Creator and Creation

tokens-of-trustI should have read Rowan Williams a long time ago. His brilliance as a theologian has been mentioned by many, which I can now confirm first-hand. For example, in Tokens of Trust, Williams mentions that William Paley’s (in)famous watchmaker analogy isn’t very helpful, and goes on to say:

The one thing belief in a creator doesn’t say, in Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition, is that God made the world and then stood back and left it lying around, so to speak. Believers in all these religions would say that creation is going on now. There is indeed a beginning point, but it is the beginning of an active relationship that never stops. For God to create is for God to ‘commit’ his action, his life, to sustaining a reality that is different from him, and doing so without interruption. If I might offer an analogy that is as bad in its way as the watchmaker image, think about an electric light burning. The electric current causes the light to shine, but that doesn’t mean that the electric power is something that was around only at the moment you put the switch on, so that the light itself is a rather distant result. On the contrary, the light is shining here and now because the electric current is flowing here and now. In the same way, it is the ‘current’ of divine activity that is here and now making us real.

It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it. It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.

Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 34-5.

Big is Better (For Thinking)

After saying that big is bad, one of the writers chiefly responsible for my opposition to all things large has to go and ruin my simple categories. This passage from Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle is to blame:

Freedom in both science and art probably depends upon enlarging the context of our work, increasing (rather than decreasing) the number of considerations we allow to bear upon it. This is because the ultimate context of our work is the world, which is always larger than the context of our thought… If we could faithfully commit ourselves to the principle that nothing whatever can safely be said to lie outside the context of our work, then artists and scientists would have to be ready at any time to see that they have been wrong and to start again, making yet larger the context of the work. That is true freedom. It means simply that beyond all error we can begin again; redemption is possible. From this principle also we can make our way to critical judgments of an amplitude beyond specialization and professionalism; Work that diminishes the possibility of a new start, of “making it new,” is bad work.

Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle (Washington: Counterpoint, 2000), 134.

The move Berry makes here is a key one. Although the modern world operates at a too-large scale, it paradoxically does most of its thinking at the narrowest possible scale, particularly when it comes to thinking through the consequences of a line of inquiry or a course of action.

Thinking narrowly is generally known by its sanitized moniker specialization—which I am against. Specialization is a mode of thinking and practice which eschews anything other than the circular logic of a field designing and enforcing its internal standards. This type of insular thinking is revealed by the term externalities in the field of economics. For those blessedly unenlightened of the tenets of the dismal science, externalities refer to the generally unsavoury by-products of “business as usual,” such as pollution, unemployment and shoddy workmanship.

I chose the example of externalities because it perfectly encapsulates the specialist mindset, which could be narrated like this:

We are aware that there are consequences to the mode of thinking from our field, but they lie outside of our field, so we cannot hope to understand them, much less be held accountable for them! Let’s sound intelligent and suitably humble by admitting that there are things that our field doesn’t have the tools to explain, while making it clear that these things are properly outside of our field. Let’s call these things externalities. That way, we can foist them off on other specialists, who have little to no power—over us, in any case.

If our world is to have a future, this type of thinking needs to come to an end, and none too soon. That each person will engage in work different from their neighbour is inevitable, but we must our specialization under some greater notion of what all those work is going towards. Wendell Berry comments so well on this that it justifies a lengthy concluding quote (to shorten it would be to make it much too narrow):

It used to be that we thought of the disciplines as ways of being useful to ourselves, for we needed to earn a living, but also and more importantly we thought of them as ways of being useful to one another. As long as the idea of vocation was still viable among us, I don’t believe it was ever understood that a person was “called” to be rich or powerful or even successful. People were taught the disciplines at home or in school for two reasons: to enable them to live and work both as self-sustaining individuals and as useful members of their communities, and to see that the disciplines themselves survived the passing of the generations.

Now we seem to have replaced the ideas of responsible community membership, of cultural survival, and even of usefulness, with the idea of professionalism. Professional education proceeds according to ideas of professional competence and according to professional standards, and this explains the decline in education from ideals of service and good work, citizenship and membership, to mere “job training” or “career preparation.” The context of professionalism is not a place or a community but a career, and this explains the phenomenon of “social mobility” and all the evils that proceed from it. The religion of professionalism is progress, and this means that, in spite of its vocal bias in favor of practicality and realism, professionalism forsakes both past and present in favor of the future, which is never present or practical or real. Professionalism is always offering up the past and the present as sacrifices to the future, in which all our problems will be solved and our tears wiped away—and which, being the future, never arrives. The future is always free of past limitations and present demands, always stocked with newer merchandise than any presently available, always promising that what we are going to have is better than what we have. The future is the utopia of academic thought, for virtually anything is hypothetically possible there; and it is the always-expanding frontier of the industrial economy, the fictive real estate against which losses are debited and to which failures are exiled. The future is not anticipated or provided for, but is only bought or sold. The present is ever diminished by this buying and selling of shares in the future that rightfully are owned by the unborn.

Berry, 130-131.

Belief Makes Meaning Difficult

Terry Eagleton has become one of my go-to authors for pure enjoyment in reading, as he takes on loaded topics with wit, humor and penetrating insight. He had the audacity to pen a book called “The Meaning of Life,” from which this quote comes:

Religious fundamentalism is the neurotic anxiety that without a Meaning of meanings, there is no meaning at all. It is simply the flip side of nihilism. Underlying this assumption is the house-of-cards view of life: flick away the one at the bottom, and the whole fragile structure comes fluttering down. Someone who thinks this way is simply the prisoner of a metaphor. In fact, a great many believers reject this view. No sensitive, intelligent religious believer imagines that non-believers are bound to be mired in total absurdity. Nor are they bound to believe that because there is a God, the meaning of life becomes luminously clear. On the contrary, some of those with religious faith believe that God’s presence makes the world more mysteriously unfathomable, not less. If he does have a purpose, it is remarkably impenetrable. God is not in that sense the answer to a problem. He tends to thicken things rather render them self-evident.

Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 77.

The last part of that paragraph resonates perfectly with me. When I first became a Christian, I was utterly convinced that life now made perfect sense, and I knew what the meaning of (my) life was. I now see that, firstly, it would be difficult not to see more clearly after I ceased abusing enough drugs to fell an elephant. Secondly, my simple confidence in the meaning of life is no longer simple, but rather assailed with anxiety, doubt, and not a little fear. And this is because of my faith in God.

God seems to have delighted in turning my life upside down, not in just a supposedly instantaneous moment of salvation, but in a style more akin to a car crash that lasts for years and years. Any notion of stability is simply a reprieve from the tumult bound to break in at any second. I don’t know which way is up, and it’s all God’s fault.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Berry on Industrial Colonialism

In keeping with the Wendell Berry theme on this blog lately, here’s a provocative paragraph from the essay “The Agrarian Standard” in Citizenship Papers:

Industrialism prescribes an economy that is placeless and displacing. It does not distinguish one place from another. It applies its methods and technologies indiscriminately in the American East and the American West, in the Unites States and India. It thus continues the economy of colonialism. The shift of colonial power from European monarchy to global corporation is perhaps the dominant theme of modern history. All along–from the European colonization of Africa, Asia, and the New World, to the domestic colonialism of American industries, to the colonization of the entire rural world by the global corporations–it has been the same story of the gathering of an exploitive economic power into the hands of a few people who are alien to the places and the people they exploit. Such an economy is bound to destroy locally adapted agrarian economies everywhere it goes, simply because it is too ignorant not to do so. And it has succeeded precisely to the extent that it has been able to inculcate the same ignorance in workers and consumers. A part of the function of industrial education is to preserve and protect this ignorance.

Berry, Citizenship Papers, 144-5.

Progress and Work

I cannot help myself. My duty as a blogger is to assume that whatever poor soul is still reading my blog is interested in everything I read. Wendell Berry is his usual painfully insightful iconoclastic self in this passage from What Are People For?

As a measure of how far we have “progressed” in our industrial economy, let me quote a part of a sentence from the prayer, “For Every Man in His Work” from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer: “Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men.” What is astonishing about that prayer is that it is a relic. Throughout the history of the industrial revolution, it has become steadily less prayable. The industrial nations are now divided, almost entirely, into a professional or executive class that has not the least intention of working in truth, beauty, and righteousness, as God’s servants, or to the benefit of their fellow men, and an underclass that has no choice in the matter. Truth, beauty, and righteousness now have, and can have, nothing to do with the economic life of most people. This alone, I think, is sufficient to account for the orientation of most churches to religious feeling, increasingly feckless, as opposed to religious thought or religious behavior.

Berry, What Are People For?, 101

Community and “Pluralism”

I can’t believe that it’s taken me as long as I have to read Wendell Berry. So that any Berry-deprived readers of this blog can join me in being provoked to good works, here is another passage from Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community:

If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. It must refer to a placed people. Since there obviously can be no cultural relationship that is uniform between a nation and a continent, “community” must mean a people locally placed and a people, moreover, not too numerous to have a common knowledge of themselves and of their place. Because places differ from one another and because people will differ somewhat according to the characters of their places, if we think of a nation as an assemblage of many communities, we are necessarily thinking of some sort of pluralism.

There is, in fact, a good deal of talk about pluralism these days, but most of it that I have seen is fashionable, superficial, and virtually worthless. It does not foresee or advocate a plurality of settled communities but is only a sort of indifferent charity toward a plurality of aggrieved groups and individuals. It attempts to deal liberally–that is, by the superficial courtesies of tolerance and egalitarianism–with a confusion of claims.

The social and cultural pluralism that some now see as a goal is a public of destroyed communities. Wherever it exists, it is the result of centuries of imperialism. The modern industrial urban centers are “pluralistic” because they are full of refugees from destroyed communities, destroyed community economies, disintegrated local cultures, and ruined local ecosystems. The pluralists who see this state of affairs as some sort of improvement or as the beginning of “global culture” are being historically perverse, as well as politically naive. They wish to regard liberally and tolerantly the diverse, sometimes competing claims and complaints of a rootless society, and yet they continue to tolerate also the ideals and goals of the industrialism that caused the uprooting. They affirm the pluralism of a society formed by the uprooting of cultures at the same time that they regard the fierce self-defense of still-rooted cultures as “fundamentalism,” for which they have no tolerance at all. They look with wistful indulgence and envy at the ruined or damaged American Indian cultures so long as those cultures remain passively a part of our plurality, forgetting that these cultures, too, were once “fundamentalist” in their self-defense. And when these cultures again attempt self-defense–when they again assert the inseparability of culture and place–they are opposed by this pluralistic society as self-righteously as ever. The tolerance of this sort of pluralism extends always to the uprooted and passive, never to the rooted and active.

Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, 168-70.