I’ve just spent a couple of hours reading an essay by the U.S. author and poet Wendell Berry entitled “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community” in a collection of essays with the same title. It is my first encounter with Berry, for which I thank Jeff aka Bardcat.
Berry has a sharp and independent mind and chronicles and comments, it seems to me pretty astutely, the breakdown of community and its effects on morality, especially sexual. He gives his reader the pleasure of reading nicely turned, fresh-baked moral aphorisms, spiced with a yearning back to a small-town yesteryear where everything was that much more structured and safe. The opposition, the baddies, are the big government-business machine, which allows Berry – and you reader, if you follow him - to find his identity in opposition to it, rather like 16th century German and Dutch Protestants used the Roman Church to create individual and group identity through opposition to it. Or indeed the Pilgrim Fathers the established Church of England.
But, I wonder whether identity by opposition, or indeed in Berry’s case, making a living off criticism of others, is not ultimately a mug’s game. The question I want to ask Berry, if he is a real moralist, is not whether the surrounding system is moral – we know that it is not – but rather how, very practically, do I define and preserve the highest degree of morality and freedom, for myself, my family and possibly some group which I might want to call community, within the space appointed to me?
And perhaps we need at some time to stare in the face that the outward space for freedom and morality is very limited, accept the fact, rather than moan at it, and start looking for it inwardly. Perhaps one feature of the US spiritual mind is the idea that there is always outward space to escape to somehow. But I am not sure this makes for spiritual depth. Some of the greatest European and Russian spiritual writing has come from precisely the lack of space to move, whether voluntary in a cloister (Teresa of Avila), or imposed (Bonhoeffer) , or both (John of the Cross).