That to be dead to oneself is to be alive to the work.

Finally it all comes back to the problem of the self. Blake spoke of Satan the Selfhood. What the Amish are trying to do is lose themselves.

I’m curious how religion or religious narratives play into this, because the idea of God, or of man and his relationship to God—it’s a deferential relationship. It’s about the dissolution of the self, in a way.

Well, you can’t carry on this conversation very long without talking about religion, because you’re talking about the life of the soul, which then enlivens such words as love. I mean, if we submit to the scientific definition of love, that leaves us with something glandular that has a completely arbitrary existence. So we’re trying so often, it seems to me, to use a language we have sort of topped, as we might top a tree, chopping off the top branches. Without soul and love, those words that are enabled by religion, then we’re reduced to a choiceless biological existence.

Or at least a joyless one.


Were your parents very religious?

Yes, but not dogmatically so. I attended church under protest. I disliked enclosure, and as I came to consciousness I objected to the belittlement of earthly life I heard too often—but not from my parents. I heard the King James Version quoted and read, and I’m still attached to it. To me, it’s not just an influence on English, some of that is English. What Ruth says to Naomi? And Luke’s passage about the birth of Jesus, and John’s account of Mary’s visit to the tomb—my goodness, that’s my language.

I tried to get along without it, because I thought I was going to be a modern person. But you can’t think about the issues we’re talking about without finally having to talk about mystery. You’ll finally have to talk about the commitment that doesn’t see any end. That’s a life that you are not going to be able to prescribe, that finally you’re not in charge of. I think my dad was speaking religiously when he said, “I’ve had a wonderful life and I’ve had nothing to do with it.” That was a submission. It’s an important word and well, for instance, if you’re not going to submit to the labor of justice, there’s no use in going around talking about distributive justice.

What’s your relationship to the church these days?

I go in bad weather, and am glad to. You can’t not be interested in the church and live out here. It’s an influence. What people are hearing there affects this place, and that isn’t acknowledged enough. Tanya is a very good church person. I go up there and that place is full of ghosts for me. I can look at those pews and see my grandfather, and his friends, and others who are dear and close to me still. I’m sitting there very often with my children or my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren. But the gospels, for me, were not a church discovery. I had finally to carry them into the woods and read them there in order to see my need for them.

Again, that idea of submission, it’s cultural poison—

We really have to turn against the selfishness of the individualism that sees everybody as a competitor of everybody else. When we see how destructive that is, and we turn against it, then we have our life’s work.