Lobsters and Language, Ethics in a Pluralist Age
“But why are we reading about lobsters?” I had assigned an essay on eating lobsters to students in an ethics class. On the face of it, it was a strange way to begin the term. The piece was called “Consider the Lobster.” It was written by David Foster Wallace and originally appeared in Gourmet magazine. In it Foster Wallace describes his experience at the Main Lobster Fest. Cheap cutlery and the politics of waiting in line, he observes much that the rest of us would miss. There’s an evident zest for the ambiguity of life. The complexity and beauty of the mundane drive the essay. The discussion in our seminar centered on Foster Wallace’s description of eating and the suffering this basic human activity implies. Lobsters seem to prefer not to be plunked in boiling water or ripped into pieces while still alive. Foster Wallace’s casual style and honesty allows readers to share his discomfort.
My point in assigning the piece wasn’t to evaluate the essayist’s skill, though his work is highly regarded and his style worthy of study in its own right. I wanted to draw students’ attention to the ethics of eating, and even more to the challenge of doing ethics in a pluralist society. Drawing from the work of John Howard Yoder, my suggestion was (and is) that for Christians to think coherently about ethics today they need to be able to speak two ‘languages’. One is that of the broader culture: rights, duties, law, the common good, etc. The other is our mother tongue, the language of Scripture and the Christian theological tradition: love, the Body of Christ, the narrative of creation to new creation and so on.
Christians should be able to communicate their concerns in ways that the broader culture understands while remaining grounded in the dynamics of our traditional grammar. Just as important as it is to be able to speak both languages, so too is maintaining the distinction. Though one should inform the other, we run into problems when we mash them together without care. Arguing a political point in public by referring to Scripture is silly. Engaging in Christian moral discernment with the terminology of modern politics is a recipe for frustration and division. It strikes me that good theological and cultural formation allows Christians to speak fluently in both contexts, an increasingly necessary ability. I’m not knowledgeable enough to know if our schools and churches are helping us do this. I hope so, but if not, there’s always Gourmet.