“The agrarian mind is, at bottom, a religious mind.”—Wendell Berry
In the aftermath of 9/11, one of the more thoughtful voices in response to those events belonged to Wendell Berry. In his essay, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” Berry argues that the 2001 tragedy was tied to a failure of human imagination to foresee “that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us.” This failure of imagination was caused by American idolatry of global free trade and technological expansion, resulting in an enduring commitment to violence as the means for peace and to competition as the means for progress.
This commitment to war was enshrined in the “Bush doctrine” of preemptive war, which Berry criticized bitterly the following year in an essay that appeared first as a paid advertisement in the New York Times. Berry pointed out that our current definition of terrorism makes a misleading distinction between illegitimate warfare, conducted by terrorists, and legitimate warfare, conducted by governments: indeed, “a more correct definition of ‘terrorism’ would be this: violence perpetrated unexpectedly without the authorization of a national government. Violence perpetrated unexpectedly with such authorization is not ‘terrorism’ but ‘war.’” This distinction between illegitimate terrorism and legitimate preemptive war rests upon “the now official idea that the enemy is evil and that we are (therefore) good, which is the precise mirror image of the official idea of the terrorists.”
Unlike other commentators, though, Berry’s biting response was rooted deeply in a vision that draws heavily from the Christian tradition. Born in 1934 in New Castle, Kentucky, and trained as a novelist, poet, and essayist at the University of Kentucky and Stanford University, Berry returned to his roots literally and intellectually when he moved back to his native Henry County, Kentucky, after a stint as the head of the English Department at New York University. Not only did Berry return to the practice of farming, which had been his family’s for several generations, but he also sought intellectual ballast in the Christian tradition that he had previously rejected in the early 1960s as meaningless to his concerns over sustainable agriculture, land use, racial reconciliation, and peace. An invitation to lecture at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary forced Berry to return to the Christian Scriptures in order to discover whether the Bible had anything to say on these issues. To his surprise, Berry found that the biblical tradition did speak to creation care, localism and peaceableness in ways that supported and extended his own critique of the modern dalliance with the military-industrial complex.
And so, even in his response to the recent events of terror and preemptive war, Berry highlighted his commitment both to Christian beliefs and an agrarian tradition. According to him, nations should be charitable, rooted in the biblical command to love one’s enemies: this “suggests that charity must be without limit; it must include everything. A nation’s charity must come from the heart and the imagination of its people. It requires us ultimately to see the world as a community of all the creatures, a community which, to be possessed by any, must be shared by all.” If Americans come to believe that they belong to a community of all creation, then Berry believes that they must pay attention to the land itself as part of the entire equation of “homeland defense”: “All military strength, all our police, all our technologies and strategies of suspicion and surveillance,” Berry writes, “cannot make us secure if we lose our ability to farm, or if we squander our forests, or if we exhaust or poison our water sources.”
This vision of care of creation, peaceableness, and localism drawn from Christian sources provide an important conversation partner for those who embrace the Christian tradition but have thoughtlessly embraced the dominant ideology of the American military-industrial complex [that is, the apparent collusion between Big Business and Big Military to control social, political, and agricultural policy]. In a similar fashion, Berry’s explicitly Christian basis for his ecological vision also stands as an important conversation point for those who recognize the importance of care for the environment but have believed that Christian theological reflection is actually part of the problem, rather than the solution. It just may be that through his essays, poems, and his novels and stories that focus on the land of Port William and the people who belong to it, Wendell Berry’s vision of creator, creation, and community can provide a safe place for a conversation over these important concerns.
The Creator’s Kingdom
At the beginning of his essay, “The Two Economies,” Berry recounts a conversation with fellow conservationist, Wes Jackson. While arguing over the type of economy that would be comprehensive enough to provide a basis of exchange in place of the money economy, Berry finally asks Jackson, “Well then what kind of economy would be comprehensive enough?” Jackson replies, “The Kingdom of God.” For Berry, the image becomes indispensable because it is not connected with abstract academic speculation on the environment; yet the term carries cultural and religious connotations. While he uses the term interchangeably with “the Great Economy,” Berry makes clear that he remains “under the personal necessity of Biblical reference.”
In Berry’s usage, the Kingdom of God emphasizes the connectedness of life. All life is important; everything from the fall of a sparrow to the erosion of soil affects all other life. Berry also uses the image of “network” to express this fundamental connection. Within this “spherical network,” there are connections between all things: “the influences go backward and forward, up and down, round and round, compounding and branching as they go.” Thus, bad land use in one place does not merely affect that particular place; rather, it affects everything, the entire Kingdom of God. In a similar fashion, what happens up river affects those down stream; hence, the golden rule of life in God’s Kingdom involves “a condition of absolutely interdependency and obligation.”
Life ought to be viewed as organic, not mechanical. Humans should seek a life in this world that “never exceeds natural limits, never grows beyond the power of its place to support it, produces no waste, and enriches itself by death and decay.” An organic view of life would recognize that when humans destroy one part of the world, they cannot simply replace it with another part of the world. Rather, when humans destroy one part of the world, the effects are felt and known by the whole organism.
The Kingdom of God is orderly; there is nothing “random” within it. Everything within the Kingdom of God follows a pattern that may be imperceptible to human sight or thought but is held together within God’s mind. Patterns that human thought cannot comprehend are not random; rather, they partake of mystery. Mystery is a category that Berry uses to stress human limitations in knowing the unknowable. “To call the unknown by its right name, ‘mystery,’ is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, smaller patterns,” Berry writes. When humans rename mystery as “random,” they either marginalize the importance of the unknown or they hold out hope for some future understanding. The failure to admit human ignorance, Berry warns, ultimately leads to the exploitation and destruction of creation.
Another word that Berry uses interchangeably with mystery is miracle. By that, he means that the dominant mechanical and materialistic way of talking about humankind fails to account for “the present” in which we are alive and for which science cannot account. Science can account for the “mechanics” of life, but it cannot account for beginning of life in the new born calf, for the soul of human beings, or for the life created when soil and seed meet. That moment of life in the present is nothing less than miracle.
The mystery and miracle of God’s Kingdom should chasten humans because they can have only incomplete and fallible knowledge. Berry argues, “It is hard to see how our systems of thought could be other than fallible, once we grant that they cannot be contrived except by fallible creatures; fallibility is an infection in us that we inevitably communicate to our works.” This fallibility is due to humanity’s incomplete knowledge. “We can’t include everything,” Berry notes, “because we don’t know everything; we can’t comprehend what comprehends us.”
Humankind’s fallibility should chasten its native sin, hubris or prideful arrogance, and inculcate the opposite virtues, humility and faith. In hubris, human beings believe that they can control the Kingdom of God by exercising total control over the creation; they do not sense that smaller economies in fact are dependent upon God’s economy. However, when humans recognize their place within the divine order, when they gain real knowledge, they recognize that limits “belong necessarily to the definition of a human being.” This recognition births humility, which is nothing less than “an understanding and acceptance of the human place in the order of Creation.” Such humility, in turn, leads to faith. Berry suggests that when a human lives by faith, she trusts the processes by which God’s Kingdom provides and sustains topsoil and water, the source of food and life. She also seeks to work in harmony with the order already established. In short, living by faith, by prayer, is a confession of dependence upon God and God’s Kingdom.
Creation and the Land
Within this understanding of God’s rule, summed up in the image of the Kingdom of God, Berry moves to discuss smaller economies that are based upon and mirror God’s overarching pattern. The central reality within the smaller economies is creation. Berry reflects theologically on creation and its care in his essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation.”
First, Berry argues that all the earth belongs to God; human beings do not own the world or any part of it. Second, God’s ownership stems from the fact that God created all things. Third, God was pleased by God’s creation; God continues to find pleasure in and love for creation because it is good. Fourth, creation is in no sense independent of its Creator. Rather, the creation continuously and constantly participates in the being of God. Hence, “creation is God’s presence in creatures,” the result of which is a sanctity that clothes being in general. Finally, the destruction of creation is not merely bad stewardship; rather, “it is the most horrid blasphemy.” As creatures, human beings “have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin or waste them. We have the right to use what we need but no more.” Berry’s theology of creation could be summed up in this way: “We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.” The creation is sacred because it participates in God’s being.
This creation is not an abstraction called “the environment.” Berry believes that the word environment came from academics and conservationists who were embarrassed by the religious connotations of “creation” but found “world” too banal or mundane. “Environment” pictures the world around humanity yet separate from it. The word suggests a dualism that is the basis, ironically, for ecological destructiveness. If the environment is an abstraction that is out there, apart from real human life, then it can be abused without affecting human life. Abstractions like “environment” fail to distinguish one place from another; as a result, “local life may be as much endangered by those who would ‘save the planet’ as by those who would ‘conquer the world’.” Rather than the term environment, Berry champions “creation,” which pictures “a holy mystery,” that which was “made for and to some extent by creatures, some but by no means all of whom are human.”
The creation takes on absoluteness and specificity in Berry’s work as topsoil, land, and place. For example, in the essay “The Two Economies,” Berry focuses on the topsoil in order to give concreteness to his discussion of religious themes and to give sanctity to an agricultural topic. He observes that the way the soil renews itself is “unearthly,” a type of the resurrection. And yet, his discussion is not mystical; as he notes, such talk is entirely appropriate because the soil is renewed through the process of dying and coming to life again.
Again, in a discussion of “Private Property and the Common Wealth,” Berry argues that long-term commitment to the land, to a specific place, is necessary to preserve life, both now and hereafter. “The possibility of intimacy between worker and place,” Berry writes, “is virtually identical with the possibility of good work. True intimacy in work, as in love, means lifelong commitment.” A third, and most obvious example, of Berry’s specificity is his second novel, A Place on Earth. The focus of the book is ultimately the fictional place, Port William and its environs. As the characters move through the rhythms of life in Port William, they express their attachment to and affection for a particular place. This fidelity to the land, place, and soil gives specificity to Berry’s theology of creation. Creation is not a metaphysical idea as much as it is Port Royal, Kentucky, and other specific places.
Human beings participate within creation by partaking both of earthly and heavenly stuff. In a discussion of Genesis 2:7 (which is the first book of the Bible and serves as the account of creation; this verse reads, “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”), Berry contends that the formula given in that text is not human equals body plus soul, but soul (or perhaps better, being) equals dust plus breath. “God did not make a body and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope,” he argues. Rather, “He formed man of dust; then by breathing His breath into it, He made the dust live.” Such an understanding, for Berry, shatters the dualism of spiritual versus material, body versus soul. Rather, humankind as being partakes of earthly and divine stuff and is a unity.
While humans willingly emphasize their spiritual natures, they forget that they are embodied souls (or ensouled bodies) and thus have a connection with dirt, and hence with soil and its use and abuse. Berry argues that humans have become isolated bodies, deeding over care of the body to hospitals and supermarkets that care not at all about the soul, and care of the soul to ministers and psychiatrists who care little about body. By isolating the body in this way, human beings not only devalue the soul; they also lose their true connection with life in this world. By losing their connection with dust, humans willingly abuse the material—whether their own bodies or the creation—in order to further the spiritual or ideal.
Berry faults religion for this dualism: “The dominant religious view, for a long time, has been that the body is a kind of scrip issued by the Great Company Store in the Sky, which can be cashed in to redeem the soul but is otherwise worthless.” The result of this dualism is that humans cherish a “semiconscious hatred of the ‘physical’ or ‘natural’ part, which it is ready and willing to destroy for ‘salvation,’ for profit, for ‘victory,’ or for fun.” The net result is that human beings are lonely beings, shut off from connection with the rest of creation; without this, humans become violent for they have no reason to care about others—whether other people and creatures or the land. The violent destruction of the rest of creation is “another blasphemy” for it destroys the organism, the network, “in which we live and move and have our being.”
The Gathered Community
Humankind in general, however, is not solely to blame for their failure to understand the nature of creation or their place in it. In Berry’s view, the institutional church bears responsibility for focusing on the spiritual at the denigration or exclusion of the material. Berry complains that “Christianity, as usually presented by its organizations, is not earthly enough—a valid spiritual life, in this world, must have a practice and a practicality—it must have a material result.” Instead, churches seem overwhelmingly preoccupied with saving individual, disembodied souls for another world.
Even worse, according to Berry, the Christian church has adopted the shibboleths of the industrial mindset, emphasizing specialization, efficiency, and growth. By becoming like the industrial world and by relying upon the financial resources of capitalism, the Christian church often has served as a cheerleader for war, the modern economy, and the destruction of creation. As a result, the institutional church focuses on ushering anemic souls in a disembodied state to “the good place,” and ignores economics, science, agriculture, and nature—major components of life in this world.
As a result of this failure of the institutional church, Berry proposes a different approach: the gathered community. In Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, the main character serves as the barber of Port William, Kentucky, and observes the life and history of the town. He also takes the position of church janitor in order to continue to involve himself in the town’s life. One day, after working, he had a vision in which he articulates the basis of the gathered community and how it differs from the gathered church:
My vision of the gathered church that had come to me after I became the janitor had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and alwaysThis community is gathered by memory. As the community works out its ritual life together, the repeated action of rural life brings past community members to mind and gathers them to the present. In addition, such community is inclusive. Unlike a church that disciplines its wayward members and even may excommunicate them, a gathered community cannot do so. In fact, such unruly community members are essential to the community, for these individuals provide an opportunity to perfect each other in love, compassion, and forgiveness. Rebellious community members force a demonstration of amazing grace, the grace that demands that Christians love their enemies.
fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on…It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw then all as some how perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.
This gathered community is not merely a community of people. Rather, the community equals people plus land plus everything else. “If we speak of a healthy community, we cannot be speaking of a community that is merely human,” Berry writes, “We are talking about a neighborhood of humans in a place, plus the place itself: its soil, its water, its air, and all the families and tribes of the nonhuman creatures that belong to it.” The great failure of many communitarians, in Berry’s view, is their failure to include nonhumans and the land in their understanding of community. Perhaps this is why, in a list of instructions on how to conserve communities, Berry lists second, “Always include local nature—the land, the water, the air, the native creatures—within the membership of the community.”
Considered culturally, a community is a placed people that do good work. This work is not solely the shared work of mutual dependencies. Rather, “the community is an order of memories preserved consciously in instructions, songs, and stories, and both consciously and unconsciously in ways. A healthy culture holds preserving knowledge in place for a long time. That is, the essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds the soil.”
The work of the community takes place in a four-fold manner. First, the community works by memory. Memory can only be gained as the community stays in place over a long time. Berry believes that “the most complete speech is that of conversation in a settled community of some age, where what is said refers to and evokes things, people, places that are commonly known. In such a community, to speak and hear is to remember.” As a result, memory takes on religious significance: “Memory,/native to this valley, will spread over it/like a grove, and memory will grow/ into legend, legend into song, song/into sacrament.” Memory recalled ministers grace to those who remember. Second, the community works by sharing. By confessing their native interdependency, a community shares in mutual help and by preserving the land of the place. Third, the community works through affection or fidelity. Affection for a place will ultimately lead to good use. “When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working and for the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love,” Berry believes. Finally, the community works to achieve harmony. Whether it is the harmony between agricultural tools and the land (such as the use of draft-horses or a hand-held scythe) or the harmony gained by working in remembrance of previous generations and their good work, the goal is the same. Berry goes so far as to claim that “we are probably going to have to learn again to judge a person’s intelligence, not by the ability to recite facts, but by the good order or harmoniousness of his or her surroundings.”
Harmony is important because it demonstrates that the individual recognizes her place in creation’s order. Harmony evidences basic humility, a recognition of human limitations and a confession that humans cannot control God’s Kingdom. Because harmony is a human artifact, it is something humans must choose to make; humans must choose to live in harmony with creation. If humans do, the result is beauty; the result is community.
The Challenge of Wendell Berry’s Vision
Wendell Berry’s vision of the creator’s rule over a good creation for a gathered community which humbly cooperates with creation’s rhythms serves as the centerpiece of a renewed agrarianism. Though Berry instinctively distrusts movements, he has come to recognize the necessity of a coherent worldview that stands in opposition to the dominant worldview held by most Americans, which excuses the degradation of creation in order to support, stimulate, and grow the “economy” and “human progress.”
Ironically, even he cannot avoid competitive metaphors to discuss the conflict between competing ideologies: “I believe that this contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our world.” Industrialism is “the way of the machine” as “an explanation of the world and of life”; it is the image of consumption, organization, and violence to the creation; its gods are technology and progress. By contrast, agrarianism is the way that starts with “givens: land, plants, animals, whether, hunger, and the birthright knowledge of agriculture”; it is the image of frugality, organicism, and peaceableness to the creation; its goods are simplicity, humility, and harmony. Whereas industrialism seeks to conquer new frontiers, agrarianism sees, accepts, and lives within limits: “there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms—and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies.” At the end of the day, however, Berry is adamant that “agrarianism is primarily a practice, a set of attitudes, a loyalty and a passion.” His vision is nothing if not practicable.
And so, as we grapple with Berry’s agrarian vision rooted in creator, creation, and community, it might do well to consider what type of new practices to which he calls us. Pre-eminently, I think, Berry desires for us to view our communities whole—not simply including all of the people in our local community, but the soil, water, birds, fish, plants. Our urban and suburban communities belong to each other as one whole system that also includes rural neighbors, its surrounding landscape and its watershed. By seeing “the whole horse” with a sympathetic mind, we will be able to recognize how what we do in our cities connects to what is done in the countryside.
Hence, urban sprawl is not simply a St. Louis problem or a Jefferson County problem; it is a problem to which each of us belongs to. Poor wages for farmers or the use of migrant workers is not simply a rural issue; these are issues that affect the fabric of our life together as part of this creation. The redevelopment of brown fields, indeed the mere existence of them to begin with, raises all sorts of questions about how to live in this world.
Once local people gain a new view of their communities, then they are equipped to ask the hard questions that will enable them to live more locally: what will this do to our community? How will this affect our common wealth? What will this do to local nature, our land, our watersheds, the native creatures of the place? How can we supply local needs from local suppliers? How might we work better by involving small-scale industries and business to support local farm or forest economies? In what ways might we seek to keep our money within our local communities by supporting local producers and suppliers? In what ways might we concretely demonstrate neighborliness through sustained acts of friendliness and charity? How might we conserve the wisdom of those who have known this particular place longer than we have? How might we extend the benefit of real land ownership to as many people as possible? How might we limit the danger of the ownership of large acreages by the oligarchic few or by multinational corporations that have loyalties to no one save their shareholders? These are the questions that Berry’s vision of creator, creation, and community force us toward—questions that reflect God’s ownership of God’s good creation, our place as stewards and cooperators with creation and one another, and the practices that are required. It is for these questions and for the vision that supports them that all of us need to hear Wendell Berry.