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.