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John-Paul HeilApril 20, 2023
Wendell Berry reading at the 2014 Festival of Faiths. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

In every facet of modern life, we are being exploited, fragmented and alienated from the reality of the world and our own human natures. For over 60 years, Wendell Berry, writing from his farm near Port Royal, Ky., has attempted to draw back into relationship things that human sin, always wrapped up in “our destruction of precious things that we did not and cannot make,” has made separate through pride and greed. He has attempted to heal the great divisions that afflict us: our estrangements from the place where we are, the soil that we stand on, the people that surround us and the call of the natural law within us.

The Need to Be Wholeby Wendell Berry

Shoemaker + Company
528p $24

Now nearing the end of his life, Berry has looked back over what he has done, the long labor of one who has “entered the way of love and taken up its work,” and attempted in a new book, The Need to Be Whole, to give a glimpse of the undivided foundation that underpins all he has ever tried to think and say. Perhaps by necessity, he is only partly successful.

“A key word in the story of American development or progress,” says Berry, is that “anything ‘superabundant’ or ‘inexhaustible’ can be treated as dispensable.”

According to Berry, The Need to Be Whole is about race relations. Though it is about that—and especially about “the chattel slavery of the antebellum South…as one of a continuum of violent exploitations, including other forms of slavery, that has been with us since the European discovery of America,” injustices that Berry sees as “our history’s dominant theme”—those who pick up this book expecting an exhaustive treatment of racial exploitation in America will be disappointed. Rather, Berry’s task is philosophical and anthropological.

Insofar as racial prejudice is a human problem, it implicates the human person in a disruption to her right relation to all things. In other words, such a disconnect from our fellow humans has implications beyond the way we see human society; it affects the way we see all of creation. For example, “a key word in the story of American development or progress,” says Berry, is that “anything ‘superabundant’ or ‘inexhaustible’ can be treated as dispensable.” A dispensability mindset led to the continued commodification of human life after the end of the Civil War.

“One of the cruelest ironies of the postbellum period,” Berry claims, is that “emancipation, in freeing the slaves of white proprietorship, freed them also from their market value and made them individually worthless in the ‘free’ economy,” much like “the poor whites whose ‘free labor’ was already abundantly available, and who were thus individually dispensable.”

This mindset also resulted in the exhaustion of Eastern farmland as “apparently endless tracts of ‘new’ land” continued to be discovered in Western expansion. The evil of racial prejudice is therefore not simply reducible to racial prejudice itself. Rather, it issues in a deep, willful ignorance of the truth of things that can’t help but pervade and disorder all of a person’s relationships to other human beings and to reality as a whole.

Though logically coherent, Berry’s reasoning leads to conclusions that might leave some readers wanting more. Writing about reparations, for instance, Berry contends that “the sins of the past are real” and that “reparations are therefore called for, but not exclusively to one category of people.” Black people cannot be the sole recipients of reparations, as this “surprisingly and obviously leaves out the reparations that are owed to the American Indian tribes,” as well as people of other races and origins who have “also been seen as distinctly inferior and also have been used for the fundamental work that some white people have thought themselves too good to do,” including Mexican migrant workers.

But Berry also includes the land itself as being owed restitution, as we use it “with the same condescension and cruelty with which we have used racial minorities whom we have subjugated to our use and convenience.” If we wish to get to the heart of the matter, he recommends that we “consider the dominance, especially among those who have been dominant, of the willingness to separate things that belong together and, above all, to separate land and people.”

Berry sees “the law of love operating in this world” as pointing toward a path of forgiveness and reconciliation. This law “understands health as wholeness,” diametrically opposed to “fear, anger and hate” that “beget two sides, each the enemy of the other” and working only “for the defeat of the others, telling itself that its victory will bring righteousness and peace ‘in the future.’” Love as health and wholeness is not satisfied with abstract promises of future victory; it impels us “toward particular knowledge.”

Berry sees “the law of love operating in this world” as pointing toward a path of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Thus, love, health and wholeness are bound up in holiness. Berry sees the Gospel as the cornerstone of the law of love. Careful readers will note how striking it is that Berry is so theological and outspoken in this book, given his hesitance in earlier writings. This probably stems from his expressed distaste for the “discrepancy between the behavior of much of organized Christianity and the teachings of Jesus.” But it is precisely an organized Christianity—or, more precisely, a mystical body of Christ that mediates God’s grace to the world and each person in a radically particular way—that Berry is looking for.

Berry’s project, in this book and his life, has been to diagnose the ills of where and who we are and to propose remedies. But the deepest and most hidden wound in the human heart, the disconnect that causes all others, the cancer that Berry confronts (more explicitly in this book than anywhere else in his corpus—though he cannot cure it) is the alienation of humanity from God. Only the Incarnation can cross this divide and make whole this sundered communion, but though Berry is an outspoken Christian, he pays little attention to Jesus as God, as the logos through whom all creation was made, the archetype of our being made in imago Dei. When Berry invokes Christ, it is usually as a teacher and a healer: an exemplar, for instance, of “radically unsymmetrical forgiveness,” as “Jesus forgave from the cross those who had crucified him.”

Unfortunately, this dramatically limits his view of humanity’s relationship with divinity. Reflecting on this theme in the Odyssey and Paradise Lost, Berry declares that “both Odysseus and Adam must make themselves whole, or wholly human…by choosing to become only human, forswearing for the sake of their merely human love any attribute of divinity.” Though he writes of the artistic call of “joining human work rightly to the work of God…earth and heaven, the human neighborhood and the kingdom of God, health and holiness” and certainly holds some sort of incarnational theology, more fully developed in his novels, he only does so implicitly here, alluding to a Christological solution. Berry calls for conversion but has no divine Christ to convert to—Jesus is simply a good person, not the fulfillment of humanity.

Why such hesitance to affirm explicitly the transformative power of the Incarnation when it is the only solution to the problem of our alienation from God, nature and one another? Without Christ as true God and true man, Berry’s critiques in The Need to Be Whole run the risk of slipping into incoherence.

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