Responding to the Mystery: Reflections from Wendell Berry, Pope Benedict, and Simone Weil

These three excerpts point from different angles at a proper human response to the mystery of being. We begin with Wendell Berry’s turning of the tables on the conceit of verifiable knowledge as a basis for action. In the second piece, responding to a similar backdrop, Pope Benedict emphasizes that the “I believe” of the Creed expresses a fundamental stand that can only be taken towards the ground of all being, which is necessarily invisible and given rather than something of our own making. Finally, a short meditation from Simone Weil shows us that this mystery–its source as well as our own place in it–is love as renunciation. 

Reading this 2-page letter, consider the difference between the two axes, randomness-knowledge and mystery-pattern.

Wendell Berry’s “Letter to Wes Jackson,” July 15, 1982 (from Home Economics)  

Dear Wes,

I want to try to complete the thought about randomness that I was working on when we talked the other day. The Hans Jenny paragraph that started me off is the last on page twenty-one of The Soil Resource:

Raindrops that pass in random fashion through an imaginary plane above the forest canopy are intercepted by leaves and twigs and channeled into distinctive vert space patterns of through-drip, crown-drip, and stem flow. The soil surface, as receiver, transmits the “rain message” downward, but as the subsoils lack a power source to mold a flow design, the water tends to leave the ecosystem as it entered it, in a randomized fashion.

My question is: Does “random” in this (or any) context describe a verifiable condition or a limit of perception? My answer is: It describes a limit of perception. This is, of course, not a scientist’s answer, but it may be that anybody’s answer would be unscientific. My answer is based on the belief that pattern is verifiable by limited information, whereas the information required to verify randomness is unlimited. As I think you said when we talked, what is perceived as random within a given limit may be seen as part of a pattern within a wider limit. 

If this is so, then Dr. Jenny, for accuracy’s sake, should have said that rainwater moves from mystery through pattern back into mystery.

If “mystery” is a necessary (that is, honest) term in such a description, then the modern scientific program has not altered the ancient perception of the human condition a jot. If, in using the word “random,” scientists only mean “random so far as we can tell,” then we are back at about the Book of Job. Some truth meets the eye; some does not. We are up against mystery. To call this mystery “randomness” or “chance” or a “fluke” is to take charge of it on behalf of those who do not respect pattern. To call the unknown ‘random’ is to plant the flag by which to colonize and exploit the known. (A result that our friend Dr. Jenny, of course, did not propose and would not condone.)

To call the known by its right name, ‘mystery,’ is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns.

This respecting of mystery obviously has something or other to do with religion, and we moderns have defended ourselves against it by turning it over to religion specialists, who take advantage of our indifference by claiming to know a lot about it. 

What impresses me about it, however, is the insistent practicality implicit in it. If we are up against mystery, then we dare act only on the most modest assumptions. The modern scientific program has held that we must act on the basis of knowledge, which, because its effects are so manifestly large, we have assumed to be ample. But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance. Acting on the basis of ignorance, paradoxically, requires one to know things, remember things–for instance, that failure is possible, that error is possible, that second chances are desirable (so don’t risk everything on the first chance), and so on.

What I think you and I and a few others are working on is a definition of agriculture as up against mystery and ignorance-based. I think we think that this is its necessary definition, just as I think we think that several kinds of ruin are the necessary result of an agriculture defined as knowledge-based and up against randomness. Such an agriculture conforms exactly to what the ancient program, or programs, understood as evil or hubris. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews told us to watch out for humans who assume that they make all the patterns.

Berry writes: “…to call the unknown ‘random’ is to plant a flag by which to colonize and exploit the known.” And, we could say, it is to exploit the randomness of the cosmos itself, whose mystery might otherwise have a claim on our lives. As Berry’s example of rainwater that moves “from mystery through pattern back into mystery,” the religious pattern opens upwards and downwards – upwards onto the mystery of the ultimate, and downwards into moral patterns that respect the mysteries of life. 

Let us consider two similar axes presented by Pope Benedict: know-make and stand-understand. For context: This beginning section of Introduction to Christianity lays groundwork for understanding the Creed in terms of its genesis in the affirmations and renunciations of the Baptismal formula, showing us that “faith is located in the act of conversion, in the turn of one’s being from worship of the visible and practicable to trust in the invisible.” Prior to this excerpt, Benedict describes the primacy of the “makable” over the “made” in the modern world and its close relationship to our obsession with the “fact” – that which is repeatable and provable and thus “knowable.” 

Pope Benedict, excerpts from “Faith as Standing Firm and Understanding,” from Introduction to Christianity

[When] belief is consigned wholly to the plane of the fact or of “makability” in the end this only conceals what it really means when a man says “Credo” – “I believe”. For when he says this, he is not primarily enunciating a program for changing the world or simply attaching himself to a chain of historical events. By way of an attempt to shed some light on what really is involved I should like to suggest that the act of believing does not belong to the relationship “know-make” which is typical of the intellectual context of “make-ability” thinking, but is much better expressed in the quite different relationship “stand-understand”. It seems to me that here we can discern two general conceptions and possibilities of human existence that, though not unconnected with each other, must nevertheless be distinguished from each other.

In contrasting the two pairs of concepts stand-understand and know-make, I am alluding to a basic biblical statement about belief that is ultimately untranslatable. Luther tried to capture the profundity of this statement’s play on words when he coined the formula, “If you do not believe, then you do not abide.” A more literal translation would be, “If you do not believe (if you do not hold firm to Yahweh], then you will have no foothold” (Is 7:9). The one root word ‘mn (amen) embraces a variety of meanings whose interplay and differentiation go to make up the subtle grandeur of this sentence. It includes the meanings truth, firmness, firm ground, ground, and furthermore the meanings loyalty, to trust, entrust oneself, take one’s stand on something, believe in something: thus faith in God appears as a holding on to God through which man gains a firm foothold for his life. Faith is thereby defined as taking up a position, as taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the so-called Septuagint) transferred the above-mentioned sentence onto Greek soil not only linguistically but also conceptually by formulating it as “If you do not believe, then you do not understand, either.” It has often been said that this translation is in itself a typical example of the process of Hellenization, of the way in which the Septuagint is less “biblical” than the Hebrew text.  Belief, so it said, became intellectualized; instead of expressing the notion of standing on the firm ground of the reliable word of God, it is now linked with understanding and reason and thus removed to a quite different and completely inappropriate plane. There may be some truth in this. Nevertheless, I think  that on the whole the essential meaning is preserved, even if the imagery is different. Standing, as presented in the Hebrew as the content of belief, certainly has something to do with understanding. We shall have to think further about this in a moment. For the time being we can simply take up the thread of our earlier reflections and say that belief operates on a completely different plane from that of making and “make-ability. Essentially, it is entrusting oneself to that which has not been made by oneself and never could be made and which precisely in this way supports and makes possible all our making. But this also means that on the plane of practical knowledge, on the plane of verum quia factum seu faciendum [finding truth in the knowable or makeable], it neither occurs nor ever could occur and be discovered and that any attempt to “lay it on the table”, to demonstrate it as one would a piece of practical knowledge, is doomed to failure…

Thus, starting from a quite general analysis of the basic attitude of ‘belief,’ we have arrived directly at the Christian mode of belief. For to believe as a Christian means in fact entrusting oneself to the meaning that upholds me and the world; taking it as the firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly. Using rather more traditional language, we could say that to believe as a Christian means understanding our existence as a response to the word, the logos, that upholds and maintains all things. It means affirming that the meaning we do not make but can only receive is already granted to us, so that we have only to take it and entrust ourselves to it. Correspondingly, Christian belief is the option for the view that the receiving precedes the making–though this does not mean that making is reduced in value or proclaimed to be superfluous. It is only because we have received that we can also “make”.

The “know-make” paradigm extends Berry’s meditation on randomness-knowledge, showing its tendency for “makability” to become the entire human horizon. Only starting from a more basic entrusting is it possible to know or make, and we must turn our full attention to how it is we go about this entrusting, lest we misunderstand our “Credo” or “I believe” as a set of propositions, or understand some set of propositions as an existential ground. 

Finally, Simone Weil helps us to see that renouncing the ideal of control implicit in the horizons described as know-make and randomness-knowledge is actually, and quite literally, creative. 

Simone Weil, excerpts from “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” in Waiting for God

By loving the order of the world we imitate the divine love which created this universe of which we are a part.

Man does not have to renounce the command of matter and of souls, since he does not possess the power to command them. But God has conferred upon him an imaginary likeness of this power, an imaginary divinity, so that he also, although a creature, may empty himself of his divinity.

Just as God, being outside the universe, is at the same time the center, so each man imagines he is situated in the center of the world. The illusion of perspective places him at the center of space; an illusion of the same kind falsifies his idea of time; and yet another kindred illusion arranges a whole hierarchy of values around him. This illusion is extended even to our sense of existence, on account of the intimate connection between our sense of value and our sense of being; being seems to us less and less concentrated the farther it is removed from us.

We relegate the spatial form of this illusion to the place where it belongs, the real of the imagination. We are obliged to do so; otherwise we should not perceive a single object; we should not even be able to direct ourselves enough to take a single step consciously. God thus provides us with a model of the operation which should transform all our soul. In the same way as in our infancy we learn to control and check this illusion in our sense of space, we should  control and check it in our sense of time, values, and being. Otherwise from every point of view except that of space we shall be incapable of discerning a single object or directing a single step.  

We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the center, to renounce it, not  only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul,  that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence. A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological  impressions. It is a transformation analogous to that which takes place in the dusk of evening on a road, where we suddenly discern as a tree what we had at first seen as a stooping man; or where we suddenly recognize as a rustling of  leaves what we thought at first was whispering voices. We see the same colors; we hear the same sounds, but not in the  same way.  

To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the center of the world in imaginanation, to discern that all points in the world are equally centers and that the true center is outside the world, this is to consent to the rule of mechanical necessity in matter and of free choice at the center of each soul. Such consent is love. The face of this love, which is turned toward thinking persons, is the love of our neighbor; the face turned toward matter is love of the order of the world, or love of the beauty of the world which is the same thing.

Perhaps the selections from these three authors amounts to an unusual claim about what constitutes living in “the world of unreality and dreams,” as Weil put it, and what it means to “awaken to what is real and eternal.” The eternal is actually the most real – the creative renunciation that made us is the renunciation we are called to imitate. Taking our stand in the one who gave his life that we may have life is not a parochial righteousness, but “understanding”, our participation in the “larger, unseen pattern”.