From the Winter 2010 issue:

David CloutierWorking With the Grammar of Creation: Benedict XVI, Wendell Berry, and the Unity of the Catholic Moral Vision

From the text:

At the heart of Berry’s work is a conviction about the pattern of nature, a pattern he seeks to discover through the careful practice of farming. He is sometimes called an “agrarian writer,” and he notes the influence of the “Southern agrarians” on his work. Yet he worries that, for some of these writers, their agrarianism “is abstract, too purely mental . . . too often remote from the issues of practice.” Berry’s own life is “forcibly removed” from “abstraction,” and instead “must submit to the unending effort to change one’s mind and ways to fit one’s farm.” But ultimately such effort is aimed at “seeing in nature the inescapable standard and in natural processes the necessary pattern for any human use of the land.”

The patterns are discovered through ignorance and discipline.  “Ignorance” here refers to a “humbling knowledge” that is “a way of acknowledging the uniqueness of every individual creature, deserving respect, and the uniqueness of every moment, deserving wonder.” Such a way of proceeding acknowledges limits, both in oneself and in the human condition. Since we are often uncomfortable with such limits, hewing to them also requires discipline. In preferring a lack of discipline, we ordinarily end up allowing our desires to determine what we will do and how we will do it. However, “we have, in fact, no right to ask the world to conform to our desires.” . . .

[The] conflict between environmental romanticism and industrial capitalism, two oversimplified patterns, also appears in virtually the same form in our thinking about human sexuality. Indeed, Berry argues that our sexual lives are governed primarily by a “sexual romanticism,” that worships “true love,” trying to defend against the “sexual capitalism” of purely instrumental use of sex for pleasure. Sexual capitalists, he remarks, are merely disillusioned sexual romantics. As he puts it wryly, “The sexual romantic croons, ‘You be-long to me.’ The sexual capitalist believes the same thing, but has stopped crooning.” An oversimplified pattern of possessive ownership replaces the much more complex mutual belonging that is marriage.

Summarizing these oversimplified grammars in an essay on language, Berry diagnoses its “increasing unreliability” by explaining two types of language that fail to be accountable in their imprecision, and hence oversimplification. One kind of language is “diminished by subjectivity, which ends in meaninglessness . . . .” This is the language of expressivist romanticism. But then there is also “a language diminished by  objectivity, or so-called objectivity (inordinate or irresponsible ambition), which ends in confusion.” This is the language of  specialization, which Berry so often derides, a language characteristic especially of industrial science, but which also infects most areas of knowledge. Both these sorts of language, in different ways, ultimately dispense with the matter of truth, insofar as they fail to be accountable to the reality which they are trying to designate. Therefore, the languages are useful for concealing ignorance, but also for attempting supposed knowledge of things without the practices of discipline actually required. (full text.)

DAVID CLOUTIER is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s
University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.