The Unhappy Cactus

Several of the local Mexican and Central American restaurants near us have their windows painted with a variety of Christmas motifs. My favorite motif is The Unhappy Cactus, as in this window of a restaurant at the corner of Poplar and Ellsworth:

The Unhappy Cactus

Poor guy. it’s just too wet and cold for him to feel happy. Even his cactus mustache looks unhappy. (Photo credit: Carol Steinfeld)

Environmental Crisis, Religious Education, and the Local Faith Community

I’ll be presenting a paper at the “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts” conference on May 23-25. This year, the conference topic is “Nature and Environment in World Religions,” and I’ll be presenting on “Environmental Crisis, Religious Education, and the Local Faith Community.”

Here’s where you come in:

Read over my proposal below, and let me know if you have any comments, ideas, or suggestions. I’d be particularly interested in hearing about recent books or papers on feminist theology that might pertain to this presentation — I’ll be using Rosemary Radford Reuther (of course), but would appreciate pointers to any other relevant works that have been published since Reuther’s Goddesses and the Divine Feminine (2005).

Now here’s the proposal that was accepted by the conference committee:

“When examining organized religion’s response to the contemporary environmental crisis, to what extent should we focus on sacred texts? Speaking as a religious educator based in a local faith community, I find that sacred texts may be less important in a given local faith community than other factors such as institutional traditions, the influence of the surrounding social milieu, economic forces, the material and social dimensions of religion, etc. This is particularly true when engaging in religious education with children.

“This paper provides a narrative account of one local faith community’s education of its 10-15 year olds. I examine the explicit curriculum of formal classes in ecojustice, sexuality education, peacemaking, and religious literacy; I also examine the implicit curriculum of adult behavior and adult role modeling; finally, I examine the “null curriculum,” those topics that are ignored and unexamined. The paper tells of “ah-ha” moments when children realize that their faith provides important messages about, and resources for addressing, the global environmental crisis. The paper also points out missed and botched opportunities, where the faith community has oversimplified or failed to confront certain aspects of the environmental crisis.

“The paper then turns to analyzing the narrative, from a religious education perspective. What a child learns in a local faith community will be influenced by foundational sacred texts, but also by the faith community’s educational philosophy and practice; by all the various community initiatives in which the faith community engages; by the economic situation of the faith community and its members; etc. In this specific local faith community, I find that religious attitudes towards the environmental crisis cannot be fully understood by neat examinations of sacred texts, but that they are messy, embodied, and constantly growing and changing; and I find that the perspectives of feminist theologies can provide a useful theoretical framework for fuller understanding.

“In closing, I draw on my narrative account to suggest how religious education might provide helpful insights for linking theoretical accounts of religion and the environment, with praxis or pragmatic engagement with the global environmental crisis.”


Yes, yes, I know, once you saw a Disney movie in which a deer was killed and now you can’t eat venison. However, from an ecological standpoint, deer are a native species that fill an existing ecological niche, unlike the soybeans in your tofu which are invasive exotic species raised in monoculture fields that wipe out countless acres of habitat. And if you’re a small farmer, like Carol’s friend Eva, deer are an herbivore pest in a landscape that now lacks large carnivores to keep their population in check. So eating low-fat, free-range, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, organic venison that is untouched by American Agribusiness is actually an environmentally sound act that lets us humans fill the ecological niche of the large carnivores we have mostly extirpated from North America. It’s nice when we humans can play a positive role in the ecosystem, instead of just replacing the existing ecosystem with our own suburban and urban ecosystems.

When she stayed with us earlier this week, Eva gave use part of a haunch of venison. Carol stir-fried some chunks of venison with onions and greens; it looked really good, but I decided I wanted plain venison. I sliced it thin, and gently fried it in a little butter for a late brunch.

Venison cooking

After gently frying both sides, I covered the pan and let it steam for a minute until the meat was just well-done, with no red in the center. It was fabulous: lean, tender, and very tasty. I re-heated some of the “Warthog” wheat berries in the pan drippings, and the combination of the nutty wheat, the butter, and the meat drippings was the perfect addition to a satisfying brunch.

Macomber turnip

One of the things I miss about living in southeastern Massachusetts is the Macomber turnip. Macomber turnips produce large roots that look like light-colored rutabagas on the outside; when you cut the roots open, the flesh is crisp, relatively easy to cut, a creamy white with a light grain to it. You can cook them like any turnip or rutabaga; I like them boiled or steamed and mashed, though they can be a little watery. But I think the best way to eat them is to slice them into sticks and eat them raw. I’m eating one as I write this: it’s mild and sweet with a slight tang of turnip or radish, crisp and moist, like no other vegetable I’ve eaten.

I haven’t seen Macomber turnips anywhere outside of southeastern Massachusetts. But in that area, it’s such a famous vegetable that the town of Westport gave it its own historic marker, on Main Road, near Swartz’s Way. According to the inscription, the origin of the Macomber turnip was rutabaga seed which Aiden and Elihu Macomber brought back from the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. When we lived in the area, we were told that the rutabagas (Brassica napus), or perhaps they were turnips (Brassica rapa), then crosspollinated with radishes (Raphanus sativus) to form this new variety. Based on the taste, I find it more plausible to believe that Macomber turnips are a cross between B. napus and B. rapa. I’d be interested to know what a qualified taxonomist had to say about the matter.

In any case, it is such a pleasure to taste the Macomber turnip again. Sometimes, I wish they would become a fad food, so I could buy them here in California. More often, I’m glad they remain a local specialty, because it is possible to grow them so they become sharp and bitter; better that American Agribusiness leaves them alone.

Macomber turnip

Constructing God

Theology may not be what you think it is.

Theology used to be a Western intellectual discipline that tried to describe God, humans, and the world in an objective fashion, that is, as if these are objects that can be described. This kind of theology began with the making of myths, and persisted for centuries in the West as rational descriptions of the objective reality of God, humans, and the world. Call this kind of theology “first-order theology.” First-order theology went unchallenged until the Enlightenment, when Kant and others showed that we cannot treat the idea of “God” as an object of experience in the way that “tree” or “human” can be treated as an object of experience.

After Kant, theology entered a phase when it increasingly compared religions, and compared different theologies. This phase recognized that different human groups have different theologies, something that missionaries and colonial expansionists previously had known. However, theologians went beyond the missionaries and colonialists: they recognized that of the different possible theologies, none has an exclusive claim to truth. The chaotic proliferation of theologies in the West since the mid-twentieth century — theology of hope, theology of revolution, death-of-God theology, atheist theology, feminist theology, black theology, queer theology, etc. — has emonstrated clearly that no single theology has an exclusive claim to truth. Call this phase “second-order theology.”

Gordon Kaufman, in his An Essay on Theological Method (1975), has proposed what he calls third-order theology: theology that acknowledges that it is a construct of the human imagination, and moves on from the chaos of second-order theology to something new:

“The increasing encounter of world cultures, on the one hand, and the development of such sciences as cultural anthropology on the other, have produced a level of sophistication which makes first-order theology no longer a viable alternative…. Second-order theology, however, taken by itself is not adequate to meet the human needs for orientation in life: it leaves us with a chaos of conflicting claims and criteria rather than guidance in the order and orienting of our lives. It is necessary for theology now to move to the third-order of deliberate construction if it is to serve contemporary humanity….”

Kaufman is telling us that it is no longer adequate for a theology to describe what it believes to be true. This is the fatal flaw of both fundamentalist Christianity and unbending atheism: now you have to do more than just shout out what you believe to be true. Kaufman is also telling us that it is not adequate to compare and contrast competing theologies, “aware that all positions, including one’s own, are in large part imaginative constructions”; we have to move beyond comparison to the task of constructing something that provides meaning and direction to human life.

And in undertaking this construction of something new, Kaufman brings up two key points. First, the “proper business” of theology should be “analysis, interpretation, and reconstruction of the concept and images of God, as found in the common language and tradition of the West.” I think Kaufman is wise here to limit the business of theology to the West, and to religions that originated in the West: I strongly suspect that the business of theology does not apply the religions of Asia, Africa, and other regions; these religions have their own ways of doing things.

Second, Kaufman reiterates that theology must now become a “constructive activity.” In the past, it was enough for theology to describe, then later to compare, but that’s no longer enough. Theology should be “a construct of the imagination which helps to tie together, unify, and interpret the totality of experience.” This new way of doing theology might be confusing for the fundamentalists and the atheists, and for many others who look at theology with the same delightful naivete — they may have to deal with the fact that theology is not what they think it is.

Elsewhere, Kaufman quotes Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “Theology [is] grammar.” [The full quote reads as follows: “373. Welche Art von Gegenstand etwas ist, sagt die Grammatik. (Theologie als Grammatik.) — Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)”] And I think helps explain what theology can do. We need a way to make sense out of existence. We use ordinary language, ordinary words like “God” and “sacred” and “transcendent” to make sense out of existence. And we should understand that there is a grammar that governs how we use ordinary language to make sense of existence. Grammar does not restrict constructive theology, any more than grammar restricts poetry. Grammar provides structure for doing theology, just as it provides a structure for doing poetry.

I brought up poetry on purpose, because again and again I have found myself turning to poets for theology. For example, Margaret Atwood’s cycle of poems on the death of her father (in her book Morning in the Burned House) can be read as constructive theology that analyzes, interprets, and reconstructs “God” as it is found in common English language. Atwood, as it happens, does not find the traditional God of conservative Christians. But she doesn’t waste time in Christian-bashing, nor does she waste time comparing her theology against some other theology. She constructs a theology that helps me to understand the sacred and the transcendent and God (whatever those words mean), as she reflects on death and grief:

…Where have they gone to, brother and sister,
mother and father? Off along the shore,
perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers,

their dishes piled beside the sink,
which is beside the woodstove
with its grate and sooty kettle,

every detail clear,
tin cup and rippled mirror.
The day is bright and songless,

the lake is blue, the forest watchful.
In the east a bank of cloud
rises up silently like dark bread. …

This is how we construct a theology that provides a kind of grammar for our lives, a theology that tells us what kind of thing something is: If it is sad, how is it sad? If it is meaningless, how do we then create meaning? If it is sacred, what is it about a day that is bright and songless that imbues life with meaning and maybe even hope? Good sermons and good poems both use the words and grammar of common language to help us construct meaning in our existences. This is why I say: theology may not be what you think it is.


Carol’s friend Eva, who is a farmer, stayed with us last night. When farmers check luggage on the plane, what do they bring in that luggage? Turnips, onions, garlic, frozen venison — and wheat berries. The wheat berries are a hard winter variety called “Warthog,” from friends of Eva’s who farm in Essex, Massachusetts. Eva soaked the berries in water overnight, and we cooked them in the rice cooker this morning. We added a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt: the perfect breakfast.

Hard winter wheat, var. Warthog


Bull Kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, Half Moon Bay State Beach

This is apparently an air bladder of Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana), but with a much shorter stipe (or stalk) than that usually associated with this species of macroalgae. Carol found this beautiful organism when we were on a walk at Half Moon Bay State Beach late this afternoon (I walked right by it because I was too busy looking at Sanderlings and Mew Gulls).

Peter Alden and Fred Heath, National Audubon Society Field Guide to California, p. 87.
A. L. Baker, An Image-Based Key: Algae (PS Protista), Cyanobacteria, and Other Aquatic Objects, Nereocystis.
Washington State University, Intertidal organisms EZ-ID Guide, Nereocystis luetkeana (Bull Kelp).