Art and religion can speak with authority, too


I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in," says Wendell Berry in one of his poems. That land is Kentucky, and like Thomas Jefferson, who, in the Kentucky Resolutions, affirmed the right of states to nullify acts of Congress, Berry believes that states' rights and agrarian values grow good citizens.

A novelist and an essayist as well as a poet, he has written more than 30 books and through them is known to thousands as a brilliant and resourceful conservationist. He has plumbed profoundly and denounced eloquently an unholy trinity: commercialized science, giant corporations, and federal funding.

Now, in his latest book, which is subtitled "An Essay Against Modern Superstition," this Kentucky farmer and educator continues to expose the moral and spiritual emptiness of technology as an object of worship.

Two-thirds of "Life Is a Miracle" are devoted to a slashing examination of "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge," by Edward O. Wilson, a distinguished biologist at Harvard University. To test the fairness of Berry's critique, I read "Consilience" myself and discovered that its substance and focal flaws are so astutely summarized by Berry that I am tempted to say he understands the book better than Wilson himself. He also unearths its buried thesis - that art and religion make sense only when viewed through the lens of the natural sciences.

Read superficially, "Consilience" appears to foster friendly communion among religion, the arts, and science, the ultimate goal being the unification of all knowledge. At a deeper level, however, Wilson's argument is nothing less than an attempt to manacle art and religion with deterministic fetters forged in the smithy of the scientific world view.

Berry's goal, by contrast, is not the unification of knowledge under the rubric of science but a three-way conversation among equals in which art and religion, rooted as they are in half a million years of human experience, are allowed to speak in all their sovereign uniqueness. And this conversation, he hopes, will alter fundamentally the way we live our lives as custodians of both natural and human communities.

With disarming humility Berry offers eight suggestions for how this global transfiguration might be achieved. Among the most cogent are those that draw on his long career as a writer. What we need, he contends, is a conversation not in the abstract jargon of physics and chemistry - "headless and footless, loveless, a language of nowhere" - but in the perceptual specificity of poetic utterance.

Believing as he does in the truthfulness of great works of literary art, it is fitting that Berry the poet found both the title of his book and its spinal theme in "King Lear," in Gloucester's metaphorical death and rebirth in Act IV of Shakespeare's play. He sees the Gloucester subplot as an icon of self-transcendence, of the fist-like human ego opening to the light, which is what he hopes will happen to life on this planet in general, as the truth about science, art, and religion redeems human thinking.

Appalled to find himself still alive after an imagined fall from a cliff near Dover, Gloucester says to Edgar, his son, "Away, and let me die," to which Edgar, pretending to be a passerby who has witnessed Gloucester's plunge from the cliff, replies: "Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again."

Wendell Berry is a freedom fighter, and his book is a new emancipation proclamation in which he speaks again and again about how to defy the tyranny of scientific materialism.

*Colin C. Campbell taught English at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., for 44 years.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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