Our Only World: Ten Essays (Wendell Berry, 2015)

Seeing What’s Really Around Us
When I was small it was not uncommon for some adult to mention that some fool or other needed “some sense knocked into him.” I never witnessed the deed and the fact that this was often linked to the expression, “a swift kick in the pants” only increased my confusion as to what the process actually included. The only clue I remember picking up was when an uncle said a “tour in the Marines on some godforsaken rock in the ocean would do the job,” a fate I hoped to avoid at all costs.

Having good sense requires seeing life and reality so clearly that we can flourish as a person even in a broken world. It may sound simple but it isn’t. It’s closer to the notion of wisdom that is explored and demonstrated in the ancient wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures than in the rarified, abstract notion of philosophical reasoning proposed by the Greeks. Seeing life and reality with clarity takes a lifetime of observation, an unhurried willingness to learn, and a way of seeing shaped by a story that is not limited to the narrow horizons of time and space. Every once in a while, if grace is with us, if we listen carefully, we might catch a quiet, wise voice of good sense that can bring a bit of clarity amidst the clamor of busyness, competing ideologies and talking heads that assault us. Finding such a voice is a bracing experience.

One such voice of good sense for me is Wendell Berry. A farmer and poet, his prose demonstrates that his feet are firmly planted in the reality of the ordinary, his mind is deeply rooted in the ancient truth of scripture, his heart is alive to God’s presence, and his imagination is open to the priceless beauty of God’s creation and our embodied relationship to it. His is a common sense that is uncommon.

There are a host of reasons to dismiss Wendell Berry. Conservatives dismiss him as an environmentalist. Progressives dismiss him as a Luddite. Evangelicals dismiss him for having bad theology. Secularists dismiss him for holding any theology at all. Read Our Only World—if you don’t find something with which to disagree you probably aren’t paying attention.

But dismissing Wendell Berry is a mistake—for several reasons. For one thing, even when I disagree with him I find that encountering his ideas clarifies my own in ways that enlarge my understanding and perspective. And he is one of the few public voices not beholden to the various ideologies/idolatries that compete for our submission. It’s a refreshing change, like a taste of fine wine between rather unsavory dishes in a dirty restaurant. Another reason: Berry is an explicitly Christian voice that is not simply ignored by our post-Christian culture—witness how Harper’s Magazine (February 2015), a magazine not particularly friendly to Christianity, published an excerpt of Our Only World. He knows how to speak intelligibly and plausibly outside church circles. Another reason: Berry has spent his life in a small community in Kentucky, investing four decades in cultivating land and relationships in a landscape he has come to cherish. He may be guilty of many things, but being out of touch with real people living ordinary lives is not one of them. Another reason: Berry has carefully honed his giftedness with words so that he speaks with a quiet persuasiveness that is both convicting and compelling. Most of all, the reason we must not dismiss Berry is that the themes that he explores are ultimately rooted in the unshakable conviction that people are human beings, creatures bearing God’s image living in God’s good world, a creation of inestimable significance and dignity because it is the Lord’s.

If you have not read Wendell Berry, a good place to begin is with his novel Jayber Crow. It explores themes of calling, finding purpose, being faithful, and what it looks like to reach deep fulfillment as a person even if you happen not to ever be in the limelight. It would make for excellent summer reading. Or winter reading, for that matter, or spring or fall. Just read it.

Our Only World is a collection of short pieces that, as the title suggests, address what it means to care for God’s earth. Woven throughout are a series of commitments that usually get lost when this topic is discussed. If they appear at all they almost always are accepted selectively and partially, distributed among ideological agendas that are usually allowed to dominate the conversation. These commitments, however, are essential to a Christian view of things. Wendell Berry is explicit about the commitments he holds, and always tries to make clear how he believes they are best applied. I do not always agree with his specific applications, but realize that the burden is then on me to propose alternative applications that do justice to the foundational convictions underlying the discussion.

I am not qualified to list Berry’s essential commitments in any sort of exhaustive way (I haven’t even read all his books), and will not try to do so. But here are some that stand out to me that are firmly rooted in his Christian world and life view:

* People are created in God’s image, are therefore significant in ways that transcend our understanding and must be treated with dignity and care. There are not any exceptions, nor can any be tolerated.
* The earth is the Lord’s and by divine action is given into our care as stewards of God. How we treat the earth and use its resources matters. This means that any view of the earth that explicitly or implicitly considers its riches, resources and places as expendable instead of stewarded is immoral.
* Violence can be done not just to people, but also to the earth, and both are an assault on the dignity of God.
* Our bottom line must not be profit but human flourishing. Or put another way, any bottom line that does not take people and the earth into consideration must be restructured to acknowledge the reality of our calling before God.
* Human beings need place to flourish, which means that local communities are often irreplaceable. Though a highly mobile society may doubt this truth, policies that do not embrace it will to some extent yield inhumane results.
* Just as we must be ready to sacrifice for the sake of people, we must also be willing to sacrifice for the sake of stewarding God’s good earth. Both are a matter of faithfulness to God and essential to our humanness as bearing God’s likeness.

I have found it very frustrating to try to discuss caring for the earth. Most of the time the dominant paradigm is political, and so the conversation quickly degrades into sloganeering. That this is true in general does not discourage me—we live in a fallen world. What is discouraging is that this is true within the church as well as outside of it. As Christians we must carve out safe places where we can review the essential commitments, explore their meaning and significance, and then propose a variety of policies and practices that are consistent with those commitments. That we might disagree as we move from convictions to policies to practices is not problematic. That we cannot discuss the essential commitments without sliding into politicizing the conversation should lead us to repentance and lament.

A good way to begin the conversation is by reading and discussing Our Only World.


Our Only World: Ten Essays by Wendell Berry (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint; 2015) 176 pages.