Wendell Berry and My Atheist Revelation

Wendell Berry values the good life.  He values it enough to stop and ask, “What is it, this good life?  And in what ways can I strive for it?”  His answers are simple, but uncommon. In farming: nurturing the life-giving topsoil, working the land to learn about it, creating a system that breeds health and productivity without stripping the land of resources.  In home economies: reducing your material needs to what you can actually supply yourself with, valuing workmanship over conspicuous consumption, finding ways to reduce wasted resources.  In communities: acting with generosity and justice to neighbors, valuing your grandparents when you are a child and your grandchildren when you are old, staying put long enough to matter to a community and have that community matter to you.

Berry is Christian, but you could read his works for a long time before you stumbled upon that fact.  Rather than trumpeting his faith he simply lives it.  This makes his faith all the more appealing, doesn’t it?  His actions, his values, and his words point to how he values peace, justice for the poor, and respect for the earth. These, in turn, humbly point out his faith.  He doesn’t simply point to his faith and expect that to whitewash over a prideful, violent, deceitful, or exploitative life.

When he discusses his ideal economy, one with economic, social, and ecological justice for all, he calls it “The Kingdom of God.”  And that’s fine with me because the “Kingdom” he describes is so clearly a good thing.  In fact, it gives me the chills.  It reminds me of how I felt at the best moments of my Christian faith.  Like how he treats his own faith, Berry doesn’t just pin a little “God” label on a body of thought and demand all Americans bow before it.  He works up a plan that respects all persons and our homelands and tells us how pressing it is that we begin this project of respect.  He explains, that, because it shows love and respect we can understand that it is of God because God always shows love and respect.  They will know Christian economies by their love, by their love….

I was reading a collection of essays byBerry a couple years after my deconversion.  The pain was still pretty raw and I was still pretty bitter about it.  I was not generally interested in reading Christian authors.  But as I read I found myself drawn in by his sympathies for a whole and connected life.  It’s really hard to explain, but it was like a revelation.  I could see (and value) how individuals, communities, and the environment connected in a complex but beautiful pattern.  I could love my own place in this pattern and be free from anxiety over the rest of it.  No matter what faith I had I was compelled to eat from the earth, live by my neighbors, and find a place in my family.  My choice lay only in doing those things well or badly.  Berry challenges, and equips, you to do them well.  It was as rapturous as any religious experience I ever had.

Wendell Berry, the acclaimed author, activist, and farmer, is my hero.   I hope I am able to have the discipline and daring to cultivate the good life as he has.

Do you love Wendell Berry too?  What non-religious text has brought you religious-like insight?

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1 Response to Wendell Berry and My Atheist Revelation

  1. donna treacy says:

    the unsettling of america was the first book i ever read by wendell berry. he is and has been for years my favorite author. the fact that he labels himself as a christian doesn’t affect me either way. i like how he thinks, how he writes and how he lives.

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