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Book Review: Life is A Miracle

Hi, Folks!

I was asked to write this book review, so I did.  Figured it might stimulate
some discussion, so am sending it forth.  Once again, no one has paid me for
this, so I retain copyright. . .


Life is A Miracle:  An Essay Against Modern Superstition by Wendell Berry,
Counterpoint, 2000.  ISBN:  1-58243-058-6, $21.00.

The most valuable class I attended while working towards a Pennsylvania
Teaching Certificate taught us that the average classroom contains children
with at least 10 different thinking and learning styles.  As a logical
thinker whose appreciation for sequential order approximates the Vulcans,
I'm still amazed that global thinkers manage to dress themselves one pant
leg and sleeve at a time.  Yet, as an effective teacher, I have to be able
to appreciate, reach and communicate with folks whose minds work very
differently than mine so that together we become a whole society.
Unfortunately, Berry seems to have forgotten that human brains are not all
wired in his image.

The majority of this book is Berry's response to Edward O. Wilson's book
"Consilience:  The Unity of Knowledge" where Wilson attempts to do physics
one better and instead of a United Field Theory to explain all physical
phenomena,  he tries to unite all human knowledge into one discipline.  Of
course there are flaws in such a project - there always are.  But Berry, who
admits that he has "no competence or learning in science," trips over every
stereotype about science as a discipline and moans that if people would just
stop trying to upset the figurative apple cart in their quest to understand
it literally and accept it for the mystery of life that it is, we'd have a
more harmonious society.   The idea that some folks will sneak out to
measure the torque of the apple cart's wheels - that they would WANT to
measure things like torque as much as Berry wants to walk through his fields
in the morning totally escapes him.

Hungering and thirsting (to use the language of my religious tradition) to
understand the world empirically is as human a response to our world as
sitting in the midst of nature and letting the mystery of life wash through
one.  Humans have done both since self-awareness blossomed in the species.
To vilify one or the other is to deny ourselves the full range of human

What disturbed me most in this book was Berry's blindness to what science is
and what it is not - especially when manipulated for corporate profit.  He
derides journalists and publicists for using science to push their agenda,
but the "science" he so rightly commends isn't really science - it's a
fašade of a respectable discipline tricked out to bolster a corporate point
of view.  With just a basic grounding in scientific principles, a talented
writer such as Berry ought to be able to tell when he's being snowed by a
public relations machine.  Yet he seems strangely unable or unwilling to
decipher the language involved, to confront those who use a powerful
paradigm as a cover for their own greed and instead urges us all to walk
away from science altogether. 

Because Berry does not understand science and its language is often
manipulated to justify a course of action,  his justifiable fury at the
spiritual and communal paucity of our society hits the wrong target. If only
we didn't have scientists, Berry frets, GMOs, Y2K, and nuclear power
wouldn't be an issue.  While scientists developed these products, they are
merely the hired guns for corporations who believe they can maximize profits
through these products.  We get what we pay for in this society - Y2K didn't
happen because corporations and governments spent millions of dollars to
correct a shortcut they had ordered decades before to "save" time and money
by using 2 digits instead of 4 when dating a year.  The solution isn't, to
paraphrase Shakespeare,  to "get rid of all the scientists."  The solution
is to use our critical thinking skills to know when we're being manipulated
and hold corporations responsible for the products they unleash upon us.

As one who bridges both the scientific and religious worlds, I'm often asked
to review books such as "Life is a Miracle" which try to reconcile different
modes of thought.  Unfortunately (and this book was no exception), when
reading books like this, I feel like I'm listening to the two halves of a
single brain - the logical left and the more expressive right - talking
right past each other when discussing their strengths and sniping about the
other when confronted with their own weaknesses.

Someday, I'd like to find a book where the two halves can accept each
other's point of view and cover their own weaknesses with the other's
strength.  Only then will we truly live in the holistic  (and holy) society
of which Berry dreams.

Reviewed by Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden
Phoenixville, PA

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