Pray that Americans Will Listen to Wendell Berry

For day three of the Old Life Prayer Vigil, a few excerpts from Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture, given this past Monday night in Washington, D.C.

First, a cautionary word by implication to the W-Wists:

In my reading of the historian John Lukacs, I have been most instructed by his understanding that there is no knowledge but human knowledge, that we are therefore inescapably central to our own consciousness, and that this is “a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.”6 We are thus isolated within our uniquely human boundaries, which we certainly cannot transcend or escape by means of technological devices. . . .

We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.

And then a word on behalf of economy, that is the household and the families that comprise them:

No doubt there always will be some people willing to do anything at all that is economically or technologically possible, who look upon the world and its creatures without affection and therefore as exploitable without limit. Against that limitlessness, in which we foresee assuredly our ruin, we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane. But this ages-long, imperfect, unendable attempt, with its magnificent record, we have virtually disowned by assigning it to the ever more subordinate set of school subjects we call “arts and humanities” or, for short, “culture.” Culture, so isolated, is seen either as a dead-end academic profession or as a mainly useless acquisition to be displayed and appreciated “for its own sake.” This definition of culture as “high culture” actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking.

I don’t like to deal in categorical approvals, and certainly not of the arts. Even so, I do not concede that the “fine arts,” in general, are useless or unnecessary or even impractical. I can testify that some works of art, by the usual classification fine, have instructed, sustained, and comforted me for many years in my opposition to industrial pillage.

But I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.

16 thoughts on “Pray that Americans Will Listen to Wendell Berry

  1. A hearty amen to that. A little Berry is worth more than shelves and shelves of the schlock being marketed and sold to the average Christian consumer.


  2. As a former employee of the NEH — yes, I have suckled at the federal teat — I’m proud that they awarded the Jefferson Lecture to Wendell Berry.

    It shows the limits of our partisan divide, in that I’m not sure the former administration (during which I served) could have or would have invited him, someone who in such profound ways nevertheless resonates with a “conservative” view of human existence. Certainly they didn’t, and certainly he is deserving.


  3. DG, why should I pray (sacred kingdom) that America listens to secular kingdom wisdom from Berry. Indeed, Berry satisfies standards of one kingdom, but I shouldn’t intermix the two kingdoms.


  4. DGH, as much as I enjoyed this essay, I admit it is probably the most Berry I’ve ever read in one sitting. Lots of wisdom, but I don’t buy everything. I have a question for you as a fan and someone who has read a lot more than I:

    Isn’t Berry a little one-sided in his characterization of “Boomers” and “Stickers”? And in particular, isn’t he a bit simplistic in his characterization of Boomers as “…motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.”

    It seems as though the Boomer encompasses a lot of what we’d put under the heading of “ambition,” which I don’t think is properly understood as an entirely negative character trait. Isn’t it ambition, in part, that led explorers — not to mention pilgrims — to flee to the new world? Didn’t Boomers have a lot to do with the revolutionary founding of this nation? And didn’t ambition (of a sort) get his family from Virginia to Kentucky?

    In short, wouldn’t we be stuck indeed as a race if we were all stickers? Or do you take sticking to the essence of the foedus operum, and booming the original sin?


  5. Brian, I’m surprised that you as a believer in original sin wouldn’t see the problem of booming. Isn’t the promotion of self always bad? Isn’t failure to submit to lawful authorities (King George) a sin? Doesn’t mean that sticking doesn’t have its problems. But to light off in search of fortune and fame is what celebrity preachers do. Real pastors tend the flock. Agrarianism is the means of confessional Christianity.


  6. Not sure how far your tongue is lodged in your cheek, so I’ll play along.

    So, you are on record against the American experiment?

    I don’t think the identification of booming and self-promotion is a given; I reject it. May you not excel, even strive, for the good of the other, the polis?

    In a fallen world, pasture becomes depleted. Good shepherds may need to strike out for greener pastures, yea, even lead his flock through darkened valleys unto paths of righteousness.

    What is missionary labor, if not a sort of Gospel booming? Or shall we stick with our 50 person congregations, the lost be damned?

    For the record, my tongue is only partially in my cheek, because it is stuck in the neck of my bottle of beer.


  7. DGH, oh wow, good rebuttal. Maybe the Bible wasn’t written with classical liberalism in mind? Should I abandon this particular form of 2Kism?


  8. @Brian – re: “I’m not sure the former administration (during which I served) could have or would have invited him, someone who in such profound ways nevertheless resonates with a “conservative” view of human existence. Certainly they didn’t, and certainly he is deserving.”

    The “former administration” (i.e. GWB) had a better track record than you’d imagine, especially when it came to say, bioethics. I’d put guys like Leon Kass (chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics) at least in the same league as Berry. Kass is a Jew, Berry a Baptist of sorts, but that role’s arguably more significant than merely awarding a lectureship, too. Matter of fact, the PC on B under GWB was a group of some of the most thoughtful men and women in the country. Don’t sell ol’ Dubya quite so short.

    @Dan – All that’s not to mention that when DGH wishes that Americans would listen to Berry, he’s not saying the Church should, necessarily. Maybe individuals who comprise the Church who are also Americans may bend an ear, but I mean, why shouldn’t the secular kingdom of Americans (some of whom are also Christians) listen to secular wisdom from Berry? I’m sure they’d be better off to, and that keeps the two Ks distinct enough for me.


  9. W lied his way into an imperialist war. Wendell Berry (see Citizenship Papers) opposed that war. Which action was the more “conservative”? Which was ambition lacking caution and competence?


  10. Mark,

    In general I agree, but GWB never projected the sense that he was in charge of what the White House was doing in those years. Nonetheless, GWB’s wars were the undertakings of empire, certainly not something any true conservative would champion – although there seems to be a fair amount of neo-Costantinians (e.g.some of the FV’ers) who seem to attempt to amalgamate a Constantinian model of Imperial Christianity and Statecraft and some of the states rights ideals of the Confederacy – talk about a W-V- divided against itself. It could easily be argued that Berry’s conservatism is far more internally coherent – a mode of thinking that has appeal from the ground – or better yet the soil up. The lack of meddelsome impulse in Berry makes him an outlier to much of what passes for conservatism today. Just look at Mr. Peccary’s arguments above, GWB was at least a somewhat successful conservative merely because his politics on the matter of abortion seemed par for the course.


    So GWB was a good conservative because his stance on bioethics was at least somewhat solid. While I am glad to see that GWB and most of the GOP is still pro-life, I am more and more of the opinion that the GOP has become beholden to basically two issues as the lithmus test for conservative orthodoxy – abortion and taxes. However, one of the most common economic features of empire, since at least the time of Alexander the Great has been the accumulation of massive government debts and an extractionary economic policy wherein the empire extracts the wealth from conquered territories, and even lower classes among their own native population (usually through the means of debt slavery) to feed it’s own ravenous appetites. GWB’s administration racked up the largest portion of the national debt in history by fighting two unfunded wars, that may have lost the initial support they held had US citizens had to pay for these excursions through the mechanisms of higher taxes which would have been required to maintain something close to a balanced budget. Add to this the low interest policies enacted by the Fed, which many “conservatives” on Wall St. cheered heartily, and those who would normally undertake traditional conservative values in action, such as thrift and savings as a means to protect and generate personal wealth were gutted by the time the whole economy blew, benefiting only the very richest in the nation. The middle class has been gutted in this nation as much by the imperial impulse of the neo-cons as it has been by the welfare state ideals of the left. A return to the sort of conservatism that Berry and others advocate is something that there is actually little political will for, even among self-proclaimed conservatives. So I am less inclined to give GWB much praise for holding policies that a) he should have in the first place, and b) he gained from politically by catering to his constituency.

    Frankly, American conservatism is in a bad way these days largely because of the involvement of the Evangelical constituency within the GOP. They have basically honed in on the great moral issues of government, while a good deal of the essential, but practical matters of traditional conservatism have basically gone to seed since at least the 70’s. DGH’s most recent book (since this blog is after all, all about him) does an excellent job of outlining the issues – I am still waiting for that interview with the Daily Show. I am glad to see you are basically employing a 2k outlook on the issues of church and politics, but I certainly would hope that those of us who claim some form of conservatism could engage in discourse and discussion that touches more holistically to the real dilemmas facing conservatism, and our country. This at the very least so that we can return to a more reasonable amount of political dysfunction, as opposed to the thoroughgoing slow-motion train wreck that currently defines American politics and conservatism today.


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