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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Choices from an Illusion
distributed 1/29/10 - ©2010

Last week, in describing an angry outburst from Jesus, I voiced a lament about those who do not respond to the faithful call toward justice and sustainability. Many of you wrote to echo the frustration that arises when people do not respond.

It is important, sometimes, to vent those feelings. But this issue of people who do not respond is vitally important, and our dealing with it has to go beyond grumbling and complaint. Today, I'm going to go on longer than usual in offering a perspective and a strategy that might guide us in spreading our challenging and unfamiliar message.

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It is helpful to start with an affirmation. Those who don't respond to our teachings about environmental responsibility are not evil or uncaring. (Well, some may be, but not all of them!) In many cases, the eco-justice message of caring for all of God's creation just does not fit into their mental maps. They see the world in such utterly different ways -- as a world of things, as a world where prosperity and power are the goal, as a world that is too vast and durable to be damaged -- that our calls to a different set of relationships, values and behaviors simply don't make sense.

Many wise people have named those contrasting worldviews in recent years. Theologian Sallie McFague writes of the "arrogant eye" and the "compassionate eye" as opposing ways of looking at the world. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has traced the long-standing tension between the "royal consciousness" and the "prophetic imagination" in both scripture and in modern society. Economist David Korten makes a similar point with the opposing narratives of empire and Earth community.

The prophetic message that Jesus preached was so foreign to his community that most of those who heard it -- often including his disciples -- could not make sense of it. So, as I described last week, his calls to mourn and celebrate didn't evoke a response. According to the way those people saw the world, there was nothing so horribly wrong that mourning was appropriate, and the sorts of things that he described as "good news" didn't strike them as cause for rejoicing. Jesus got angry (and we get frustrated) when a message rooted in a different worldview does not resonate or soak in.

If the problem in communication comes from the difficulty of evoking a different worldview, just repeating the message more often or more loudly doesn't help. A different strategy is needed. I've found some very helpful insights by pondering a well-known optical illusion.

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Optical illusion of 2 faces or a goblet
There is a familiar image that can be seen as either two faces or a goblet. Experts in psychology and perception categorize it as "an alternation illusion". The viewer can see one pattern or the other, and can alternate between those views, but it is impossible to see both views at the same time. Depending on the context in which the picture is seen, and the predisposition of the viewer, there may be an inclination toward one approach or the other. A person who tends to see the two faces can, with some concentration, flip their perception toward the goblet, but their next glance will see the pair of profiles again.

Hopefully, you're making the intuitive jump between the two shapes in an optical illusion, and the two contrasting worldviews that McFague, Brueggemann and Korten describe. Those who live within the royal consciousness and who are steeped in empire can, occasionally, glimpse the prophetic vision of Earth community. But the dominant paradigm quickly reasserts itself, and the worldview of power and stuff takes control.

That's how the followers of Jesus, long ago and now, can have occasions of catching that enticing vision of the realm of God, but then fail to respond to either the words of mourning or of joyous invitation. That is how church members can see the faithful message of caring for creation when a Sunday morning context of hymns and prayers asserts the wholeness of the Earth community, but fail to see or act on the same responsibilities when they are steeped in the corporate realm at work.

The optical illusion gives me an insight about shifting which shape, which worldview, is the dominant or preferred one. If we remember that people can forget how to see with a compassionate eye, and lapse easily into the mode of the arrogant eye, then we can realize how important it is to intentionally evoke the entire picture, and not speak only of some of its parts.

In the illusion, a section in the center can be seen either as two noses or as the stem of the goblet. If -- in this simplified analogy -- our audience tends to see the two faces, they won't understand us if we start talking about the beautiful crafting on the base of a chalice. When our message requires people to shift out of an established and comfortable world view, we repeatedly need to entice them into seeing the whole picture from our desired perspective before we can expect them to understand any of the details.

And so it is that we need to frequently and explicitly name the "goblet" shape of Earth community. We need to speak often of the fragile web of relationships within an ecological world, of justice in the global community, and of our ties to future generations. Our discussions of voluntary simplicity, of environmental justice, or of the integrity of creation only make sense within the context of that whole picture. If our audience has forgotten how to see the world with a compassionate eye, then they won't understand what we have to say. If they always picture the world from the "two faces" perspective, they won't respond when we speak about the beautiful polish of the goblet.

So, a first insight from the optical illusion is that we constantly need to remind people about the radical worldview of prophetic imagination and Earth community. In countless ways our society stresses the worldview of the royal consciousness and empire. Seeing the world from the perspective of arrogance and exploitation flows naturally to our audience (and to be honest, to us, as well!). It takes constant work to evoke a different and compassionate worldview, and to invite people to live and act from that grounding.

It is possible to talk about good environmental actions from within the perspective of empire -- but there is a real danger in doing so. We can speak of how energy efficiency saves money at home and at church. We can talk about shifting to renewable energy as a matter of national security. We can encourage the preservation of endangered plants and animals because they may provide future medical wonders. But those approaches never ask people to see the world differently. Indeed, using those terms reinforces the worldviews of monetary value, national self-interest and the creation as filled with resources.

It is worth the effort, in the long haul toward transformative change, to spell out the big picture of the wholeness of God's creation, and to stress a different way of seeing our place within it. As we repeat and reinforce that entire worldview, it will be easier for folk to see how our message of compassion and community makes joyous sense.

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There is a second insight in this optical illusion, though, that I also have found meaningful. It is the reason why I always use this particular alternation image of the faces and the goblet, and why I always us the goblet as the representation of the faithful worldview. It is the reason why communicating the prophetic vision of Earth community can be such a challenge.

When the whole image is seen, we can make a choice about which set of shapes will stand out. One set -- the faces, or the goblet -- may seem most evident, but we can help ourselves and others to flip the perception, and see the other view.

Partial version of the optical illusion
But that changes completely if only some if the image is visible. If the right side of the image is covered, then there is only a face. If the picture we are shown is rectangular instead of square, then we would have to work really, really hard to get people to see "half of a goblet" instead a perfectly evident face. When we don't see the whole picture, then there is only one sensible way of describing the image. It is not just hard to talk about the stem of the goblet, it is ludicrous. If the people we're trying to talk to only see part of the picture, they will never understand when we appeal to them about a shape that they can't ever see.

In our daily lives, we only see part of the world. Most of us don't see the ecological devastation of oil production in Nigeria, or of rainforests stripped from Brazil to grow soybeans, or of mountaintops removed from Appalachia for cheap coal. Indeed, there are conscious decisions to hide those parts of the world from us. The stores where we shop work hard to keep of from being aware of the chickens abused in producing eggs, the farm workers exposed to toxic chemicals, or the workers in China and elsewhere who make our clothes and appliances under horrible conditions. And in our daily lives we certainly don't see the depleted oceans and the melting ice caps. We don't see the people who will inhabit this exhausted and damaged world 100 years from now. We don't see the species being snuffed out by human impacts. In our everyday lives, we are shown a world that is just a collection of things, not a web of relationships. Our ordinary view of the world is partial, limited, and woefully incomplete.

So most of us, most of the time, really don't have a choice between two different ways of seeing the world. Our routine experiences, our culture and its infrastructure, our economic and political institutions, most news media and -- yes -- most church programs show us a partial view of the world that conforms very well to the royal consciousness and empire. The relationships and experiences that we need to see the world differently are so sparse that we must struggle to imagine what a "goblet" world is really like.

And so it is not enough to ask people to see the world from a different perspective. It is not enough to speak about seeing the goblet of earth community instead of the faces of empire. Before that choice will make any sense, we have to expand the experience and the knowledge of our audience. We have to reveal the rest of the picture.

Before we can ask people to choose ecological sustainability, we need to do enough environmental education that they can see that the world is all about relationships. Before we can call people to act for global justice and solidarity, we need to help them perceive the reality of Earth community. Before we can ask people to live sustainably, they must have some insights into the limits of this world. (Gasoline at $4 a gallon opened that awareness, and helped shift some worldviews rather quickly.)

Those of us who are deeply committed to eco-justice probably operate out of that larger and more comprehensive worldview. We are more aware -- in our heads and in our hearts -- of the wholeness of God's creation. We do see, and strive to care about, all people, all species, and a distant future. Because we see a bigger and more complicated picture, we can understand both the urgency of needed changes, and the joy of real transformation.

Because we see the whole picture, we can at least recognize that there is a choice between faces and a goblet, between empire and Earth community. For those who see only part of this wonderful creation, though, there is no reasonable choice, because they can only see the outline of one face.

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When people do not respond to our transformative invitation, we can easily become angry and frustrated. How is it, we wonder, that they cannot see and choose what is so obvious to us?

The people who do nor respond and do not choose are not bad or evil. In most cases, they are seeing the world from a more limited perspective. Their partial view of the world reinforces the arrogant worldview of empire and exploitation. They do not even see enough of the world and how it works to understand that other choices are available.

As healers of creation, as agents of change, as prophets voicing imaginative new visions, we must help the people around us to see the world more fully. We must make real the parts of the world which are so often hidden, so that relationships of justice and ecology can become vivid and compelling. Until that whole picture of God's creation is revealed, the people to whom we speak will not recognize that choices are possible.

But when hearts and minds are expanded, when the people around us do see the world more fully, then they can respond to real and hopeful choices.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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