hoped that the Greeks would eventually take back Constantinople — using the Greek name for the city that is now called Istanbul. People around the world continue to hold dangerous ideas about borders, possessions and national pride.

From the standpoint of the animals that roam the earth such things are irrelevant. The great animal migrations existed long before humans invented cities and nations. In fact, we were once migratory animals, following the herds out of Africa. It is only fairly recently, a few millennia, that we have created the borders that corral us into nation-states.

A number of philosophers have been trying to imagine a world without borders, arguing that such a world would be more natural, less violent and more just. The cosmopolitan vision wants justice to apply equally to all people across the globe. Cosmopolitans want to address global problems such as world hunger, poverty and inequality. A cosmopolitan world would be open to migration, allowing laborers to move across borders to find jobs. And it would be less inclined toward nationalism and war.

The cosmopolitan idea has roots in ancient Greek philosophy. The word “cosmopolitan” comes from the Greek. It can be literally translated as “citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitanism is focused on the common interests of the human species, instead of on narrow national and cultural identifications.

One source for this idea is the ancient philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes maintained, “the only true commonwealth was one that was as wide as the universe.” Diogenes chose to live according to nature — renouncing the trappings of civilization. His critics said he lived like a dog (the word “cynic” is related to the ancient Greek name for dog). Diogenes claimed that our cultural, religious, and political ideas make us unhappy and unnecessarily confine us.

The Cynics were on to something. From the vantage point of nature, our political differences do not matter much. We often forget that all human beings are members of the same species. Just as we often forget that we share the earth with a variety of other species with whom we ought to learn to co-exist.

Human borders enclose temporary settlements. The ancient Greeks gave way to Romans, Christians and Turks. And now the Eurozone is teetering. Civilizations rise and fall. But the birds and butterflies continue their yearly journey. These migrations will persist long after our civilization is forgotten — unless we kill the animals first.

Human beings like to believe that we are smarter than the other critters roaming the earth. But are we? If we were really smart, we’d stop fighting about names and borders and learn to cooperate with the other citizens of the world. Truly rational animals would strive to live in harmony with all the animals — human and nonhuman — with whom we share this small, fragile planet.

 

Hope and the Wreckage of Civilization

Remember and honor sacrifices before us

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-04-21

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala contributed this column from Greece, where he is doing research while on sabbatical.

Sometimes hope is hard to find. Times are tough. Jesus was crucified. Socrates was killed. And so it goes.

My experience in Israel left me pessimistic. I asked nearly everyone I met — Israelis and Arabs — whether they were hopeful about the future. The vast majority admitted that they were not. A few confessed that they hadn’t felt hopeful since the Prime Minister, Yitzakh Rabin, was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing radical who was opposed to the Oslo peace plan. That’s a long time to live without hope.

And the turmoil continues, with rocket attacks, missile strikes, protests, arrests, hunger strikes and rattling sabers. One Israeli confessed that he had obtained European passports for his children — just in case.

But Europe is not much better. The economy is so bad in some places that suicide rates are climbing and journalists have described a new phenomenon, “suicide by economic crisis.” Things look particularly bleak in Greece, where I’m concluding my sabbatical research. One in five Greeks is unemployed. There is more austerity to come.

On April 4, just as I arrived here, a 77-year-old pensioner, Dimitris Christoulas, killed himself in Athens in front of Parliament. His suicide was not merely an act of despair. It was a political act. Christoulas left a note calling on people to take up arms and “hang the traitors of this country.” Riots erupted the next day in Athens. And so it goes.

The day after the riots in Athens, I visited the Parthenon, the massive temple to Athena that sits on the hill overlooking the city. Later, I had a conversation about the economic crisis with a Greek woman I had met. I told her I visited the Parthenon. She scowled. She said she hates the Parthenon. “It was built by slaves,” she said, “a symbol of oppression.”

It is possible to draw a dark conclusion from the history of the world. In the end there are only ruins and graves. And much of what is left was built on the backs of slaves who worked and died in obscurity. And so it goes.

I’ve been surprised to discover that many archaeological sites are littered with unfiltered shards and uncounted fragments. There are too many broken pieces of the past to collect them all. The remnants are too small, too insignificant. In many places, crumbling columns and shattered pottery lie piled in heaps, covered with weeds.

The earth is littered with the wreckage of proud ancient civilizations that have vanished. The saddest cases are the relics of cultures whose languages remain un-deciphered, whose rituals and gods and slaves are gone forever.

This can leave you feeling hopeless. The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once asked, “what can a thoughtful man hope for, given the experience of the past million years?” He answered: “nothing.” But we must be careful with this conclusion and the apathetic shrug of “and so it goes.”

It is better to listen to the words of Rabin, the murdered Israeli Prime Minister: “We will not let up. We will not give in. Peace will triumph over all our enemies, because the alternative is grim for us all.”

If you don’t have hope, why bother to complain — what difference would it make? If you give up hope, then the grim alternative comes true. Hope is an act of solidarity, a protest against evil, and a rebuke to the indifference of the universe.

The American philosopher William James once explained — in an essay called “Is Life Worth Living?” — that a sense of honor and gratitude toward all of those who have lived and died before us should give us a reason to keep working for a better world. He said that we must do some self-denying service in return for all those lives upon which our own is built.

The ruins and violence in Athens and Jerusalem remind us of the long struggle of humanity. How many millions have lived and fought and died so that the world could be a better place? When things look dark, it’s important to remember the sacrifices of those who came before: the prophets, politicians, philosophers, and slaves upon whose shoulders we stand.

 

Bible and Proof

We need faith, but we still want answers

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-04-07

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala is contributing his column from Israel, where he is on sabbatical.

Is it possible to prove that religious belief is true? One approach would be to look for archaeological evidence. When ancient scrolls were found near the Dead Sea — the Dead Sea Scrolls — this discovery provided evidence of the antiquity of the Bible. But Christians and Jews still disagree about the meaning of these texts. Evidence still needs to be interpreted.

And archaeological evidence can be faked. Consider, for example, the findings of Ron Wyatt, who claimed that he had found the Ark of the Covenant buried in a cave in Jerusalem, directly beneath the spot where Jesus was crucified. Wyatt claimed to have found blood that had dripped from the cross. When he tested the blood, he found that it had only 24 chromosomes (23 plus a mysterious Y-chromosome), proof that it came from a man born of a virgin.

I learned about Wyatt when we visited a place called the Garden Tomb, which was where Wyatt claimed to have found his evidence. In the 19th century, this spot was suggested as a possible place for the crucifixion. Other Christians think it happened across town on the Mount of Olives. But most Christians believe that the Easter story unfolded at another place, at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is an uncanny place, full of candles and incense and filtered light. The church holds shrines and altars commemorating the location of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. This ancient building conceals strange nooks and crannies. At one point, I took a candle and crawled into dark and dusty tomb in a hidden corner of the church. Later I entered the holy tomb itself and touched the stone of the resurrection. It was cold and dark and slightly spooky.

The Garden Tomb is not nearly so mysterious. It sits in the open air, near a rock that looks like a skull. This fits the Biblical story that Jesus was crucified at Golgotha — the place of the skull. The empty tomb here is much bigger and airier than the tomb in the Holy Sepulcher. There is a groove cut into the ground in front of the tomb, through which a rock could have been rolled away on Easter morning.

Our tour guide in the Garden Tomb was a retired minister. He acknowledged the dispute about the location of the first Easter. But he said that the essential thing was to believe that on Easter morning the tomb was empty — wherever that tomb may be.

He also said that for him, the most memorable part of the whole Easter story was the moment when Jesus asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him. I like the message of forgiveness, too. But I wonder what kind of archaeological evidence would prove that Jesus actually said those words? The Gospel stories contain differing accounts. The words of forgiveness only show up in Luke.

How do we know what Jesus said or where he said it? Archaeology simply cannot dig that deep. The religious answer points away from knowledge in the direction of faith. Faith comes in when evidence is lacking.

The hunt for archaeological evidence of Biblical events thus points to a paradox. If the evidence were indisputable and obvious, then there would be no need for faith. If we really could see the blood and believe that it wasn’t fake, then we wouldn’t need faith at all. It might even be that, from a religious standpoint, there is more virtue in believing when the evidence is lacking, more virtue in faith than in knowledge.

Sometimes the craving for evidence can inspire wishful thinking that leaves us vulnerable to frauds and charlatans. Even Jesus warned about false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

But who do we trust, who do we believe? And what do we do when there is no evidence? What do we do when there are conflicting interpretations of the evidence we possess? These are the sorts of questions that keep you awake at night. These are the sorts of questions that can lead you to want to crawl into a dark tomb with a candle in your hand, looking for something, waiting to be shown the light.

 

 

Religious intolerance: Politics is the problem

Religious intolerance: Politics is the problem

Fresno Bee, March 24, 2012

Is there one true religion or any reason to tolerate people from another religion?   I discussed this question with Professor Yehuda Gellman the other day in Jerusalem.  Gellman is a Jewish philosopher who defends the idea of “religious exclusivism.”

If you believe that your religion possesses the true and only path to salvation, then you are an exclusivist.  The opposite of exclusivism is “pluralism.”  Pluralists think that the world’s religions are each aiming in the same direction.  Pluralists want to include diverse religions rather than exclude them.

One of pluralism’s greatest defenders was John Hick, a theologian who died just last month.  Hick thought that the world’s religions had common “spiritual and moral fruits.”  He denied that any single religion had an exclusive claim upon truth or salvation.  Instead he thought that each religion approached God in way that is colored by local culture and tradition.

Hick quoted the Sufi poet Rumi to make his point: “The lamps are different but the Light is the same; it comes from beyond.”  In Hick’s own words, there is a “rainbow” of faiths, with each religion refracting God’s divine light in its own way.

Professor Gellman understands Hick’s pluralist ideal; he knew Hick personally.  But Gellman believes that the Jews have an exclusive relation with God as the chosen people.  Gellman surprised me, however, by arguing that exclusivists can be tolerant.

He argued that there is no necessary connection between exclusivism and intolerance.  An exclusive commitment to a loving and gentle religion can lead to peaceful interfaith relations.  If you believe that your religion is the one true religion, but you also believe that your religion commands you to tolerate others, then you should be tolerant.

Gellman embodies this tolerant and loving spirit.  He is a kind and thoughtful man, who is involved in interfaith work in Jerusalem.

Within hours of speaking with Professor Gellman, I was reminded that many exclusivists are not so generous or reflective, as I saw the video of Pastor Dennis Terry introducing Rick Santorum in Louisiana.  How disappointing that religious intolerance is rearing its ugly head back home, while I am studying it here in Israel.

In case you didn’t see it, Pastor Terry said: “This nation was founded as a Christian nation… there’s only one God and his name is Jesus… Listen to me, if you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I have one thing to say: Get Out!  We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

Terry’s rant shows us the danger of religious exclusivism.  If you believe that your God is the only God, then it makes sense to lash out against religious believers who do not love your God or your idealize image of a Christian nation.

The problem here is not Christianity itself.  There is a tolerant and loving message in Christianity.  Jesus taught: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned.”  The problem is not Christianity but politics.  Politicians have used Christian ideas to suppress unpopular minorities since the time of Constantine, the first Christian political leader.

History shows us the danger of mixing exclusivist religious belief with political power, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust.  Politics and religion must be kept apart.  We should be outraged when a Presidential candidate nods in agreement with a preacher who says to the Buddhist and Muslim citizens of the United States: “Get Out!”

Gellman’s solution to this problem would be to remind us that even Christian exclusivists can find reasons within their tradition to be tolerant. Hick’s solution is to ask us to remember that there is a common source behind the rainbow of faiths.

I’m not convinced that there is anything beyond the rainbow.  And I worry that even tolerant religions easily become intolerant, when they become political.

The solution, then, is not religious.  It is political.  Despite Terry’s rhetoric, the real reason to love America is that it is not a Christian nation. The reason to love America is precisely that you don’t have to “get out” if you don’t like the way other religious people think.

Gentle, rural Jesus

Gentle, rural Jesus had to face harsh urban reality

Fresno Bee, March 10, 2012

The region near the Sea of Galilee is lovely this time of year.  Wildflowers bloom on the hills.  The Jordan River begins here, flowing gently south toward the desert.  The tradition tells us that John baptized people here.  Perhaps John understood the joy of taking a dip in a mountain creek.

Jesus found his disciples here among the hill people and fishermen.  At some point after he swam with John in the Jordan, Jesus went to a hilltop above the Sea of Galilee, where he gave his Sermon on the Mount.  I stood on this rocky knoll the other day and watched the sun sink into the mists.  It was gently beautiful: a fitting place for a sermon about love.

Mark Twain came here once.  But he wasn’t impressed.  Twain thought the little lake of Galilee was “dismal and repellant” in comparison to the magnificence of our own Lake Tahoe.  He is right.  Nothing compares to Tahoe.  But there is something restful and reassuring about this modest lake, a welcome contrast to the tumult of Jerusalem and the severity of the desert below.

The version of Christianity that I prefer seems to come from the idyllic country of the Galilee.  This is the Christianity of river rats and fishermen—not the Christianity of priests and politicians. This is the Christianity of friendly food miracles: of turning water into wine and multiplying loaves and fishes.  While I doubt that these stories are true, there is value in the spirit of hospitality and generosity they inspire.

Similar values are found in the Sermon on the Mount and its predominantly gentle message.  The Galilean Jesus celebrates forgiveness and love, turns the other cheek, and loves his enemies.  There are worries about hellfire here, which point in another direction.  But in general Jesus suggests that we need to be more tolerant, merciful, and peaceful.

The idea that Jesus was a gentle soul in tune with nature has been described by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson thought that churches and catechisms obscured the truth of Christianity.  He suggested that Christianity is best understood, “from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds.”  What Jesus discovered, according to Emerson, is that nature is good and that we each possess the divine within us. Life does look good when you are floating on Tahoe or Galilee, when you take a dip in the Merced or the Jordan.

But Bible doesn’t leave it at that.  When Jesus goes to Jerusalem, the rural idealism of the Galilee comes into conflict with the political and religious hierarchies of church and state.  Political and religious authorities don’t like river rats and backwoods fishermen.  Such outsiders reject the rules and power plays of the city.  When these rustics go to town, they get into trouble.  Some of them get arrested and even killed.

The God of cities and temples is severe and wrathful, demanding obedience and sacrifice.  Jerusalem is a city of kings and priests, with a long history of religious violence.  It is not surprising that Jesus is killed in Jerusalem.  Wouldn’t Jesus have done better if he had stayed in the Galilee, swimming with John, fishing with Peter, and turning water into wine?  If only life were always and everywhere so easy.

But life is not easy everywhere.  As we drove to Galilee along the Jordan River from Jericho, we passed through impoverished Palestinian towns, we saw barbed wire and the new security wall.  We were hassled by the cops more than once.  Above the Galilee lies the contested Golan Heights and beyond that Syria, where children are being murdered by their own government.

The sweet and mild Jesus that Emerson dreamed of could not ignore the suffering of others.  It is nice to retreat from the city and enjoy a pleasant mountain holiday.  But poverty, injustice, and war make that impossible for most people.  The meek remain disinherited and there is no peace.  That may be why Jesus had to leave the hills and take his message to the halls of power.  Once you understand how easy it is to find peace, love, and joy among the wildflowers, you realize how wrong it is that so many of us are prevented from enjoying these simple blessings.