Sunday Sermon: (Nobel) Prizing Doing

Holy Land Tomb Series

What are people for?  This is the title of a book of essays by Wendell Berry (and one of the essays within).

I’d say people are not generally for anything.  But that is probably not an acceptable answer.  Kant insisted, and all I know of Kant is this, that one categorical imperative is that humans must be seen as ends in themselves and never as means to other ends; that is a moral necessity.  Sadly, this is not the case and on this ground alone we must consider human beings inherently immoral in their practice of being.

I would say that humanity has been an utter failure as a species that “should” be aware of its errors.  I mean, this is what sets us apart, right?  Self-awareness and language (I’m not sure how to “chicken or egg” those things) are what makes us unique among species.

And using tools…but to make things and experiment with materials in ways that are irrelevant to living healthy lives as members of a species.  In fact, we are the tools and the experiments.  We are experiments in economy, in poverty, in education, in chemistry, in medicine, in armaments, in ideology, in religion, in being.  Unfortunately the several billions of us are the subjects of our masters’ Mengelian machinations.  In other words, we are means rather than ends.

Berry’s answer to the question?  From the eponymous essay he ends this way.

…there is work to be done.  This is the inescapably necessary work of restoring and caring for our farms, forests, and rural towns and communities…

And from part one of the book’s prefatory prose poem called “Damage” he offers this:

Blake gives the just proportion or control in another proverb:
“No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.” Only
when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength
do we need to think of limits.

It was no thought or word that called culture into being, but a
tool or a weapon.  After the stone axe we needed song and story
to remember innocence, to record effect–and so to describe
the limits, to say what can be done without damage.

The use only of our bodies for work or love or pleasure, or even
for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exult.

But a man with a machine and inadequate culture…
…is a pestilence.  He shakes more
than he can hold.

A summation: Over-reaching power requires limits; culture, comprised of “song and story”, offered limits; machines (power) and inadequate culture (failed stories) impoverishes us.  Berry’s point is that we are for nothing but rectifying our errors.  We are for nothing but our ecological purpose.  We are creatures that must fit into a controlled system.  We have overburdened this with our confusion about our “for-ness”?  Dear Lord, Why am I (me, myself, and) here?  What is my purpose?

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.  I’m sure you’ve heard this, but it’s fun to examine its Biblical sources.  Can you identify the books they come from?  Does it matter?  Maybe.

From Luke*

And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

This comes from a parable told by Jesus to examine “covetousness” and though wrenched out the context of a man storing up material wealth over his life and then “resting” with his retirement booty (laying up wealth), it still comes down to the admonition that NOW is all we have and that material goods are an affront to that concept.  For later in the chapter we are told, “Take no thought for your life,”

The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment.
Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap…how much more are ye better than the fowls?
And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit?  [I love that.]

In other words, what does your doing accomplish if not limited by a particular moral environment?  At best, a wasted life, at worst, the opposite of “the good.”

From Ecclesiastes*

Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.

This chapter actually starts out with the question, “Who is the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing?”  I’m pretty sure the answer, in this chapter at least, is no one.  It is interesting that in this same chapter is the verse, “Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou?”  The point though, is that even THAT is finally just vanity because “There is no man that hath power over the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war…”

And from that eloquent founder of the modern Church, St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians:

If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what is the gain to me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die.

This is possibly the most influential of Paul’s texts as it deals with conquering death in the idea of Christ.  Paul is difficult and we work hard to simplify him.  I take this chapter to finally say that the idea of Christ can at all times be “raised up” in you.  In a sense the “I” dies daily if replaced by the Christ idea.  Which is the Kingdom of God; which is living in justice and mercy today and every day.  Nothing more.  “But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?  Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die…”  The literal objects to the abstracted figuration.  You are corrupt without the idea of justice and mercy applied to ALL beings; this is Paul’s idea of Christ and the Kingdom.  You are raised to new life when you can realize this in your very actions.  As the seed sown quickens it must also die.  What is made new or what is changed comes from the indwelling spirit and thinking of  bodily immortality is only distraction and misunderstanding of a great work advising us how to live in the spirit in the now.**

But to return to the post’s genesis in the Berry essay and poem after this foray into the biblical exegesis; I think, at least in these excerpts, that he misses something crucial here; as the germ of culture bursts its bonds to metamorphose from tool to machine it likewise remakes the songs and stories to ennoble and enfranchise the myth of the machine.  That myth supplants the tool, supplants the idea of limits, and reaches beyond even the most powerful human conceptions of divinity.  The machine will expose its own ghost and reveal to humanity that we ARE the ghost and the machine alone; that we begat ourselves, as we have known all along.  And we shall be resurrected in the singularity.

Really, I think the question needs to be more basic: “What are people?”

Then we might move to “What do people do?” before we try to answer “What are people for?”

I ponder these things on the heels of the Nobel Prize announcements; the prize, as you likely know, is a stipend for past work.  What are millions for?  What are Nobel Laureates for?  Creating culture, privileging cultural ideals, cementing “progress” (a lovely contradictory phrase).  A Nobel is for doing…as a hole is to dig.  Or rather, for having done (except in the case of Obama whose prize seems now so naively hopeful as to be childish).

I’m taken with the order of the categories as listed at the Nobel site:


Here’s the reality of “valuation” as I see it or as against the order above: Chemistry and Medicine tie for first, then Physics, and finally Peace and Literature tie for irrelvant.  These last two seem to me anachronistic though and fulfill a role as a way to pretend to a kind of “expansive” idea of an unmitigated pursuit of a human and noble good .  The real focus of humanity is proving that we are god.  Chemistry and Medicine (manipulating biology via chemistry) strive to make us immortal while physics keeps us on our toes, dancing with the deus ex machina, so to speak.  Once we marry Chemistry to Physics we will simply do away with biology and leave this vivified clay behind.  One must ask with sincerity, where is the prize for Vanity, surely the most human of our intellectual accomplishments?

But, to give the hopeful prize for literature it’s due and the last word, here is a poem by the winner Tomas Transtromer, brought to my attention by the Indiana poet laureate Karen Kovacik, “After a Death”.  The translation is by Robert Bly.

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.


*Bible Verses (KJV): Luke 12:19, Ecclesiastes 8:15, 1 Corinthians 15:32

**”Revolution in the Church,” by Thomas Sheehan

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