Monday, October 21, 2013

Only One Opinion Matters

Wendell Berry. What Are People For? Berkley: Counterpoint, 2010.
The title of this collection of early essays of Wendell Berry is taken from one small essay bemoaning the migration of country people to the cities; the very places where unemployment is higher and the concomitant social ills are compounded.  In the course of these essays Berry provides his answer to the question, “what are people for?”  The question is a deep well.  It could be the metanarrative of all literary traditions from time immemorial.  Recently, as I was getting service at the local car wash I had this book with me to read as I waited.  While paying the attendant she noticed the title and offered some comment about the profundity of the question.  “Yes,” I replied, “it is a question that everyone has an opinion about.”

As I drove away in my nice clean 1992 Toyota Camry I thought more deeply about the question.  Everyone does surely have an opinion on it, even though most rarely address it in explicit terms.  A few pontificate on the question; probably more than we need or want, especially during major political elections.  Most of us, however, give considered opinion on this most central of questions sooner or later.  When we choose a life partner or decide that a partner is not really for life.  Our time at the bedside of a dying family member or friend may be hallowed or haunted by the question.  When attending the arrival of our first born child we might be making our clearest statement on the question even without speaking a word.  Could it be that we even make our position on this question known throughout life in the ordinary routine activities of daily living?  Do I speak to it in the clothes I wear or the car I drive?  Will the pattern of my daily work habits give commentary?  How do my choices in food and drink belie my opinion?  In what ways are my daily interactions with colleagues, neighbors, and family speaking to the question?  In all my thoughts about various opinions on this question I am left with one other question.  Whose opinion matters most?
The twin lyric essays that open this collection suggest Berry’s opinion on the question.  He speaks of his own craft as poet and how the conveyance of culture functions as an archive of humanity.  A few selected sentences from the first entitled, Damage, illustrate.

An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.

When the road of excess has reached the place of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.

Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation will permanently destroy the route.

But a man with a machine and inadequate culture….is a pestilence.[1]
These lines hint of what Berry sees as the proper task of the artist, whether poet or farmer.  They alike are cataloging the “scars” of human technological progress.  One gets the impression from these essays that for Berry only in the wisdom gained from protracted involvement with the community of a local place can there be healing; a healing that comes through the exercise of “good work.”

To be creative is only to have health: to keep oneself fully alive in the Creation, to keep the Creation fully alive in oneself, to see the Creation anew, to welcome one’s part in it anew.[2]
Throughout the remaining essays Berry illustrates these ideas.  He names the chief perpetrators of the “scars” upon our good earth: power companies, industrial agriculture, and human consumption.  Some individuals who speak prophetically in the face of those who would do damage to the environment are also named: Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, Harry Caudill, and “Nate Shaw.”  Most of all, the essays provide Berry’s observations on how to “live fully.”

A significant aspect of Berry's answer is what he defines properly as "beloved community....common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs."[3]  His essay entitled, “The Work of Local Culture,” may stand as a prĂ©cis of much of his work as a writer.  Using the image of an old bucket hanging for many years on a fence post where it collects fallen leaves, animal droppings, periodic rain, and other of nature’s offerings which time turns to soil.  It is for Berry a picture of the community. 

A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account.  It must build soil, and build that memory of itself—in lore and story and song—that will be its culture.[4]
That is as close to Berry’s answer as any I know.  An answer rooted in the theological understanding that “God created all things for His pleasure….God’s pleasure in all things must be respected by us in our use of things.”[5]

Steve Baker, Dean of Warren Library

Palm Beach Atlantic University

October 21, 2013

[1] Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 7-8.
[2] What Are People For?, 9.
[3] What Are People For?, 85.
[4] What Are People For?, 154.
[5] What Are People For?, 138-139.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reflections on Life Together Under the Word

Here are some reflections upon my first reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together.

"Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ." (21)

The experiment in Christian community at Bonhoeffer's Finkenwalde Seminary was Christocentric to the core. For him there were three essential reasons for this. Because justification rightly understood is in Christ alone, there is no ground upon which to seek self-justification. It follows that the only hope for genuine Christian community comes only through the work of Christ that has bridged the chasm between God and humanity. This in turn makes true reconciliation possible in every human interaction. Lastly, the incarnation of God in Jesus opened the way for humanity to be fully in Christ. As Bonhoeffer puts it, "Where he is, there we are too, in the incarnation, on the Cross, and in his resurrection." (24)

"God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth." (27)

This is just one of Bonhoeffer's statements that struck me as somewhat provocative. I suppose this is partly due to the nature of today's American evangelical church movement. This Christian movement of which I'm intimately familiar is prone to expressions of passion, if not outright emotion. So much is made of the "experience" of Christian faith that it is easily forgotten that at its core it is first and foremost the acceptance of the divine truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. It is adherence, or more appropriately, being adhered to the Gospel. As this truth pervades our being it certainly will turn our emotions, our will, our heart, our mind, everything about us toward the Cross and the Resurrection. However, the truth of the Gospel remains even in the times when the emotions are a arid wasteland or our will is less than fully engaged.

"Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate." (30)

Wow!! What a relief it is that Christian community is not dependent on us. There is no set established human norm of practice that, if followed precisely, results in the achievement of perfect union with others in a corporate body of believers. Christian community has already once for all been established by God through Christ's appearance, sacrifice, and resurrection. We are only invited into this brotherhood and sisterhood as disciples of Jesus to share in what God has already created. So Bonhoeffer states that, "It is not the experience of Christian brotherhood, but solid and certain faith in brotherhood that holds us together....We are bound together by faith, not by experience." (39)

"Let him who cannot be alone beware of community....You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out....Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray." (77)

My observation of human nature leads me to the conclusion that some people appear to be loners while others seem to be social in makeup. I know from experience that my wife is much more sociable than I could ever hope to be. But these may only be appearances. Even in her extensive web of social interactions my wife keeps her personal time of enjoyments that are somewhat guarded. Within my own preferred personal space I too grow hungry for human interaction. It is precisely here that Bonhoeffer makes one of his most profound statements about building Christian community. Yes, we are as Christ followers "singled out." God will not allow us to hide from who we really are, sinners saved by grace alone. We ought to grow accustomed to this aloneness with God. Neither will God allow us as Christians to go long into a self-indulgence of such solitude. We were saved for life together in the fellowship of other believers. It is our calling to bear our cross in the community of discipleship marked by pain and supplication.

"The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners....But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you....You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner." (110-111)

Few things in church life are as detached from reality than the facade of pious Christianity that exists in self denial of the human condition. Those of us who have seen it firsthand know well the sort of sham faith such hypocrisy breeds. Bonhoeffer apparently had witnessed it all too often. In the experiment in Christian community that was Finkenwalde Seminary he sought to insure it would not be the case in their fellowship. One of the principle ways this was done was through confession. This was a distinctive expression of the community's accountability to one another. Confession of one Christian to another affords the unique opportunity to "dare to be a sinner;" that is, to be real as a follower of Christ, to be authentic as a person of faith.

These are just a few of my reflections on Bonhoeffer's description of the Christian community he and others experimented with in the Finkenwalde Seminary.  What he himself characterized as "Life Together under the Word."

Steven Baker, Dean of Warren Library
Palm Beach Atlantic University