Addenda

8 Oct

A Devilish temptation

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/08/08

For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. . . .

For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. Many sincere Christians still have some sense that being limited is an effect of sin, rather than a condition of the Creation. Both Genesis accounts of Creation (in chapters 1 and 2) resound with the establishment of boundaries—in time, in space, in ontology, and in vocation. God created all things (including his image-bearers) to thrive within limits, and he then asserted that this circumstance of Creation is very good. After delivering the mandate to serve as his regents and stewards over all Creation, God reminds Adam and Eve that they are creatures who are bounded. They do not exist independently, but must turn to the earth (from which they came and to which will return) for food, for the stuff of life. But not all the food in the Garden was on the menu. Man was limited and needy in his created state, and his continued fellowship with God required the recognition of boundaries.

Almost all human cultures have pursued the task of defining and governing boundaries in human behavior. Philip Rieff argued (in The Triumph of the Therapeutic) that every culture survives "by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood." The story of modern Western culture, however—a culture built around the ideal of the sovereign self—is a story of the abandonment of restrictions and restraints in the name of human freedom. Our institutions have increasingly been defined in terms of encouraging liberation from limits rather than cultivating a conscientious honoring of limits.

It was in light of this understanding that I read Wendell Berry's essay in the May issue of Harper's with great appreciation. In "Faustian Economics," (subtitled "Hell Hath No Limits"), Berry argues that "we have founded our present society upon delusional assumptions of limitlessness," that "the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt." This quest for unbounded possibility has, in Berry's view, led to a coarse and dehumanized society. "The minimization of neighborliness, respect, reverence, responsibility, accountability, and self-subordination—this is the culture of which our present leaders and heroes are the spoiled children."

With echoes of numerous theologians who have related the imago dei to our essential relationality, Berry questions the understanding of freedom that dominates modern culture. "In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define 'freedom' for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom of Words, 'free' is etymologically related to 'friend.' These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of 'dear' or 'beloved.' We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. All this suggests that our 'identity' is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections."

The title of the essay foreshadows Berry's discovery in Marlowe's telling of the Faust myth of the idea that the desire for limitlessness is devilish. Milton's Paradise Lost is also cited in the article, as it offers angelic testimony (from Raphael) that limits apply not only to what we ought to do, but to what we ought to strive to know, that (in Berry's summary) "knowledge without measure, knowledge that the human mind cannot appropriately use, is mortally dangerous."

Berry anticipates criticism for bringing "the language of religion" into a discussion of economics—a discussion that should, it is assumed, remain disinterestedly scientific. But he suggests that such detachment from transcendent concerns may be what got us into this mess—a mess that has become much more evident since he wrote the article. "I doubt that we can define our present problems adequately, let alone solve them, without some recourse to our cultural heritage. We are, after all, trying now to deal with the failure of scientists, technicians, and politicians to 'think up' a version of human continuance that is economically probable and ecologically responsible, or perhaps even imaginable. If we go back into our tradition, we are going to find a concern with religion, which at a minimum shatters the selfish context of the individual life, and thus forces a consideration of what human beings are and ought to be."

The text of the entire article is online at the Harper's website.

Posted by Ken Myers on 10/7/08