Today’s episode is with Dr. Ryan Hanning, a husband, father, scholar and homesteader. Dr. Hanning shares his insights on the connection between agriculture and personal integration, and how actively engaging with the earth has expanded his family’s capacity to appreciate the beautiful. While Aquinas’ definition of beauty is explained and other philosophical threads weave throughout the conversation, Dr. Hanning also offers some practical advice for how one can better position themselves so as to deepen their “taste” for that which sparks genuine desire and resolve.

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To start, Jimmy asks about Dr. Hanning’s backstory. Born and raised in Southern California, he moved to Arizona where he met his wife. They married, had their children, and then moved to TN this past year at a prayerful prompting.

Jimmy comments on how Hanning describes himself as a scholar and a homesteader – topics that arise consistently in the thread of their friendship. “A lot of people don’t know what homesteading means – so what’s it all about?” he asks.

“We’re novice homesteaders,” he says. “We brought our five goats from AZ to TN. Homesteading, essentially, is trying to enter into a place where we can appreciate and benefit from the land as gift, and then benefit from what it provides. It’s about being in right relationship with the land. . . Right now we have goats, sheep – every day we’re eating something we’ve harvested.”

Jimmy responds that he’s not freaked out by the concept. But he admits that if he didn’t know how smart, socialized, and well adjusted his children were – he’d probably just assume they were all hippies. “Is that a common misconception?” he asks.

“It is,” Ryan replies. “The difference is that we’re not rebelling against anything – we’re not running away from society. It’s not about a rebellion – it’s about a return. We want to participate with the earth in a way that’s consistent with our temperaments. My wife and I are both highly motivated, naturally anxious people  – can’t sit still. In the city you pour a lot of anxious energy into things that don’t deserve it. In the country it’s easier to distill your tasks…”

He emphasizes that this is what works for them temperamentally to achieve a sense of peace and engagement. “I’m not seeking to take from the earth, but to participate and benefit – as you would want to approach any healthy relationship.”

“What’s the connection between culture and agriculture?” Jimmy asks. “I’ve heard you can’t build culture, but you can enter into it – and the engagement causes transformation. But I’ve never fully understood the connection with agriculture. For those of us who are trying to be intentional consumers, what role or relationship should we have with the land – especially if we’re urban dwellers?”

“Agriculture is simply the belief that we ought to be in reciprocal relationship with that which provides for our daily needs. It’s at the root of how we fashion and understand what it means to be in relationship to the environment around us. To be happy and flourishing, you have to be able to participate with your environment,” Dr. Hanning responds. 

Hanning brings up Wendell Berry, who has deeply influenced his thoughts on this. Berry, in letters to Hanning, has said that the concept of being in business with the land is inaccurate. You don’t “take” anything from the earth. He says that this business mode pours into the way people approach relationships, as well, which is problematic. It’s the difference between a transactional versus a relational approach.

Jimmy asks, “What does it look like to have right relationship with culture on the everyday level? How do we build our innate capacity for beauty?”

Logic can convince; but when logic can’t convince, beauty can woo. Beauty is a type of understanding – a type of knowledge. We think of beauty has something that just happens to us – a pop of color we passively receive. Aquinas speaks of it as a way of knowing, though. So, what’s it communicating? Well, our intellect can resonate with truth. Our heart resonates with goodness. And beauty brings those two together: it integrates our intellect and our heart. This is the way Aquinas thinks about it. He inherited this concept from Greek philosophy as it’s been baptized in Christianity.” The Ancient Greeks approached the world with a dualistic mindset – physical forms and spiritual realms are forever separated by an endless chasm. Christianity integrated these concepts, much like beauty integrates truth and goodness.”  

Jimmy asks Ryan to give practical examples from his own life on how he cultivates a love for beauty in his own life. Ryan first describes a mundane, visceral component to beauty – the first level is simply the fact that it catches our senses. But for something to be truly beautiful, it has to also have integrity and radiance. Good music actually articulates what it’s about. It doesn’t try to sell you anything, it just presents itself. You just enter into it.

When you hear a song that you love, and you yearn to hear it again, that’s the first level of beauty. But on the deeper level, the music should tell you something about universal truths. On the deepest level, the music might even be able to inspire a listener to seek that which is transcendent – it moves them into a deeper place of encounter, and should inspire interior assimilation of other truths.

Hanning talks about how many things available in the media possess the first aspect of beauty – the aspect that’s pleasing to the senses. But much of it, despite its variety, doesn’t go beyond that. “When people aren’t satisfied, they don’t look for something deeper,” he says, in regards to the human tendency toward insatiability: “they just look for something different.”

Jimmy comments on how what we expose ourselves to inevitably shapes our tastes and desires – for better or for ill. He asks Ryan what his process is for sorting through the overwhelming amount of superficial media in order to find the good stuff.

“I think the key is this: we need to apply vigorous discipline toward what we consume. We need to ask people for their opinions of things before we consume them. We also need to just not be afraid when sharing our opinions – we need vulnerability.”

We should ask ourselves, after we encounter something, if we “left it more prepared for festivity (the celebration of leisure as community).”  If we haven’t, whatever we consumed may  have been a means of escapism more than anything else.

To close, Hanning suggests poetry as a gateway to experiencing the deeper levels of beauty. He also mentions some of his favorite authors – C.S. Lewis, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor. A movie that stirred a lot of questions for him was the recent movie Silence.


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