At the end of a recent interview with Amanda Petrusich of The New Yorker, Wendell Berry characterized the life of faith with some interesting wording. When asked about religion, particularly in terms of his parents’ faith and his upbringing, Berry responded:
I attended church under protest. I disliked enclosure, and as I came to consciousness I objected to the belittlement of earthly life I heard too often—but not from my parents. I heard the King James Version quoted and read, and I’m still attached to it. To me, it’s not just an influence on English, some of that is English. What Ruth says to Naomi? And Luke’s passage about the birth of Jesus, and John’s account of Mary’s visit to the tomb—my goodness, that’s my language.
I tried to get along without it, because I thought I was going to be a modern person. But you can’t think about the issues we’re talking about without finally having to talk about mystery. You’ll finally have to talk about the commitment that doesn’t see any end. That’s a life that you are not going to be able to prescribe, that finally you’re not in charge of. I think my dad was speaking religiously when he said, “I’ve had a wonderful life and I’ve had nothing to do with it.” That was a submission.
“You’ll finally have to talk about the commitment that doesn’t see any end.” What a wonderfully sober way of thinking about the Christian life. Don’t get me wrong: it’s clear to me that there are some point about the Christian faith that Berry and I probably don’t see eye to eye on, but this descriptor is not one of them. Sure: there is an “end” to the Christian life. But the road between here and there can often look or feel description-less, far more open-ended in certain ways that are difficult to articulate because life is a mess from our end unpredictable. The life of faith requires a certain kind of openness. Not an openness that says “anything goes.” That’s a mistake that will shipwreck you. It’s an openness captured in a great hymn: wherever He leads, I’ll go, even if it is through the valley of the shadow of death.
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There’s a lot more of value in the interview, by the way. Berry says interesting and challenging things about limits and marriage and joy, all worth reflecting on. I might come back to some of those things later. But next I want to go to a recent First Things article and what it says about one of our primary guides on this commitment without visible end.
(image from newyorker.com)