All of human life is lived between two worlds. God has placed us on this earth as wayfarers on a pilgrimage—where we are meant to work, pray, and love—although we are meant ultimately for a world beyond. The Second Letter of Peter sums up this future hope and the passing nature of this world: “We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home (3:11-13).
The place of the Christian, lived between two worlds, has become true in another way in recent times. Human culture has changed so profoundly in the last one hundred years that we are almost living in a new world compared to all the rest of history. We have seen profound changes in family life, education, economics, healthcare, science and technology, and the list could go on. In the midst of this change, Christians must maintain a pilgrim focus on the next world, while serving the needs of the ever-changing world in which we find ourselves.
I would like to focus on one particular change: the decline in the role of the family farm in society and its replacement by technology.
Here is one example detailing the shift away from farm life from the historical overview of North Dakota provided by the State Historical Society:
Perhaps the most striking change, however, is reflected by a 1987 census figure. According to census estimates, more North Dakotans now live in cities and towns than in rural areas, an alteration with dramatic implications for the structure of the state’s economy and the composition of its government.
It’s amazing how recently the change from a rural life to an urban one has hit North Dakota. The family farm has now suddenly disappeared, as it still comprises 98 percent of all farms in the United States, and agriculture remains strong in North Dakota, as the state remains the number one producer in America of roughly nine crops. What is at stake, however, is the role of the family farm in shaping American culture and society.
Back in 1977 the noted architect Christopher Alexander, in his classic work Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction speaks of the general trend of Americans leaving the farm as the primary occupation and formative location:
During the last 30 years, 30 million rural Americans have been forced to leave their farms and small towns and migrate to crowded cities. This forced migration continues at a rate of 800,000 people a year. The families that are left behind are not able to count of a future living in the country…. And it is not purely the search for jobs that has led people away from towns to the cities. It is also a search for information, for connection to the popular culture…. Unless steps are taken to recharge the life of country towns, the cities will swamp those towns which lie the nearest to them; and will rob those which lie furthest out of their most vigorous inhabitants (34).
Alexander’s prediction rings true: America may remain an enormous agricultural producer, rooted in the strength of family farms, but this reality remains very distant from most of the population as cities are overcrowding the influence of rural society.
Why does the declining influence of agriculture on American culture matter? The most fundamental reason is that our human identity itself is rooted in the land. As biblical scholar and Benedictine sister, Marielle Frigge, notes: “With Hebrew wordplay, Genesis describes God forming humans (adam) out of earth or dirt (adamah). Again, two words that share the same root are used to show that humans have much in common with earth, clary, or dirt” (Beginning Biblical Studies, 92). Immediately after making Adam “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). This reflects the fact that we are rooted in the earth and meant to have contact with it as part of the mission intended by God to shape and subdue the earth. Our rootedness in the land is the very foundation of our life and culture.
This is why Pope Benedict XVI sees the decline of the social influence of the family farm as a threat to human culture:
The rural family needs to regain its rightful place at the heart of the social order. The moral principles and values which govern it belong to the heritage of humanity and must take priority over legislation. They are concerned with individual conduct, relations between husband and wife and between generations, and the sense of family solidarity. Investment in the agricultural sector has to allow the family to assume its proper place and function, avoiding the damaging consequences of hedonism and materialism that can place marriage and family life at risk.
The role of the family farm is to provide a spiritually and morally nurturing environment for families, an education that is broader and more personally formative than the classroom. This vision sees agriculture as a force to strengthen the family and that the family in turn strengthens moral and religious values. The noted Catholic writer on sexual issues and family life, Mary Eberstadt, draws these connections together in an interview about her book, How the West Really Lost God:
The Industrial Revolution, historians agree, disrupted family life as never before. It uprooted people from the countryside and sent many into the cities looking for work. This both split people off from their extended families and created new pressures on family formation, because … urbanization arguably makes family formation more difficult…. By no coincidence, religious practice in many Western precincts declines dramatically exactly alongside rising divorce rates and cohabitation rates and fertility decline and other proxies for the sexual revolution. Again, religious decline and family decline go hand in hand and operate as a double helix.
As less and less children grow up on family farms, they are more subject to the social forces that assail the family in urban and suburban environments. In this new environment family members become more segregated from one another, lacking a common purpose and home centered economics to draw them together. The family has become more isolated, fractured, and, over time, secular.
This leads us to the second part of the argument. With the loss of land and farm as the grounding structure of society, what has taken their place? As we see around us more and more, it is the influence of technology. As millions of people moved from farms to cities, there was another profound change occurring in American culture: the move from the dominance of the written word to that of the image. This has changed the way we communicate, and even more profoundly, the way that we think. Though this revelation began with film and TV, it has only drastically increased with the rise of the internet.
Nicholas Carr’s recent bestseller, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, reflects on the unintended consequences of a digital culture. When we become overly reliant on technology, not only in our work, but also in our personal life, we become less alert and attentive, less thoughtful and interactive with the world around us. After examining the effects of automation on aviation and medicine, among other things, he turns to agriculture as the conclusion of his work. Carr contrasts manual labor with an overreliance on technology. “Labor,” he says, is “a way of seeing the world face-to-face rather than through a glass. Action un-mediates perception, gets us close to a thing itself. It binds us to the earth” (213-14). Contrast that with “the digital technologies of automation,” which “pull us away from the world. That’s a consequence not only of the prevailing technology-centered design practices that place ease and efficiency above all other concerns. It also reflects the fact that, in our personal lives, the computer has become a media device, its software painstakingly programmed to grab and hold our attention” (219). Technology is making us disengaged with others and our natural and cultural setting.
Pope Benedict strikes the right balance in helping us to evaluate the promise and threat of technology in our culture.
Today many young people, stunned by the infinite possibilities offered by computer networks or by other forms of technology, establish methods of communication that do not contribute to their growth in humanity. Rather they risk increasing their sense of loneliness and disorientation. In the face of these phenomena I have spoken on various occasions of an educational emergency, a challenge to which one can and should respond with creative intelligence, committing oneself to promote a humanizing communication which stimulates a critical eye and the capacity to evaluate and discern.
Technology can and should serve our well-being, but many times it does just the opposite, by isolating us and drawing us into an artificial experience. Pope Benedict sees the answer in education, responding to what he calls an emergency, by teaching young people how to use technology in a human way. As a professor of theology and Catholic Studies at the University of Mary, I see this as central to my own vocation. We need to teach youth how to preserve the legacy of our culture and to creatively and dynamically continue it on today, with all of the opportunities and challenges that have been presented to us.
What conclusion can we draw from this consideration of the importance of family farms and the dominance of new technology? For one, we cannot set back the clock, but must decide how to use our new technology in healthy and moral ways that will strengthen our relationships and enhance our work. Second, the family farm is experiencing many new challenges and needs to be recognized for its importance for North Dakota and our country. We should intentionally support family farms through economic practices and legislation. Third, we can maintain the ideals of the family farm—its moral and spiritual values, its common work and connection to nature—and use technology wisely to strengthen this way of life.
Part of the legacy of the farm is a spiritual vision of the farmer, a way of seeing the world as a vocation to shape the earth, working in communion with others, especially the family. Pope Francis pointed to the beauty of this vocation: “The farmer’s staying on the land is not standing still, it is having a dialogue, a fruitful dialogue, a creative dialogue. It is man’s dialogue with his land which makes it blossom, makes it fruitful for all of us.” Making the earth and our lives fruitful is the best way to make use of this world, as we continue our pilgrimage on to the new heavens and the new earth.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Taking Pumpkins to Market” was painted by Walt Curlee.