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Wendell Berry vs. E. O. Wilson

Yesterday I met Wendell Berry. I met him in his book Life Is a Miracle (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000). I chose to meet him because he is Barbara Kingsolver's hero, and she is mine. I chose this book because it's a counter-argument to Consilience, written by another of my heroes, E. O. Wilson. In other words, it was a showdown.

Consilience played a major role two years ago or so in my leaving the Christian faith and replacing it with a trust in modern science; it even inoculated me against postmodernitis. Wilson vs. Berry (and Kingsolver). Wilson's a world-renown scientist and an atheist. Berry's a farmer, an author, and a Christian. Would Berry bring me back "into the fold"?

Some of Berry's arguments I've heard before (e.g. science is just another way of knowing), but very quickly I discovered this non-scientist (with an M.A. in English) could give any Ph.D. (in science or philosophy) a run for his or her money. And then, for me, the book became less about refuting Wilson and more about convicting me of my pre-prison-life's "isms": progressivism, consumerism, reductionism, and individualism. He was getting personal!

Progressivism. Already as a small child I remember poring over the plans for the futuristic EPCOT (Environmental Prototype City Of Tomorrow) project at Disneyworld (which never materialized as such). Perhaps I would live there one day. I had no interest in Washington's or Jefferson's homes when my mother took me to see them. History was boring. The future was cool! My adolescence was filled with dreams of discovering something new—solving the mind/brain problem or cracking the code of dolphin language. And in my adult life, up to the moment I was arrested at age 36, I blithely lived by the motto: "Newest, fastest, best." I was a high-tech addict, even getting my M.S. in educational technology. I am still drawn to the cutting edge, the avant-garde. And yet I love the music of Bach, the historical figure of Merlin, and am entranced by the simple customs of the Amish.

Consumerism. Part of buying the newest-fastest-best was keeping up with the Jones's, or, in my case, the Andreas's (wealthy cousins). I adored the Andreas side of the family; they had big homes, cool cars, nice toys, took expensive vacations, and commanded respect wherever they went. I shunned the Pech side; they had small homes, menial jobs, and boring lives. I dreamt of being a physician, earning a big salary, and living the yuppyish American Dream. And yet a part of me can't stomach being wasteful. How many suits does one really need anyway?

Reductionism. Everything is reducible to physics. It's all basically predetermined. Free will is an illusion. I was buying into what Dooyeweerd called a cold, sterile view of reality, what Pirsig called the Church of Reason. But without a god or religion, what else is there for a philosophically minded person like myself? Even when I was a Dooyeweerdian, the attainment of a Ph.D. was the highest calling. (It still tugs at me.) The university is the place where truth is found, or at least pursued more clearly than anywhere else (or is it?). And yet I've never lived that way, not really. I dropped out of the University of Chicago's prestigious Ph.D. program (in educational philosophy) because it was all too theoretical for me. I was bored! I wanted to return to the classroom, to my students, and teach! Why study about it when you can do it? Plus, all of my interests in the arts and imaginativity—whether teaching, acting, playing the cello, movie-making, etc.—were mostly about doing it and only occasionally about theorizing about it. Let me teach third grade all year and then take a summer course in ed. phil. Let me make movies and then maybe teach a series of weekend seminars about it.

Individualism. Just as progressivism can lead to consumerism, so reductionism can lead to individualism. When my world is reduced to theories—to cold, sterile, impersonal paradigms—then I have tended to live less as a rooted member of a local community and more as a ___ian (fill in the blank: Dooyeweerdian, Wilsonian, even Kingsolverian), viz. a member of a theoretical community. I have thought of myself as a citizen of the world, an internationalist, and traveled accordingly, but the paradox is that the person who calls the world his or her home is in fact homeless, rootless.

Enter Wendell Berry. I would call his ideas a philosophy of place, but that would do the disservice of making them sound objective and academic. His message to today's world, and to me, is: "value familiarity over innovation." Mr. Berry, the farmer-poet, is an advocate of rural, small-town communities, of local knowledge and taking things a bit slower. He reminds us that we are not creatures in an environment but of it. In protecting and saving it (e.g. biodiversity), we are protecting and saving ourselves and our children.

So who won, Wilson or Berry? I am by nature a Wilsonian; I like things neatly packaged and reducible to basic principles. But Berry is good for me; he's a healthy reminder that I should hold things more loosely, allow myself to follow my imagination and instincts from time to time without worrying about a scientific explanation, and allow others the local knowledge (myths, traditions, religions) that helps them to celebrate their lives as an integral part of their local community and ecosystem.

© 2009 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written 17 January 2009