Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Wendell Berry Quote I Can't Shake from My Head

Wendell Berry, in his essay God and Country (in What People Are For, 1988):
Organized Christianity seems, in general, to have made peace with "the economy" by divorcing itself from economic issues, and this, I think, has proved to be a disaster, both religious and economic. The reason for this, on the side of religion, is suggested by the adjective "organized." It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The organized church comes immediately under compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support. The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on the "economy"; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect - indeed, has already elected - to save the building fund. The irony is compounded and made harder to bear by the fact that the building fund can be preserved by crude applications of money, but the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God.
So, on the one hand, Berry's words could be read (though I believe it would be a misreading) to suggest that church that is true to itself doesn't have bills or financial concerns. In other words, one could walk away from Berry's challenging thesis bent toward an overly spiritualized gnosticism that is simply the mirror opposite of the one Berry is naming.

What is compelling, however, is the givenness Berry sees in the dependence of the church's identity on economic norms and the extent to which that situation robs the church of an identity and vocation that was never its own to choose, but which is and has always been its gift from God for the world.

As a priest, I have many times come to the realization, in conversation with someone come to me for counsel, that if I don't ask this particular question, it is very possible that no one else will. For example, the priest must be counted on to ask about the prayer life. It is a question that belongs, perhaps not exclusively but no less definitively, to the vocation of priests.

With respect to humanity's right relationship to the earth, Berry likewise sees the church as that peculiar people whose vocation it is to live proper love and respect for creation, as creatures of God. Consequently, such a people must seek awareness of the givens that have challenged its vocation by compelling us into concessions we did not even realize we had made.


2 comments:

  1. Yes, a wonderful thought-provoking passage, thank you! This quote lingers with me as my own church discusses our financial future, often in terms or an economic language that I find uncomfortable considering the identity and mission of the church: "The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so."

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  2. What I take from Berry here is that religious organizations are wrong to accept without criticism the economy that they rely upon. This places churches in the position of hypocrisy, but Berry says in multiple writings that our modern world forces us to become hypocritical because we all are reliant on our modern economy and the evils it perpetuates. What Berry suggests I believe is an open and frank admission of the contradictions in our lives and not a total surrender. Fight against the modern economy even though you collect goods from it. Better to be a hypocrite than a willing accomplice.

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