Shit and what you do with it is like an ecological Rorschach test—how we treat it tells us whether we are in a society of waste or a society of flourishing.1 Shit, more than food, is the stuff that ties us into the network of nutrients that make up the ecosystem in which we live. And yet we deny shit. We flush it away, treat it, and dispose of it like trash. In doing so, we turn the food we eat into a linear process—one of extraction rather than renewal. It doesn’t have to be this way.
F. H. King, an agronomist working in the early part of the twentieth century, traveled to Asia to understand the incredible agricultural productivity that Asian farmers had been able to achieve for millennia. What he found was a system of agriculture that took good care of its nutrient cycle. No manure, human or animal, was wasted. It was even considered polite to use the restroom at someone’s house before leaving, giving one’s hosts a little gift for their garden. This system, and its higher regard for human feces, contributed to a productive agricultural system that supported a large population for forty centuries.2 As agrarian writer Gene Logsdon notes in his book Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, our own system could never last so long: “One can only imagine the famine and chaos that would result if we tried to continue that kind of extravagance for forty centuries. As sources of chemical fertilizers decline, either manure will once more become the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or population levels will dramatically decline.”3
The denial of shit is at the root of unreality—all illusions begin with an inability to deal with shit. Milan Kundera offers a brilliant analysis of this in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Sabina, a Czech artist in exile in the United States, goes to a park with a US senator who comments on the beauty of children playing in the grass—“Now, that’s what I call happiness.” Sabina realizes that there is a subtext to the senator’s reaction: he is watching this scene with a refugee from a Communist country where, “the senator was convinced, no grass grew or children ran.”4 The senator, she understands, possesses the aesthetics of a totalitarian, the very same aesthetics that he intends to critique. Kundera then launches into a brilliant reflection on kitsch:
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.5
For Kundera, kitsch ultimately “is the absolute denial of shit”—the sentimental feeling that there can only be happiness without stench; only children playing happily on the grass when it is chemlawn green rather than acknowledging the possibility of joy in some dirty “third world” alley. In the world of kitsch no roses rise from the shit; they are only grown in the sterile medium of distilled hydroponic nutrients. It is a Potemkin village of the heart.6
The main character of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomás, is unable to come to terms with shit and this leaves him unable to believe in the Christian God:
Spontaneously, without any theological training, I, a child, grasped the incompatibility of God and shit and thus came to question the basic thesis of Christian anthropology, namely that man was created in God’s image. Either/or: either man was created in God’s image—and has intestines!—or God lacks intestines and man is not like him.
The ancient Gnostics felt as I did at the age of five. In the second century, the Great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved the damnable dilemma by claiming that Jesus “ate and drank, but did not defecate.”
Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the creator of man.7
Against the Gnostics and contrary to Tomás, Christians, disciplined by the agrarian mind, can say that Christ most certainly shat and that the shitting of Christ is among the most glorious facts of the incarnation. Christ joined in the great cycles of the creation that he spoke into being, and it is only in denial, not of Christ’s incarnation but of our own, that this becomes a challenge.
This denial of Christ’s shit is at the root of Docetism, Gnosticism, and many of the other heresies that have littered Christian history. Tomás is right: if we want to believe in the Christian God, we must agree that Christ shitted. The fact that we deny shit means that we would rather live in a world of fantasy. It means that we prefer the projections of a sanitized world that are readily given to us in our consumer, cyber culture. If we want to live in and embrace reality, then shit must be at the beginning of that—we must worship a God who embraced and even created shit. Shit was no part of the fall—our denial is.
What comes from the body connects us again to our source and our limitations. This stuff of our body returns to the soil, and it is upon the soil that we are dependent. We live at the mercy of shit.
Ultimately, we will shed our bodies, our flesh mixing with manure as our bodies return to the humus into which God breathed life. But just as we deny shit, just as we sanitize and separate and hide away our “soil,” we do all we can to keep our bodies from the earth of which they are a part. We have no hope in the body—no hope in its past or its place in the dirt. The body, alienated from its sources, becomes an object separate from the soul that connects us to life. So we seek help; we purchase insurance; we put our trust in the hands of doctors and hospitals and health-care systems. All of this enables us to escape the body, to let it be organized and known beyond the mystery that is ourselves.
But against the system of machines, the screens of computers, and the worst imaginings of a cybernetic future, there will always be bedpans and toilets, latrines and compost piles. Our shit calls us away from the screens where we build our modern Babels and returns us again to the given world of creation. The bodies God formed from dirt and made connected to dirt and dependent upon dirt are the bodies God called good. They are the same kinds of bodies in which God chose to dwell. So when we go to eat that body and drink that blood, we must remember that we are connected to a body that is connected to dirt and decay, to shit and salvation.
1. This essay is adapted with permission from Sutterfield, Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013).
2. King, Farmers of Forty Centuries or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004).
3. Logsdon, Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2010), 6.
4. Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York, NY: Harper, 1984), 250.
5. Ibid., 251.
7. Ibid., 245–46.