Re-imagining Economic Obedience: Lessons from Wendell Berry
Several scholars and members of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently explored and contemplated consumerism, along with its potenial dangers and blessings, in the May 2003 issue of Voices, the parish journal. Ken Myers also contributed an article to this issue (titled "Consumerism: Wherever Your Treasure Is, There too Will Be Your Heart"). His article, which introduces writer Wendell Berry's thoughts on the God-given order of Creation and what that order means for human housekeeping, is available here.
The structure of a great proportion of our social, economic, and political life encourages us to think of ourselves as consumers. "Think" is actually the wrong verb here, since what is happening is an act of presupposition or assumption or intuition. Since so many institutions around us encourage such an assumption, since the "self as consumer" is a model of self-understanding so pervasive, it is a great challenge to gain enough detachment from the prevailing winds to think of our lives in any other way. And yet the consequences of imagining ourselves principally as consumers are destructive and disordering.
In order to recover other ways of imagining our lives, we need prophets and practices. We need the assistance of wise and creative truth-tellers who have, by God's grace, been given a vision of life that challenges the great myths of our time. From such seers, we can acquire models for living our lives deliberately, ways of engaging space, time, and the material world that conform more fittingly with the order our Creator has established.
In my own reading, I have found Wendell Berry to be among the most profound sages addressing the manifold confusions associated with the habitual turn of our mind, hearts, and bodies toward consumption. Berry is a novelist, poet, farmer, and essayist, not necessarily in that order. His writing is plain and elegant, deceptively simple to the point of being rejected by many as simplistic. As with the wisest of sources, his work requires meditation and reflection. Many of Berry's observations about the shape of human well-being can only be comprehended if the reader is willing to make radical changes in patterns of living. Not all will have ears to hear.
One of Berry's fundamental assumptions is deeply Christian and yet profoundly out of tune with most of modern culture. It is the assumption that God has established an order in Creation the honoring of which is required if we are to live well. One of the characteristics of modern culture is the contrary, technocratic assumption that the world is just so much raw material awaiting human creativity and transformation. There is no nature to nature (even to human nature), and human willing is meant to be sovereign, free, and unlimited. In this view, we live well when we have power to remake all things according to our desires.
But Christianity taught from the beginning that desires are to be trained to fit reality, to fit the order of Creation. That is the assumption Berry brings to his writing, and he emphasizes what might be called an Incarnational theme within that assumption, training our attention not simply on the immaterial world of ideas and the will, but on the givenness (that is, the Divine ordering) of the world our bodies inhabit as well.
Berry's essay "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" is a good place for beginners to start with his work. It is contained in a volume called Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. (The title of this book, also the title of one of his essays, suggests how Berry encourages us to join what is often put asunder: we cannot understand the place of sex in our lives (privately and communally) unless we pay attention to how other material aspects of our lives are to be ordered, and we cannot know how freedom should be preserved apart from an understanding of the calling into community that is established in our nature.) In that essay, Berry insists that if we are to preserve any meaning in our lives, "religion" and "economy" cannot be regarded as disconnected. The reasons for this are suggested in the etymology of the word "economy," which at root means literally the "management of a household." "By 'economy' I do not mean 'economics,' which is the study of money-making, but rather the ways of human housekeeping, the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained within the household of nature. To be uninterested in economy is to be uninterested in the practice of religion; it is to be uninterested in culture and in character. Probably the most urgent question now faced by people who would adhere to the Bible is this: What sort of economy would be responsible to the holiness of life? What, for Christians, would be the economy, the practices and the restraints, of 'right livelihood'? I do not believe that organized Christianity now has any idea."
Berry is very hard on organized Christianity, because he sees the churches behaving as handmaidens to the assumptions of political and economic institutions dedicated to the exploitation of creation rather than its stewardship. "Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven, it has been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. . . . It has assumed with the economists that 'economic forces' automatically work for good and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that 'progress' is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times.
Berry's critique of national and global forces always comes back to the concrete challenge of individual families, households, and communities. In one of his most comprehensive essays, "Discipline and Hope," he insists that marriage cannot be understood apart from its concrete, material aspects. "The prevalent assumption appears to be that marriage problems are problems strictly of 'human relations': if the husband and wife will only assent to a number of truisms about 'respect for the other person,' 'giving and taking,' et cetera, and if they will only 'understand' each other, then it is believed that their problems will be solved. The difficulty is that marriage is only partly a matter of 'human relations,' and only partly a circumstance of the emotions. It is also, and as much as anything, a practical circumstance. It is very much under the influence of things and people outside itself; that is, it must make a household, it must make a place for itself in the world and in the community. But with us, getting someplace always involves going somewhere. Every professional advance leads to a new place, a new house, a new neighborhood. Our marriages are always being cut off from what they have made; their substance is always disappearing into the thin air of human relations."
The wisdom about consumption in Berry's work is not limited to specific comments he makes about consuming; it permeates his essays as a critique of the posture toward Creation and toward the material world that dominates American society. In theological terms, he is opposed to Gnosticism, the ancient and perennial heresy that matter is evil (or indifferent) and only the world of spirit is really important to God and to us. Berry knows that this does not square with the Biblical account of human life, and so his explicit critiques of consumerism (as in this passage from "Discipline and Hope") tend to refer back to a theologically rooted view of Creation. "A consumer is one who uses things up, a concept that is alien to the creation, as are the concepts of waste and disposability. A more realistic and creative vision of ourselves would teach us that our ecological obligations are to use, not to use up; to use by the standard of real need, not of fashion or whim; and then to relinquish what we have used in a way that returns it to the common ecological fund from which it came.
"The key to such a change of mind is the realization that the first and final order of the creation is not such an order as men can impose on it, but an order in the creation itself by which its various parts and processes sustain each other, and which is only to some extent understandable. . . . The order of the creation, that is to say, is closer to that of drama than to that of a market."
In an essay called "Two Economies," Wendell Berry recounts a conversation with his friend Wes Jackson during which they mused about how to define a framework for thinking about the economy that would be comprehensive enough to deter ecological and social destruction. Berry suggested that an economy based on energy rather than money might be more benign. Jackson thought it still wouldn't be comprehensive enough, and when asked for an alternate framework, he "hesitated a moment, and then, grinning, said 'The Kingdom of God.'" We may not be able to persuade Alan Greenspan et al. to adopt such a standard, but certainly in our discrete households and in the household of faith that is the Church, such a framework ought to be imaginable. [Posted July 2003, KAM]