March 17, 2014 / Theology
Nicole Johnson offers some theological reflections from women who have experienced the trauma of miscarriage.
October 2, 2006
“How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures?” This question, posed by Wendell Berry in his recent essay The Burden of the Gospels, provides an appropriate beginning for this brief foray into Berry’s thought. It assumes what I will assume here, that creation is creation (rather than mere ‘nature’ or ‘environment’), that creation is God’s good work in which God remains present, and that creation is subjected to the estranging vectors of our sin. Like every Christian doctrine, creation is not so much a concept to be mastered as a conviction to be lived.
Yet the shape of our living is always powerfully governed by the conceptualities we hold. This dynamic interplay of thought and action suggests a slight modification to Berry’s original question: How must we think and live so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures? For all too often, in our living and our thinking, we are strangers to God’s creation. In this essay I will trace four key images in Berry that help us both think creation’s reconciliation and work toward it: atonement, home, miracle, and satisfaction.
These images contribute to a proper spirituality of creation because, in Berry’s hands, none of them is agnostic; each one points toward creation as God’s gift and God’s glory. Yet at first glance, Berry seems an unlikely choice for an essay on a Christian spirituality of creation. This unlikeliness has two main springs. First, most people who are familiar with Berry’s work know him as farmer and writer, an articulate advocate of agrarian life and a powerful opponent of our culture’s addiction to abstraction, waste, novelty and speed. This is the essayist who rails against ‘salesmanship,’ the novelist whose characters regularly puncture modern presumptions, the poet whose Mad Farmer “plowed the churchyard, the minister’s wife, three graveyards and a golf course.” If we have a religious image of Berry, it is more likely the prophet decrying abuses (a modern Amos) than the spiritual guide directing our souls.
Add to that a second unlikelihood: Berry is usually fairly ambivalent about his own Christianity. Though acknowledging that he is a Christian both by chance of birth and by choice of conviction, Berry seldom gives Christian faith and practice an unconditional approval. Why? First, because Christians have consistently separated what belongs together. “This separation of the soul from the body and from the world is no disease of the fringe, no aberration, but a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geological fault.” As a consequence, Christianity has regularly been other-worldly and un-earthy. And finally, Christians have far too seldom essayed to practice what Jesus preached (and lived). When they did, it was usually as an isolated effort at heroic faithfulness—an exceptional discipleship, rather than as an ordinary and neighborly way of life. Thus, what Berry finds as typical in Christianity is the antithesis of his own concerns for embodied, here and now, ordinary living.
Yet these concerns of Berry are precisely what make him helpful for a Christian spirituality of creation. By and large what disturbs him about the Christian heritage ought to. Christianity has too often been dualistic, dividing body from soul. It has too easily denigrated ‘right now’ for the sweet by and by, and ignored ‘right here’ for the heavenly home. It has too strenuously expected faithful living to require big, bold, unusual action, leaving the ‘quotidian mysteries’ of daily living behind. In the midst of such estrangement, Berry can certainly help us with the spiritual task of learning to live in creation as creatures. Toward that end, let us consider each image in turn.
Atonement is the oldest metaphor in Berry, first articulated over 30 years ago in the essay “Discipline and Hope.” Because we are estranged already, Berry believes that we need ‘at-one-ment’ with land, one another, and God. So he works out atonement in three inter-related dimensions: farming, marriage, and worship.
All the essential relationships are comprehended in this metaphor. A farmer’s relation to his land is the basic and central connection in the relation of humanity to the creation; the agricultural relation stands for the larger relation. Similarly, marriage is the basic and central community tie; it begins and stands for the relation we have to family and to the larger circles of human association. And these relationships to the creation and to the human community are in turn basic to, and may stand for, our relationship to God—or to the sustaining mysteries and powers of the creation.
Atonement thus represents right relations between parts of a greater whole, and an appropriate harmony with God’s creative purpose. Atonement in all three dimensions serves as a lens for our seeing and a goal for our striving.
If we focus on farming, however, we immediately confront a problem. Though Berry’s spirituality of creation centers in the actual work of farming, few of this essay’s readers will be farmers. So what does Berry have to say to us? Some critics caricature Berry’s message as a nostalgic call for everyone to “sell everything you have, buy a small farm, take up the plow and follow me.” Berry isn’t saying that, but neither is he suggesting that it is the idea of farming that matters rather than the actual practice of agriculture. After all, you can’t eat an idea. Or to put it more positively, both farming and marriage are the “basic and central” forms of atonement in their respective spheres precisely because they bring forth and sustain creaturely life.
While it would be possible to allegorize farming as the shape of our at-one-ment with creation, doing so would simply exacerbate our estrangement from God’s presence in creation. Instead, Berry wants us to actually get our hands dirty. I think it crucial that the church understand its vocation of witness as including this kind of atoning work. So to the seven traditional corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, sheltering the stranger, etc.,) I propose that we add an eighth: Berry might name it the work of husbandry, or husbanding the earth, an image that includes both planting and protecting. He defines husbandry as “the name of all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us.”
How shall a local congregation practice husbandry? I confess my imagination falters here for two reasons. First, I have so seldom seen it done. However, efforts like the rooftop bees of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, or the Anatoth Garden of Cedar Grove UMC in North Carolina, have begun to expand my sense of what ecclesial husbandry might look like. Second, Wendell Berry has taught me that “practice can only be local,”  which means that we cannot determine in principle or generically how each congregation will get its hands back into the soil. Whatever it finally looks like, a renewal of ecclesial husbandry will be a form of rightly hallowing the earth.
At Home. Perhaps the central fact of Berry’s life is homecoming—his return to the place of his birth (Henry County, Kentucky), and to the work of farming it. Years later, Berry wrote “… my work has been motivated by a desire to make myself responsibly at home both in this world and in my native and chosen place.” This way of putting it suggests that being at home in one’s given place is more important to Berry than going home to one’s place of origin. I focus on the difference at the outset in order to dispel the notion that Berry advocates nostalgic idylls of a massive migration back to subsistence farming.
That said, Berry certainly has his finger on the pulse of our contemporary cultural detachment from place. The modern world is full of people trying to get to some other, better place. Berry addresses this regularly in his writing. In the essay “Discipline and Hope,” Berry called our contemporary social mobility a “sort of nomadism” that is inherently accompanied by “carelessness of place.” His fiction regularly includes characters infected with the dream of a better place. Hannah Coulter renders Berry’s judgment on that: “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace’”; “They think they are someplace.” One Sabbath poem recounts a dream—really a nightmare—of the end result of our nomadic pursuit of a better place:
Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless,
with their many eyes opened only toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.
Berry’s writing is permeated with diagnosis and critique of the folly and irresponsibility of our homelessness. Why care for a place, or seek to improve it, when the ‘better place’ you see lies elsewhere? To the modern mind, ‘betterment’ involves leaving a place rather than loving it.
Unfortunately, Christianity has often been guilty of a similar distancing from the given place of our lives. The Gnosticizing impulse in Christianity too easily says and sings “this world is not my home.” Hannah Coulter, on the other hand, believes that love of a particular place marries heaven and earth: “And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.” After all, Hannah says, “Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.”
How can a local congregation order its life so as to be responsibly at home in its given place? A key component will be joining Berry in being “irreconcilably opposed to ‘mobility’ as a social norm.” Why? Because to really love a place, to really care for it, takes time and attention that are only available if we stay put. What we need is a radical recovery of stability—the vowed commitment to remain with a particular people in a particular place. It was the vow of stability that brought order to the chaos of early monasticism. Similarly, vis-à-vis the whirl of postmodernity and the rush of globalization, a vowed practice of stability might afford us the possibility of putting down deep roots in particular places. Can Christians recover a form of the vowed practice of stability as a necessary context for the patient, careful love of a particular place and a particular people? We must, if we are to be formed as a people whose fidelity is real—that is, practiced—rather than just imagined.
One of Berry’s most powerful essays is the short book Life Is a Miracle, written against the scientism expressed in E. O. Wilson’s book Consilience. There Berry refuses the pretension to mastery that too easily infects scientific endeavor. Science becomes a form of religion when it makes two remarkably unscientific claims: “it will eventually know everything, and that it will eventually solve all human problems.” In contrast to this hubristic quest for mastery of life, Berry proposes that we appreciate life’s mystery. Life is a miracle, one we can study and know more deeply, but a miracle whose complexity and richness and mystery is finally irreducible.
Appreciating the miracle of life will require of us a stringent purification of mind and heart—of how we think and how we live. Berry suggests that we need a fundamental opposition to ‘machine thinking’—where machine becomes a metaphor for living creatures, and to machine living—where machines manufacture both our desires and their satisfactions. “What I am against—and without a minute’s hesitation or apology—is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of the machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures, which we have allowed increasingly for the last two centuries, and are still allowing, at an incalculable cost to other creatures and to ourselves.”
Of course, machines have and continue to serve humanity well, though not always and everywhere. For too often machines increase speed and power in ways that necessarily decrease care, skill, and conscious relation to creation. Moreover, machines designed to serve us all too often begin to rule us, both literally in the way they disfigure space (think interstate highways) and dissect time (the sovereignty of the clock), and imaginatively in they way they colonize our minds.
To give mind to machines, they are calling it
out of the world, out of the neighborhood, out of the body.
They have bound it in the brain, in the hard shell
of the skull, in order to bind it in a machine.
‘Machine’ is a lens that reduces everything to its utility, alienates each from all, and trades our birthright of relation to the living God through creation for Deism’s divine watchmaker, a bowl of pottage utterly flavorless.
‘Miracle,’ on the other hand, is a lens on life that brings health to ourselves, harmony with other creatures, and awareness of the Creator. Miracle is a perception—of the beauty and wonder of the natural world in which we live, but more so that this ‘natural world’ is a glorious gift of the creating God. A beautiful Sabbath poem from 1990 contrasts “the incarnation of mind in machine”—a form of slavery or exile, with the freedom that comes from remembering our shared creatureliness. Berry ends with the exhortation “Remember, and come to rest / in light’s ordinary miracle.”
Reclaiming miracle and renouncing machine slavery will require discipline; that much is obvious. What is far less obvious is precisely what disciplines. At the end of Life Is a Miracle Berry offered eight practical suggestions for how we should live if we are willing to change the standards that govern our lives. Some involve a discipline of language and thought: e.g. banish the use of ‘machine’ for non-machines and banish the notion that science can bring perfection and predictability to the world and to human life.
The two suggestions that seem most essential to recovering a sense of life as mystery and miracle are to cultivate an affection for “familiarity above innovation”, and to “conscientiously … reduce our tolerance for ugliness.” Christians should note the direct impact these latter two have on both personal and corporate practices of worship.
In Berry there is a complex interplay of the ability to see and hear with the ability to enjoy and delight. The experience of perceiving reality and taking pleasure in it can be separated conceptually, but they ought not be, at least in Berry’s spirituality of creation. I call this satisfactions in the plural both because that is the title of one of Berry’s Mad Farmer poems and because naming the multiplicity of satisfactions reminds us of the joining of particular facets of creation with specific needs and desires.
For Berry, the community of earth and humanity is sufficient to produce enough pleasure and delight for a genuinely good human life. Yet our ability to find (or be found by) such satisfactions requires powers of perception that must be trained, or at least practiced. And in our present cultural context, where volume and velocity continually work to overwhelm small satisfactions with artificial ones on steroids, a spirituality of pleasure will also require resistance and a restraint.
Resistance can take the form of “sustained attention to the particular.”
Berry’s poetry is often the product of sustained attentiveness and the pleasures it includes. In A Timbered Choir, Berry tells us in the preface that “The poems are about moments when heart and mind are open and aware.” Though there is no formula for experiencing such perceptual openness, they “were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors.” So the first Sabbath poem begins:
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle. 
In stillness, even our minds can come to rest. Berry’s attentiveness is not so much the active questing of the intellect, but the receptive openness of mind and heart. Here we encounter another nuance of ‘satisfaction,’ its sense of ceasing or coming to rest. The second Sabbath poem says:
The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot intend. 
In stillness, we perceive the unity of our pleasure and God’s.
Perception is skewed by sin, and attentiveness is continually being overwhelmed by our culture. This leads to the need for resistance. Berry’s champion of resistance is the Mad Farmer, a master of contrariness. The Mad Farmer praises “any man whose words / lead precisely to what exists, / who never stoops to persuasion” suggesting that here we should name the contrast between perception and persuasion (the ‘salesmanship’ of capitalism). The Mad Farmer calls us to ‘practice resurrection.’ What usually goes unnoticed by those who are attracted to the character of the Mad Farmer, are his satisfactions. The Mad Farmer tells us that we must resist the idea that pleasures are validated by their largeness, or their amplification, or their cost. In “The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer,” Berry carefully, even exquisitely presents the goodness of creation which is both “enough, and more than enough,” and “an ancient delight, delighting.” Though the Mad Farmer finds multiple satisfactions, in everything from ripe berries to “fox tracks in snow,” at the center of his pleasure is delight in the bodies of children, women, and men, enjoying play and work and love. 
I’ll end with the sense of promise in Berry’s third Sabbath poem of 1979, where he writes that “To sit and look at light-filled leaves / may let us see … The blessed conviviality / That sang Creation’s seventh sunrise.” That conviviality was a communion of pleasure, when God’s
… perfect pleasure was sole law;
No pleasure had become self-willed.
For all His creatures were His pleasures
And their whole pleasure was to be
What He made them…
Learning to delight in and with God, in and through God’s creation, is both our duty and our delight.
So let us enter into the work of making atonement through husbandry of the soil, of finding ourselves at home in the world through a rejuvenation of stability, of recovering a sense of the miracle of life by an exodus from machine thinking (and living), and of renewed rejoicing in creation’s satisfactions. What else would God, that “great relisher of this world,” want us to do?
This essay reworks a lecture on the spirituality of Wendell Berry given originally at George Fox Seminary. Thanks to Carole Spencer and her class, and to my graduate assistant Ingrid Johnson, for critically engaging me with this material.
 Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels,” The Way of Ignorance (Washington, D.C: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005), 137.
 “The Mad Farmer Revolution,” Collected Poems (New York: North Point Press, 1987), 120.
 Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace, Norman Wirzba, ed., (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003), 104.
 See Kathleen Norris, Quotidian Mysteries (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998) for an expansion of this topic.
 “Discipline and Hope,” in Wendell Berry, Recollected Essays (New York: North Point Press, 1968), 213f.
 “Renewing Husbandry,” in The Way of Ignorance, 97. In “The Gift of Good Land,” Berry listed 3 things Israel was to do to prove worthy of the gift of the promised land: 1) remember that the land is a gift evoking faithfulness, gratitude and humility, 2) be neighborly, and 3) “practice good husbandry” which turns out to be “an effort to love all Creation in response to the Creator’s love for it” Gift of Good Land, list from 272, quote from 273.
 Wendell Berry, Home Economics (New York: North Point Press, 1987), 139.
 Forward to Wendell Berry, Recollected Essays, ix, emphasis added.
 Recollected Essays, 216. Berry also suggested “a distinct connection between our nomadism (our ‘social mobility’) and the nearly universal disintegration of marriages and families” (215).
 Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004), 67.
 Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998), 209.
 Hannah Coulter, 83.
 Hannah Coulter, 88. “The only life we may hope to live is here. It seems likely that if we are to reach the earthly paradise at all, we will reach it only when we have ceased to strive and hurry to get there. There is no ‘there.’ We can only wait here, where we are, in the world, obedient to its processes, patient in its taking away, faithful in its returns. And as much as we may know, and all that we deserve, of earthly paradise will come to us.” “Discipline and Hope,” Recollected Essays, 206
 “The Purpose of a Coherent Community,” The Way of Ignorance, 79.
 It’s interesting to note that Ruth’s famous commitment to Naomi, “your people shall be my people, and your God my god,” inherently includes a claiming and being claimed by the promised land (Ruth 1:16). Ruth well could have continued, “your place shall be my place,” for the remainder of the story is of their journey back to their rightful place on the soil, and in the story, of Israel.
 For a suggestion of what this might look like in a particular place—Eugene, Oregon—see the essay by Jon Stock on stability forthcoming in ??
 Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000), 99. One of the scientists who worked at the Hanford nuclear facility during and after WWII said that they knew they were creating toxic waste that they had no idea how to clean up, but that they rushed ahead in the certainty that eventually science would figure out how to solve the problems they were creating. Hanford is currently the largest toxic waste site in the United States, with a projected clean up date of 2030 (though it is important to remember that ‘clean up’ is a euphemism for containing radioactive material indefinitely, not for actually detoxifying it).
 Life Is a Miracle, 54.
 Timbered Choir, 117.
 Timbered Choir, 118.
 Life Is a Miracle, 135. Further references to this text given parenthetically.
 “The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer,” Collected Poems, 132-34.
 Norman Wirzba suggests that this is what Berry emphasizes, Art of the Commonplace, 1.
 Timbered Choir, xviii.
 Timbered Choir, xvii. Similarly, the long series of “Window Poems” in Collected Poems is the product of sitting all morning, every morning, looking out the same window.
 Timbered Choir, 5.
 Timbered Choir, 7.
 Collected Poems, 132-34.
 Timbered Choir, 8.
 This phrase is from “The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer,” Collected Poems, 134.
D. Brent Laytham
Brent Laytham is an elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church where he served in pastoral ministry for eight years (1991-99). Raised in the Church of the Nazarene, he matriculated in biblical studies at MidAmerica Nazarene College, earning the bachelor of arts in 1984, and completing the master of divinity at Nazarene Theological Seminary in 1988. His doctorate from Duke University (1999) is in theology and ethics, with minor concentrations in church history and political philosophy. Laytham taught at Lambuth University in Tennessee before joining the Seminary faculty in 2001. He is the editor of God Is Not...Religious, Nice, 'One of Us,' an American, a Capitalist (Brazos, 2004), a book drawn from a lecture series he coordinated at North Park University during 2002-03. Laytham has participated in a two year Lilly grant to connect Christian teaching with local churches (2000-02), and a Workshop for Theological Faculty at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning (2003-04). He is coordinator of The Ekklesia Project, an ecumenical organization that seeks to foster radical commitment to the gospel in the church. His teaching and writing focus on the intersections of Christian thought and practice, Christian theology and worship, and the church and popular culture.