Wendell Berry Wants to Shoot a Drone

“I Don’t Think Humans Have any Power over Meaning. Meaning is Given to Us. We Can’t Make Meaning.”

Josh Retterer / 10.29.20

It may have been a test when an old girlfriend asked me to buckle her friend’s toddler into the car seat. And it should have been a simple enough test to pass, but to a single guy like me, that car seat looked like it had been designed by M. C. Escher. After several confused minutes, ending with me wondering aloud if I could tie two seat belts across the contraption, the child took pity on me and walked me through the multistep procedure, in order, the two-year-old quietly pointing where each latch went. I learned that day, after telling my girlfriend what happened, what epistemic humiliation felt like. 

The story above shows why it’s a good thing that I tend to pay attention to those rare people who actually seem to know there are things they don’t know. Wendell Berry joked in a recent interview that he was always asking his brother or one of his friends, “Can I say that?” whenever a line of thought he was developing veered into an area outside of his expertise. I like that. I tend to trust that. 

In his 2005 essay, “The Burden of the Gospel,” Berry recommends this rare virtue of epistemological humility to Christians — for God’s sake. 

Anybody half awake these days will be aware that there are many Christians who are exceedingly confident in their understanding of the Gospels, and who are exceedingly self-confident in their understanding of themselves in their faith. They appear to know precisely the purposes of God, and they appear to be perfectly assured that they are now doing, and in every circumstance will continue to do, precisely God’s will as it applies specifically to themselves. They are confident, moreover, that God hates people whose faith differs from their own, and they are happy to concur in that hatred. 

Having been invited to speak to a convocation of Christian seminarians, I at first felt that I should say nothing until I confessed that I do not have any such confidence. And then I understood that this would have to be my subject. I would have to speak of the meaning, as I understand it, of my lack of confidence, which I think is not at all the same as a lack of faith.


Much of Berry’s fiction and essays can sound a bit like a Romans commentary. He writes with a true-to-life low anthropology that perfectly frames the miracle of grace. We see bits of this in a 2019 interview he did with the activist Tim DeChristopher, the transcript of which was recently published by Orion Magazine. In a terrific shot by Guy Mendes, provided with the article, we see the much younger DeChristopher sitting across from Berry in what look to be living room chairs pulled out onto the front porch of the Berrys’ home, a border collie stretched out between them. I think Wendell managed to pull off his bold sartorial choice of black socks and sandals with style. The two don’t waste much time on pleasantries, DeChristopher starting off the conversation with a light hors d’oeuvre of nihilism. 

DeChristopher: We’re not just blowing things apart; we’re changing our own DNA in a way that makes human existence meaningless.

Berry: I don’t think humans have any power over meaning. Meaning is given to us. We can’t make meaning.

DeChristopher: I don’t agree with that. We make meaning all the time.

Berry: The ability of humans even to discover meaning is very limited. They counterfeit meaning all the time.

Later — after Berry admits to wanting to shoot a drone — they wander into John Barclay territory.

Berry: My son fell and hurt his head, fractured his skull. He was laid up for quite a long time, and his neighbor came right straight over and began taking care of his cattle. That was not something my son could repay him for. In a sense, in the right sense, it was prepaid. His neighbor knew that if he needed my son, my son would be there. If my son should make some gift to the neighbor, that would be an acknowledgment, not a repayment.

DeChristopher: And an expression of gratitude. If you start with the understanding that all that we have is a gift, then everything we offer is an expression of gratitude. And the neighbor who came and helped him out, that’s why it was prepaid. Everything he already had was a gift. His time was a gift. […]

Berry: It was the Shakers who were sure the end could come anytime, and they still saved the seeds and figured out how to make better diets for old people. Thomas Merton was interested in the Shakers. I said to him, “If they were certain that the world could end at any minute, how come they built the best building in Kentucky?”

Merton’s reply is fascinating, as it was to Berry:

“You don’t understand,” he said. “If you know the world could end at any minute, you know there’s no need to hurry. You take your time and do the best work you possibly can.” That was important to me. I’ve repeated it many times. […] That’s my argument in favor of this world, against the determinists. I depend on what I know of human goodness, but also on the flowers and the butterflies and the birds. The otters and the swallows — a lot of their life is just spent having a hell of a good time. The animals, so far as I can understand them, have a great deal to say in favor of life. It’s a good world, still.

Now, I’m not one of those folks who expects their agrarian philosophers to be theologians as well, but it’s weird dismounts like this that leave me scratching my head. He was doing so well with his Romans commentary thing that I’m thrown every time he suggests dependence on “human goodness.” It feels like he suddenly points in the wrong direction. Reading through his essays over the years, I have come to some conclusions, but to avoid another episode of car seat theater, I decided to ask Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro, an editor over at Front Porch Republic, and a real live Wendell Berry expert, what’s going on with Wendell?

Grace, for Wendell Berry, is a central and multifaceted reality. Its complexity can lead to some confusion, as Berry refuses to make a sharp distinction between the natural and supernatural, between common grace and divine grace. Such a distinction, he thinks, is ultimately a false one. Nevertheless his experience of and witness to grace forms the backbone of his writing. As Berry asserts in his conversation with Tim DeChristopher, “Meaning is given to us. We can’t make meaning.” DeChristopher disagrees with this claim, but it flows from Berry’s conviction that we are creatures living in a given, graced world. Berry has narrated this conviction in many poems and essays. For instance, in “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” he defines Creation as “the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God.” 

Yet perhaps it is in his fiction that we can see the contours of this grace most clearly. Early in the novel Jayber Crow, Jayber grows frustrated by his inability to distinguish clearly between the natural and the supernatural. There is no double-blind test that can prove whether prayer works or not, and he can’t tell whether he has been lucky or blessed, so he drops out of seminary and gives up on prayer. When he returns to Port William, Jayber comes to see the gathered, natural community as the source and manifestation of grace. But his love for Mattie provokes a profound conversion, and in the climactic chapter of the novel, Jayber’s vision of the gathered community shifts to focus on the gatherer, the “Father who is yet like a mother hen spreading her wings before the storm or in the dusk before the dark night for the little ones of Port William to come in under.” And this vision of the gatherer leads him to once again begin to pray. For Berry, as for Jayber, creation is always already graced, and the distinction that matters is not between the natural and the supernatural, but between those who recognize the divine gatherer and those who do not. As Burley Coulter puts it, “The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.” 

I’ll end with where Dr. Bilbro ends, with a beautiful summation of Berry’s body of work — the simple sharing of what he knows:

One of the central burdens of Berry’s writing has been to allow his readers to know themselves as recipients of God’s grace and to accept the great invitation to live as members of his body.


Featured image via The Progressive.


2 responses to “Wendell Berry Wants to Shoot a Drone”

  1. Ben says:

    This is really fascinating. I’ve noticed some of those same tensions in both Berry’s and Merton’s work. Perhaps there’s some important truth in those tensions themselves. Presumably God’s grace is so all-encompassing and multifaceted as to include many things that we tend to exclude from it, certainly things we take credit for. I guess for millennia we’ve been struggling to know where to draw the lines, and that’s not going to end anytime soon. Anyway, thanks for sharing, Josh!

  2. Brad J. Gray says:

    Well done, Josh. The lines about the “gift of meaning” are particularly affecting.

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