"What we call nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and upon their places. Because of woodpeckers, nature is different from what it would be without them. It is different also because of the borers and ants that live in tree trunks, and because of bacteria that live in the soil under the trees. The making of these differences is the making of the world."
This quote, from a letter Berry wrote to Wes Jackson that is published in Berry’s collection of essays titled “Home Economics,” is mega to me.
Wendell Berry once said, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”
Environmental attorney Andrew Kimbrell shared Berry’s quotation with a standing room only crowd on the final evening of the Hawai‘i SEED Tour event featuring Dr. Vandana Shiva Thursday at the Kaua‘i War Memorial Auditorium (see Saturday’s online edition for a full story about Shiva’s presentation).
Berry’s quotation resonated the most during the evening, with Dr. Shiva also paraphrasing it before announcing that she would return to Kaua‘i, “only when you have driven those criminals off this island.”
With the release of comments by Wendell Berry in support of gay marriage last week, I've been revisiting some of his work and thought and, man, is it inspiring! So I thought I'd spotlight him for Theologian Thursday today.
Wendell Berry isn't really a theologian. He is more precisely a writer, a poet, and a farmer. But his activism and language (surely influenced by his friend, Thomas Merton) has a mystic, spiritual resonance that makes you believe that he sees something in the world--God, I guess--that most people miss.
The thing about Berry’s most recent jeremiad on the subject of same-sex marriage is that it’s wholly of a piece with everything else the man has written and argued and defended. The anger, the earthy humor, the Baptist individualism constrained by commitment to community, place and neighbor. None of that is out of character. Nor is it surprising.
He’s said all of this before about farming and about the land and about community, and economy, and fidelity. So he’s been saying this about marriage all along.
The current dismay among religiously and socially conservative appreciators of Wendell Berry's work is understandable. Mr. Berry has spoken about his support for same-sex marriage.
Early in his remarks he seemed to anticipate the kind of storm he was likely to stir. And there has arisen some turbulence, which I won't replay here. But you can find links to some examples of it HERE.
My guess, and it is only a guess, is that Mr. Berry has come to accept that which most of his conservative readers cannot—that, as gay Catholic theologian James Alison puts it, homosexuality is simply (or not so) "a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant" within the human species. In other words, homosexuality is as natural for some of us as heterosexuality is for most of us. This position, which appears to be more generally accepted by science, is far from being accepted in either the Catholic church or numerous conservative Protestant churches. In fact, it seems to be foundational for "the liberal position" so regularly condemned by the Right.
For my own sanity's sake, I try to get outside of left/right thinking as much as possible. Alison (openly an advocate for his side) offers some help … or, at least, something that helps me think through the problem.
Accepting or rejecting this anthropological understanding of homosexuality would seem to be fundamental to whatever position one takes on the matter. It's the crux of it. A traditional and conservative reading of Scripture possibly will not get one there on its own. Why not? Probably because the divinely inspired yet historically and culturally embedded authors of Scripture didn't have the wherewithal to study and test the facts so as to grow toward understanding the thing itself.
The naturalness of homosexuality is either true or it is not. Here is a key paragraph by Alison, whose point I find compelling:
In the last fifty years or so we have undergone a genuine human discovery of the sort that we, the human race, don’t make all that often. A genuine anthropological discovery: one that is not a matter of fashion, or wishful thinking; not the result of a decline in morals or a collapse of family values. We now know something objectively true about humans that we didn’t know before: that there is a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, independent of culture, habitat, religion, education, or customs, which we currently call “being gay”. This minority variant is not, of course, lived in a way that is independent of culture, habitat, religion, education and customs. It is lived, as is every other human reality, in an entirely culture-laden way, which is one of the reasons why it has in the past been so easy to mistake it as merely a function of culture, psychology, religion or morality: something to get worked up about rather than something that is just there. (James Alison, "The Fulcrum of Discovery or: how the 'gay thing' is good news for the Catholic Church")
This matter is not something I care to argue about. It is certainly not anything about which I wish to judge or condemn other people. Perhaps the advocates of one side or the other are ignorant or deluded or self-serving, intent on foisting some evil bit of social engineering onto all of us or on casting us back to the Dark Ages. But I prefer to think not. In fact, I really don't think so.
Everyone has an agenda. We are all people with points of view and desires that have been informed by our upbringing, our culture and historical moment, and I hope, our own mature and thoughtful consideration—our own intelligence. I trust that Mr. Berry, as in all other issues to which he has given thought, has used that intelligence in coming to his understanding of this matter.
But I write in the past tense because Berry’s recent remarks make a definitional move that this older essay didn’t foresee, and doesn’t even seem to permit. They put a question mark after many of his earlier statements. He has retroactively obfuscated his point about limits and definitions. Here’s what I mean:
In his recent remarks, Berry mocks the idea that “homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals.” He goes on to make the excellent point, which is exactly in line with his decades-long argument, that infidelity, divorce, and promiscuity without any regard for marriage are the real problem. Marriage as an institution is breaking down around us because it’s being done so badly. ”Heterosexual marriage does not need defending… It only needs to be practiced, which is pretty hard to do just now.” He has a good point, perhaps even the main point, and we’ll hardly catch Wendell Berry cheerleading for the culture of sexual self-expression and self-fulfillment.
But he does apparently move to include homosexual relationships in the category of marriage (I assume he is thinking of that status of permanent, lifelong commitments between homosexual partners). That is hard to square with the language and the direction of his “Use of Old Forms” essay.
This is just nuts. It’s ignorant, malicious, one-dimensional crackpottery, ideological hysteria of the sort one never expects from Wendell Berry. It is not remotely serious, and it is not remotely persuasive. Rather, it’s Grampa Simpson standing on the liberal lawn, shouting talking points he read in a Franky Schaeffer essay on HuffPo. It makes Andrew Sullivan in his more emotional moments sound as balanced and avuncular as Alistair Cooke. What a damn shame.
I write this post with deep disappointment. I appreciate Wendell Berry’s literary artistry, and I appreciate his spiritual insights. But he indulged in an epic rant against gay marriage opponents to a gathering of Baptist ministers on January 11th in Kentucky. His comments were relayed by Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press. While Berry repeats uncritically a slew of bumper-sticker arguments and engages in some serious straw-man pyromania, the people in the comments box nonetheless marvel at his genius. This deserves a response.
Here is a selection of snaps from Twitter in response to Mr. Berry's statements on gay marriage ... in nor particular order.
I was expecting more critical responses, but so far it all seems fairly positive.
Berry, a prolific author of books, poems and essays who won the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and was 2012 Jefferson lecturer for the National Endowment for the Humanities, offered “a sort of general declaration” on the subject of gay marriage at a “Following the Call of the Church in Times Like These” conference at Georgetown College. Berry said he chose to comment publicly to elaborate on what little he has said about the topic in the past.
“I must say that it’s a little wonderful to me that in 40-odd years of taking stands on controversial issues, and at great length sometimes, the two times that I think I’ve stirred up the most passionate opposition has been with a tiny little essay on computers (his 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” published in Harper’s led some to accuse him of being anti-technology) and half a dozen or a dozen sentences on gay marriage,” Berry said.