[Editor’s note: the following was delivered as part of a panel discussion at the 34th Annual Chesterton Conference on August 5, 2016. Panel participants included Thomas Storck, Marcus Grodi, and Richard Aleman.]
It was a great honor and humble surprise to be asked by His eminence Dale Ahlquist to speak as a part of this illustrious panel, on of all things agrarian distributism. For me to do this square on would truly be a clear example of the Peter Principle, for being by far the worst farmer who ever lived and mostly inept in economics, I would certainly be rising to the level of my incompetence. However, I will try to address this, in a kind of convoluted way.
Actually, Dale’s invitation stated clearly that my focus was to be my adventures as a farmer and on my new book, Life From Our Land. Carl Olsen, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com and Catholic World Report, recently stated that my book was “a rather unique book in that it’s not easily placed into a settled genre.” I couldn’t agree more, because even when I go into a bookstore, I’m not sure where to look for it! There are elements of Nature, outdoor living, autobiography, economics, agrarianism, Distributism, a little bit of “preaching” and apologetics, but mostly I wanted to discuss rediscovering the most important priorities of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For the first 45 years of my life, I had no interest, knowledge, or experience in either farming, agrarianism, or Distributism. On my journey to become Catholic from being a life-long Protestant and then a pastor, I read Belloc and G.K. Chesterton primarily for apologetic reasons, but only minimally into their philosophical, political, or economic ideas.
Then my wife Marilyn inherited rural land, a portion of her family’s century farm, in the Appalachian foothills of SE Ohio. The land had been first settled in 1825 by a sheep farmer from Maryland who cleared the heavily wooded and hilly land by hand to support his family with their garden and by raising sheep. They lived subsidiarity before subsidiarity was cool, as did all the settlers who founded all the small towns of the Midwest.
Our goal was to escape the growing unrest, violence, pollution, and liberalism in the city, mainly for the sake of our sons; not really thinking so much about a simpler life, or especially farming, and certainly not agrarianism.
But after we built our home, it was the sight of the barn that Marilyn’s grandfather and great-grandfather had built nearly 100 years before, from wood cut on our land, that planted the seed of Agrarianism. That barn had been built for a purpose, like a house without a family is not a home. It had been built to house sheep. The father and son had cut down trees with a two-man saw, had a neighbor mill the wood into lumber, and then with the help of neighbors, raised the barn—while the wives cooked a grand meal for all who helped.
So in time, we began dabbling with sheep and then a hand-milked Jersey cow, and pigs, and chickens, and a horse, a goat, beef cattle, and even a garden, though our largest crops have always been wild raspberries and blackberries. In the process our family learned something, maybe best said by Louise Dickinson Rich in her classic book, “We Took to the Woods”, in which she describes the primitive life of her husband and her, without electricity, in the mid-1930s, in a logger’s cabin in the backwoods of Maine:
Why did we come to live here in the first place? We thought it was because we liked the woods, because we wanted to find a simple, leisurely way of life. Now, looking back, I think that we were unconsciously seeking to find a lost sense of our own identity…. I know that … perhaps most people … couldn’t feel that, living here, they held within their grasp all the best of life. So for them it wouldn’t be the best. For us, it is.
“A lost sense of our own identity”: Louise Dickinson Rich wrote that in the 1930s, when technology, transportation, communications, and consumerism were far less than in our day. To what extent have we and our children lost the sense of our own identities through our addictions to modern technologies and consumerism?
Many throughout history, those who were moved by their concerns over socialism and free-market capitalism, and moved by the principles of Distributism and subsidiarity, often saw the agrarian life as the best place for this to happen: re-uniting capital and labor, work and ownership, work and family, on land and with tools owned by the farmer so he can provide all that his family needs. What he can’t produce, he can get from neighbors—and also provide his neighbors with what they can not produce. Non-farmers in the community could use their skills to help farmers with non-food necessities.
G.K. Chesterton is often garnered as an advocate of agrarianism, but in What’s Wrong with the World, GKC doesn’t so much emphasize agrarian Distributism as he does the desire of every man to have his own home. He wrote:
For the truth is, that to the moderately poor the home is the only place of liberty…. As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of woman, every normal man desires a house of his own to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair below him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses. This is the normal appetite of men.1
So is it necessary to leave the city and buy a farm to live out the distinctions of Distributism and subsidiarity, or merely enough to have one’s own home wherever this might be?
St. Paul gave a dire warning to his novice bishop St. Timothy that I believe has never been more relevant:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people.2
Sound at all familiar? All around us are people who seem oblivious to Eternity—and I don’t just mean our neighbors who don’t go to Church. I mean Catholics and non-Catholic Christians who have slowly over time become acclimated to a truncated version of the Gospel. The ease, availability, and speed of technology, as well as a culture defined by the pursuit and accumulation of wealth, has carried so many of us along on a rollercoaster of supposed progress—and the only time many of us notice how completely our lives have been altered by technology is when we try to do anything “the old fashioned way.” We quickly give up and return rejoicing to the newer, easier, quicker, cheaper way, because the muscles we need to do things “the old fashioned way”, as well as the patience, have all atrophied. And the point of this is that this is also true of our faith—the disciplines, devotions, and service that once were normal have been supplanted by the easier, quicker, and more readily available. And of course, I’m not pointing fingers—this is true of me, too, which is what the book is about.
In this book, I’ve tried to describe how I came to discover this; how I rediscovered the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by tending sheep, cattle, and other livestock; by failing at gardening; by trying to understand what is going on with our culture and economy; by getting a grip on preparing for the future of my family when the day comes that I no longer have an income to pay the bills; by understanding what is happening to my friends and family as they fail to see the need of Christ and His Church — and for some this has meant not coming to see this before passing on to their reward; and to ask myself, with all the opinions out there, how can I know which opinion is true? My goal in writing this book was hopefully to help at least a few more to find their way through the narrow gate.
I suspect that many Christians tend to believe that God gave humanity only minds and hearts to know Him, or maybe also eyes and ears to read and hear His Word written or preached—and since the senses are gateways to our passions, they must be controlled! Yet, St. Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). I have come to experientially realize that God gave us our senses first to know Him through the world around us.
The devil knows this, of course, and does everything possible to turn and distract the attention of our senses, and consequently our minds and hearts, away from anything that might point us to God. And so we fill our lives and surround ourselves with stuff that, in reality, only celebrates the creativity and ingenuity of Mankind. We fill our houses and extra storage units with stuff that entertains or satisfies, or maybe distracts us from uncertainties, or gives us confidence that we are prepared to meet any crisis! And we plan for our “retirements”, doing everything within our means to make sure we save enough money to ensure that the stuff just keeps on coming! But in the process, we have isolated ourselves from seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting, and thereby recognizing with gratitude the most basic messages of God’s love and provision in His Creation.
People today, for example, are all a tither about whether the world is facing global warming and whether mankind might be causing it. But does anyone even wonder why we aren’t experiencing climate change all the time? The truth is, we are. Why does this planet even continue to spin on its axis without faltering, day after day, after year, for centuries? How can this world continue to spin with such clockwork accuracy, and our seasons be so predictable that we might even be disturbed when it seems our climate might be changing? Do we recognize in awe the providential care of our Creator, without which there would be no tomorrow? Being out in nature, looking up at the night sky, listening to the symphony of His creatures, feeling the breeze, the warmth of the soil, the coolness of a natural spring, the rise and setting of the sun, all of this reminds me that God never ceases to smile on His creation, and this then puts everything else into perspective.
Much of my book is about stewardship. When Mankind was created in the image of the Trinitarian God, we were then given dominion over God’s Creation (Gen 1:26). This means we have the responsibility before God to take care of the world the way He takes care of it, in imitation of Him—in His image. Throughout history, however, Mankind generally has failed at this; mostly Mankind has treated Creation as if it is merely our playground to do with and to abuse as we see fit, or more specifically to use for making ourselves rich and powerful. If our consciences confront us about anything, we feel guilty about how we may not have loved God or loved our neighbor as we should, but how many of us feel the least bit guilty about how we have taken care of the land around us or the critters that struggle to live on it?
Stewardship means humbly recognizing that God has created His world with a hierarchy of responsibilities, and the core of these responsibilities is service. Within the Church, there is a hierarchy of responsibilities, from the pope on down through bishops, to priests, to laity, but this is not to be a hierarchy of power from above but of humble service. St. Paul said that this is also true of the family: The husband and father has the responsibility of headship, but this is not to be one of overpowering but of service, as Christ loved the Church (Eph. 5: 23). The same is true of our stewardship of the world: there is a hierarchy of responsibility, with Mankind on top, not to overpower, but to serve responsibly in love, so that one day when we stand before our Creator, we can present this world back to Him as our humble offering, better than we found it.
In my book, I also bravely delved into the complicated world of economics and the push for never-ending progress. I wrote that “the more we—as individuals, families, and a culture—define the American dream as the accumulation of more and more things (which requires more and more money), the more we have set our families and culture on an unsustainable death spiral toward political and economic chaos.”
I need to be cautious here because I am not an economist or a financial advisor—I don’t even play one on television! I address this in my book, but I don’t pretend to give hard fast rules—even the Church is hesitant to give this kind of advice. Rather, I believe this involves each person rethinking Christ’s call to simplicity and detachment, in the context of the responsibilities each of us has according to our vocations.
The problem is, we in 21st century America are more than ever like the proverbial frog in a pot, or like hundreds of travelers all crowded together on a moving walkway—we are moving forward in our lives trusting the opinions and practices of everyone around us who in turn are trusting financial advisors, lawyers, bankers, investors, and politicians, none of whom any of us know or whose values we know. Whose opinions are you trusting with the investments you have put away to take care of you and your family in the future, twenty-thirty years from now? Can you be certain that these nameless investors have a better handle on what your needs will be in twenty years than you do?
Instead, Christ called His followers to be so detached from the world—from the love for money, and the accumulation of stuff—that if the world around us were to fall, our souls would not be in jeopardy. This involves living the Beatitudes, and particularly, trying to practice subsidiarity as much as possible: We are not to look to the federal government, or the state, or some nameless broker to take care of us; rather we need to look from near to far. We need to begin with ourselves and our families (in partnership of course with God) to provide all we need; what we can’t provide, we then can look to our neighbors, our community, and those providers nearest to us; only then should we reach out beyond to the county, state, and only last to the Federal government.
We need to strengthen our communities by keeping our expenditures and investments as close to home as possible—which is why I believe the growth in on-line internet businesses will be one of the key factors in the future unsustainable death spiral of our economy and culture. Instead of sustainable, locally owned and operated businesses (like the once “ma & pa” sellers of clothing, furniture, food, books, tools, etc.), mega online providers now provide all of these products cheaper. So in the end all of these local businesses are driven out of business. And when we buy something from the internet, where does the money go—and the taxes? Does it even stay in our country, let alone our communities? One thing is for certain: it does not strengthen your local community where you may be planning to spend the rest of your life. Truth is, what is there beyond food, water, clothing, and shelter that any of us truly need, especially as we face old age—and especially if, as we grow older, we decide to dedicate more and more of our lives in service to others and less in feeding our own self-centered desires?
And this brings me to another significant topic, the meaning and place of technology. How should Christians view technologies? What are the spiritual dangers of being so reliant on various forms of technology?
There is now a smartphone app that allows a person to use their smartphone to take a photo of anyone, any stranger walking along a street, and then automatically gain access in social media to all of that person’s personal information. A co-founder of the app responded to concerns: “In today’s world we are surrounded by gadgets … everything around us is sending real-time information about us. Already we have full data on people’s movements, their interests and so on. A person should understand that in the modern world he is under the spotlight of technology. You just have to live with that.”
What kind of world are we now living in? Before the internet and especially social media, our lives could be private. We didn’t worry about someone accessing our private information and then using it to empty our bank accounts or purchase products in our name, or control or destroy our lives. I remember a time when we never conceived of this danger, or a time later when we could still protect ourselves by staying as uninvolved as possible with the internet. But now, our culture has surrendered too far into it, and, as the author above believes, we just have to live with it. Or do we?
I suspect that a frightening majority of people today are so far surrendered to the escalating technological “Progress” that they see no reason to resist learning to “live with it” and “work with it.” The problem is, what is this all doing to our soul? Is this all making us better people? Are we happier? Healthier? More at peace with ourselves and our neighbors? Is our world safer than it was, say, when our parents or grandparents were born?
Maybe it is here that my experience of trying to be a farmer and living “on the land” taught me the most about what salvation and living the Gospel truly means. It has helped me rediscover what in the end is most important. None of this is anything so profoundly new, but things which we all know but too often take for granted and ignore: property, prosperity, prestige, success, power, popularity, none of this lasts. In fact, they can all be distractions and detractions from attaining that which is most important—hearing in the end those words from Him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In the end, how have we loved? When we are gone, and our spouse, and children, and grandchildren, and friends are all gazing down at our grave, how will they remember us? As one who lived selfishly or selflessly loved? If we arrive in heaven, by the grace of God, how will He introduce us to those we meet there? As one who loved? Lord, help us to let go of ourselves for the sake of everyone else whom You have called us to love.