Wes Jackson and I spent a good part of 2019-20 working on two books—his collection of stories titled Hogs Are Up: Stories of the Land, with Digressions and my The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, which summarizes Jackson’s key ideas developed over the past half-century.
Those ideas include Natural Systems Agriculture—perennial grains grown in polycultures to replace the ecologically destructive annual grains in monocultures, which provide the majority of humans’ calories. Jackson’s distinctive contribution to a sustainable agriculture has been recognized with a MacArthur Fellowship, a Pew Conservation Scholar Award, and the Right Livelihood Award.
While writing and editing, we talked on the phone almost every day, and after the books were finished we decided to capture those exchanges for “Podcast from the Prairie.” Jackson’s insights about human affairs and the larger living world come alive in his stories, starting with his early life on a Kansas farm, through his academic work and teaching career, to his four decades of leadership in the sustainable agriculture movement at The Land Institute.
In this episode, “Methodism to My Madness,” Jackson discusses how he slowly moved away from his early experience of religion in his rural Kansas family but remained committed to understanding Christianity and religion more generally. In an often polarized debate, Jackson remains intrigued by religious faith, even though he counts himself as never more than a “five-eighths Christian.”
Conversation 4: Methodism to My Madness
Robert Jensen: For years you’ve said that there’s “Methodism to my madness,” a phrase that honors the Methodist church you attended with your family growing up, even though you no longer attend church and are not a believer in traditional terms. Let’s start with that history. Were you ever a good Methodist? Are you a Methodist today in any sense?
Wes Jackson: I’ve never been a good Methodist. I enjoyed Sunday school more than the church sermon. When I got old enough, I was allowed to sit in the back of the church with the other boys, and I would sometimes sneak out to the drugstore down the street there in North Topeka and read the comic books or stop at the service station that was close to the church. I got another kind of education there, which expanded my vocabulary. There was profanity, there were obscene stories, the kinds of things that countered what was going on in church.
RJ: What was fun about Sunday school?
WJ: The preaching in church was usually boring. I liked the Bible stories in Sunday school—David and Goliath, Absalom getting his hair caught up in the branches while riding a mule, the journey of Moses and those folks. They were good, interesting stories. And that interest carried over to when I was older. When I was at Kansas Wesleyan, I went on Sunday nights to MSM meetings, the Methodist Student Movement. It was fun to argue with the pre-ministerial students.
RJ: We’ll come back to the question of whether you’re a good Methodist today. But staying on your early experience, your mother seems to be the one in the family who was most committed to a religious worldview. How would you describe her faith? What did your mother believe in?
WJ: I think my mother was a serious Christian who believed the conventional story as told in the Bible. But she wasn’t a Holy Roller, one of those folks who feel under the influence of the Holy Spirit and get emotional in worship. She had little to do with those kinds of preachers. I think for her, faith had some real value, real utility. Her aunt Ida was the same way, not the emotional Holy Roller type. They saw what good could come out of it besides just your emotional connection to God.
RJ: Do you mean the good in terms of community solidarity, that kind of thing?
WJ: If you read the parables, for instance, you’ll find a lot of wisdom. If you take scripture seriously, it can cause you to be humbler, to be more attentive to proper conduct. That is what I mean by utility. Ecclesiastes is loaded with wisdom. So is the Book of Job. My mother not only didn’t go for speaking in tongues, but wasn’t much on praying publicly. The only prayers I ever heard from my mother were blessing the food. People forget that Jesus said we should only pray in private, not to show off. That’s right there in Matthew’s gospel. In the King James version, it says “enter into thy closet” to pray [Matthew 6:6]. The command is to pray in secret. When there’s praying in public, I’m always telling people that we ought to go into the closet like Jesus told us.
RJ: Your mother also was skeptical of movies and the new pop culture emerging back then. Do you know what led her to worry about that?
WJ: No, I don’t, and if she were alive today I would love to ask her. I was not allowed more than a couple of movies a year, and it wasn’t just movies she was wary about. I was never encouraged to join Boy Scouts, or even encouraged much to join 4-H [the program that develops farming and farm homemaking skills in kids]. I never went off to camp, even though other people sent their kids to camp. I thought it was because I had to stay home and work, but I think there was more to it. Maybe she saw it as the problem of the worldly, of getting on a path that she didn’t think was good for me. Now, she didn’t know that I was sneaking off to read comic books while the sermon was going on, or that I was stopping off at the service station to hear some language that wasn’t in church. I don’t know what she thought about some of these things, but I wish I knew.
RJ: Today, parents talk about limiting the screen time of their kids, keeping them off all these digital devices. Maybe your mother was just ahead of her time, worrying about too much screen time for kids.
WJ: I have thought about that, about how there is plenty in this world, right in front of us, to absorb without screens. That might be what my mother thought.
RJ: As you think back on your childhood, about the process of developing your own ideas, was there ever a time in which conventional Christian dogma had meaning for you? Did it ever put the hook in you?
WJ: It might have, but it didn’t last long. I tried to be a Christian and I would sort of work at it, especially in my late teens and very early 20s. I was asking a lot of questions about it, in part because there were a lot of people I respected who took Christianity seriously. And I have to say, I still take Christianity seriously in my own way. But at the same time, we had chickens and hogs and cows, and I saw those animals live and die, and I wondered how we were any different or why we should be different than those other creatures. But others believed so strongly that I wanted to understand it. I had a friend in college—we washed dishes together at the Pennant Cafe—who was super religious, so religious that he refused to sign up for the Army. They gave him every chance to file as a conscientious objector, but he refused that. I went to his hearing in Kansas City, and he was sent to the asylum [the Topeka State Hospital, for the mentally ill]. There was something about him that made me wonder, how can he be such a devoted believer? The fact that I bothered to go down and see that hearing tells me that I was taking him seriously, this guy who was taking Christianity far more seriously than I was.
RJ: It sounds as if you were interested in his motivation. You were curious about the kind of faith that could lead to that level of commitment.
WJ: That’s right. I had another friend in college at Kansas Wesleyan who was a serious Christian and who didn’t like, let’s just say, the range of my vocabulary. He thought it would help me if I were to set up space in the dorm where I could get the Bible out and have a candle, to enhance my spiritual life. I didn’t try it, but he was serious about being a believer and he was that kind of a person until his death. I went to his wedding way out in western Kansas. I counted him as a good friend, a thoughtful guy. We went to the same Methodist church in the north end of Salina. So, it wasn’t as though I was in rebellion. But I just couldn’t quite bend all the way into Christianity and stay that way.
RJ: Kansas Wesleyan University, where you did your undergraduate degree, is a Methodist college. Were there faculty or pastors on campus who had an influence on you?
WJ: The Reverend W.E. Cassell, professor of religion and Bible, was one I remember most clearly. He was important in my education, and I put a picture of him in this book of mine, Hogs Are Up. One day I said to him, “Brother Cassell, do you believe that when you die you’re going to get siphoned off and go live with Jesus in heaven forever?” He said to me, “Wesley, I have never liked the way you ask a question, but no, I don’t believe that. But I do believe that values are eternal.” Well, that was useful to me, and it was pleasing to know that a professor of religion and Bible did not think he was going to actually live with Jesus. Brother Cassell also used to greet me on occasion with, “Good morning, Wesley, what is the condition of your soul this morning?” Well, I would always have to think about that. This kind of attention to spiritual life was of interest to me.
RJ: The story of Brother Cassell suggests that religious belief in rural Kansas wasn’t unitary, that, like anywhere, people had a range of interpretations of the text and the tradition. You mentioned your book, Hogs Are Up. (By the way, I’m not going to explain the title. People will have to read the book to find out what that phrase means.) In the book, you write about teaching an adult Sunday school class at a Methodist church in Salina, after you had finished grad school and moved back to teach at Kansas Wesleyan. Tell that story.
WJ: This was a class for young adults, mostly married couples and a few single people, and one morning I decided to take them through the Apostle’s Creed step by step. I had grown up with the creed and knew it: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Well, I stopped there and asked how many in the group believed in the virgin birth. The couples started looking at one another, and a few hands went up all the way, and a few only chest-high. So, I moved on. “Suffered under Pontius Pilate.” No problem there. Crucified. Yes, that one people accepted. Died and buried, yes. “On the third day he rose from the dead.” More nervous glances around the room. “Ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” More nervousness. Most of them couldn’t say they believed in those things as literal truths. I finally stopped and asked them, if so many of us don’t believe these things, why is this our creed? Why do we say this in church?
RJ: How did that go over?
WJ: I remember one person coming to me, a woman who had been having emotional problems, and someone had told her to get into a church. She was crying and said, “Now you’ve taken everything away from me.” That hit me with some force, and I felt bad about that, and so I told the preacher. All he had to say was that I shouldn’t be teaching that class and shouldn’t even be in the church. I don’t remember if I resigned or was kicked out, but that was my last time I taught that Sunday school class, even though all I was doing was asking questions about our statement of faith.
RJ: That brings up two interesting things. One is that a lot of people who consider themselves Christian don’t really believe in the supernatural claims, such as a virgin birth or the resurrection, as literal historical events. The second is about doubt, which some people argue is an important part of faith. Paul Tillich, a theologian with considerable standing, said, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” But it sounds like the minister didn’t necessarily agree, or at least didn’t want you spreading doubt.
WJ: That preacher was a smart enough fellow, and I don’t know why he wanted to cut me off. Preachers are like all of us, tempted to take the easy path. Around that same time, I had a lot of friends in Salina who went to a Presbyterian church, which had a minister they really loved. They told me that I should come to hear him. Well, I went one time and sat up in the balcony and I thought, yeah, he’s a pretty smart guy, saying a lot of good things. And then, when I figured out where the sermon was heading, I said to myself, “Yeah, preacher, go get ‘em.” But at the end, he let up, he didn’t push the radical message that would have challenged us, and everybody walked away comfortable. I told my friends that I thought it was a great sermon until he got to where it really counted, what the implications of the scripture were. If we are our brother’s keeper, what does that mean about the poverty and racism right around the corner in Salina? The platitudes are fine, but what do they mean if we can’t even talk about what’s going on right here? But he didn’t ask us to think about that. It was like he let up on the accelerator when it was going to get hard. Well, my friends told me to give him another chance, which I did, but it was the same thing, steering away at the end from challenging the congregation.
RJ: Are you are still engaged with Christianity, even if not as a true believer.
WJ: I continue to be interested in a lot of the Bible, both the Hebrew and the Christian parts. I find myself thinking about the concept of exile, for example, of a people wandering or lost. The Bible is interesting on its own merits, and it brings up things remembered from my past. So, I’m not going to throw it all overboard. I’m a Darwinian evolutionary biologist, but I don’t have any anger, or even irritation, toward all those folks who hold onto a two-sphere world, where there is heaven and earth. I am just trying to take the best of those scriptures and apply them in the modern world.
RJ: You often describe yourself as a five-eighths Christian. That is, you agree with about five-eighths of what’s in the Bible. I take that to mean that you don’t believe in divine creation of the human species or any of the supernatural claims of an orthodox Christianity. But the rest is OK with you?
WJ: I don’t think we ought to create male sky gods, though a lot of people seem to need to have some three-dimensional representation. I look at the universe as being full of all kinds of creativity. I see the Earth as having given rise to us. That required a lot of things to be just right. We had to have a sun, at a certain distance from us, with a certain tilt of the earth to give us the seasons. All of that is just an amazing creation. Right now, there’s an ant crawling along the ledge in front of me. Just think about this one fact, that this ant and an 80-foot whale out in the ocean both use the same citric acid cycle to get energy from food. It’s the same metabolic pathway. How did we come to know that? We didn’t come to know it out of the reading of the scriptures. We came to know that as a result of something far humbler, from folks called scientists. Starting back in 1660 with the Royal Society in London, scientists embraced verification, the idea that you trust no one’s opinion without evidence. And through a kind of collective thought, a collective investigation over time, we get that knowledge about the citric acid cycle. But out of science came also the Industrial Revolution and a lot of things that are dangerous, like all the toxic chemicals. With both religion and science, you have pluses and minuses.
RJ: For science, the ideal is that no claim is accepted without evidence. You point out that in Christianity, which is the religious tradition you’re most familiar with, there’s an elevation of faith without evidence. In the gospel of John, Thomas has demanded proof that Jesus was really resurrected, which Thomas gets. Then Jesus says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” [John 20:29]. That suggests those who believe without evidence have an advantage. What role does faith play in our lives?
WJ: Well, that’s a tough one, partly because we use the word in different ways. I might say that I have faith that the sun will come up in the morning, but that’s based on evidence. A digression: We say that even though we all know the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. “The sun comes up” is a stupid statement, but one I am totally comfortable with. Now, back to faith. I act as if I have faith in some medications my doctor gives me to deal with a medical problem. I take them, which is an act of a kind of faith, but I also am aware of the potential cost, about what might go wrong. There are no such things as side effects, there are only effects. We call them “side effects” to reduce our anxiety. Those are different ways to use the word faith, other than meaning a belief in something for which there is no evidence.
RJ: A lot of scientists, probably the vast majority, would classify themselves as atheists. They share your focus on claims-with-evidence over claims-by-faith. Some who are part of what’s been called the “new atheist” movement, such as Richard Dawkins, mount a pretty vigorous attack against religion, to the point of being disrespectful of people with faith. Do you find yourself wanting to defend people of faith?
WJ: Well, yes. I have a lot of friends who, while they may not be 100% Christian in doctrine, are farther along in that journey to faith than I. I also have good friends who believe the Bible is inerrant. And so, one has to be careful. I’ve said many times that I don’t know what I think until I know what my friends think. There are certain people I trust to shoot straight with me. I may not agree with everything they believe, but their opinions are important to me. You know, we’re not either this or that, atheist or believer. We are many things all mixed up together.
RJ: In other words, to get through the day takes more than just a focus on evidence. We’re creatures with both a rational capacity and an emotional component, maybe some would call it spiritual. Do you accept a spiritual dimension to life?
WJ: I’ve never really understood what the word spiritual means, even though lots of people have tried to explain it to me. I don’t know what level of existence that term is trying to name. When I get up in the morning, I can identify whether my spirits are high or low, but talking about our moods isn’t usually what people mean by spiritual. Let me try a little different approach to this. If humans are to make it much longer, I think it’s going to be important to reevaluate what really counts in our lives. I think that being in a community and having a culture that fosters community is the way forward, not just piling up more stuff produced by the Industrial Revolution. There are some who want to be among the elect, in a material sense. They go off to a good college for a good education, and then they head for Wall Street. For some, the goal is to be rich or famous, or both. I think those people are following the false prophets of our time, the prophets who go for profit. Other people will want to be part of a community. The attraction of community is always there, but the temptations to turn away from community also are always there. Faith is going to have to be about sticking with the community good. And we can also come back to spirituality and feeling. When I see some trees coming into bloom in the early spring, and my spirit is lifted at the beauty of it all, am I having a spiritual experience? Maybe not in the sense that a lot of the folk may have spiritual experiences, but so what? On this, I think life is just too complicated to slap a label on people. There’s too much at work that we can’t understand.
RJ: You are a biologist, a botanist, a geneticist. You know a lot about life on this planet, more than the average person. But you have said that when you see life unfold, you aren’t usually thinking about it as a scientist. You’re in the middle of an experience of it. That flower opens up, the clouds roll in, and you have an experience that is beyond the science. What label would you put on that?
WJ: That’s about going beyond mere utility. The world may have utility value for us, but we also can see beyond that. When people are sick or sad about the loss of a loved one, they may see a sunrise or trees in bloom and see the beauty, and it lifts their spirits. There’s healing value, I think, in the perception of beauty. This is why the arts are so important. If we are so utilitarian that we can be talked out of the idea of beauty, I think we all suffer. Is that religion or just a commonsensical way to operate in the world and appreciate life? I don’t know. What I do know is that, for me, it’s hard to separate spirit from flesh.
RJ: You are saying that you’re not going to accept anything as true without evidence, but that there’s a whole lot about being alive on this planet for which evidence is inadequate. There is just too much happening for us to ever assume we will have the evidence to make absolute claims. Is that a fair summary?
WJ: Well, yes. Look, I could never get to the level of understanding the big bang—whether there was a big bang, how it happened, any of the details. For an awful lot of what I “know,” I am just relying on those people who know, and who are being checked by others who are comparable in their capabilities. That’s how I know how stars are born, how the elements in our bodies were cooked in some dying star. I have faith in the scientists who have a way of knowing similar to mine, even though we work in very different fields. I also know that some of them are going to be changing their minds, but that doesn’t undermine my faith in the process. We are counting on human minds to be at work, all together, to be as open as possible to a very complex reality in order to understand that reality the best we can. It will be messy. Science isn’t about eliminating the messiness. It’s about embracing it.
RJ: You have friends who are secular and friends who hold onto religious traditions. It seems to me that what’s most important to you is not whether or not people sign up for a religion, but whether they can hold onto humility in whatever belief system they have. Is humility the key virtue for you, whether one is religious or secular?
WJ: Once we lose humility, we’re on the journey toward a disruption of order. I don’t know if this will help or not, but I have good friends who are Amish. I could never be Amish because I cannot adopt all their beliefs. A big part of their ability to maintain community life is their belief in a relationship to God, which is not my belief. A derivative of their way of thinking is a coherence within their communities. One Amish friend told me that if he were to get sick, he could count on eight different teams of horses from the community that would be in his field to help. That same Amish man told me about one day putting in his neighbor’s barn a cutting of hay. When I complimented him on his generosity, he said, “Well, you know what I got out of it? I got the use of his stallion and eight loads of manure.” And so, there was nothing lost within that community. But what caused him to do that? For him, it was a Christian act, loving his neighbor as he loved himself. It’s easy to admire that. If I tried to live in that community, I would have to dump a lot of what I have become and I don’t want to do that. Had I been born into that community, maybe I would go along with it all. I have thought about how we could bring that spirit to a more secular society. That’s a big question for me. And, of course, you find religious communities that break down, too. Humans are wily creatures, and it hard to pin us down. All I know is that I don’t have to want to be Amish for some of my best friends to be Amish folks.
RJ: You see no need to argue theology with your Amish friends?
WJ: That’s right. Back to Richard Dawkins’ style. I’m a Darwinian evolutionary biologist, but I don’t see any need to be aggressive like Dawkins about Darwinian evolution. There is a lot more subtlety in the way the human mind works, and I don’t like absolutes. People ask me, are you an atheist? My answer is that I don’t know enough to be an atheist. Am I agnostic? Well, I guess so, but I don’t much like these labels. We should be moving through the world being watchful, doing our best to make the most sense of the world we can, rather than living within lines of belief and adopting someone else’s absolutes.
RJ: You have lived outside of Kansas for short periods of time, but you always found your way back. You have connections to people of faith in Kansas. You celebrate your roots and take every opportunity to remind people that you’re a farm boy from Kansas. Today, the labels “rural Kansas, small town, Christian” lead most people, especially in urban areas, to assume that means a very conservative politics and a Christianity that is not respectful of other religious traditions. Does that cause you any pain, to know that the culture out of which you come is now seen by much of the world as reactionary?
WJ: Yes, it troubles me. I try to remember the complexity. Native peoples were cleared out to allow white settlement of Kansas, and at the same time it’s true that a whole lot of those early white Kansans took a moral position when it was formed, as a free state and a challenge to slavery. So, Kansas is complex like everywhere else. And without excusing intolerance, we have to understand that people in small towns and rural communities have suffered because of the economic imperative that has pushed bigness over community health. Drive around not only Kansas but the Midwest generally and you’ll see a way of life, of small communities that were once viable, destroyed. We have to see the role of the larger society in a lot of our problems out here in so-called fly-over country. Are some people in Kansas voting against their own interests when they support right-wing politics? Yes, in a way they are, but they are caught in a tough spot, and that’s painful for me. This is my home. I’ve been in universities to give a talk and had some professor say to me, “Why are you in Kansas?” as if living here is some kind of punishment. Well, I’m here because I want to be here.
RJ: You don’t mind being critical of the contemporary politics of Kansas, but when you drive around rural Kansas and see a small town with all those buildings boarded up, you feel a loss. Do you want to blame the larger economic forces that destroyed that town?
WJ: We’re all responsible for our choices, of course, and I’m not excusing bad behavior or mean-spirited politics. But I do not blame Kansans for our predicament so much as I blame the power structure that takes care of itself without caring about the ecological and economic catastrophe out our way.
RJ: My last question brings us back to “the Methodism in my madness,” and my first question that you didn’t fully answer. Is there a sense in which it’s accurate to say that Wes Jackson, today, is still a Methodist?
WJ: Well, I do have a method, a way of knowing, one based on information that’s verifiable. So, I suppose I’m a methodist, of a certain kind.
RJ: I’m not going to let you off the hook. You’ve acknowledged that the rational aspect of the human mind seeks evidence and logical explanation. But no matter how developed that can be in any one of us, there’s a whole lot more to life than that. We have experiences that don’t reduce to evidence and logic. So, is it useful to say that you are still a Methodist in some sense that your mother would recognize?
WJ: I suppose I would have to say yes. I’m no longer a Methodist in any sort of formal way, but I am paying as much attention to the scriptures as lot of my friends who attend church, sometimes more attention. So, I’m a Methodist in the sense that I still value that wisdom. I was at a funeral a few years ago, in a small-town Methodist church that was likely to close down before long. I was looking at the Methodist hymnal in the pew, and I was tempted to take it home, to steal it, because I thought it might come in handy and I figured they wouldn’t miss it. But I didn’t take it. So, what does all that mean, both my wanting the book and not taking it? I guess I don’t mind calling myself a Methodist in recovery or something.
RJ: I grew up in a Presbyterian church and, like you, I left traditional Christianity behind pretty early. But every now and then, I will remember a prayer or a hymn from my early experience. The most common one is the doxology—“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”—and the words will come to me out of the blue, and it will cause me to pause and ponder, sometimes even to tear up. Does that ever happen to you? Do you have a favorite verse from scripture or a favorite prayer, a favorite hymn that has stayed with you?
WJ: There are a lot of them that come up. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help,” or “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, but time and chance happen to them all.” These things just pop up, unbidden many times, and it can be very moving. You don’t know where it comes from or why right then. In a way, it comes as a gift. I’m not going to turn away from that. Maybe that’s why I count myself a five-eighths Christian, a Sermon on the Mount, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” kind of Christian. But that doesn’t mean that I accept the whole thing. There is really no way for us humans to really accept it all. Probably even the most devout of Christians will find parts of it that they don’t understand and therefore would be willing to reject if somebody could explain it in a way that would allow them to reject it.
RJ: You told the story of being chased out of teaching Sunday school in Salina by a Methodist minister years ago. I want to correct that injustice. By the power vested in me by this podcast, I restore your membership in the Methodist church and declare that Wes Jackson is now a Methodist in good standing.
WJ: So, I’m no longer five-eighths? Am I eight-eighths now?
RJ: God doesn’t deal in fractions, my son. If that’s not in scripture, I think it should be.
WJ: Well, what about the Earth? Does the Earth deal in fractions?
RJ: I don’t know. All I can say is go forward and sin no more.
WJ: Alright. And we’ll preach the gospel to every creature.
Jackson and Jensen are coauthors of the forthcoming book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, to be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in fall 2022.
The transcripts of “Podcast from the Prairie” will be published as an open-access online book by New Perennials Publishing later in 2022.