Wendell Berry and the way of ignorance

The Christian Century last month featured a wonderful essay by Wendell Berry, an excerpt from his upcoming book The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays. It’s finally on the web. Entitled “The Burden of the Gospels: An Unconfident Reader,” it’s essentially the text of a speech Berry delivered at a Baptist seminary this past August, as his opening paragraphs acknowledge:

Anybody half awake these days will be aware that there are many Christians who are exceedingly confident in their understanding of the Gospels, and who are exceedingly self-confident in their understanding of themselves in their faith. They appear to know precisely the purposes of God, and they appear to be perfectly assured that they are now doing, and in every circumstance will continue to do, precisely God’s will as it applies specifically to themselves. They are confident, moreover, that God hates people whose faith differs from their own, and they are happy to concur in that hatred.

Having been invited to speak to a convocation of Christian seminarians, I at first felt that I should say nothing until I confessed that I do not have any such confidence. And then I understood that this would have to be my subject. I would have to speak of the meaning, as I understand it, of my lack of confidence, which I think is not at all the same as a lack of faith.

The Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader reporter who covered the speech focused in on the one point that most struck me: Berry’s attempt to recover literalism from the fundamentalists. I still have some notes I jotted down back in June to the effect that we dishonor the Bible if we treat its poetry either as “only” metaphor on the one hand, or as completely interpretable, reductionist description on the other. If anything, I find allegorical readings of the Bible even more offensive than the brand of literalism espoused by proponents of “Biblical inerrancy.” But I was very pleased to see these thoughts given shape by a true Christian (as opposed to a part-time, make-believe Christian like me) – someone who actually lives his faith. In fact, I think Berry is one of a small handful of prominent public intellectuals whom one could fairly describe as prophetic in the Biblical mold.

Berry described himself as a literalist – [insisted] that the Gospels “say what they mean and mean what they say” – but he emphasized that his sense of literalism is not the same as fundamentalism, a belief that everything in the Bible is literally true and without error.

Then there was the issue of contradictions in the Gospels, the very idea of which would disturb fundamentalists.

Berry said: “What, for example, are we to make of Luke 14:26: ‘If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sister, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.'”

That passage, he said, contradicts “not only the fifth commandment but Jesus’ instruction to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.'”

Such a contradiction, he said, should not be viewed as a problem or flaw, “but as a question to live with and a burden to be borne.”

The Gospels “stand at the opening of a mystery in which our lives are deeply, dangerously and inescapably involved,” he said. “It is a mystery that we are condemned but also highly privileged to live our way into, trusting properly that to our little knowledge, greater knowledge may be revealed.”

He concluded: “May heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.”

This summary, of course, does not do justice to the suppleness and clarity of Berry’s thinking. Read the full essay here – and please pass it on.

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