A Little Bit of Berry

A little bit of Wendell Berry can go a long way, in a good way. He gives you lots to think about. I have just picked up and begun to read The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, which is edited and introduced by our acquaintance Norman Wirzba.

I’m still working my way through Norman’s introduction, but I came across this (the parts in quotes are Berry’s words):

The path toward wholeness depends on our discovery and acknowledgment of, and then response to, a greater goodness that contextualizes us. Our fundamental mistake is that we have presumed to be the authors of ourselves and our destinies, and thus have forgotten or denied that we are part of ‘a great coathorship in which we are all collaborating with God and with nature in the making of ourselves and one another.’ We can only become what we truly are by acknowledging that we do not exist by, from, and for ourselves. Our lives are always rooted in a natural and cultural community, so that to cut ourselves off from these roots, whether that be in the name of progress or human liberation, is to ensure the eventual withering and then death of life. Once we have forgotten or denied our biological kinship with the earth and its inhabitants, it is hardly an accident that so much of human spiritual life is premised on an escape from rather than an affirmation of this life.

Hope you caught that “community” in there.

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3 comments on “A Little Bit of Berry

  1. Craig says:

    I like this excerpt. It’s interesting that Berry juxtaposes God and nature in that quotation, since many poets mean strikingly different, almost antithetical things by the two terms. But yeah…I like it, and think I can agree with him about co-authorship. Humans make their own history but do so not by the means of their own choosing (or something like that).

  2. elizabeth says:

    Craig,
    Because I was more focused on Berry’s point about the proper placement of humanity in the bigger picture of things–which is what Berry often writes about–I hadn’t noticed the juxtaposition you mention, but you’re right. It’s there. I think it’s something that Berry would take as a given, actually, and as someone, like me, from a similar faith tradition, it’s something I take for granted, too.

    And, to be fair, it’s not just a juxtaposition (i.e., a separation, a division, a dichotomy, etc.), because we as humans are linked to nature in Berry’s agrarian vision, but we’re also linked to God, being created imago dei. And yet Berry sees it as dangerous to think we’re the all-important lynchpin holding it all together, doesn’t he? “It’s not about us” is kind of the point of this quote, I think. Or at least, “it’s not just about us.”

    What do you think?

  3. Craig says:

    Hi, friend–

    I think you’re right; it makes sense that God and nature and people would be parts of the same whole in Berry’s worldview.

    What I like most about the above quotation from Berry (and Wirzba’s comments on the idea) is that it emphasizes the importance of a person’s social matrix in determining her individual identity. We don’t become individuals by being separated from our communities, but rather because of our place in them and their influence on us. So, yes…it’s certainly dangerous to lose touch with the roots of cultural community.

    (I do wonder what Wirzba means by natural community. Ecosystems, perhaps?)

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