Wendell Berry and the Life of Abundance
A few weeks ago, in our interview with Shane Blackshear, he mentioned the poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry as an exemplary reflection of the gospel, at least in part, that “summed up what it means to be a Christian in the world today.” I can’t recommend that poem — nor any of Berry’s essays, novels or speeches — enough. If you stop reading now in favor of a more direct approach to Berry’s work, I will consider this post a success.
Berry is a one-of-a-kind farmer, poet, novelist and activist. I’ve been a fan of him ever since I finished Jayber Crow, a fantastic novel about the eponymous small-town barber who, after briefly considering a more ambitious life as a minister, enmeshes his life with the vibrant community of his home town. My experiences have little in common with Jayber. Yet his story calmed in me a storm of anxiety precipitated by our culture’s toxic virtues of individualism and careerism, two concepts that threatened to upend my sense of identity and purpose and contentment.
Berry’s writings constantly redefine the priorities of a progress-driven culture, teaching readers to ask the important questions about their relationship with an individualistic economy — particularly as believers in a communal faith. To what do we progress? What are our responsibilities, and do these outweigh our rights?
Here’s Berry reading a brief poem about contrariness and its role in life:
This inquisitive and contrarian spirit, a willingness to ask hard questions of ourselves and our faith and our culture, is what Berry calls “the burden of the Gospels” in an essay by the same title. He employs the inquisitive spirit using John 10:10, a statement by Christ famous for its broad application to our basic yearning for a life of purpose:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
Berry notes the universal and historical tendency we’ve had to distort our own search for “abundance.” Without completely blaming it on misinterpretation — he thinks Christ’s words fairly clear, if expansive — Berry shows that there is a dangerous side to the “more is better” mindset that has gripped the nation since the industrial revolution.
To talk about or to desire more abundance of anything has probably always been dangerous, but it seems particularly dangerous now. In an age of materialist science, economics, art, and politics, we ought not to be much shocked by the appearance of materialist religion.
I wonder, what does Berry mean by “materialist religion?” His essay does not fully elaborate. In some sense, he might have in mind the way we have tied our churches to commercial and economic pursuits. Church-goers are often the center of a wealthy, elite class that are deeply entrenched in capital gain — to whatever end. But this is hardly a universal claim, and could rightly be called “materialistic religion” instead. Berry’s term suggests more unity than proximity.
In another sense, Berry likely means the religion of materialism. People who reduce reality to material causes have as much a need for faith as anyone else — and often they are led by a particularly dogmatic cadre of priests and prophets not unlike those of what we typically call religion. There is a worship among materialists, a spirituality even.
In a third, perhaps over-interpretive sense, I wonder if Berry has in mind the way in which we’ve materialized the very fabric of religion itself. This is more than a “closeness” between the church and the materialist values — this is the commoditization of spirituality, the barter and exchange of our souls for time and money. Instead of practicing their religion, Christians often seem to be buying it.
Think of our church services — the way we invest time and money in our churches, but through a veil of passivity. We show up to Sunday morning services to absorb the message. Perhaps we find a new church with different worship styles if we aren’t “getting enough” out of that experience. We aggregate our spiritual income, making sure to accrue the right amount of worship, devotionals and mission trips. Our leadership sometimes evaluates success based on numbers — attendance and contribution. In a sense, we turn what should be abundant life on earth into a prolonged purchase for a ticket to eternal life somewhere else.
Regardless of Berry’s original meaning, the modern church seems bent on defining “abundant life” — both secular and religious — in consumptive terms, having drawn a deep partition between the health of their spirit and the process of daily living.
In contrast Berry presents a picture of what Christ might have really meant by his declaration of abundant life:
When Jesus speaks of having life more abundantly, this, I think, is the life He means: a life that is not reducible by division, category, or degree, but is one thing, heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, divided only insofar as it is embodied in distinct creatures. He is talking about a finite world that is infinitely holy, a world of time that is filled with life that is eternal. His offer of more abundant life, then, is not an invitation to declare ourselves as certified “Christians,” but rather to become conscious, consenting, and responsible participants in the one great life, a fulfillment hardly institutional at all.
Rather than religion being a ticket to somewhere else, Berry views it as an automatic membership that starts while we are still in the world — something akin to what Dallas Willard calls “entering the eternal kind of life now” in his book The Divine Conspiracy. Of course, this membership in creation entails some heavy responsibilities:
To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with greatest weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been and are, by any measure, the humans most guilty of desecrating the world and of destroying creation. And we ought to be a little terrified to realize that, for the most part and at least for the time being, we are helplessly guilty.
Berry concludes his essay with a recourse to the inquisitive spirit and to the idea that “living with the questions” — neither ignoring them nor pretending like we already know the answers — is the fundamental burden of the Gospels. Ultimately, this is the way we respond to our membership in creation: the abundant life of Christ is abundantly creative, not abundantly consumptive.
If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left, in our dire predicament, facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures? The answer, we may say, is given in Jesus’s teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and peculiarly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?
That question calls for many answers, and we don’t know most of them. It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time — if they are allowed a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.
The inquisitive spirit guides Berry’s work insistently, and it provides a certain humility and confession of ignorance common to all humanity that he explores elsewhere as a virtue. His words echo the letters of Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his book Letters to a Young Poet:
I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Further Reading and Listening
- The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays — A collection of Wendell Berry’s essays
- The article on BrainPickings that first led me to the above book and Berry’s nonfiction writings
- These 16 resolutions, also from BrainPickings, that introduced me to the Rainer Maria Rilke quote
- “The Poetry of Creatures,” an episode of the podcast On Being, featuring Ellen Davis and Wendell Berry