Thursday, November 13, 2008

Am I an Agrarian?

I've been reading a bit of Wendell Berry. I find myself in agreement with much of what he thinks about the illness of our modern industrial world-view of agriculture.

There's been a fair amount of blogging here and there about Christian Agrarian communities and Christian Agrarians (as opposed to . . . secular Agrarians?).

Returning home from Iraq I found that I was marked by the reality in parts of that country. As civilization became more tenuous things like simple markets, available produce, bread and meat, clean water and basic electricity were the truly essential things (some might argue electricity is NOT essential - let's leave that for now).

I realized I have a desire to free myself and my family, to the extent reasonable and possible, from the dependence on the whole modern construct of life which seems soul-killing in many ways, as well as being quite brittle and fragile. To grow one's food, and see the fruit of one's labor; clean water, clean food, and quiet. To avoid striving for needless acquisitions, but rather to acquire knowledge of disciplines that, at base, supports everyone in the cities and towns as well as the country.

I mean having the situation where my family can grow sustaining food, and pay for our land through good husbandry of the land. Where we could provide for all the essentials of living (water, garden foods, meat, and fruit, and perhaps some woolen, etc.) without "having" to resort to much in the way of outside help if we had to; at least not such help as could not be bartered for if times were really bad and money was truly short. This sort of bad time has happened more than once in the history of this country, and many times in other nations.

I think in doing so it is foolish to really believe one can be separate from the complex web of society; whether roads or sawmills or manufacturing plants that make axes and rubber tires, electric wire, plumbing fixtures, hoses, buckets; or the County Sanitarian that ensures septics are installed right or the County Surveyor that controls plats and road surveys, etc., etc., etc. We are not separate. We must live in communities, some different in intensity and character than others (such as condominiums versus farmsteads). But I think it healthy to have a greater degree of connectedness to land and water, to the food we eat, and the cycles of the natural world and wholesome work than modern urban living typically affords.

I have since acquired a small farmland and a house. It's good land - pasture and mixed timber, fruit trees, bush fruits and garden all in good measure. Some might call it a "hobby farm" but it is sufficient for me and quite productive. God willing it will be a sound working farm that should pay the taxes and perhaps a good portion of the mortgage as well as supplying a great deal of the food for the family larder.

I suppose this puts me squarely in similar situation and feeling to many Christian Agrarian folk.

However, I trouble over this construct of "Christian Agrarianism." The word "agrarian" is most commonly an adjective - as such according to my Oxford American Dictionary, it means "of or relating to cultivated land or the cultivation of land." Fair enough. One may experience an agrarian society, or economy, or the like.

As a noun, the dictionary suggests that an "agrarian" is one that advocates redistribution of land holding in a particular way - perhaps Jeffersonian ideals are a good example of this - the belief that an abundance of agricultural landowners holding land allodially (or at least in fee simple absolute) ensures democracy. That may well be. I do not think that modern Agrarians generally hold an ideology of redistribution of landholding by force of government, although perhaps by better encouragement which would result in the reduction of large industrial-scale farm holdings and a growth of small sustainable farm. All of this, while at first blush salutary, is beyond the scope of my limited discussion here.

Using the term as a noun suggests that it is a political position, or an ideological one. Some have argued just this - e.g., a Christian or Biblical Agrarian is one who finds ideological basis for an agrarian life in the Christian ethos. “Christianity lived within the agrarian paradigm,” as one writer puts it. And there's the rub with me. Christianity can be lived in an agrarian society of course, but it transcends even that, and living Christianity within an "agrarian paradigm" suggests an ideology to which we are fitting the Christian Way rather than the other way round. I realize this is not always intended by writers and I believe that some would argue that Agrarianism (whatever that means) is a direct result of following the Way.

There is no doubt that, lacking an agrarian society, we miss certain lessons in the Gospel that, less than 100 years ago, were reasonably clear and familiar to most. Nevertheless, there is no particular preference for farmers over soldiers over tax collectors, fishermen, tentmakers, academics (such as Nicodemus) or others that made up the myriad of professions of the day. Many of the Holy Apostles carried their missions to the great Metropolia of their day, not the farms and villages. Must Christianity be "lived within the agrarian paradigm" in order to be proper? Wendell Berry asks this in a way in his collection of essays in The Gift of Good Land by arguing that there must be 'right occupation' in the Christian worldview and implies that this is within the agrarian construct.

I trouble at that departure. To my mind, to make any sense the focus must reversed to be "an agrarian life lived within the Christian paradigm." That is to say, agrarian must be restored to its position as an adjective - and one should only claim, if anything at all, that one is an agrarian Christian - not a Christian Agrarian. I am no more an adherent to agrarianism than liberalism or any other -ism.

I am, at best, a Christian farmer. I am a Christian who farms. I am a Christian with a farm. I will have my personal ideals. I like Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers' markets, and sustainable, diverse small farming. I support realistic legislation to encourage small farmers. But I cannot say that the whole of society need be, and necessarily must be agrarian to be legitimately Christian or result in Biblically-based living.

Moreover, I am troubled by a sort of Protestant neo-separatist approach to Christian Agrarianism that seems to have little to distinguish itself at root from the aims and approach of Old Order Amish and Mennonite communities (even, in some cases in plainness of dress, with all females in bonnets or scarves). One is left wondering, why not simply join with those communities? I am left asking, not rhetorically, what is it that separates Wendell Berry from the Amish, exactly, other than perhaps ethnic roots? I am not really certain.

Let me be clear, I do NOT condemn folks for taking this approach in their family life, but sometimes it seems to smack of a proto-political movement rather than simply a family choice - a way of ordering society rather than a way of ordering the economy of the home. As a family choice, I think you can do a whole lot worse, and there are decided benefits to this lifestyle. But I am not yet convinced that if you follow The Way you end up in an agrarian paradigm perforce. Maybe it is so - and that I shall realize this by-and-by.

I also recognize, along with Wendell Berry, that the entire industrial agricultural model is destructive of this agrarian way of life and systemically makes it extremely hard to succeed at it. However, in my part of the world, there is hope because of increasingly robust farmers markets, the increase interest in eating locally grown foods, and Community Supported Agriculture farms. That's hopeful news to me, but I do not put my faith in that as a means to Utopia or the ushering in of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the end, I shall remain a Christian small farmer. My flock needs tending, the grapes need pruning, and there are flame-orange persimmons in need of picking!

May any passerby have a blessed Advent! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. Thank you for writing it. I've been thinking of the tensions between agrarianism -- a philosophy I endorse, though my wife and I live in the suburbs -- and Christianity. It would be interesting to read what the whole vision of agrarianism would be: what would the world look like were it agrarian? The question I have is the same as yours: would Christians have a place there, or would they, as Hebrews states, "have no continuing city but seek one to come"? I suppose, before we get too settled, we must realize that we are pilgrims. And yet, the tension remains that the world is renewed by the grace of God and awaits anew the walk of God in the cool of the day. Thanks for your thoughts. Keep well.


11:19 AM  
Blogger Hilarius said...


Here is an article by Wendell Berry that promotes one view of that vision:

11:26 AM  
Blogger Hilarius said...

The full address seems to have been cut off -

The Agrarian Standard

11:31 AM  
Anonymous jcw said...

Thank you for the weblink.


2:35 AM  

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