Thursday, April 13, 2017

Repent

The Sacred Mountains class found itself in this strange place today. It was a bit of a gamble but I think it paid off. The picture is of an old forest cemetery (the hillock at upper left) which is now perched on an island in an Appalachian landscape transformed by mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. (We started by watching this conflicted depiction of the monstrosity of MTR, and then this footage of a "Blesssing of the Mountain," one asserting the value of seeing things from above, the other demonstrating the power of being there on the ground.)
Our reading was from Andrew R. H. Thompson's Sacred Mountains: A Christian Ethical Approach to Mountaintop Removal (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) - our only text explicitly Christian or concerned with ethics - and it's not easy going for people unfamiliar with that field. Predictably and understandably my students were put off by Thompson's assumption that his readers were fellow members of "the church." Most also couldn't fathom his argument for a "theocentric ethics" (based in the ideas of H. Richard Niebuhr), and for how it could prevent the "absolutization" of relative values which bedevils discussions of problems such as MTR. They assumed "theocentric" must mean claiming God for one's own position, rather than the decentering humility of accepting and trusting a God of all whose values one did not claim to understand. It being Holy Week I quite enjoyed laying out the idea that human "imaginations" even of values like justice and inclusion inevitably have blind spots, the pursuit of one's value inevitably bringing "disvalue" to some other; the only alternative is to own one's fallibility (I didn't use the s-word), to repent the disvalues one wittingly and unwittingly does and countenances, ideally in the presence of all affected: church as the matrix for a different kind of sociality. (I didn't get into christology.)
But what about MTR? Thompson gives few concrete suggestions (or rather, he thinks action should arise out of actual engagement in a locality, not reading about it) but it was fun to think with him what "mountain reclamation for God" might look like. We've often argued that mountains should be left alone, or returned to a presumed pristineness, then bellyached over the what and the how, the who and the why. Thompson's argument allows one to think beyond the artificial islands of "sacred mountains," just as it offers a transcendent reframing of relative values. For a moment it seemed like the consequence of setting aside a few special places for preservation, conservation - as sacred heritage - was not qualitatively different from leveling most of the mountains around Kayford, West Virginia but keeping Stover's Cemetery.

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