January 18, 2021

Wendell Berry on Knowing and Believing

CF River 1

I’m going to take a little time off from writing this week. To be honest, I’m tired and more than a little ready for a break.

So, what we’ll do instead of listening to me for the next few days is hear and discuss quotes from Wendell Berry’s 2015 book, Our Only World: Ten Essays. On these weeks of the U.S. political national conventions, I escape to Berry to find fresh air to breathe. Fitting in neither of the binary categories our system seems to want to impose upon us, Berry is a refreshing. And in the context of the information barrage we’re subjected to every day, here is a quiet, insistent voice of wisdom rising up from the land and local experience.

• • •

There is an always significant difference between knowing and believing. We may know that the earth turns, but we believe, as we say, that the sun rises. We know by evidence, or by trust in people who have examined the evidence in a way that we trust is trustworthy. We may sometimes be persuaded to believe by reason, but within the welter of our experience reason is limited and weak. We believe always by coming, in some sense, to see. We believe in what is apparent, in what we can imagine or “picture” in our minds, in what we feel to be true, in what our hearts tell us, in experience, in stories— above all, perhaps, in stories.

We can, to be sure, see parts and so believe in them. But there has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth. Genesis is right: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The phrase “be alone” is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.

We are thus as likely to be wrong in what we know as in what we believe.

From “Paragraphs from a Notebook” (2010)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays


  1. Christiane says

    Get some rest, Chaplain MIKE. God Bless!

  2. If what Berry and so many others have said is true, how is it that logic and reason came to have such a mythological hold (pun intended) over our collective consciousness? Even now, I hear the Enlightenment half of my brain screaming for the primacy of logic and rationality, of seeing before believing…

    • Robert F says

      But it seems to me that sometimes we have to “believe” in order to see; isn’t logic itself something that we’re taught to see, to believe? Something handed on to us by a communal tradition, shaped in ages and ages of human experience, and taught to us by those we trust are telling the truth?

      • The assumption is that logic is like mathematics and the existence of Greenland – once discovered and proven, it is objective and applicable to all without any cultural context involved.

        • Robert F says

          Nevertheless, logic, like mathematics, is a taught way of seeing the world. That it’s more correlative and predictive in certain respects than other ways of seeing does not mean that it is not a way of seeing the world that is taught, and that requires an approach that narrows down what one is seeing to certain questions and answers. Without the framework of interests worked out into germane investigative questions and possible answers, it’s impossible to actually see anything, even visually. We need to learn what information to exclude, as well as what to include, when we seek answers based on logical and scientific investigation, otherwise we shall see a lot of undifferentiated phenomena that mean nothing to us. Greenland itself is a constantly changing phenomenon, and certain characteristics of this phenomenon must be selectively packaged together to provide the set of characteristics that we call Greenland, which is a very complex meaning-package.

      • –> “But it seems to me that sometimes we have to ‘believe’ in order to see…”

        I think a few of the things Jesus says would back that up. (I’m thinking how the parables make sense to some, but mean nothing to those who don’t believe.)

        Heck, I think the fact some of us see God in nature all around while others don’t is a case in point.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > how is it that logic and reason came to have such a mythological hold

      Indeed. And especially ironic as we see so little of both; I doubt anyone would accuse popular culture or our political parties of “intellectual rigor”. Yet we appeal to these things – especially reasonableness – constantly.

      Or “being reasonable” has nothing to do with “reason”. It is so confusing sometimes trying to determine what people mean by what they say [and often it is hard not to doubt if *they* know].

    • brianthedad says

      I’m reading a book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, that has really shed some light on how we make decisions, specifically moral decisions and the role reason plays in that. it’s a very interesting read. One of the quotes that sticks with me: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” He discusses how reason is often the servant of intuition. Its job is to rationalize the decision intuitively made. It’s a really good book, easy to read, even for someone without a background in psychology.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        >Its job is to rationalize the decision intuitively made

        Certainly true. And why it so often betrays us in a world/society/economy grown far too complex for the layer of intuition to effectively grasp.

      • Brian, this is what I discovered while studying calculus in college. Reason, or logic, is just a “tool” that is used to solve a problem, but first you have to intuit the solution. Without the ability to intuit, or SEE, the solution you are lost. That is why I only made it through two semesters…

      • “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

        Seems reasonable. 🙂 Seriously though, I see this in myself all the time, particularly with regard to my recent and ongoing “faith shift”.

        • Robert F says

          Intuitions and interest come first; if we have no interest in the issues at stake in raising the question, we will not raise the question. We pursue a course of inquiry because we have some interest that we’re seeking.

    • Learning logic and reason and rhetoric was one of the first things that set me from the controlling influence of my cult pastor. No longer did I just have to accept as truth (“faith”) what he taught. Now I could say no and listen and make judgements and be convinced and see if what he said was actually truth. Turns out, it was all lies. And I believed them. So I stopped.

      • Robert F says

        Yes, they can shed light on lies. But they are learned languages and techniques, that are narrated to us by traditions. People sometimes say that logical problems and their solutions are non-narrative; but actually, they are stripped down narratives, used in posing certain kinds of questions, investigating certain kinds of issues, and arriving at possible answers framed by the concerns of involved in those questions and issues. Logical syllogisms tell a story; that the story is highly predictive of and correlative to objective realities outside the framework of the narrative does not nullify the fact that they are narratives.

      • Robert F says

        You’re packing a suitcase for a place
        None of us has been
        A place that has to be believed
        To be seen…

  3. I heard someone say this long ago and it stuck in my brain: “It isn’t what we don’t know that can hurt us, it’s what we do know that isn’t so.”

  4. Robert F says

    It rained overnight —
    now everything is wet, and
    waiting for the sun.

  5. Burro [Mule] says

    I don’t think I ever made a decision in my life that wasn’t, at its root, an aesthetic one.

    Maybe that’s my problem.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Maybe that’s my problem.

      Or maybe it isn’t a problem.

      After reflecting on my life and realizing I’ve made some ***really*** dumb decisions I try to make my quantifiable decisions using a spreadsheet. ‘Just the facts mam’. It means you choose the boring or non-sexy option almost all the time. 🙁 Or, more often than not, you choose not to do anything – considering spending in terms of TCO/ROI clearly demonstrates that most spending does not buy anything.

  6. What river is that in the photo? It’s beautiful.

    • Cumberland River, above Cumberland Falls in eastern KY.

      • Christiane says

        ” When despair for the world grows in me
        and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
        I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water,
        and the great heron feeds.
        I come into the peace of wild things
        who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
        I come into the presence of still water.
        And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
        For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
        (Wendell Berry)

        Chaplain MIKE, I hope you enjoy this week’s respite. May you chance to ‘come into the presence of still water’. God Bless.

  7. I thought Mondays were Mondays with Michael? Not that I don’t like this…I do…love thinking about these things.
    Just wondering.

  8. –> “There is an always significant difference between knowing and believing.”


    –> “We are thus as likely to be wrong in what we know as in what we believe.”

    I just finished reading “The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs” (based upon recommendation here at iMonk). Great book.

    What I’m thinking, or maybe wondering, is if “knowing” is actually a “belief that’s become a certainty in our mind.” In other words, could this “knowing” be the sin that Enns is talking about, when a belief becomes a certainty, and suddenly becomes something we hold onto too dearly…?

    Belief involves trust, maybe…?

    And in “knowing” (or rather, maybe, “NEEDING to know”), we lose that sense of trust…?

    • Dana Ames says


      My experience has led me to believe 🙂 that the best translation for “pistis” that carries its real meaning in Greek is not “faith” or even “belief”, but rather “trusting loyalty.” Mentally substitute that for all those “faith” places as you are reading your Bible. This reading posits no conflict between “faith” and “works” – if one is trustingly loyal, that will manifest itself naturally in how one acts.

      Here’s another: Substitute “the ability to live and relate the way God wants” (or whatever other iteration of that makes sense) for all those “righteousness” and “justice” words, esp in Paul. They’re all actually from the same Greek root, “dik-“. Translating them as separate words makes the meaning opaque, rather than clarifying it. If that “dik-” word is describing God, it would be something like “the way God relates in love and mercy.”

      Sometimes a “word-for-word” translation does not deliver the Meaning. It’s the Meaning that we need to reach when we read Scripture. It’s possible to read the Bible without the forensic overlay that makes us think we need to be saved from God.


      • Thank you for this, I always suspected that faith was not an intellectual matter, but a heart matter – this confirms it.

  9. Faith only makes sense in the context or cradle of love. Where there is no love faith is illogical and rightfully disdained by the unbeliever as nonsensical.

    • Beautifully said, Chris. I hope you don’t mind if I borrow this.

    • Rick Ro. says

      I think that’s a interesting comment, too!

      –> “Where there is no love faith is illogical and rightfully disdained by the unbeliever as nonsensical.”

      So let’s put on the God hat a second. There was (is) no love coming toward Him, yet he loved us. It was (is) illogical.

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