Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, the Christian Soul, and Creation Care

Who cares more about protecting the Creation: evangelical Christians, or secular agnostics?

Courtesy Ruth Wheeler

Courtesy Ruth Wheeler

To most of my friends engaged in conservation or environmental justice, the answer seems obvious. “Don’t you know,” they ask me, “that evangelicals are the main supporters of those working to muzzle the EPA and gut the rules governing the most toxic power plants? Aren’t they the ones always questioning the global consensus on climate change, and cheering on the tar sands, strip miners and frackers?”

Well, I wish I had a better answer, because it’s not so easy to dispute the charges. And yet, I’ve noticed something perplexing. Even though my secular friends are much more likely to accept the findings of environmental science, precious few of them show much interest in the hard lifestyle choices that will be necessary to prevent the collapse of global ecosystems. Granted, they know that exploitation and abuse of the Creation is stupid. But stupid isn’t enough. Sure, stupid will win debates. But knowing what’s stupid hasn’t done much to transform a global culture built upon me-first consumerism.

And it’s here that the gospel offers hope that’s almost certainly beyond the capacity of secular thought. That’s because the Creation desperately needs a community of people who know that abuse of the Creation is much worse than stupid. This is the time for a community with a deep awareness that abuse of what God has made is actual blasphemy – a desecration of the holy gifts of a just and sovereign God, hurling the work of the Creator back into his glorious face. Those are the people with the compelling passion – fueled by numinous awe – to restore the possessions and inheritance of their Redeemer.

But where are they, you ask? Well, unfortunately, you won’t find many in American evangelical churches. Not that this makes much sense. The Bible that we evangelicals presume to embrace affirms God’s love for all of his Creation; it declares that all of it is good; that it belongs to God, not mankind; that God linked himself forever to it by taking on the dust of Earth in the incarnation; and that now, the purpose of his kingdom is the renewal and reconciliation of every single thing.

You’d think that people who embraced that Book would be all over Creation care. But it’s taking us some time to exorcise a particularly corrosive heresy that undermines much of what scripture commands regarding the physical world and the common good. Once again, it’s the corrupting influence of dualism – that insidious notion that we humans are some uncomfortable marriage of “body” and “soul,” each one vying for supremacy, each one offering us a choice between lofty “things above” and contemptible “things on Earth.”

The Christian poet Wendell Berry speaks persuasively into the culture of dualism, in both its religious and secular varieties. In recent weeks, we’ve given you samplings (here, and here) from his collection of essays, The Art of the Commonplace. There’s plenty here for people of every persuasion. But from my perspective, as a devoted member of this particular tribe, it’s evangelicals who have the most to gain from his prophetic voice. And once they do, I suspect the world will never be the same.

Wendell Berry on Dualism v. Love of the Creation

We can see how easy it is to fall into the dualism of body and soul when talking about the inescapable worldly dualities of good and evil or time and eternity. And we can see how easy it is when Jesus asks – “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – to assume that he is condemning the world and appreciating the disembodied soul.

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American Christianity and the Rape of Creation

It’s the cruelest mystery that evangelical earth-keepers labor to explain.

How can it be that people who have been redeemed by the grace of the Creator have so little quarrel with the forces actively plundering and destroying his Creation? Indeed, how can it be that so much of the American church is firmly allied with those forces, who routinely dismiss the warnings of learned people regarding unprecedented ocean acidification, rapid sea-level rise, runaway species extinction and unjust impacts of manmade climate change?

We ourselves keep asking the question, but we struggle for credible answers as we contemplate the implications for our faith community – both now, and at some future reckoning.

Last week, we walked with the poet Wendell Berry through some surprising teachings of the Bible regarding the nature of the Creation and our place in it as image-bearers of God. We heard, among other things, a narrative about John 3:16, the verse loved by Christians everywhere – that the incarnation and saving work of Christ was made possible only by God’s love for the world, not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is; that the words “God so loved the world” force us to confront the lovability of everything He made, despite its corruption by us; and that our destruction of nature is thus worse than stupidity or poor stewardship – it is “the most horrid blasphemy.”

Now, we also hear Berry echoing our dismay that so few American Christians exhibit meaningful interest in conserving our God’s beloved Creation:

“The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not. Nobody, of course, knows this all the time. But what keeps it from being far better known than it is? Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible? How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?” (The Art of the Commonplace, pp. 310-311)

Personally, I’ll admit to posing this sort of question myself, mainly as a rant, usually not really looking for an answer. What’s the matter with you people!? How can you embrace and defend the consumerist idolatry that undermines mankind’s first God-given task – to tend and keep the Creation? Or even, how can you look the other way, and offer mere platitudes about “stewardship” while distant populations suffer from failed crops and storm-ravaged communities?

But Berry does not rant, and for now, neither will I. Because there is a heresy at work here that infects most – perhaps all – of us Christians, to varying degrees. And it’s almost certainly at the root of much of the problem. Yes, Christians, more than anyone, have reason to affirm our role as “keepers” in God’s garden, as tenants in His vineyard. Even more, if we looked, we would be amazed at the core gospel narrative – that God loved his world so much that he became physically part of it to reconcile the whole thing to himself. All things. Nothing excluded.

More or less, we Christians do believe this. But it’s clear that we also believe – whatever we profess in our better moments – something deeply corrosive to biblical faith. It’s sometimes called dualism. And dualism shows up all over our hymns, our sermons, and our casual speech.

We sing of Christ coming to “take me home” to a disembodied spirit-world, or of the things of earth growing “strangely dim;” we tell our bereaved friends that their loved ones are “in a better place” as we continue in this material world; we come together from our offices, factories and farms into “the house of the Lord;” our pastors engage in “ministry” while we labor in worldly jobs; and we rise early for our “time with God” before heading off to our secular day’s work. These, and a thousand other hallmarks of our daily living, signal to us how neatly divided our religious minds have become: heaven there v. earth here; God’s house v. our secular workplaces; “kingdom work” v. our daily tasks; and holy souls v. tainted bodies.

Picture1We were supposed to have gotten over this dualism ages ago. The earliest Christians had to deal with the Platonic dualistic notion that the realm of ideas was exalted, but the physical creation was base. It gave rise to the Gnostic heresy that denied the actual incarnation: it was unthinkable that a holy God could become tainted by becoming actual earthy, smelly stuff. Christ may have looked human, but it was actually some clever divine trick.  Continue reading

Wendell Berry: God So Loved the World

If we read the Bible … we are apt to discover several things about which modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet or to which they have paid little attention.

We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein” …. In biblical terms, the “landowner” is the guest and steward of God: “The land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” ….

frog (2)We will discover that God found the world, as he made it, to be good, that he made it for his pleasure, and that he continues to love it and find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to Heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world – not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus dependent on the prior belief in the inherent goodness – the lovability – of the world.

We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that if God “gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh shall perish together.” And Psalm 104 says, “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created.” Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Phillip Sherrard has written that “Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.”

Picture1This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God. As the poet George Herbert put it: “Thou art in small things great, not small in any … For thou art infinite in one and all.”

We will discover that for these reasons our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them ….

William Blake was biblically correct, then, when he said that “everything that lives is holy.”

Selections from The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry, Part V: Christianity and the Survival of Creation, pp. 307-308.

Wendell Berry: Take No Thought for the Morrow

I’m thankful for Wendell Berry.

It seems all my favorite books quote his poetry liberally. I’ve even wrestled with a number of his poems myself. I’ve been challenged. My faith in the gospel has been stretched. My anger at injustice and folly has been kindled. And – whether he intended to or not – he’s exposed me for the fraud that I am.

On a superficial level, there are a few similarities, Berry and me. We both left the epicenter of American consumption for insignificant little organic farms. It seems we share the same nightmare of the consumerist destruction of all things good and beautiful. We have each been led away in handcuffs for overstaying our welcome with powerful men. I think we both cling to the gospel of Christ, but recoil in shame at the culture that loudly claims his name.

But for me, I look for solutions in big things. I desperately want national, even global, action to address the climate crisis. I see the crying need for Christians to get off the fence, and demand action now for responsible climate policies. I don’t have time for anything that won’t work, and work fast. The more furiously I run, the less time I have for the small piece of ground that has been entrusted to me. And given how few things will actually work in our broken democracy, I am prone to despair.

I suspect Berry wrestles with despair too. But he’s found a way to be faithful in small things: the Kentucky River’s polluted waters, Eastern Kentucky’s coal-devastated mountains and streams, poisoned willows and birds. Why not focus on the big things that work? How can caring for a small farm really succeed in the fight to preserve the creation for its Maker and his creatures?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” says Berry. “The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”

That quote comes from Berry’s recent interview with Bill Moyers. Berry doesn’t do a lot of interviews, but Moyer sat him down for forty minutes, and the video is thrilling to me.  Here’s a one-minute trailer for the show: 

If that looks interesting, consider watching the whole thing. But look out. I don’t believe you’ll come away unchanged, and not everyone will go for that. Here’s the entire show. It’s more than worth the time, in my book:

And in case you’re reading on, here are a few snippets I thought worth highlighting:

  • You know, you’re waiting for the day when some politician of stature and visibility will finally say, we can’t have this any longer, we’re here in Washington or Frankfort to represent the people, not to be employed or bought by the corporations and to serve them.
  • It’s an article of my faith and belief that all creatures live by breathing God’s breath and participating in his spirit. And this means that the whole thing is holy. The whole shooting match. There are no sacred and unsacred places. There are only sacred and desecrated places. So finally I see those gouges in the surface mine country as desecrations, not just as land abuse. Not just as human oppression, but as desecration. As blasphemy.
  • This is the dreadful situation that young people are in. I think of them and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience. And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.
  • Agriculture as we are now practicing it involves a highly destructive ratio between people and land. More and more land is being used, and used fairly destructively by fewer and fewer people; used destructively because the fewness of the people implies and requires a dependence on more and more mechanical power and more and more toxic chemicals.
  • It’s wrong for people to mistreat fellow creatures. To use them inconsiderately and cruelly. Let me say that there is an inescapable cruelty involved in our life. We have to live at the expense of other creatures. Doesn’t make any difference how vegetarian we are, we’re still displacing other creatures. But the rule in using other creatures – and I mean plants and animals – is to use them with the minimum of violence.
  • The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them? Tell them at least what you say to yourself. Because we have not made our lives to fit our places, the forests are ruined; the fields, eroded; the streams, polluted; the mountains, overturned. Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it, as you care for no other place… (from A Poem of Hope)

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood