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Nest of Wires: Belize and the Moral Imagination

January 2006

1.

Just southeast of Belmopan, the inland capital of Belize, the Hummingbird Highway leaves the savannas and weaves through the Maya Mountains on the way to the Caribbean. All along the route there are citrus orchards, long threads near the roadway or patches climbing up the hills, clutching the soil that has been cleared of rain forest. Virtually all of the orchards are now owned by Canadians and Americans, most of them aligned with distant conglomerates. Native Belizeans, many dislocated by the orchards, find seasonal work in the fields or in some of the fruit processing plants located along the highway. Fruit trucks bounce constantly on the road, losing some of their cargo over their wooden rails. They slow, but just slightly, for the many single-lane bridges that span the tropical streams. About half an hour out of Belmopan, a short dash off the highway in a jungle crevice, is Jaguar Creek, the home of a Christian educational center and a retreat haven. Last April four of us—Dorothy Boorse, Dick Stout, Cliff Hersey and I—spent time there during a trip to explore potential sites for off-campus study.
 
Feeling ragged that afternoon I let the others hunt up the nearby “Blue Hole”—a small gash that exposed an underground current—while I rested in the cabin. Our trek, so far, had been brisk. Two days earlier I had been in a trustee meeting at the College. But now, literally hours later, I was near the Guatemalan border listening as Cliff proposed that we wade a subterranean river to see Mayan burial treasures and skeletons in a cave. We opted instead to drive for several hours on a 50-mile road, mostly dirt and gravel, through the beetle-stripped pines of the Chiquibul Forest, until we reached the great temples of Caracol. That ancient city, a vibrant center of Mayan life for nearly a millennium, was rediscovered as recently as 1937 under generations of tree roots and soil. On top of the greatest temple pyramid, a little short of breath, I was able to look across miles of dense jungle, stretching well across the border into eastern Guatemala—a vista that seemed free, windswept and indulgent, the maze of centuries of unbridled growth.
 
After a couple days on airplanes, Mayan temples and dirt roads, a few quiet moments in the shelter of Jaguar Creek seemed like an idyll. The new cabins at the center are simple but spacious and inviting, with just mosquito netting for walls, corrugated tin roofs, and a long boardwalk, essential in the rainy seasons. There are boars, parrots, monkeys and reportedly a jaguar or two in the canyon, but the jungle is nocturnal and the afternoon was quiet, merely the steady hum of insects and the scurrying of birds in the low-lying brush. In those still moments I found a book of poems on the cabin table, a collection by the American Mary Oliver, the winner of a Pulitzer. One poem—“Acid”—kept me from rest:
 
In Jakarta
among the vendors
of flowers and soft drinks,
I saw a child with a hideous mouth,
begging,
and I knew the wound was made
for a way to stay alive.
What I gave him
wouldn't keep a dog alive.
What he gave me
from the brown coin
of his sweating face
was a look of cunning.
 
I carry it
like a bead of acid
to remember how,
once in a while,
you can creep out of your own life
and become someone else—
an explosion
in that nest of wires
we call the imagination.
 
This was not, at least at that moment, a distant image. Belize is not the poorest of world's poor, but it bears its wounds. Spared most of the violence that ravaged nearby Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador during years of civil strife, the nation today enjoys thousands of ecotourists, especially with its lush interiors, island reefs and ubiquitous Mayan ruins; however, Belize also has widespread indigence and ecological stains, along with less obvious scars, such as high rates of domestic violence and villages displaced for foreign profits. We had seen considerable beauty—cohune palms, broadleaf forests and scarlet macaws—but also sewage and urban debris in the stagnant mouth of the river in Belize City. Just outside our cabins near San Ignacio, close to the eastern edge of Guatemala, a thick heap of garbage, old appliances and dead animals spilled onto the road.
 
Although a small nation—little more than two hours by car, east to west—Belize has its distinct cultures and regions of need. Education, life expectancy and employment are much lower among the Caribbean and Garífuna people near the seacoast and among the Mayans in the mountains than among the mix of Europeans and Asians in the more prosperous neighborhoods and hilltop villas. More than 40% of the rural residents fall under the nation's relatively low poverty line, and the former British colony recently dropped below the median on the U.N. development list. As I rested in the Belizean jungle, I felt that the dagger of Oliver's poem was not just its searing reminder of human poverty and our own meek charity. It was also the intimation that human dignity and restoration depend upon the imagination, that “nest of wires”—what many consider merely a biological accident after all.
 
Oliver's lines stopped me, in part, because I had been thinking recently about the elusive notion of a “moral imagination.” On a few occasions I had suggested that this might be an expression that conveys something about the distinctive DNA of Gordon College. Among evangelicals, it is tough to link morality with creativity, especially since no one can translate the imagination into code. It is hard to accept the notion that truth and justice might draw upon creative epiphanies—those neurological “explosions” in our brains. American Christians often perceive the imagination as a threat to devotion and diligence, best left as a luxury for childhood and leisure. Even the Narnia stories—currently the most popular expressions of the “Christian imagination”—are often quickly converted into tight theological allegories rather than explored as multi-hued, syncretistic tales, full of biblical allusions, medieval folklore, and interpretive friction. For years Gordon has advocated “freedom within a framework of faith”—a spirit of openness that neither abandons orthodoxy nor resorts to legalism.  Our challenge is to approach the imaginative life—as well as the liberty in the liberal arts—not as open flight toward independence, but as the rich soil for moral development and restorative justice. A moral imagination can burn; it can also be the acid of hope.
 
2.

The concept of a moral imagination has a long history, with heirs on the right and the left. That pedigree may prove valuable whenever we get into the usual ideological sparring.
 
The expression first appeared in a long, nervous essay on the French Revolution by the British political philosopher Edmund Burke, written even before the rebels had cut off the head of Louis XVI. His vision at its core was conservative, both principled and fearful. Although a supporter of the American rebellion against George III, Burke shuddered in 1793 once the “Parisian ferocity broke out in a shocking manner.” He worried that progressives in England were foolishly enraptured with the idealism of the French revolt and blind to its social chaos; he warned against embracing abstractions about human liberty rather than the heritage of manners and law. He complained that the most progressive intellectuals had become too ready to trade real liberty for the rhetoric of liberation. With the French revolt Burke insisted that the Enlightenment—that “new conquering empire of light and reason”—had finally torn apart all “decent drapery of life,” those ideas and values “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, to cover the defects of her naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity . . .” 
 
In our time Robert Coles echoes Burke’s irritation with zealous abstractions in his 1989 book on teaching the classics, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. Against the current academic obsession with critical theory and polemics, Coles wants to recover the practice of reading for moral growth, personal discovery and empathy rather than critical condescension. His work has helped unleash a wave of essays and books arguing that our imaginations, especially those of young children, need to be nourished by more tales about human relationships and responsibilities and fewer films and parables about libertine joys.
 
Recently, as organizations such as the National Association for Evangelicals have begun to expand their sense of the Christian’s “call” by paying more attention to issues of societal welfare, there has been a modest backlash. Some fret that concern for world hunger, infectious diseases and social inequities distract from spirituality and personal holiness. Of course, piety can at times draw attention away from the scrutiny of structural ills, but it is also fair to wonder if absorption with the geopolitical themes overpowers personal ethics and inward reflection. What Coles and others underscore is that integrity and purity cannot be imposed merely by external code or social convention, but rather must emerge out of the inner life—the realm of private meditation, conscience and imagination. For Coles, the imagination can be enriched with visions of virtue—not just didactic lessons or social prudence, but difficult journeys through the ethically contoured landscapes of the world’s bravest books.  
 
There are other tributaries feeding this stream of interest in the moral imagination. More and more, scholars are asserting that the imagination is essential for social justice, responsible citizenship and the creative resolution of human conflict. They often lament that our moral discourse in public has become static, a bludgeon to nuance and context. Actually, much of the current literature about a moral imagination has roots in John Dewey's pragmatism and emerges out of a growing frustration that efforts to address the challenges facing our world—such as unemployment, health concerns, and education in rural Belize—have been hampered by stubborn ideological posturing. Weary of logjams in government, writers have seized the concept of moral imagination as an appeal to overcome the partisan loyalties that too often pass for thought and vocation. Even at liberal arts colleges—where wide-ranging investigation and free discourse should counteract the reductive tendencies of lobbyists and talk shows—theory can remain so far aloof from praxis that ideology and worldviews harden into fierce orthodoxies. Many of us—in the academy, the legislature and the church—were so caught in our polemical allegiances that we were slow to accept the tragic proportions of the AIDS pandemic or the scourge of alcoholism and abuse in broken homes. We still struggle to own up to the ethical repercussions of overconsumption, massive incarceration, state violence and the most lucrative biotechnology, in part because we can imagine few remedies. 
 
Quite strikingly, a large portion of the discussion about the moral imagination appears in business and management studies, as scholars seek ways to blend entrepreneurial creativity with virtue and social responsibility. Implicit in so many of these arguments is some soul-searching about the future of capitalism. With the advance of free enterprise in a post-Cold War, highly connected world, how do we leverage the power of the markets to enhance human welfare and justice and restrain exploitation and greed? With that challenge in mind, it seems both appropriate and ironic that one of the sparks for the current discussion of the moral imagination is the philosophy of Adam Smith, the apostle of the free market. In 1753, a few years before his landmark Wealth of Nations appeared, Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments acknowledged that our human instincts toward self-interest posed ethical dangers. Our “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful” and “to neglect persons of poor and mean condition” was “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” Smith offers an antidote: we need “moral sympathy,” the ability to imagine oneself in another's stead. None of this comes naturally. As Smith observes, we tend to keep up appearances by showing an “artificial sympathy” at the misfortunes of others, but shed it all “as soon as we have left the room.” Full emotional sympathy with others cannot be mandated, and so Smith argues for a cognitive understanding of others' experience. We must at least discipline our minds to undergo an “imaginary change” and view the world through others' eyes. Perhaps,
 
. . . once in a while,
you can creep out of your own life
and become someone else—
an explosion
in that nest of wires . . .
 
3.
 
During the months before our trip to Belize, I had been reading the work of Richard Hays, the Duke Methodist, who contends that our primary ethical responsibility is to live in “imaginative obedience” to the “moral vision of the New Testament.” For Hays, our duty is twofold—to listen more carefully to the biblical voices in their historical context and in their prophetic relevance. To be obedient to the moral vision of the Gospel, according to Hays, we need a deeper commitment to biblical study, a more acute ear for hearing both the sweeping and the cacophonic themes emerging from the many cadences in the scriptural texts. It also requires that we discern how the apostles and witnesses from the ancient Mediterranean world continue to speak to the scientific, social and geopolitical dimensions of the twenty-first century.
 
This call for obedience—the challenge to approach the Scriptures as a compelling moral vision and not simply a moralistic code—requires a wide reach, some grasp of logic, empathy, creativity, intuition, patience and foresight, in other words the full range of the imagination. As John Paul Lederach observes in his study on peacemaking, all the varying notions of a moral imagination dwell on “the quality of transcendence”—the patience, ethical fervor and intellectual agility to escape “what appear to be narrow, short-sighted, or structurally determined dead-ends.”
 
Such images provide some fresh winds for the dry spaces in the Christian liberal arts. Evangelicals have long been known for moral intensity, including some self-righteous jeremiads on cultural decline as well as some selfless gestures of compassion in places like Jakarta and Belize City. Christian colleges and universities have held high standards for integrity and service. In general, though, we have been less distinguished by imaginative endeavors to resolve social dilemmas or discern new moral duties. Often what is missing is both an imaginative engagement with tradition and texts and our full participation in the key forums of the public square—as well as in the obscure alleys and cul-de-sacs where many of the most severe needs are apparent and the most impressive social innovations are first sowed. 
 
At Christian colleges, folksy, anecdotal tales that reassure us of our daily duties and our place in God’s favor are the most palatable diet of sermons and homilies. Not surprisingly, evangelical students contend that the church should focus on personal spiritual issues and be wary of getting involved with social changes. In a recent study, only 15% of Christian College Consortium students claimed that the poor are responsible for their own poverty, but three-quarters of those same students asserted that social problems are best addressed by changing people's hearts. As the research of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith reveals, this emphasis on personal piety rather than social reform is especially strong among white evangelicals, who are considerably less likely than members of African-American churches to accept the need to address structural inequities in society.  We have done a better job nurturing hearts to serve than minds able to imagine new possibilities for social hope. 
 
4.

As a metaphor blending personal morality and social action, the idea of a moral imagination may help replenish our thoughts about “the integration of faith and learning.” Indebted primarily to the Reformed tradition, the call for integration has long been a confident refrain, a challenge to both the secularism of the academy and the anti-intellectualism of the church. At its best, it has sparked a candid appraisal of the first principles that underlie our assumptions about learning and behavior. It has contested the scientific positivism that emerged from the Enlightenment—the notion that the quest for truth is solely empirical, quite separate from any religious journey, divine revelation or intuitive discovery. It has held before us, as the goal of inquiry, the unity of knowledge and the coherence of God's purpose and creation. While championing piety, introspection and spiritual discipline, the project of integration has sought to insure that the life of the mind is not eclipsed by devotion or feeling. Happily, it has created common ground where many Christian institutions, previously isolated by denominational loyalties or doctrinal quarrels, have found rejuvenating spaces for consultation and scholarship.  
 
Yet, despite all of its persuasive pull within Christian higher education, the call for integration all too often remains an intramural enterprise within the Christian academy, with few reverberations in the culture or the church.   For all of its vigor, the theme may be slightly shopworn, easily seized by every religious college to cover ventures that often look like anything but rigorous inquiry or courage. If I have listened well, it may also be a source of some vocational anxiety for young scholars. Does one, during an early stage of a career, step aside from the momentum of a research program to write works that will be read almost exclusively within the Christian academy? Or should one first establish credibility in one's field, devote years to biblical study and reflection, and only then, with the wisdom of experience, venture into such bold terrain where theology and disciplinary expertise meet? One danger, as you might expect, is a complacent dualism, where faculty and students pursue work for years in their disciplines with little regard for matters of theology and moral import. But another danger is drawing scholars too early into an insular cottage industry among Christian academics, one that may be slightly biased toward the cognitive rather than the full human condition.
 
The reverberations coming from the current literature about the moral imagination do promise some new ways of framing our vocation and calling, without necessarily abandoning our challenge to connect the life of the mind and the life of faith. We can escape some of our insular tendencies, I think, if we approach our vocations not simply as an effort to forge some intellectual synthesis on our own campuses but also as a means of engaging the moral and intellectual questions that call forth our most imaginative work. To do that, I realize, we must think more imaginatively about the ways that we use our intellectual liberty and heed the biblical mandates for both justice and holiness.
 
5.

On the morning we drove to Jaguar Creek, we left our quiet motel in Hopkins, a small bicycle town with its own dialect, mostly a two-mile string of wooden homes and red-dust lots near a ribbon of beach. The morning was warm early: the humidity would rise, but now at least we had the advantage of the ocean breezes. Before heading into the hills, we drove north through the peninsular city of Dangriga, the center for the Garífuna, or people of mixed African and Caribbean descent. We needed gas and a quick stop at a bank or ATM. Since his Nazarene congregation supports a church here, Cliff was also interested in a glimpse at the environs. Recently scrapping its former English name for a Garífuna label, Dangriga was once a center of Caribbean slavery but is now a place of great cultural resurgence, a port city with inventive reggae, pop and dance. 
 
It is also, according to the guidebooks, a risky place to linger at night. Banks and shops had iron grills. There were bars and pawn shops all along the “sweet waters,” or the heavily littered Stann Creek that split the town. The street merchandize was faded, much second-hand. Dorothy did find one offbeat Red Sox cap, but Cliff came up empty at the banks. While they were absorbed, I allowed myself a brisk, one-block dash to see the bridge over the river, apparently a lure for the foot traffic and idlers. Not surprisingly, this was a tourist corner, and in the relative quiet of April I was an easy magnet. Although able to avoid one combative broker near a tobacco stand, I also hustled by a young shoeless boy, with his hand up for cash. That took a quick swallow—but we had a schedule to keep. A few hours later, while reading poems in that quiet cabin at Jaguar Creek, the acid suddenly hit.  
 
It is such a familiar dilemma. Street charity may be short-sighted and even counterproductive, too often a lifeline for drugs and alcohol. At best, it is a momentary balm for deep, cancerous wounds. It was easy to think, with dismay, about the many mission teams from well-meaning colleges that have rushed naively into poor neighbors to distribute soup or Bibles without the discipline to learn anything about the macroeconomic, cultural or community development issues in the region. I was certainly guilty myself of coming to Belize on minimal homework. And, as I have since discovered, there are some imaginative projects attempting to address human needs in Belize, many under the radar screen of most political or media reports. These include projects to improve the education and safety of women, projects to connect indigent urban youth and small rural business to the opportunities of the expanding ecotourism and agricultural diversity. They include churches devoted to rural literacy and shelter for the abused. They include several partnerships between NGOs and educators to strengthen local and urban democratic practices as an antidote to the authoritarian tendencies that are often apparent after the end of colonial rule. 
 
To be an imaginative liberal arts college, our curriculum needs to help students locate and critique these progressive endeavors. In our public forums—symposia, convocations, chapels, and public lectures—we need to be more diligent about finding, showcasing, and evaluating the most imaginative efforts to address current challenges, becoming increasingly wary of speakers who use our platforms simply to perpetuate the usual diatribes. As we construct our various ministry programs, we need to ask if we have directed the evangelical impulse for service and compassion toward the most imaginative, even experimental, projects or merely followed familiar channels, reinforcing old, often less effective, even self-serving habits of piety and care. As we think of our advising, we need to be bolder in our vision for our students, especially in how we enhance their post-baccalaureate transition to places of study and service that will prepare them for significant roles in global leadership. 
 
And we must think imaginatively about teaching. As a teacher, I need to be asking if my curriculum merely perpetuates familiar canons and comfortable intellectual habits, or if have I crafted work for students that enables them to explore new possibilities for moral agency. It is easy to let my loyalty to the conventions of the guild—whether voluntary or prescribed—trump efforts to pull together faculty and students on our own campus to think through the most critical questions, to discover and model a morally imaginative life together. What might our majors look like if they provided more bridges to the most challenging work of the next generation? How do I connect Belize or Jakarta to the structure of reading and examination at Wenham?
 
A few months later, I am still left with that image of a hungry child, one without any “look of cunning.” Now, it seems like nothing more than moral leisure on my part to stride by a poor child in the name of some larger educational agenda. Jesus, an itinerant, ministered to and healed those he encountered at the fringes. Part of the revolutionary power of Christ's ministry was that he walked outside of the major social corridors of education, worship and economy—ironically, the very type of kind of social engines that we now must engage in order to build social hope. One of the great imaginative challenges in the New Testament is the effort to bridge from the immediacy, the parousia, the highly personal appeal of the new Gospel to the culture-building evident in the epistles. We are, in a very real sense, still engaged with that challenge. The first wave in the expansion of the new global Christianity, according to Calvin’s Joel Carpenter, mirrored the first generation of Christ’s followers in its warm evangelism, transparent emotions and rapid growth; a second wave needs to strengthen the infrastructures—churches, colleges, hospitals and social agencies—necessary to sustain the community of faith, increase care, and promote just relations. Bringing students to places in Dangriga—or Boston, for that matter—where want takes a human face seems ever more essential to the goal of being a liberally educated citizen in a global community. But how does a college, with global hopes, balance compassion and critique? How does one walk, either alone or with students, into these streets, with their palpable suffering and their intricate and seemingly intractable problems, and not leave with the impression that the destitute have served merely as part of our pedagogical landscape? Then again, how do we insure that we are prompting not just the reflex of compassion but also the resolve of the imagination?
 

I left Belize realizing that I must imagine new ways of being obedient to my vocation as a Christian academic—and to the moral vision of the Gospel.