Green Politics & Catholic Vision

January-February 1996By James G. Hanink

James G. Hanink is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and Associate Editor of the NOR.

Another Turn of the Crank.  By Wendell Berry. Counterpoint (202-887-0363). 122 pages. $18.



This new book is spare and insistent. Its opening lines intone the words of a stern prophet. “For we are left but a few of many” (Jer. 42:2). The “few,” for Jeremiah, keep faith with Yahweh. The “few,” for Wendell Berry, keep faith, too, with the land — and thus hold fast to a sense of place, which is a condition for democracy. And democracy is a condition for our full freedom.

Berry is a Kentuckian. Once he was a professor of literature. Then he became a farmer (for the second time), returning to his family’s own land. Now he’s America’s keenest social critic. More and more, he’s read as a philosopher. All along, he’s been a poet.

In Another Turn of the Crank, a sampler of recent essays, he catches most of us, and what passes for the “American way,” in a crank that he turns with precision and passion. Immediately, and throughout, he’s intent to expose the sterile games of “liberals” and “conservatives.” Neither Democrats nor Republicans, both on the leash of giant corporations, care about local communities. Neither party addresses the hyper-centralization that the rule of cities and machines imposes. The result? Any humane culture, not to mention real multiculturalism, is at grave risk.

What is most provocative about Berry is his robust agrarianism. Since the industrial revolution we’ve been treated to agrarians “in the head.” But Berry is a “hands on” agrarian, Thomistic in his unity of mens et manus, of mind and hands. He’s as ready to harvest crops as to dream dreams. Indeed, he is one of the less than two percent of us who work and live on farms. Jefferson asked for a nation of farmers; Berry counts as an endangered species. And he argues that without a critical mass of people who have a tactile covenant with the land, things fall apart: “you cannot have a postagricultural world that is not also postdemocratic, postreligious, postnatural….”

To be sure, farming hasn’t ceased. But it’s captive to industrial models and payrolled by banks that know everything about conglomerates and nothing about people. Charting cause and effect is often dicey. Still, the broad onrush of industrial models is relentless. Health care too has become an industry, whether socialized or not. Education is “market driven,” with upward mobility the intended product. Entertainment is “the biz.” And everywhere, bigger is better — and meaner.

Democracy, Berry argues, is put in jeopardy. It is prey to a grim dynamic. For democracy needs citizens of character, and it calls for a commitment to the common good. But we can expect neither when we undermine the local communities that nurture virtue and respect the scale and coherence that make such commitment possible. Already the separating of a whole people from direct contact with the land, together with the interplay of industrial paradigms and cultural centralization, erode economic democracy. NAFTA and GATT, the freshly minted “free” trade agreements, make it still harder for a local economy to retain self-determination.

Without economic democracy, however, political democracy is a charade. Thus Berry traces the logic of an insidious tyranny: “If you control people’s choices as to whether or not they will work, and where they will work, and what they will do, and how well they will do it, and what they will eat and wear, and the genetic makeup of their crops and animals, and what they will do for amusement, then why should you worry about freedom of speech?” The market, global and faceless, rules. Our lives, largely commodified, are managed by the agents of absentee landlords (stockholders of the great corporations).

So what is to be done? How is the Republic to be spared and a people rescued? Wendell Berry is a special kind of radical. We must, he urges, learn the lessons of wholeness and love. The first is a task of philosophy, the second a risk of faith.

Let’s start with philosophy. Wholeness begins with rejecting dualism. “I believe,” Berry says, “that the Creation is one continuous fabric comprehending simultaneously what we mean by ‘spirit’ and what we mean by ‘matter.’” (We forget that Aquinas, who didn’t believe he was simply his body, also insisted that he wasn’t simply his soul. He took himself to be a person, not a peculiar coalition of body and soul.) If we need a distinction, Berry thinks a better one is between the “organic” and the “mechanical.” The organic, living human person goes beyond himself or herself. A machine, however, is self-contained — and sexless. And a mind, he adds, “is even less like a computer than a body is like a machine.” Computers store data; the mind wins knowledge and wisdom.

Overcoming the hyper-mechanical has deep social consequences. Avows Berry: “I am…a Luddite, in what I take to be the true and appropriate sense…. I would unhesitatingly destroy a machine before I would allow the machine to destroy my community.” This is an example of Berry’s radicalism. Another example is his dispute with the social divisions that depersonalize. My favorite item in his manifesto is this: “See that the old and the young take care of one another. The young must learn from the old, not necessarily and not always in school. There must be no institutionalized ‘child care’ and ‘homes for the aged.’ The community knows and remembers itself by the association of old and young.” Among the young, Berry sanely (in a culture quite mad) reaches out to the preborn. If we see the world whole, and our place within it, we see that in our shared dependency we are each more like, than unlike, a preborn baby. Indeed, if dependency invalidates rights, no one has rights.

If philosophy cuts deep, as it does for Berry, faith illumines. If we turn from God, or the discipline of the soul, we will only displace our faith and bow to familiar idols: “progress or science or weaponry or education or nature or human nature or doctors or gurus or genetic engineers or computers or NASA.”

But why so many idols? Maybe it’s because idols seem to demand so little (often money satisfies them), and since an idol never satisfies us, we go from one to another. Berry, for his part, follows John’s Gospel. He believes that “the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love.” This love, though, is Father Zossima’s love: It is harsh and dreadful and, in a century like ours, tests our faith. Berry speaks bluntly. This world “involves error and disease, ignorance and partiality, sin and death. If this world is a place where we may learn of our involvement in immortal love…still such learning is only possible here because that love involves us so inescapably in the limits, sufferings, and sorrows of mortality.” Irenaeus, a century after Christ, taught a soul-making theodicy: God allows for evil so that we might forge our souls in combat with it. The “righteous” most of all need such combat.

We have much to learn from Berry’s green politics. He incites us to ask hard questions. And, of course, we should especially ask them of one whose message is as disquieting as Berry’s and sometimes evokes a Gospel still more disturbing. A pair of queries is particularly apposite.

A first question is whether Berry adulterates justice with Jeffersonian romanticism. There is a case to be made that Christians are more at home in cities than on farms. Christopher Lasch, moreover, points out that nativist demagogues have had a long habit of denouncing cities.

A suggested reply? The root problem with romanticism is that it distorts the truth. Careful scholarship can sift our economic history to test Berry’s claims. I think he’d welcome the process, and he’s at least flagged the patterns we should scrutinize. Lasch, in any case, provides his own answer. The city as megalopolis, he admits, has become incoherent. We cannot draw it into a balance with the land; rather, we must reinvent it. Berry, like Lewis Mumford, gives us good reason to try.

A second question is how local is Berry’s “localism”? What’s the size of the place with respect to which we cultivate a “sense of place”? We’ve all witnessed Balkanization redux — from Bosnia to the (bloody) bits of Bosnia.

A suggested reply? Jacques Maritain reflects on the scope of the society the common good of which justice requires us to attend. Athens, he claims, is in this respect a more coherent society than today’s nation-state. Yet ultimately we must look to the common good of the whole human family — and so we must (somehow) have a “sense of place” for the planet.

Perhaps, though, we cannot literally think globally and act locally. Doubtless to think (or act) at all we must first think (and act) locally. We are embodied beings. Yet, unlike machines, we are not self-contained: Berry has it right. We can transcend, but dare not deny, the local. (Just as we transcend, but dare not demean, the body.)

John Paul II, at the United Nations, affirmed the rights of nations, that is, “peoples.” One of these rights is the right to hold fast to a sense of one’s people. And to do so, one must have, yes, a sense of place. At the same time, nationhood needn’t always require statehood. There is, then, a dynamic balance to be worked out. The person, though not the mere individual, is a “whole.” The community is a union of persons, the nation a union of communities.

The state? It does have, shall we say, administrative possibilities. And yet it’s also the most vexing of philosophical entities — the sort that’s fiercely real and congenitally problematic. Berry helps inoculate us against its worst mischief.

Might we surmise, then, that in Berry’s case green politics is in harmony with a Catholic social vision? Yes, in that Berry embraces the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Yes, in that his green politics is both personalist and communitarian. This verdict, one suspects, might be unsettling to Catholics who’ve made their peace with savage capitalism. Our verdict, one also suspects, might be a tad unnerving for Wendell Berry, who’s said to be edgy about organized religion, though laudatory — no surprise here — about Dorothy Day.



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