Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Allen Johnson, co-founder and coordinator of Christians for the Mountains.
“The Gift of Good Land,” was published 30 years ago, and we reprinted it in the Fall 2009 issue of Flourish Magazine to celebrate Mr. Berry’s work, but also to provoke some questions: How has the natural world, and efforts to steward it, changed in these 30 years? How has Christianity changed? What is still relevant about Mr. Berry’s words today? What have been our successes and failures as creation’s stewards in these three decades? Where do we go from here?
We’ve asked a wide variety of Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders to respond to Mr. Berry’s essay, taking into consideration these questions and their own relevant experiences. Here is Allen Johnson’s reflection:
Faithful Stewardship, Full Humanity
By Allen Johnson
Wendell Berry’s vision is profound and prophetic. Another, earlier prophet, Micah, said that what God requires of us is to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Berry fleshes this out in “The Gift of Good Land.”
Berry implicitly chastises the deadly dualism that is gnawing like termites at much of the Christian Church. A disembodied, neo-Gnostic, heavenly escapist theology governs churchly life, while the earthly Christian life is subsumed by materialism, human hubris, and individualism.
Berry reminds us that we are relational creatures. We depend upon others, including creation. Likewise, we are created to be skillful, industrious, and good neighbors to all of creation.
The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation show that God, too, is relational rather than isolated. We are thus created in God’s image only within the context of both our personhood and our relationships. We are not fully human except in the context of others, and I believe Berry would add “all of creation.”
Furthermore, in the Incarnation, God has taken on materiality, put on the “clothes of earth,” so to speak. The Transcendent has freely chosen to become Immanent. This very act of God becoming flesh therefore imputes a sacredness to creation: “For God so loved the World (Cosmos) that He gave His only Son…”
Berry reminds us to act, and by acting he primarily means for us to just live rightly, skillfully, constructively, and neighborly, as full human beings within creation.
This leads us to examine not only our own lives but that of our churches. Are we teaching and exhorting lifestyles and attitudes in accordance with this calling? How do we live prophetically in the midst of a world that has built layers of human hubris that separate us from creation? How do we become instruments of healing and restoration out of the ashes of our exploitation? What are the idols of our age—of our hearts—and how can we smash them?
Berry’s words shine like a bright light, and once again we see the path, a narrow one to be sure, one not heavily trafficked, but one that leads to life. A path we must help one another tread. A path we walk aright only when we recognize our interconnectedness with all creation. Let us arise and walk.
Allen Johnson lives in rural West Virginia, adjacent to the Monongahela National Forest, with his wife, Debora. The history of his involvement in creation care initiatives includes helping start the Evangelical Environmental Network and producing the Creation Song radio program for six years. He is co-founder and coordinator of Christians For The Mountains.