Wendell Berry: identity, autonomy, privacy, competition

We had a winter wedding and draped the sterile “sanctuary” in ivy filched from front lawns all over town and made into garlands by loving friends. We thus began our somewhat-ignorant stumble into fidelity. On the occasion of our anniversary this week, my very-deep wife found an essay by Wendell Berry that eloquently summarizes much of what we instinctively discovered and practiced. What she focused on was Berry’s piece of wisdom that we have found to be true:

“No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.” We have practiced that in marriage, family, church and city.

The-Unsettling-of-AmericaThe essay she quoted was written in 1977 as part of his book: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Berry wrote his prophetic book as the American Empire flowered and turned to fruit, and as the society began to democratize and monetize everything. If you are a Christian who longs to be a humble creature, you might like to read it all: [link].

For today I offer you two long quotes from it that seem to go together to me. Berry makes important points about topics we have been exploring for a few years as a Circle of Hope. He is writing at a time when the adoption of the concept of “identity” and other new definitions are beginning to bud. By our time we have eaten the pie.

“The so-called identity crisis, for instance, is a disease that seems to have become prevalent after the disconnection of body and soul and the other piecemealings of the modern period. One’s “identity” is apparently the immaterial part of one’s being–also known as psyche, soul, spirit, self, mind, etc. The dividing of this principle from the body and from any particular worldly locality would seem reason enough for a crisis. Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work. But “finding yourself,” the pseudo-ritual by which the identity crisis is supposed to be resolved, makes use of no such immediate references. Leaving aside the obvious, and ancient, realities of doubt and self-doubt, as well as the authentic madness that is often the result of cultural disintegration, it seems likely that the identity crisis has become a sort of social myth, a genre of self-indulgence. It can be an excuse for irresponsibility or a fashionable mode of self-dramatization. It is the easiest form of self-flattery–a way to construe procrastination as a virtue–based on the romantic assumption that “who I really am” is better in some fundamental way than the available evidence proves.

The fashionable cure for this condition, if I understand the lore of it correctly has nothing to do with the assumption of responsibilities or the renewal of connections. The cure is “autonomy,” another mythical condition, suggesting that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences. This seems little more than a jargon term for indifference to the opinions and feelings of other people. There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence. Inevitably failing this impossible standard of autonomy, the modern self-seeker becomes a tourist of cures, submitting his quest to the guidance of one guru after another. The “cure” thus preserves the disease….”

wendell berryBerry goes on to apply his thoughts on identity and autonomy to marriage. He has a lot to say to us in a time when single parenthood or parenthood by less-committed cohabitors is common:

“…Failing, as they cannot help but fail, to be each other’s all, the husband and wife become each other’s only. The sacrament of sexual union, which in the time of the household was a communion of workmates, and afterward tried to be a lovers’ paradise, has now become a kind of marketplace in which husband and wife represent each other as sexual property. Competitiveness and jealousy, imperfectly sweetened and disguised by the illusions of courtship, now become governing principles, and they work to isolate the couple inside their marriage. Marriage becomes a capsule of sexual fate. The man must look on other men, and the woman on other women, as threats. This seems to have become particularly damaging to women; because of the progressive degeneration and isolation of their “role,” their worldly stock in trade has increasingly had to be “their” men. In the isolation of the resulting sexual “privacy,” the disintegration of the community begins. The energy that is the most convivial and unifying loses its communal forms and becomes divisive. This dispersal was nowhere more poignantly exemplified than in the replacement of the old ring dances, in which all couples danced together, by the so-called ballroom dancing, in which each couple dances alone. A significant part of the etiquette of ballroom dancing is, or was, that the exchange of partners was accomplished by a “trade.” It is no accident that this capitalization of love and marriage was followed by a divorce epidemic–and by fashions of dancing in which each one of the dancers moves alone.”

Identity, autonomy, privacy, and competition have come to “encapsulate” most of the people we know. They are concepts that form new sanctuaries and they can’t be disguised by draping the ivy chains of our Christianity over them.

May you have some time this Advent, away from the monetization of our holy-days, to do a ring dance, to spend some time in the wilderness rediscovering how you are a much-loved creature, and to celebrate your responsible dependence

  • on God (who gives you yourself and gives himself to you in Jesus),
  • on your spouse (if you are given one) and
  • on your community (which you have been given).

We are the sanctuary in which God’s Spirit dwells. During Advent, as we remember how God comes in to our creatureliness in Jesus, it is a good time to remember how that same Spirit makes us God’s dwelling place as a people in our own time and place. This is also a good verse for a Christmas card: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.  Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-18).

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About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope. Graduate of Fuller Seminary, PhD in MFT from Eastern University.
This entry was posted in Theological Help and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Wendell Berry: identity, autonomy, privacy, competition

  1. Art says:

    “Responsible dependence”- thanks Wendell and Rod. And I’m reminded this Advent that God in human flesh also has this need for mutuality now. Most obviously as a newborn he had needs to be met from the humanity around him. God needs us too as surely as we need him. Feeling needed by God.

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