Wendell Berry on the Necessity of Limits.

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I’m settling in with friends old and new at the Convent in Cincinnati for a writers’ retreat this week.  I’m hoping to make some much-needed progress on the chapters of the Slow Church book that I’m writing.

I have taken the opportunity this weekend before and on my way to the retreat to read some of what Wendell Berry has said about the necessity of limits.  I’ve been meaning to do so for awhile, but this weekend I stumbled upon this fabulous essay that Berry wrote in 2008 for Harpers Magazine — Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.  This is a short essay and well worth reading.

Berry gets to the heart of the issue:

The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or as “higher animals.” But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animals—which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define Himself: “I am that I am.”

And later:

In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.

What does Berry recommend for us as we start to repent of our limitless living?

[Our] human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent, ready to discover “the secret of the universe.” We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. If we always have a theoretically better substitute available from somebody or someplace else, we will never make the most of anything. It is hard to make the most of one life. If we each had two lives, we would not make much of either. Or as one of my best teachers said of people in general: “They’ll never be worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.”

To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.

I challenge you to read this essay and reflect on how our cultural lack of limits has impacted our churches. The limitlessness that Berry describes, I would argue, has swept away many of our churches. First, that the lives of our members have been driven by limitlessness, and torn us asunder by our hypermobility and chasing after “better substitutes” as Berry has described here.  Secondly, by falling in line with a narrative of limitlessness, many of our churches have uprooted themselves from the places that they were at some time in the past and relocated to new places that seemed to be “better substitutes.”  Thirdly, (and I’ll stop here and take in the comments your thoughts of other ways that our churches have been driven by limitlessness) Church Growth theology is an embodiment of limitlessness in our church communities: churches can and should grow and grow without end or limit.

This theme of limits is one that will undoubtedly recur throughout the Slow Church book…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Slow Church…
Worst Christian Book Covers of 2014…
Ken Wytsma – The Grand Paradox [Patheos Book Club]
Ragan Sutterfield – This is my Body [Patheos Book Club]
  • http://love2justice.wordpress.com Joe D.

    The first thing that came to mind when thinking about limits was the discipline of fasting. Marjorie Thompson defines fasting as “accepting those limits which are life-restoring.” She quotes Alexander Schmemann to explain how Eastern Orthodox liturgy points to fasting as a way to restore the communion with God that we enjoyed in Eden:

    “In the Orthodox teaching… the world was given to [Adam and Eve] by God as ‘food’ – as means of life… In food itself God… was the principle of life. Thus to eat, to be alive, to know God and be in communion with Him were one and the same thing. The unfathomable tragedy of Adam is that… he ate ‘apart’ from God in order to be independent of Him… because he believed that food had life in itself and that he, by partaking that food, could be like God, i.e., have life in himself”

    There was only ONE limit in the Garden, and we just couldn’t handle it! (well, there was some trickery involved too.) When we fast, especially when we fast from food, our human limits are amplified and we remember the true source of our lives.

    If the Fall is seen as a refusal to accept the “limit” that true life is found only in communion with God, then the impacts on our churches from a lack of limits are almost too many to count. In an attempt to be specific, our limitlessness means that we have to be very intentional about slowing down. Our “natural” disposition is to just keep accelerating – in size, in resources, in “ministries,” in “influence” – until we lose control. Church becomes a “race to the top”; a competition where the winners are the ones who “break free” from the most limits.

    Limits, fasting (Lent), Slow Church… goes together pretty well I think. Lookin forward to reading about it.

    • Ramón Chaparro

      Love the Schmemann quote…is that from “For the Life of the World”?

      • http://love2justice.wordpress.com Joe D.

        hi ramon,

        you got it. its from “For the Life of the World”