Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Hope Is One of Our Duties"

Today is Wendell Berry's birthday. I've admired Wendell Berry for many years, even as I've only read his work in bits and pieces. I like his poems, love most of his essays, and haven't read his novels. I admire his commitment to his farm in Kentucky, a commitment which has led to quiet environmental activism; I expect that future generations of scholars will realize that he's written some of the most important environmental writing of the last part of the twentieth century.

He's also a Christian, and some of his works are deeply influenced by that tradition. I think he's successful in walking that tightrope between thoughtful writing and polemic. Of course, as a lifelong Lutheran, I might not see aspects of his writing which might offend non-believers.

Here's an example of that kind of writing: "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" ("Christianity and the Survival of Creation" from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, page 103). That passage made me gasp when I first read it, and it still does.

I love his writings on community. His work seems even more vital, as every day we discover how much we're damaging the planet. Yet he never sinks into gloom. He manages to sound prophetic (one of the prophet's duties being to call people back to right living, as well as to warn), without staying in the land of the apocalypse too long. He always comes back to one of his main themes: ". . . hope is one of our duties. A part of our obligation to our own being and to our descendants is to study our life and our condition, searching always for the authentic underpinnings of hope. And if we look, these underpinnings can still be found. For one thing, thought we have caused the earth to be seriously diseased, it is not yet without health. The earth we have before us now is still abounding and beautiful" ("Conservation and Local Economy" from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, page 11).

He wrote those words almost 20 years ago, and yet, they still have relevance. In a week where we finally have good news about the oil spill in the Gulf, it's good to hope again.

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