Why life should be viewed as a miracle

The little book by Wendell Berry that reshaped my vision of Christian ethics

October 12, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Over the years, I’ve been surprised by how often my life has been upended by little books. Augustine’s City of God influenced me, but the much smaller Confessions changed me. Carl Henry wrote six volumes of God, Revelation, and Authority—and I have referenced it often—but what altered my life was his tiny manifesto, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In the same way, though I am grateful for massive works on Christian ethics, few of them have made as much difference as a slim little essay, with hummingbirds on the cover. 

The book is Life Is a Miracle, and were it not for the author, I never would have read it. First of all, the title would not have caught my attention on a bookstore shelf. It sounds like a New Age-y self-help book along the lines of Eat, Pray, Love. And, even if I had glanced at it closer, I probably would have passed since it purports to be a treatment of scientific rationalism of the sort found in the so-called “New Atheism.” And I must admit I find myself bored both by the arguments of these “New Atheists” and by the huffing of those who hate-read them in order to point out how wrong they are. I suppose that is because while I can identify with the struggles of a person who can’t make sense of evil or absurdity, I have never been tempted by the idea that the universe is merely random atoms bouncing about. 

But I was certain to read this book, despite all of that, because of the author. The old Kentucky agrarian was one of those writers whose insights were so consistently valuable that I would read everything he wrote—novels, short stories, poems, essays, and articles. This book was no exception, and I found that as I read it and, over the years, re-read it, it reshaped my vision of Christian ethics in a disenchanted age. 

The book expertly examines and dismantles the inconsistencies of the reductionist view of the world and humanity as merely material. Berry concludes that this sort of materialism is not the triumph of reason over superstition—as it purports to be—but is instead just another kind of superstition—a superstition with disastrous consequences for the way we see the natural “environment” (a word he hates) and the way we see the answer to the question of (as he puts it elsewhere) “What are people for?” The book is worth reading for all of that, but what are most important, in my view, are two points embedded in the argument—one to do with mystery and the other to do with metaphor. 

The meaning of mystery

By “mystery” I do not mean the idea that the universe is unknowable. For Berry, mystery instead refers to the way that creation cannot be boiled down to its “parts” or mapped out in its abstractions. Berry quotes Edgar from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” Berry examines the arguments of scientific materialists such as E.O. Wilson, that there is no evidence for the intangible, such as what one would find in religion, “but of course religious faith begins with the discovery that there is no ‘evidence.’ There is no argument or trail of evidence or course of experimentation that can connect unbelief and belief.” 

To rightly understand the universe, Berry argues, one must begin and end not with abstractions, but with affection. This is no mere assertion for Berry, but instead the obvious shared reality of all persons. “The giveaway is that even scientists do not speak of their loved ones in categorical terms as ‘a woman,’ ‘a man,’ ‘a child,’ or ‘a case.’ Affection requires us to break out of the abstractions, the categories, and confront the creature itself in its life in its place.” Here Berry echoes Augustine—on the ordered and disordered “loves” that characterize the City of God over against the City of Man. But Berry appeals not to Augustine for his authority in his conversation with mere secularism but instead to our shared experience of what happens when abstraction replaces affection. 

“We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love. To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.” Ever since I read that passage I have hated the modern jargon of “values,” regardless of to what these “values” are applied. 

This also helped make sense, for me, of why the Christian ethics of Scripture—both Old and New Testaments—sounds so different from the virtue abstractions of the scholastics, whether pagan or Christian. The Torah tells us to “love the stranger”—not because of the “value” of abstract human nature—but because “you were a stranger in Egypt.” Jesus confronts the abstractions of the lawyer’s formulation of “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”—which were rooted in the storyline of covenant Israel, not in general theories or precepts—not with his own abstractions but with a story—of a man beaten by the side of the road—that required the affection of narratively-experienced mercy to understand. 

This helped me realize why I found suspicious those—including those that I trusted for truth—who seemed more systematic in their theological formulations than the Bible itself. I heard one scholar, who defended (rightly) the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, speak of the superiority of Pauline systematic logic over Jesus’ use of parables. Parables, he argued, were temporary and context-specific, but the fullness of time would bring the more abstract logic of Paul. And yet, Paul did no such thing. 

Paul spoke and wrote always within the framework of the story of Israel (Acts 13:13-47; 1 Cor. 10:1-22; 2 Cor. 3:7-17; Gal. 3-4; Phil. 2:5-11). The Bible does not start with an abstract category of “humanity,” but with “Adam;” not with the abstract category of “covenant” but with “Abraham;” not with the abstract category of “redemption,” but with the cross of Golgotha. The categories and abstractions are important, but only when they start with the particular—the reality that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). 

Thus, in a Christian view of reality, the knowledge of God is not human experimentation upon a concept. We truly know God—but not the way we “know” mathematical equations we use to harness the forces of nature, but because of the God whose “love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). 

Now, none of these biblical or gospel applications are offered by Berry. But the book—in argument against those who would claim to know everything by reason—prompted other questions, about why the Christian revelation is the way that it is. And isn’t that the most we can ever ask from a book that claims to be raising questions about answers that prove to be—no matter how scientifically rigorous—too simple to explain such things as love and meaning, too simple to explain things that are not, in fact, “things” at all? 

In that sense, this book led me not to the climax of seeing naturalistic atheists as more stupid or evil than we are, but instead to a sense of awe at the wild and mysterious integrity of the universe as creation. 

The metaphor of machine

The second aspect of this book most helpful to Christian ethics is Berry’s repeated deconstruction of one particular metaphor. He takes apart this metaphor in the opening pages and every time one might conclude he has moved on, he returns to take it apart again. And then he ends the book with a series of recommendations—perhaps most pointed of which is his recommendation to stop using this wrongheaded metaphor. The metaphor is that of the creation—or of creatures—as machine. This is not just a shortcut of language, for Berry, but undergirds an entire vision that has gone wrong. 

“The most radical influence of reductive science has been the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all the parts of its creatures are machines—that is, that there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation,” he writes. “Our language, wherever it is used, is now almost invariably conditioned by the assumption that fleshly bodies are machines full of mechanisms, fully compatible with the mechanisms of medicine, industry, and commerce; and that minds are computers fully compatible with electronic technology.” 

We speak of how people are “wired,” and of what “makes us tick.” Berry does not entirely dismiss the usefulness of any use of the metaphor of machine, but asserts that “the legitimacy of a metaphor depends upon our understanding of its limits.” 

“When a metaphor is construed as an equation, it is out of control; when it is construed as an identity, it is preposterous,” he writes. “If we are to assume that our language means anything at all, then the world is not a machine, and neither is an organism. A machine, to state only the greatest and mot obvious difference, is a human artifact, and a world or an organism is not.” Thus, he concludes, “We should banish from our speech and writing any use of the word ‘machine’ as an explanation or definition of anything that is not a machine.” 

For Berry, the question of the age is whether we will see people as creatures or as machines. If creatures, then we embrace the goodness of limits and the mystery of reality that can’t be reduced to biology or physics. I think he is right. This understanding of the world and of persons helps us to maintain both the dignity and the limits of humanity. If we see life as a miracle, not a machine, we understand that human beings are not reduced to their “usefulness” to others. And if see the world as a mystery—and not just another human artifact to be manipulated—we can see that just because we can do something is no necessary sign that we should. That has implications for the way that we see questions ranging from sexuality to family to abortion to cloning to environmental protection to artificial intelligence. 

But, more than providing talking points about specific points of ethics, Life Is a Miracle helps us to rethink our starting place. The world is not an accident. Human beings are not things. Wisdom requires affection, not just information. Life is a miracle. In that sense, this little book—like the hummingbirds on its cover—is far more important than its size. 

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24