Of Dandelions

July 06, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Morning Light, The Point, Morro Rock

The Point, Morro Rock, 2016

In his wonderful book, From Nature to Creation, theologian Norman Wirzba maintains that "how we name and narrate the world" is determinative for how we position ourselves in and relate to it. [1]

 

An illustration from Wirzba helps us to see his point. If I hold up before us a plant such as a dandelion and name it flower, we begin to interact with it as a beautiful and fragile thing, bright and fragrant, that pleases the senses. We are tempted to place the bright yellow flower in a vase of water on our dining table to enjoy during meals. It is an adornment worthy of care, attention, and delight.

 

However, if when holding up the same plant, I name it weed, we immediately see it as the enemy of our well manicured lawn. This weed is far from beautiful and fragrant; it is a nuisance. We don't enjoy it; we want to eradicate it, poison it even, in the interest of a uniformly green lawn.

 

Or still again, if when holding up the plant, I name it food, we immediately think of adding its leaves to a tossed salad to enrich the flavor. We will savor its slightly bitter contribution to the mix of fresh, delectable summer greens. And if we accept the witness offered by the menus of of fine restaurants, we will regard the consumption of dandelion leaves in our salads as a mark of a sophisticated palette.

 

Is the plant a thing of delight, an enemy, or a sophisticated food? Will we display, exterminate, or eat it? The choice to name it flower, weed, or food is at the same time a choice to locate it in one of several very different narratives of meaning that dramatically alter our cognitive, affective, and moral response to it. So, yes, "how we name and narrate the world" matters because it shapes dramatically different and often incompatible forms of life in response to it. [2]

 

In contemporary western civilizations, we name and narrate our world with the vocabulary of consumerism. We name ourselves I and narrate a story in which this isolated, autonomous self is the measure and meaning of reality. We enact our personhood through endless consumption. Other creatures are things, objects or commodities with little or no intrinsic value or sanctity. Things are raw materials waiting to be owned and possessed, used and consumed for my personal aggrandizement. The value of a thing is assigned by us, often by way of a price tag or through some other quantifier of its expendability and benefit to us. The problem with this naming and narration is that the appetite of the naming I is never sated, and we are trapped on a treadmill of utilitarian logic that demands more, bigger, cheaper, and easier. In this story, all creatures other than the self become things stripped of sanctity, lacking inherent worth, and thus unworthy of empathy or moral regard.

 

Not unlike the great religions of the world, artistic creativity and works of art can provide another way to name the plant. At their best, artists seek to name and narrate the world not as thing but as gift. [3]

 

Gifts, of course, can be and often are easily co-opted by the naming and narrating strategy of comsumerism. When that happens, they become thinly veiled transactions in which a gift given must be repaid by another gift of equal or greater value so as to balance the ledger of social power. Generosity, so the logic goes, is merely a mask for covertly exacting obligation, favor, or acquiesence from another. Better to pay back the debt to preserve one's autonomy.

 

But gifts need not become things pulled into the orbit of dominative power. To name the world and its creatures as gifts can to be recognize that all things ultimately come to us from beyond ourselves, including our very lives. Despite our efforts at denial, we are fragile creatures -- finite and radically dependent on realities given to us from beyond for daily survival. Gifts confront us of with the radical givenness of our lives and our utter dependence, moment by moment, on the unconditioned Whence and Whither of our existence. This is why receiving gifts can sometimes feel awkward.

 

Gifts also remind us of our inescapable interdependence with all other creatures. To give a gift is not simply to give someone a thing; a gift given is a call to membership, a summons to connectedness, and an invitation to deep participation in the mystery of the love and goodness that bind human beings, and indeed all beings, together in ways that are significantly resistant to commodification and market forces.  We respond most faithfully to a gift by acknowledging with gratitude that vast web of natural, social, and divine integuments that binds all things together in mutuality and interdependence. Mystery and connectedness, dependence and interdependence, humility and gratitude lie back of and saturate this different economy of gifts. These qualities in turn open us to wonder, thanksgiving, and deep delight -- qualities of soul noticeably suppressed in the economy of things.

 

When painters daub pigment on a canvas, when sculpters collects bits of driftwood and fashion them into mobiles with string and wire that float in the breeze, when photographers record an ordered composition found amidst an overwhelming surplus of rocks, clouds, and trees, they are offering to themselves and their viewers a gift. Their creative act and piece of art are less an expression of their private inner life and more an invitation to a new imaginative way of naming, narrating, and thus relating to the world and its Source. For a moment, this gift of beauty can arrest our drive toward cognitive mastery and material control. We find ourselves lingering over it in delight, attending to its particularity with wonder, curiosity, puzzlement, and delight. To give up control, to linger, to experience curiosity, puzzlement, wonder, and deep delight are antithetical to the logic of control, efficiency, and utility that govern the cult of the thing.

 

Good art invites us into a dialogue with itself, and when the dialogue is genuine, it displaced us as the measure of all things. Such an artistic gift is never perfect, but in its own fragmentary way it summons us to see differently, to name and narrate the world in new, graced ways. We can be creatures again who acknowledge and embrace our own fragility and dependence on the universe of being. Ultimately, an experience of artistic beauty is an invitation to membership, connectedness, and participation in an expansive, cosmic community of being. In this community, the logic of scarcity, acquisitiveness, possession, and disposability is overcome by the logic of abundance, communion, mystery, and deep, lasting delight.

 

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1. Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving the World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).

 

2. Wirzba, pp. 18-19.

 

3. Wirzba, pp. 144-52. I am borrowing and adapting Wirzba's elaboration of gift. For a fuller discussion of the idea of artistic creativity and works of art as gifts, see also Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 1979).


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