Wendell Berry and Naturalistic Sacramentalism

Works of art participate in our lives; we are not just distant observers of their lives. They are in conversation among themselves and with us.

– Wendell Berry

In his keenly written essay Style and Grace, Wendell Berry describes the world through the language of a naturalistic sacramentalism. This is not his term, and it requires explanation. His essay is essentially a rumination on the stylistic distinctions between Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” and Norman McClean’s semi-autobiographical collection of three short stories entitled A River Runs Through It. Through their respective literary styles, Berry suggests, these works manifest two fundamentally different attitudes toward the world.

Two Contrasting Styles

“Big Two-Hearted River” is a story determined by its style. It is, Berry remarks, “a triumph of style in its pure or purifying sense: the ability to isolate those parts of experience of which one can confidently take charge. It does not go into dark swamps because it does not know how it will act when it gets there.” Granting for the moment the correctness of Berry’s critique, one sees the problem which Berry observes is characteristic of those artists preoccupied with technical prowess to the exclusion of artistic content. Stylistic control results in the prioritization of virtuosity for its own sake – it is movement without meaning. A case in point would be the budding jazz musician who practices scales incessantly but fails to realize how to incorporate them meaningfully into an improvisation.

Contrastingly, A River Runs Through It is written in a style “vulnerable to bewilderment, mystery, and tragedy…a style, therefore, that is open to grace.” This is the central point of Berry’s essay: artistic style admits grace when it allows for mystery, and it allows for mystery by accounting for that which is artistically unaccountable. This quality of style has nothing to do with virtuosity for its own sake, although it does presuppose a certain level of technical proficiency. Rather it has to do with a mature knowledge of the artistic subject matter. Furthermore, this knowledge is a knowledge of that which is yet unknown. The vulnerable work of art is created and perpetually re-created against this knowledge of the apophatic. For Berry, A River Runs Through It is a paradigmatic expression of this kind of art – art that is vulnerable to cosmic mystery. This is what is required for art to be open to grace, for art to function as sacrament.

A Naturalistic Sacramentalism

In his typically unassuming way, Berry has demonstrated a profound acuity regarding the art’s sacramental relationship to nature. Furthermore, the brilliance of his insight resides in the fact that, while he speaks sacramentally, he remains unencumbered by doctrinal baggage. For Berry, nature is a mysterious gift given and giving, and art is a medium which mediates its grace. On its own, this naturalistic sacramentalism will be satisfying neither to those who demand a robust Christian orthodoxy nor to those who adhere to a naturalistic viewpoint. Yet a naturalistic sacramentalism, as articulated by Berry, opens a space where both the distinct discourses of religion and science might intersect.

For those concerned with maintaining a stringent Christian orthodoxy, naturalistic sacramentalism poses a threat only if absolutized. This is to say, Christians need not affirm the profoundness of the gift to the exclusion of the Giver. Indeed, a naturalistic sacramentalism resonates with traditional Christian views which speak of Creation as something both good and mysterious (Genesis 1:31; Job 38). For the faithful, the mysterious gift of nature reflects the heart of the mysterious Giver. When art is vulnerable to these natural mysteries, it mediates also the mysterious freedom of the divine. 

For those who view the world as grounded wholly in natural processes and consequently devoid of divine mystery, a naturalistic sacramentalism may still find resonance. The mystery of nature is itself an empirical thesis which can be supported by evidence, and what is a naturalistic sacramentalism to the religiously faithful can be re-conceived as a sacramental naturalism, which in turn has the capacity to resonate with those who are methodologically committed naturalists.

These are, of course, two broad categorizations of what are realistically complex and nuanced views. Yet those who inhabit the overlapping disciplines of ecology and theology must sometimes navigate conflicting scientific and religious commitments. Ours is an age where, due to pragmatic benefits, an atomistic view of nature often prevails over against mythical-religious ones. Through embracing of both sacramental mystery and naturalistic realism, Berry offers a vision of the world which can navigate this tension and help to recapture the grace of nature.


Written By
More from Nathan Jumper