Healing complicates, not simplifies

Here, Wendell Berry makes a very interesting observation about the nature of problems and solutions in general, or more specifically, about cultural disease and healing.

These things that appear to be distinct are nevertheless caught in a network of mutual dependence and influence that is the substantiation of their unity. Body, soul (or mind or spirit), community, and world are all susceptible to each other’s influence, and they are all conductors of each other’s influence. The body is damaged by the bewilderment of the spirit, and it conducts the influence of that bewilderment into the earth, and the earth conducts it into the community and so on.

-Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, p.110

He is talking about how all the parts of our world and community are connected and that a problem in one section will never be isolated. It will always have far reaching effects. For example, if more families are torn apart by divorce, all kinds of other bad things follow: damaged children obviously, but also interrupted employment, litigation, etc. When a school goes downhill, it has far-reaching effects on it’s students. When a farmer abuses the soil for short-term gain, it can impair the next generation significantly. When a man visit’s a prostitute, he spreads disease, furthers the abuse of women, financially props up the pimp, etc. When a man smokes weed, his twenty dollars trickle all the way back to gangs on the Mexican border who like to leave severed heads lying around. He also hurts his employer by being spacey. He hurts his neighbor by caring less about him too, at least for a while.

Now, none of this is news. You’ve probably all heard the illustration about how a drop of water in a pond can send ripples out all the way to the edges.

All that is certain is that an error introduced anywhere in the network ramifies beyond the scope of prediction; consequences occur all over the place, and each consequence breeds further consequences. But it seems unlikely that an error can ramify endlessly. It spreads by way of the connections in the network, but sooner or later it must also begin to break them. We are talking, obviously, about a circulatory system, a disease of a circulatory system tends first to impair circulation and then to stop it altogether.

Berry also notes that, because an error in a network (I’m going to substitute “selfishness in the community” for “error”) is, by nature, destructive, it tends to break ties as it goes. The horrors of divorce cannot spread to a thousand generations since those generations aren’t going to exist. The decadence of Rome before it’s fall didn’t spread to the whole world. After enough of the empire was broken, it imploded and was overcome in war. Because evil burns its bridges, it can only travel so far. A comforting though actually!

Now here is what I found the most curious:

Healing, on the other hand, complicates the system by opening and restoring connections among the various parts – in this way restoring the ultimate simplicity of their union. When all the parts of the body are working together, are under each other’s influence, we say that it is whole; it is healthy. The same is true of the world, of which our bodies are parts. The parts are healthy insofar as they are joined harmoniously to the whole.

Healing, by it’s very nature, makes the network more complicated. When you restore connections in the family, then you have to learn to live with these people. If you and your wife get back together, then you have to learn to relate to her mother-in-law again. And you have to feed to dog, which you didn’t have to do before. A lot of people talk of ways to fix education. But do you realize that if you fix education, it will not make it suddenly simple and elegant? If the interaction of teachers, students, parents, and the rest of the technology is made richer and more healthy, it will also be increasingly difficult to put your finger on one thing that is holding it together.

We often, very often, imagine that healing will simplify things. The newsstand is full of magazines offering ideas to simplify your life. They even have titles like “Real Simple”. Religious fundamentalists also tend to think like this. Introduce this one big change, like everyone taking the bible literally or everyone submitting to Sharia law, or everyone tossing away their “crutch” of faith in a fit of secular humanist existential ecstasy, THEN the world will be less tangled up. It will be simple! No. Our world, our community is a circulatory system. The more healthy it is, the more tightly integrated it will be – the more difficult it will be to understand. Yes, in some ways, when life is healed it is simpler. But it is also thicker.

Hate causes a mess, but love causes even more of mess!

Wendell Berry’s Cures for America (from 1977)

After using Wendell Berry as my example earlier of being “long on diagnosis, short on cure”, I was delighted find him admit this straight-up on the one of the last pages of The Unsettling of America.

And so we come to the question of what, in a public or governmental sense, ought to be done. Any criticism of an established way, if it is to be valid, must have as its standard not only a need, but a better way. it must show that a better way is desirable, and it must give examples to show that it is possible.

This should be obvious, right? Practical examples? But as I mentioned in earlier posts, there is a great dearth of them.

This was followed by two pages of self-admittedly brief and vague solutions. They did include numbered bullet points though! What more could you ask for? I’ll try to summarize them here with a few comments. Remember, this was published in 1977.

1. “Withdrawal of confidence from the league of specialists, officials, and corporation executives who for at least a generation have had almost exclusive charge of the problem and who have enormously enriched and empowered themselves by making it worse.” Wow. And he is talking about the department of agriculture and the food industry here, but he could be talking about anybody. Wall Street? The housing bubble? City planners? The military overseas. You name it, this could be point #1 on just about anybody’s list. Stop trusting the people in charge. This isn’t a call to rebel against them, but to simply no longer believe what they say without thinking about it first. Very good advice.

2. Using some of his philosophical language about “energy” he ask us to learn self-restraint in our consumption, and to learn to enjoy working hard.

3. Return to the U.S. founder’s philosophy about government protecting the small and weak from the great and powerful through negative law. That is, by stopping bad stuff from happening, not by throwing lots of money at allegedly “good” stuff.

4. Make very low-interest loans available to those wishing to become small farmers and buy small pieces of farm land.

5. Price controls to protect farmers and prevent waste. (Yikes!)

6. Promote fresh local food to reduce dependence on distant imports.

7. Make every town and city operate an organic waste depot for converting sewage, garbage, etc. to fertilizer to be used on local farms. This will break our expensive and dangerous dependence on mined fossil fertilizers.

8. Reform sanitation laws and get rid of the ones that are killing small farmers and ranchers by making it too hard and expensive to meet FDA standards.

9.1 Encourage technological and genetic diversity for conserving soil.

9.2 Forbid state-funded university professors from simply being the R&D departments of private corporations, yielding no public benefit.

10. Force agriculture professors to spend 50% of their time operating a small farm. Half their salary must from practical experience.

11. Some more philosophy. This time advocating a more moral and humble anthropology. Self-restraint.

12. “Having exploited “relativism” until, as a people, we have no deeply believed reasons for doing anything, we must now ask ourselves if there is not, after all, an absolute good by which we must measure ourselves and for which we must work.” He goes on. The final point is a condemnation of relativism and thinly veiled support for, essentially, theism.

This is an interesting mix of solutions! Some of them are very conservative, pushing for less government involvement. Others are just the opposite (price controls and farm loans) which call for more legislation and enforcement. (By the way, I think history makes a strong case that price controls almost always backfire). The bulk of the points are moral though and for moral arguments to work, you need his last point, which is theism. Berry is a fervent Christian, though he seems to be going out of his way not to mention it in this work so as not to alienate his secular audience. Nevertheless, he can’t help quoting the Bible about every third page. What I see this meaning is that, more than anything else, the church needs to be aware of these issues. We have denounced consumerism from time to time, but we are so caught up in it, we are usually unable to denounce it near enough. Instead we have the prosperity gospel. Even in most orthodox American churches, how many in the congregation are chained to high mortgages and credit card debt? A heck of a lot. It’s part of the same root trouble that has also led to the exploitation of the land that Berry draws attention to in this book.

I need to track down some follow-up material from Berry to see what he thinks of the situation now in 2011. For example, in one chapter he advocates organic food and local farming. That dimension has exploded since he wrote this in the late seventies. As far as I can tell, soil conservation practices, such as crop rotation, are in a healthier state than three decades ago too. Other sides of the coin are quite a bit worse though. I would guess that he continues to be dismayed at his conservative Christian colleague’s allergic reactions to environmentalism. On the other hand, I can imagine him being equally frustrated with environmentalists who do not fear God and dream of left-wing fascism.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Berry’s book, despite the doom and gloom, especially the material related to work/life balance, generalist work, vocation, and fatherhood.

Fresh pineapple

I don’t wish to teach my son
to work,
but rather to work, love, pray, and rest.
To sow and to reap,
to know grace,
when he sows the wind.
Instead of reaping the whirlwind,
fresh pineapple in December.

* Pineapple is such a wild, spiky and delicious fruit. How is it that I can have one on my table in the middle of winter? Some would say it is due to the triumph of coordinated global agriculture, high-speed international shipping and government trade agreements. But the pineapple isn’t normal. It will have none of that. It knows it’s there because of grace.

Photo credit

Is the wilderness a consumer good?

I wrote this while camping in the woods after reading Wendell Berry distinguishing between nature-lovers treating the outdoors as a “scenic” commodity versus the farmer (and anyone who eats food) being tied to it with much stronger bonds.

Is the wilderness a consumer good? Some folks want to live out here, but what are they going to do for a living? Write novels? Take photographs? Telecommute back to Oracle? Perhaps that is just affluence treating the forest like a slave. Like a strip-club patron throwing a twenty at the stage and shouting, “Dance!” We flex our purchasing power in order to buy a home on the edge of civilization. Oh, how natural of us. The forest doesn’t ask much of us though. It bides it’s time, occasionally bursting into flames on its own accord to brush off the brush and clear out campers.

Who exactly did Jesus forgive while he hung on the cross?

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Who is “them”? The gentile Roman soldiers who were just following orders? I guess it’s easy to make an excuse for them. They’ll hear the gospel later.

Was he forgiving the mob then? The mob caught up in volent mimetic contagion (as Girard would put it)? They really didn’t know what they were doing either. They were out of control, imitating the thrower of the first stone. We’ll give them a pass too.

Was he forgiving the religious leaders and murderous plotters as well? The guy who really DID throw the first stone? Better to have a millstone tied around one’s neck and thrown into the sea than to cause the mob to sin. (Luke 17:2) Is he forgiving the model too? The arch-hater of God? If THAT guy was included in Jesus’ intercession with the Father while he hung on the cross, then who on earth does that leave out?

I’m not trying to advocate including them or leaving them out. I’m just asking, how hard are we going to work to make sure that someone gets excluded from God’s statement here?

Earlier, he told the same plotters, to their face, “You are of your father, the devil!” (John 8:44) But that’s the point, right? That’s why He was there, to reconcile even these sons of Satan.

By the way, this is good news for those of us who are sons of Satan. I think the good news stands. It is not just for the ears of the righteous, or (as Luke 23:34 implies) for the ignorant, but also for the rebellious.

On theological liberalism

Theological liberalism has no gonads. It is impotent. Ah, but it has seemed so influential! It’s taken over much of the western church. Has it not? No. The perceived influence of theological liberalism is only the encroaching dominion of unbelief – unbelief that grows like strep in a warm petri dish when the burning coals and solid ice of orthodoxy are nowhere to be found.

When an Episcopal Priest can stand up on Easter morning and declare to the congregation that Jesus did not actually, historically, bodily, rise from the dead (happened this year at a church in Nashville) – that is not the triumph of liberty, non-violence, and the love of Christ. It is the triumph dance of the enemy, declaring as shrilly as he can that God is dead. Perhaps if he shouts it a little louder, it will drown out the hum of the approaching eschaton.

Satan worked in the hearts of men to move the mob to murder Christ. Now, he must work to keep him murdered. The mob must have won. They must have killed him so well that He really stayed in the ground, despite whatever his crazy followers said afterwards. But they can talk all they want. God is liberated from the grave.