I don’t know if I could be a deep-sea welder. I don’t know what the risks of lethal electrocution, broken limbs, or the bends would be. I suspect it can be a dangerous occupation, like operating heavy equipment on good old dry land or fishing for crab or even collecting garbage from the neighbors’ driveways. So too is this the case with window washing, paving, disposing of medical waste, brick making, driving a giant tanker truck, and more. There are aspects of the world I know I take for granted, but the moment I stop to consider what those aspects might be, I am humbled and reminded of the privilege it is to philosophize and ponder the functions of religion in the shaping and making of society.
I have a newfound, barely there insight, both on my privilege and my need to be wiser, derived from the use of (hold your breath) a yardstick. In what is either a desperate gambit for meaning or the fulfillment of a dream long deferred, I returned to school to take some art classes this fall. I have my own homework, assignments, a syllabus, and, gasp, grades to worry about for the first time since 2003. As I drove in the dark and rain for almost an hour this morning at 6:00 am, to a parking lot that sits a solid half hour away from the bus I need to take, which deposits me a fifteen minute walk from the building where I study, in order to make a 7:45 am start time, I wondered briefly what I was doing and why. But, as soon as I took out my yardstick to measure and represent objects in perspective, I remembered why I undertook such an errand.
I don’t know a lot. I can read Greek and Latin and Hebrew. I can do research in my field in French and German, and I studied comparative poetry. I can read music and sing some songs. I play piano at an intermediate level. I can ride a bike, roller skate, and build props for my kids’ social studies assignments. I can bandage a knee, administer an epipen, cook Thanksgiving dinner, and make airline reservations. I spread mulch, rake leaves, and give Lenten and Advent retreats. I have amassed a substantial personal library of books that I have in fact read. But, I don’t know how to fix an electrical box, perform automotive repairs, install a window, hang drywall, or operate my television remote controls.
While my impulse to make art is as old as I am, I don’t really know much about how to do that either. It is always trial and error, costly use of supplies, and- up to this point – a very limited appreciation of the requirement of time and process in making something well. Driving in that dark rain, I understood that I had tired of knowing so little about so many things and figured it was time for some continuing education.
After a few lessons, I can say with certainty, “Wow, was it ever time!” When I picked up that straight edge and used it, for example, I discovered that I could see in perspective, both literally and figuratively. I was able to apply an actual technique in order to help me see. It has only been a handful of classes, but I already realize that my thought patterns are changing and growing. I see, for example, that it is along basic lines of organization in space that humans construct places to live and work. Waiting in the coffee shop, I started seeing parallel lines, angle arcs, and the deep yet simple rationale behind the shape of the environment that had been fabricated. I became aware of the light fixtures, the grout, the plastic covers of the wall outlets, the wrapped straws, and so on, aware that some one made each and every thing I was looking at. Suddenly, I felt like a citizen of the world rather than confused and mystified as a wandering tourist. Thank you, yardstick.
When I’ve gone to my sculpture class, the same thing has been happening to me mentally, as I learn how to handle and work with dangerous tools. These same tools make the car I drive or the bus I ride. These same tools craft the refrigeration units at the grocery and the shelving on my closet. These same tools make the gas tankers, the pumping stations, and the windows we look out.
As I have considered all the things that make the world go ‘round, I note that there is a prestige and a value to thinking and scholastic work. Of course, I cannot and would not deny this. However, when I consider how utterly reliant most people generally are on the trades and vocational skills areas, I am astounded that we don’t spend more time discussing the interplay and the interdependence of the human labor force in the economy of making, at least in religious discourse. This area is certainly considered to be sure, but I am increasingly aware that this subject should not be considered as a tangential or special topics issue. For, it is rather a serving of the main course because it directly speaks to the fact that people need to live; they need functional, safe space. And, many people in this world do this sort of work, even if their work is dangerous, under or unacknowledged, and trade based. It ought not to be devalued against the false prestige of service industries and higher ed.
I don’t want to be ignorant about how things work, and it strikes me that as a feminist, as a responsible theologian, and as a human being, it is time to test out a praxis of practical knowing. It is time to appreciate those deep-sea welders, who make bridges and boats safe and to gain some perspective on the actual material world. I am reminded curiously of Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu, in which one finds a behest to serious text-based biblical scholarship as a precondition for responsible interpretation of the Word of God. Perhaps looking at the world a bit more carefully is what we need to do in order to address some of our greatest problems of space, placement, relationship, proportion, value, and ultimately, maybe, one day, even beauty.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.