Originally published June 9, 2009.
“Wendell Berry (born August 5, 1934, Henry County, Kentucky) is an American man of letters, academic, cultural and economic critic, and farmer. He is a prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays. He is also an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.” – thus Wikipedia introduces one of my favorite authors. Among his many achievements, however, he is not listed as a theologian.
That’s probably appropriate – Berry himself would not claim credentials as a professional in this field. But he does occasionally wander onto theological meadows, and the result is as satisfying as the rest of his work.
I ran into this section in his essay “Economy and Pleasure” that is included in “The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry” (Norman Wirzba, Editor). It is perhaps more than a little ironic that I did so in the departure area of the Cincinnatti airport while waiting on a delayed flight – about as far from the agrarian ideals of Berry as I could get – but that irony is best left for another day.
Here’s the piece that struck me (the emphasis, of course, is mine):
“This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used.” Henry David Thoreau said that to his graduating class at Harvard in 1837. We may assume that to most of them it sounded odd, as to most of the Harvard graduating class of 1987 [date of this essay] it still would. But perhaps we will be encouraged to take him seriously, if we recognize that this idea is not something that Thoreau made up out of thin air. When he uttered it, he may very well have been remembering Revelation 4:11: “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” That God created “all things” is in itself an uncomfortable thought, for in our workaday world we can hardly avoid preferring some things above others, and this makes it hard to imagine not doing so. That God created all things for His pleasure, and that they continue to exist because they please him, is formidable doctrine indeed, as far as possible from the “anthropcentric” utilitarianism that some environmentalist critics claim to find in the Bible and from the grouchy spirituality of many Christians.
Berry goes on…
…God’s pleasure in all things must be respected by us in our use of things, and even in our displeasure of some things. It suggests too that we have an obligation to preserve God’s pleasure in all things, and surely this means not only that we must not misuse or abuse anything, but also that there must be some things and some places that by common agreement we do not use at all, but leave wild. [pp 214-215]
That last thought is one that Sigurd Olson, one of the founders of the wilderness preservation movement in the United States, would surely have agreed with.