One Great Subject
Wendell Berry on Wholeness, Limits, and the Unity of Creation
Join us online for our L’Engle Intensive, a five-week reading seminar with Brian Volck and special guests
Mondays and Thursdays, February 27-March 30
4-5:30 pm ET/1-2:30 PT
On her farm in Connecticut with the threat of nuclear war looming, Madeleine L’Engle wrote in her journal in May of 1959, “I look at the children, the budding trees, the sky, the tiny purple violets, and I think: how can anyone contemplate wantonly destroying all this? This has nothing to do with war, mutilating innocent lives, laying waste our common heritage of Earth. How can the heads of nations be so criminally insane?”
Over sixty years later, as we face mounting evidence of climate change, L’Engle’s anxieties still strike a chord. And it’s by cultivating the very things she holds dear—the trees and violets, our “common heritage of Earth”—that author and farmer Wendell Berry offers a way to push back against the darkness. His focus is almost entirely local, less on transnational policies and government legislation and more on place-specific changes in homes, hearts, and habits.
“What I stand for is what I stand on,” writes Berry. From that commitment to place, everything else follows. The author of more than fifty books, Berry roots his essays, fiction, and poetry in the land upon which he dwells, an ecosystem where everything is connected to everything else.
Over five weeks, in ten 90-minute sessions (two per week), participants in the L’Engle Intensive will read and discuss a wide range of Berry’s essays, fiction, and poetry with a small cohort of no more than 20 participants. We’ll focus on themes of embodiment, health, imagination, community, peacemaking, creaturely limits, and care of the land.
This five-week seminar will be held via Zoom on Mondays and Thursdays from February 27–March 30.
Week 1: We’ll discuss key aspects of Berry’s unifying vision: the necessity of living within creaturely limits.
Week 2: We’ll consider Berry’s emphasis on wholeness, dependence, and membership, with special attention to matters of land, labor, and race.
Week 3: We’ll take up Berry’s critique of reductionist science and the complex interplay of human knowledge and ignorance.
Week 4: Our focus will be on health, which includes living among fellow creatures in a world not of our own making.
Week 5: We’ll consider Berry’s overarching theme that humans will care for and protect what they love. We conclude by devoting attention to Berry’s legacy, especially his commitment to living peaceably with all creation.
In a small-group setting capped at 20 students, participants will experience:
+ Two 90-minute Zoom sessions per week over five weeks.
+ A guest speaker will join us for one class each week, including Bill McKibben, Mary Berry, Wes Jackson, and Norman Wirzba.
+ All participants will have the opportunity to engage directly in conversation with our facilitator and guests, as together we deepen our understanding of Berry’s work and themes.
+ In-depth examination of a wide variety of Berry's work, including his fiction, poetry, and essays.
+ While there are no writing requirements, participants will need to keep up with assigned readings (no more than 80 pages per class session) as well as view a selected video and film.
March 2: Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben is a contributing writer to The New Yorker and a founder of Third Act, which organizes people over the age of sixty to work on climate and racial justice. He founded the first global grassroots climate campaign, 350.org, and serves as the Schumann Distinguished Professor in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 2014, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel,’ in the Swedish Parliament. He’s also won the Gandhi Peace Award, and honorary degrees from nineteen colleges and universities. He has written over a dozen books about the environment, including his first, The End of Nature, published in 1989, and his latest book is The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened.
March 13: Wes Jackson
Wes Jackson is widely recognized as a leader in the international movement for a more sustainable agriculture. He served as chair of one of the country’s first environmental studies programs at California State University-Sacramento and then returned to his native Kansas to found The Land Institute in 1976. He is the author of several books, including New Roots for Agriculture, Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth, Becoming Native to This Place, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture, Nature as Measure, and Hogs Are Up: Stories from the Land, with Digressions. Wes Jackson was a Pew Conservation Scholar in 1990, a MacArthur Fellow in 1992, and received the Right Livelihood Award in 2000. Life magazine included him as one of eighteen individuals predicted to be among the 100 important Americans of the 20th century. Smithsonian in 2005 included him as one of “35 Who Made a Difference.”
March 23: Norman Wirzba
Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School and a Senior Fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. He is the author of multiple books, including most recently This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World and Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land, and editor of The Essential Agrarian Reader and The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.
March 30: Mary Berry
The Berry Center Executive Director, Mary Berry, and her brother, Den Berry, were raised by their parents, Wendell and Tanya Berry, at Lanes Landing Farm in Henry County, Kentucky, from the time she was six years old. An eighth-generation Henry County farmer, Berry started out in dairy farming, growing Burley tobacco, and later diversifying to grow organic vegetables, pastured poultry and grass-fed beef. Berry’s writings have appeared in various publications, including an anthology of letters to young farmers, Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future (Princeton Agricultural Press, 2016) and the introduction for a book of essays, “Our Sustainable Table,” Robert Clark, ed. (Counterpoint, 2017). She speaks all over the country, advocating for soil conserving communities, in support of small farmers, and in the hope of restoring an economy and culture which has been lost in rural America.
February 27: Introduction to Wendell Berry’s Imagination
March 2: Living Within Human Limits
Special Guest: Bill McKibben
March 6: Wholeness, Dependence, and Membership
March 9: Land, Labor, and Race
Special Guest: TBA
March 13: Berry’s Critique of Reductionist Science
Special Guest: Wes Jackson
March 16: Knowledge and Ignorance
March 20: Health and Medicine
March 23: Living as Creatures
Special Guest: Norman Wirzba
March 27: It All Turns on Affection
March 30: Wendell Berry and Living Peaceably
Special Guest: Mary Berry
About the Facilitator
About Brian Volck
Brian Volck is a pediatrician and writer whose broad clinical and educational work has included the Navajo Nation, rural Honduras, an inner-city community health center, and inpatient teaching services at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He now teaches theology, medicine, and literature at the Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. He has published one volume of poetry, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. He writes and speaks on the complex intersection of health care, ethics, art, and faith. In 2021, he led the inaugural online L’Engle Seminar on Science, Poetry, and the Imagination, featuring scientists and poets from the US and the UK. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in Ars Medica, Atlanta Review, DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and Image.
About the L’Engle Intensive
Hosted by Image, the L’Engle Intensive is part of a series of events that brings together artists and scientists to explore how their work is in conversation with each other and theology. These seminars are inspired by three characteristics of her life and work: attention to the generative interplay between faith, art, and science; recognition that all art is incarnational and that science enlarges our understanding of creation; and generous engagement with diverse faith traditions, including diverse Christian communities.
About Madeleine L’Engle
Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007) was a prolific writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that reflect her energetic engagement with both Christianity and science. She won numerous literary prizes in her lifetime and her many bestselling books, including the classic A Wrinkle in Time, continue to find new readers. The diversity of her reading public and breadth of her influence can be seen in the fact her papers are housed at both Wheaton College and Smith College. Learn more about her life and legacy here.
Madeleine L’Engle on art, science, and faith:
The discoveries made since the heart of the atom was opened have changed our view of the universe and of Creation. . . . The universe is far greater and grander and less predictable than anyone realized, and one reaction to this is to turn our back on the glory and settle for a small, tribal god who forbids questions of any kind. Another reaction is to feel so small and valueless in comparison to the enormity of the universe that it becomes impossible to believe in a God who can be bothered with us tiny, finite creatures. . . .Or we can rejoice in a God who is beyond our comprehension but who comprehends us and cares about us.
—The Rock that is Higher
But everything we are learning about the nature of Being is making it apparent that “us” versus “them” is a violation of Creation. Tribalism must be transformed into community. We are learning from astrophysics and particle physics and cellular biology that all of Creation exists only in interdependence and unity.
—A Stone for a Pillow
Science, literature, art, theology: it is all the same ridiculous, glorious, mysterious language.
—A Circle of Quiet
Many thousands of those suns must have planets, and it’s surely arrogant of us to think of our earth as being the only planet in creation with life on it.
—Dragons in the Waters
If I affirm that the universe was created by a power of love, and that all creation is good, I am not proclaiming safety. Safety was never part of the promise. Creativity, yes; safety, no.
— And It Was Good
Creative scientists and saints expect revelation and do not fear it. Neither do children. But as we grow up and we are hurt, we learn not to trust, and that lack of trust is a wound as grievous as whatever caused it.
—Walking on Water
A story where myth, fantasy, fairy tale, or science fiction explore and ask questions moves beyond fragmatic dailiness to wonder. Rather than taking the child away from the real world, such stories are preparation for living in the real world with courage and expectancy. A child who has been denied imaginative literature is likely to have far more difficulty in understanding cellular biology or postNewtonian physics than the child whose imagination has already been stretched by reading fantasy and science fiction.
—Walking on Water
The Word is not a pet. The Word is the wildness behind creation, the terror of a black hole, the atomic violence of burning hydrogen within a sun.
—And It Was Good