I love Wendell Berry. I love to read most of what he writes, be it short story, novel, poetry, or essay. He has just the right mix of progressive and conservative, witty and romanticized, uplifting and scathing, and all throughout, he has a holistic Christian attitude that resonates with me (and the Bible, I’d say). One essay by Berry in particular has really affected the trajectory of my life. Christianity and the Survival of Creation is in many ways a treatise that disputes the body/soul attitude so prevalent in our modern world. It is a strong argument for valuing the created world not only insofar as it belongs to God in a sphere sovereignty sense, but also in the general revelation sense. God speaks to us and is revealed to us most primarily through the creation. In both of these regards, the creation in its totality is sacred and holy.
It’s a bit of a long read—though certainly one that I’d recommend—so let me point out one passage in particular that guides much of what I do in my life.
By denying spirit and truth to the nonhuman Creation, latter-day proponents of religion have legitimized a form of blasphemy without which the nature- and culture-destroying machinery of the industrial economy could not have been built — that is, they have legitimized bad work. Good human work honors God’s work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors Nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. And such blasphemy is not possible so long as the entire Creation is understood as holy, and so long as the works of God are understood as embodying and so revealing God’s spirit.
I am a philosopher by education, but a barista, a baker, a business owner, a chef, and a keeper of a public house by trade. I have a rare opportunity that few are afforded. Since I am my own boss (as loaded as that phrase is), I am allowed to make real decisions that truly are effective within my company. I am allowed to choose from where I source my raw materials, my coffee, milk, flour, eggs, meat, and the hundreds of other ingredients I need to make my business run. I can ask questions about where they came from, who made or grew them, what their relationship is to the dust that God created, how they honor or dishonor God in their production. I can choose good work.
And then I get the chance to take these things that God has made good and that many within the supply chain have treated with love and respect and make something good myself. I can add my own knowledge, care, and love to coffee beans and milk, using tools that I understand intimately (café owners must also be espresso machine repairmen after all) to create a final product that honors God and blesses my patrons. When someone purchases a latte at the Fruited Plain Café, it is useful and beautiful. It honors its ingredients from farm—whether that be a coffee plantation in Nicaragua or a dairy in Nebraska —to cup. And it is never shoddily done. I have the opportunity to see God at work and read the revelation of His creation every day. When I bake bread or pizza crusts, I am reminded that the Kingdom of God is like leaven mixed into flour. When I get to host a reunion of old friends over a glass of wine, I am reminded of the faithful, everlasting love God has for us. And then there are those mornings, alone in a quiet shop, when I take the first sip of a latte, and I get to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
While culturally there is a bit of a long standing gag about the philosopher-cum-barista, to me, being a craftsman is a natural result of the pondering mind. When one studies God’s world and takes it seriously, he can’t help but want to do something, to make something that honors God and the world He created.
This isn’t to say these choices can only be made by those in positions of relative power, be they entrepreneurs or educators. We all make things, whether it is food for dinner or conversation or a home. We all have the opportunity to make a choice between the shoddy and the honorable. There is always something, no, everything at stake. Indeed, this can be a frustration with the “in all things” attitude that pervades Berry and Reformational Christianity (and this site, of course). It sometimes feels like you are never allowed to rest. You must always choose the less shoddy, and therefore the more difficult thing.
Perhaps such a bold, idealistic sounding statement may give you the wrong impression of my own choices or my own recommendations on how to live. Am I implying that we always use organic-free-range-local-no-corn-syrup-home-made everything? No. We consciously try to support local agriculture, but we live in Iowa where fresh tomatoes aren’t available twelve months per year. We also live in an economic world where we have to make choices with finite amounts of money; it would be a mistake to let our ideals about food crowd out God’s created revelation about money and running a business. There are a lot of ideals to work with and to think about. When I make a product, I have to strike a balance between its cost and price. I have to think about my communities of suppliers and of patrons. I have to think about nutritional value and taste.
Dutch economist and philosopher Bob Goudzwaard talked about the “simultaneous realization of norms” to describe this idea. The Reformational tradition has long had an understanding that life has multiple facets —Kuyper called them spheres, Dooyeweerd modes—and that God calls us to behave differently in different parts of our lives. We will interact differently with one human being who is our son and another human who is a customer, for example. But Goudzwaard reminds us that while we can theoretically separate out these modes of existence, our lives are a singular whole. When I interact with a customer, I do not stop being a father; I must fill these roles simultaneously. And so each of my choices must strike the balance, understanding the multi-faceted nature of the whole of life. When I decide on a coffee roaster or where to purchase vegetable oil, I need to keep a lot of roles in mind. The most expensive isn’t always the best. The most local isn’t always the best.
I think that’s why I like the word “shoddy” so much. It’s a broad umbrella term that can affect every mode of existence that I inhabit. It doesn’t create a false dichotomy, implying that there is only one choice. It doesn’t criticize something for being wrong, but rather for being lazily and unconsciously, unconscientiously done. It understands that as we avoid shoddiness, we need to strike a balance in our own situations, with the resources available to us in our own locales. But through it all, it calls us to do our best, our utmost, at all times. To interpret the ways God is calling us to act, the things God is calling us to use and to make, and through it all, with thoughtfulness and care and love, to work hard for Him, for our communities, for ourselves, and really for the whole of creation.
This is our original calling as stewards, as gardeners, and as co-creators with God. It is the way we are faithful to the text of God’s original Word, the first book of creation. And further, when something is truly a labor of love, it is no difficult thing at all. To quote Berry again, “Good work…does not disassociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work.” My prayer is that every evening when I go to sleep, I can look at the ways that I have filled my role as creator and interpreter of God’s general revelation and echo His words by saying, “It was good.”