I am spending time at the moment re-reading a number of essays and books that have seemed to be of great importance in my thinking, and therefore merit re-visting simply by way of revision and refreshment. They include a number of essays from Wendell Berry’s The Way of Ignorance (2004), the title essay from his Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1990), Michael Oakeshott’s essay Learning and Teaching (1967) from the collection entitled The Voice of Liberal Learning, Tom Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God (2005), Ellen F Davis’ Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (2007) and Dallas Willard’s Personal Religion, Public Reality (2010), his last major work before he died.
These pieces of re-reading are reinforcing for me the reality of God at the centre of all things, the actuality of His great presence and His deep and ongoing concern for the world; they are also reinforcing an attitude to life and a reality of how life can be lived that is very much at odds with the way we are forced to pursue our existence at the moment. They bolster a sense of narrative in all things – the Bible as narrative; teaching and learning as a cultural narrative (lots of work to be explored here); and our lived lives as a narrative that proceeds from the agrarian vision of what it is to be human. All of these books challenge one thing: that mere convenience is not a standard by which we should measure our lives, and that any standard worth adhering to or setting our lives by, is done in community, with others, mutually submissive whether to those living or to those who have lived before us – and in Berry’s arguments – to those who are yet to come and to whom we owe a responsibility to present a world increasingly marked by wholeness.
These authors have largely circumscribed my life for the last five years – especially Berry, Wright and Willard. They have interpreted the Bible for me in a way that makes much richer sense than the way I was taught as a young Christian, they have allowed me to think culturally about my faith as well as simply theologically, and have contributed to an integrity of worldview that no longer separates out faith, politics, agriculture, economics, work, theology, education and artistic culture, but sees them all as part of the great multi-varied glory of God to which we are daily called. For those who cannot see that prayer and praise are the other side of the coin from hard work and attention to detail; for those who see that there is a work-life balance to be had, as though life was not work; for those Christians who see leisure as a right rather than as a gift of God – for such I mourn, because they have not seen, as Irenaeus saw, that the glory of god is a human being fully alive, working, resting, eating, worshipping, fellowshipping with others, learning, teaching, farming, adding cultural value and love to the world around them.
At the heart of all of this is our tendency to see convenience, uncritically, as a good thing, rather than just as another opportunity which, like all opportunities, comes at a cost. For our western world it bears a high cost – it is a form of enslavement because it bypasses our mind and makes convenience the first thing we rate. Why? Mainly because it saves time and effort. And why, generally, do we want to save time and effort? Because it frees up time that we could be spending on more work (less likely) or leisure (more likely). These have a disordering sense upon our attitude to work, with the result that we become ever poorer at the management of time and effort, as we have no longer any concept of “chores” or “rest” and, increasingly, because we cannot see the value of a completed piece of work. As Ellen Davis has argued (and which I touched on here), hard work, quota-driven, without thoughtful completion or rest was a function of the Israelites’ agricultural and brick-making experience in Egypt. One of the first things that YHWH did in the desert was to re-institute a proper, worshipful sense of sabbath, a concept that the nation was unused to, and which they found tough at first to understand.
Convenience for us needs itself to be measured by other standards which we need to hold more dear. Health is one, the quality of community and relationship is another. Talking to friends last night we were discussing that the convenience of electronic equipment in the home, on the internet and in the kitchen means that we can do more ourselves, and therefore do it without reference to neighbours or friends. This tends toward a self-satisfied isolation, which militates against such other standards as courtesy, mutual interdependence, neighbourly care, and a host of others.
We have just bought, against my better judgment, a bread-maker. It has the potential, if used carefully, to help me in my bread-making, but mostly it works against it, removing from my life the chief pleasure of bread-making which is the physical work of kneading, and the smaller pleasure of watching dough rise and prove. I will still make bread, but I cannot compete with the convenience of this machine, with its ability to work while I sleep. I rejoice, however, in the fact that all the bread comes out a single size, a perfect metaphor for our industrial age.
Now, however, we are less likely to visit Dutson’s bakery in the Heelands, a local bakery that has been in the Heelands since the suburb was built, and I am uncomfortable with the thought that our purchase of a breadmaker will in a small way threaten his business. This is the cost of convenience, often – the loss of trades and roles in our community that give dignity and strength to the relationships between people and to the people themselves.
Convenience, then, is only a reasonable standard when submitted to the constraints imposed by better ones. Many Amish communities, famously, have submitted every technology to the test of community, of hard work, of the demands of the place, and of their corporate decisions to work with solar power rather than fossil fuels, and with animals. And notably, community. In Wendell Berry’s novel Remembering, (another recent re-read) Andy Catlett, at that point an agricultural journalist, is driving through Amish territory in Pennsylvania, when he stops to talk to a farmer, Isaac Troyer. He gets the opportunity to drive his team a bit and then the two of them talk as they walk around the farm. At one point, Andy wonders:
Had Isaac ever thought of buying more land – say a neighbor’s farm?
“Well, if I did, I’d have to go into debt to buy it, and to farm it. It would take more time and help than I’ve got. And I’d lose my neighbor.”
“You’d rather have your neighbor?”
“We’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves. We try. If you need them, it helps”
This is the submission of convenience and expansion (which is enabled by convenience) to a higher standard of neighbourliness. It takes a new technology and submits it to the standards that a community has already chosen to live by. The Amish have advantages here. They are a community that talks to each other, that has a strong Christian faith by which they live and which, though long usage, has made agreements and a social contract based on work and the land and its use, that determines exactly how and when a technology can be put to use. We, on the other hand, have no community worth the name; we allow no other person or family to make decisions about how we interact with the corporations that want to sell us stuff, and more stuff; we have no values in common because we have not worked together and therefore we have no recourse to thinking about or reflecting on the impact of convenience on our social selves because we have very little understanding of ourselves as social beings. We are deeply impoverished and therefore leisure and entertainment seems to be the way out, and convenience of goods seems to be one way of attaining that goal.
This is a serious problem in western life, and should be addressed by the churches. But it is not, and the reason is plain to see: most churches have a very poor communal sense, and their theology of technology, like an old unloved film in an SLR, is undeveloped.