catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 13 :: 2006.06.30 — 2006.07.14


Agrarianism after modernity

An opening for grace

In the summer of 1946, while lecturing amid the rubble of what was once the University of Bonn, Karl Barth said, “The greatest hindrance to faith is again and again just the pride and anxiety of our human hearts. We would rather not live by grace. Something within us energetically rebels against it. We do not wish to receive grace; at best we prefer to give ourselves grace.” 1 Barth was speaking to a culture in ruins. His observation about the human heart’s refusal of grace cuts to the core of what has long been and continues to be our modern (but not only modern) crisis: namely, our preference for life on our own terms. We have refused our status as creatures made dependent upon each other and upon God, and instead have chosen goals that satisfy self-chosen or media-manufactured desires.

What I am suggesting is that crises in our cultures and environments represent a crisis that is at root religious. We will fail to appreciate and know the signs of our common degradation if we characterize them as primarily problems of scarcity or population, faulty management, or insufficient technology. The erosion and toxification of soils, the pollution of waterways, the chemical clouding of air, the extinction of animal species, and the poisoning of life habitats—but also the deterioration of social structures of nurture and upbuilding—bear witness to a deep spiritual contradiction between our professed belief in God as Creator and our consenting, whether intentionally or not, to creation’s mutilation. What our destructiveness shows is profound blindness and outright refusal to trust in and abide by the grace of interdependent life, for what is our destructiveness if it is not an assault against God’s goodness or the denial that God’s grace is sufficient, even lovely? Our rejection of grace, of its possibilities and demands, and our substituting for it the cheap satisfactions of consumer culture, is the practical demonstration (often more honest than our verbal piety) of a prior hesitancy or refusal to live out the ways of faith. In other words, our destruction of creation, and the undermining of human health and conviviality that are its inevitable correlate, raises the possibility that our religious faith may be little more than a deceptive play, however exalted or affirming, of words. 

Two questions become paramount: a) how are we to characterize this spiritual failure? and b) what paths must we follow if we are to practice a more authentic spiritual life, a life of faith that honors creation and community and brings delight to God?

We can begin by noting how our perennial destructiveness and narrowness of sympathy reflect a profound confusion over the meaning of grace. To speak about grace is to point to our being called into the intimacy of God’s own life, an intimacy founded in God’s intense desire to love the world into being, to be ever-present in it as its sustaining, vivifying life. Grace is not something we initiate. It follows from and expresses a divine summons to join with God in the celebration of creation wonderfully made. It is important that we not think of this summons as coming to us wholly from outside since our very being is always already the visible testimony of God’s creative, joyous speech. In the action of creating, God “makes room” for us within the divine life so that we can share in the blessedness that God is. 2 Grace is thus God’s self-communication and self-dedication to us so that we might enjoy, here and now, relationships that are informed by God’s life-building ways. Grace communicates the communion of all life with God as the one who brings everything into existence and then sustains it daily. When we properly acknowledge and respond to this grace, which is what we do when we live out our calling as creatures made in the image of God, we learn to highlight, promote, and make concrete God’s loving, life-giving intentions for the whole world. We protect and strengthen the many layers of relationship and interdependence that make our living possible and potentially a joy.

For Christians grace finds its climactic and definitive expression in the life of Jesus Christ. Christ is the one through whom God’s reconciling presence and intention are made known and manifest. In his ministries we concretely see what the life of God among us amounts to: healing, feeding, exorcism, restoration of relationships through forgiveness, celebration, and the resurrection of the dead. His is not a ministry designed to take us out of creation or out of this life. It is, rather, a sustained invitation to be drawn into life in its innermost depth so that creation in all its fullness can be experienced and enjoyed. Because Christ is the one through whom all things are created (cf. John 1:3 & Colossians 1:15-20), we should not be surprised to learn that in Christ “all things” will also be redeemed.

The Christian path of redemption, however, is a path that goes through the cross. This means that all creation, owing to the sinful and destructive ways of humanity, now bears a cruciform character. But even as creation is subject to suffering and death, these are not the final word. Just as Christ is present in creation as the one through whom all things are made, so Christ is present in the midst of its suffering and death as the one who bears and transforms it into new, more abundant life. In order for creation to become whole or saved, to be liberated from the destructive effects of violence, envy, greed, and pride, sin itself must first be defeated and overcome through the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit. Once liberated, creation will again enjoy the freedom and glory of life with God (see Romans 8:19-23). Creation will once more be healthy and whole, a visible confirmation of the delight and celebration that marked the very first Sabbath.

The practical and ecological implications of this theological teaching are immense because as Christians who are led by the Holy Spirit our task is nothing less than to share in the divine work of healing, reconciliation and celebration. Our most fundamental work is to bring a halt to those practices that disfigure creation and community or that prevent them from achieving their full potential. Our ministry, like that of Jesus Christ, is to name, know, and love all the members of creation—ranging from the Gerasene demoniac to the lilies of the field—so that together, in spirit and in body, we can be made whole.

For a variety of reasons, this characterization of grace as God’s loving, redeeming presence within creation has fallen from cultural view. Grace has become abstract, something like a good feeling, a special commodity or reward that is added as a bonus to those who try to get by in a profane world. Given that economic expansion (via the mechanisms of “free” trade) and consumer satisfaction have become the dominant forces that shape identity, understanding, and desire, there are relatively few opportunities for us to experience God’s self-involvement in the world. Everywhere we turn we see the marks of our own ingenuity and design, all imprints of a mostly utilitarian or pragmatic mind. The result is that we do not, for the most part, appreciate our life and our world as God’s creation or as the site of divine hospitality and care. For many people God is either entirely absent or made to be manifest through vigorous, sometimes desperate, emotional effort. In this context faith becomes a work in which we project or invent a god who (we hope) can meet the worries or desires of an anxious or unsatisfied ego. It ceases to be a fitting response to grace appropriately appreciated and received.

The denial and dissimulation of grace, though always a human temptation, became especially pronounced and systematic in the modern world. While it is common to refer to this development as the “desanctification” or “disenchantment” of the world, the key element in this process is the emptying out of the world’s divine referent. What begins to emerge is the idea of pure “nature,” a conception that reduces material reality to a mathematical and mechanical core that operates according to “natural laws” and can be appropriated by us as an economic resource for our own ends. Reduced to a stockpile of commodities or the natural, the world does not find its origin or end in God. It does not bear witness to a divine intention. If it has any purpose at all, it is of a wholly immanent sort that can be understood—and exploited—through scientific and technological effort. Its value can now be limited to its exchange value.

Bronislaw Szerszynski has recently, and persuasively, argued that disenchantment of this sort does not amount to a complete break from religion. Instead what we see is the emergence of a “technological sublime” that exults in the human power to dominate and manage nature. This power, rather than any divine intention, is seen as the way for humans to return to an imagined Edenic condition of peace and harmony between people and nature. Technological mastery, in other words, depends upon the collapse of the sacred into the empirical world, a shift from seeing the world as created by God to suit a divine goal to an immanent, natural order that has as its only concern the continuation of life-processes. 3 Indeed, technology becomes the new civil religion, the officially sanctioned path to salvation that promises to fulfill all the aspirations of the human heart.

What we need to appreciate is that this modern, technological orientation represents a denial of God’s grace. This becomes especially evident when we consider the full significance of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. As Philip Sherard has clearly indicated, when creation is reduced to brute nature what is lost is the sense of God’s presence and involvement in the world. Because Christ is the concrete site in which the “intimate meeting and inextricable intertwining of the spiritual and material” becomes most pronounced and evident, we must believe that God forever enters into creation from within and is its dynamic, pulsating energy. 4 God’s presence in the body of Jesus is also God’s direct pledge to be present in every other body of creation too. This does not mean that God is to be identified with creation or that creatures somehow possess God. Rather, God is present to all creation as the gift of life. Were this gift or grace ever to be withheld, we would simply cease to be.

If we are to avert scenarios of ecological and social doom we will need to practice a more authentic faith, one that honors God and creation. We will need to avoid the displacement of God’s grace from the world, a displacement that prompts us to reduce God’s presence to the inner, private life of the anxious believer or religious consumer. Biblical faith claims the whole person and the whole world, for God is not simply interested in our detachable, immortal souls. Rather, God engages us on the wide level of our hearts, minds, and bodies as they interact in concert with other bodies. This is why we proclaim the resurrection of the body and the reconciliation of “all things” on earth and in heaven through the blood of Christ’s cross (Colossians 1:20). True faith is not the occasion for an escape from the world, but is rather the invitation to draw nearer to the heart of reality and there discover the life of God at work.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best when he observed:

it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith … By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a person and a Christian. 5

Bonhoeffer’s call for a this-worldly faith is not a dismissal of God. It is rather the recognition that as we turn away from creation, perhaps in pursuit of a more abstract human ambition, we at the same time turn away from God’s presence.

False religion follows from the displacement of grace, and leads to our common degradation. As grace is severed from God’s involvement in the whole creation, and is relocated in the personal aspirations of the anxious believer—this being the “cheap” grace we give ourselves—what is lost is the sacramental sense that enables us to appreciate the earth as the created realm in which all life is given its meaning and purpose by God. What is lost is the hope of salvation in which we participate in the costly, precious, celebratory life of God as revealed in the ministry, suffering, and resurrection of Christ. Without God’s grace we relegate ourselves to a dark, cold, wholly immanent universe in which we depend on ourselves for the creation of any heat or light. Given our histories, it is plain to see that fire and bombs have been our preferred means.

From an agrarian point of view, most of us are fairly cut off from life. In certain respects, we could say that the time of modernity is precisely the intensification of this experience of separation. Think here of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of the earth.” 6 This reference to a “natural life,” while theologically problematic (a better formulation would be a “creaturely life”), is especially insightful today because it indicates the multiple ways we have devised—climate controlled housing, automobiles, suburbia, fast food, virtual reality—to insulate ourselves from the very action of life processes. More than ever before, Thoreau’s advice to us, as recorded in his Journal (March 12, 1853), still stands: “Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.” The point is not simply to experience “Nature,” but to open and let oneself be inspired by God’s economy of grace.

In the time of post-modernity our situation has not improved much. What I mean is that our living mostly occurs within a synthetic or stylized world of our own making, a world in which we are insulated from neighbors, farmers, and wetlands alike. The heavens, rather than declaring the glory of God, have become unavailable to us for all the shining of our city lights. The mountains and hills do not break forth into song, nor do the trees of the fields clap their hands in praise of God (Isaiah 55:12), because they have been reduced to stockpiles of resources to be used in praise of ourselves.  Ours is an increasingly commodified and virtual world, a world driven by “the career of money,” with its relentless preying upon our natural and human neighborhoods. In this world of the spectacle, our language of God readily becomes thin and forced, almost ornamental, because it has lost its home and inspiration in the action of God in our midst. If we (minimally) claim God to be the source and sustainer of life, and given our practical ignorance of life’s richness, complexity, and mystery, how can we be sure that our ideas about God are not simply the projections of a fanciful or fearful mind? Not surprisingly, we learn to depend more and more on emotional or stylistic props to keep theological language alive. Put rather bluntly, can we know or appreciate Jesus as the bread of life (John 6:35) when we are ignorant of the life of bread?

Another way to state this is to say that we live in an anonymous economy in which things (“goods”) and relations (“transactions”) are not properly named or clearly understood in terms of their reference to and dependence upon God’s economy. The potential for abuse and desecration, given this anonymity, is huge, especially in a global market economy. For most of us economic choices, ranging from the food we eat to the cars we drive and the products we buy, take place in an immense cloud of ignorance. We do not know where these “goods” come from, under what conditions they were produced, what their real or total costs were, or if the social and biological contexts of their production were compromised or not. Our connection with reality is mostly indirect and attenuated, reduced to the ease of pushing buttons, turning dials, or laying down a credit card. Besides being an economy of “the one night stand” in which we have a good time but do not show any commitment to know or understand, our decision-making reflects a profound failure of imagination. “Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the [social and geo-biological] history beyond the farm… Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.” Berry says we have in fact become superstitious in our thinking, for what could be more superstitious than to believe that “money brings forth food?” 7

If we are to recover a sense for the costly grace that is God’s dedication to be with us, we must learn the daily, practical metanoia that is our turning toward the world and to each other, for it is here that God is at work. But what kind of “turning” is it that we are talking about? It must not be a forsaking of the world, for as Berry reminds us, “It is the mind / turned away from the world / that turns against it.” 8 Think here of the well-intentioned religious sentiment that aspires to an other-worldly heaven. What makes this sentiment dangerous is its potential to deny the divine logic of incarnation, and so bypasses or condemns the material world. “Though Heaven is certainly more important than the earth if all they say about it is true, it is still morally incidental to it and dependent on it, and I can only imagine it and desire it in terms of what I know of the earth. And so my questions do not aspire beyond the earth. They aspire toward it and into it. Perhaps they aspire through it.” 9

From an agrarian point of view our first priority must be to “turn toward” the world and to each other, and learn in this turning the ways of attention, care, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and celebration. This positive turning cannot be reduced to a “back to the land” movement because what Berry is really after is a transformation of consciousness made possible by a change in daily habits, a repositioning of human life in terms of its larger biological, social, and divine contexts. This is why Berry has championed the domestic arts—“the husbandry and wifery of the world”—and the cultivation of local economies.

- why do we hold the domestic arts and local production in such low esteem?
- what makes them vital is that they turn us toward each other, help us to see how we depend on each other, help us appreciate how we do not and cannot live from within ourselves. When work is borne by this proximity and intimacy the sense of the world and of life as a (divine) gift will become more apparent to us. Moreover, such proximity will lead to greater care on our part because our vision will have less opportunity to be evasive or abstract. 

The goal to decrease the distance between production and consumption, or to increase the familiarity between workers, is not simply so that we can have more nutritious food, keep more money in the community, or decrease our transportation costs (as significant as these are). Rather, the goal is to build our affection and faith, to give our love and our hope a more informed and honest (less emotive or fanciful) context. It is to make our aspirations more realistic by compelling us to live with, and thus correct and improve, the often destructive effects of what we do.

Put more theologically, agrarian practices and responsibilities initiate us into the now lost art of being creatures. We cannot be authentic creatures so long as we despise the limits and possibilities of creation, or deny or degrade the biological, ecological, and social networks of relationship that permeate and bless our life together. What we need are to devise apprenticeships that lead us ever more deeply into the requirements of creaturely life, requirements of attention, patience, nurture, and protection. From these apprenticeships there will follow an honest humility and a grateful mind, a heart that celebrates the gifts of God that we are to each other.

Berry’s agrarian vision invites us to love the world deeply not because the world is all that there is. Rather, it is only through a patient, detailed, sympathetic engagement with others and with creation, what Bonhoeffer described as the throwing of ourselves completely into the arms of God, that we will ever come to see, appreciate, and give thanks for the love of God there at work. This resolute, hopeful, humble, and faithful engagement leads us into what Berry calls “the country of marriage.” Practical fidelity of this sort not only leads us “into the care of neighbors … into care for one another and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.” 10 It also forms the indispensable, concrete context for faith that welcomes and lives by and through the grace of God. Agrarian informed faith of this sort, I would argue, represents our best hope as attempt to understand and correct the distorting and destructive desires that currently inspire and fuel our current global and postmodern cultural contexts.

1 Karl Barth. Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1959), p. 20.

2 We should recall that the Hebrew word for grace (h?n) carries the connotation of the life-giving womb. Acts 17:28 continues this maternal, womb-like imagery as Paul endorses the words of the Greek poet Aratus: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’: as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”

3 Bronislaw Szerszynski. Nature, Technology and the Sacred (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005).

4 Philip Sherard. The Rape of Man and Nature (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1987), p. 92.

5 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Letters & Papers From Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1971), pp. 369-70.

6 This passage from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is quoted in David M. Robinson’s excellent new study Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 1.

7 Wendell Berry. “In Distrust of Movements,” In the Presence of Fear (Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society, 2001), pp. 38 & 37.

8 Wendell Berry. “Window Poems 19” in Collected Poems: 1957-1982 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), p. 88. (Henceforth CP)

9 Wendell Berry. “A Native Hill,” in The Art of the Commonplace, p. 23.

10 Wendell Berry. “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union,” from Entries: Poems (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1997), pp. 39-40.

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