September 16, 2013 / Praxis
An art exhibition at a church attempts to bridge the gap between the academy and community in a North Carolina university town.
Norman Wirzba wants to put a robust theology of creation at the heart of Christian faith. A richer understanding of God’s creativity, he believes, shows us that God cares not only about the salvation of individual souls but about the flourishing of bodies, communities, and places, including the food systems that sustain us. Wirzba shows how Sabbath rest, far from a break from our real work, is better understood as the climax of creation. Practicing Sabbath, he believes, can train us to remember that we are created for shalom—for dancing, singing, feasting, inventing, building, resting, and other forms of mutual delight among creatures and Creator. Rediscovering the rich tradition of Sabbath practices might therefore help us learn how to live well within the limits of a finite world.
Wirzba is a professor of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies at Duke Divinity School and the author of many books. He grew up on a farm in Lethbridge, Alberta, studied philosophy and religion at Yale University and Loyola University Chicago, and found a transformative encounter with the Kentucky farmer, poet, and writer Wendell Berry. While it would’ve been fitting to have this conversation over sweet tea in a backyard garden, we spoke by phone via Durham and Seattle.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Let’s start at the beginning. What set you on the intellectual path that you’ve taken?
Norman Wirzba (NW): I thought that I was going to be a farmer or rancher. I grew up on a farm in Alberta, Canada, and that’s what I really loved to do. But when it was time for me to make these life decisions, in the eighties, agriculture was just not a way to earn a living. It involved a lot of financial debt and a lot of stress. The message to family farmers was to get big or get out. I didn’t see a future in it.
I went off to the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, and studied history. I eventually fell in love with philosophy, did my PhD in phenomenology, and wrote about Emmanuel Levinas for my dissertation. I thought I was going to be a run-of-the-mill philosophy teacher. Then I met Wendell Berry. He helped me see that I didn’t have to discard the agricultural context that framed my thinking growing up. I studied the long tradition of agrarian writers and started thinking much more carefully about the way that agrarians think and inhabit the world. I found that this opened up really fascinating, fresh ways to think about basic philosophical and theological questions.
For instance, I didn’t see a lot of rich theological reflection on the themes of food and agriculture. The conversations on food in Christian circles centered on either vegetarianism or feeding the hungry. Those are important concerns, but I wanted to think much more expansively. That is how I came to write Food and Faith.1 And I found that once you start to examine food and agriculture and their connections to people, land, and community, the paths of inquiry and the lines of insight are really unending.
TOJ: One of those paths of inquiry that you have explored recently is the practice of Sabbath, which seems so relevant to the struggles of modern life. I’m wondering if your work on the topic might be a useful window into environmental questions. What does Sabbath have to do with our lives as creatures in a finite world?
NW: Sabbath is not simply an add-on to religious life. The first creation story in Genesis shows that Sabbath is the climax of creation, which means it is a clue to what God’s creative work is all about. That is no small thing.
So much of the ecological damage that we are doing is driven by a kind of restlessness. We are doing damage because we are not happy with what we have, with who we are, or with what we’re doing. We work too hard, we consume too much, and we do things that don’t contribute to the deep affirmation that we find in God’s stewardship. There is an ancient rabbinic saying that if we learn to celebrate the Sabbath properly and fully even once, the Messiah will come.
TOJ: I remember that line from the beginning of Living the Sabbath.2 I love the audacious hope in it. What’s going on there?
NW: When we participate in the Sabbath, even though we do it imperfectly, we get a taste of heaven. My guess is that all of us have had times that are so wonderful, so absorbing, that time vanishes. We don’t want the activity to end. We don’t even think about it in terms of temporality. That’s the kind of eternity that Sabbath communicates—to be in a place where we don’t want to be anywhere else. We celebrate the moment and the body we are inhabiting rather than longing for the future or pining for the past.
TOJ: That sounds like the state that cognitive scientists call flow. Maybe the rabbis discovered it first. How have you lived out Sabbath in your own life?
NW: There are different seasons in life. Students tell me how busy they are, and in certain stages you do have to work harder. Farmers have the harvest time when they have to put in extra hours, but it’s not harvest all the time. When our kids were younger, we would have no-electricity Sundays, and we would not use TVs or radios or the stove or microwave. We would spend more time outside, cook over an open fire, come in when it got dark, and then gather by candlelight. In disconnecting from the electrical grid, we would find ourselves connecting to people and to the place we were in. Then, when our kids got older and busy with music and sports, we focused on making sure that we still had time with each other.
I wish it were possible for more people to take an entire day of rest, but given modern work economies, it’s tough to do. I tell people not to obsess over having a full Sabbath day or over having it always occur on the same day. Instead, I encourage them to figure out how they’re going to incorporate a deliberate time of Sabbath practice into their schedule. Also, it’s hard to do by yourself. You need other people to give you inspiration and hold you accountable.
TOJ: You make it sound so pleasurable, but I know that many people who grew up in religious households saw Sabbath as a legalistic command.
NW: That’s unfortunate because Sabbath should not be about restrictions, about saying no; it is fundamentally about saying yes to the gift of this life, to the gift of community, the gift of our friends, the gift of our places. Sometimes we have to say no to something so that we can say yes to what is more important. Sabbath is about learning to become present to each other and the gifts of God. When you become present there is a possibility that you can move more deeply into an appreciation for each other. You can recognize that others have needs and wounds, and you can be present to their pain.
TOJ: You have a line in a Christian Century piece that made me laugh. It’s about American Christianity’s poor record on environmental work, and you write that “even when theologians turn their attention to ecological concerns, they often have considerable difficulty finding anything helpful to say other than ‘Come on people, it’s time to take care of creation!’”3 There’s something hectoring and tiresome and not very effective about that approach. Why does that become the message?
NW: It starts with a theology of creation. Many Christians have an anemic or false understanding of what creation means. They think it’s a teaching about how the world began a long, long time ago. They think it’s finished, and the only question that matters is how long ago it was. But that has very little to do with what Scripture says about creation. The New Testament’s description of creation ties it directly to Christ. It is always understood to be creation happening through Christ. Theologians of the early church understood that you can’t talk about creation without talking about salvation and eschatology—what it’s all for. So the doctrine of creation is not simply about origin. It matters that creation has its origin in God, but it matters even more that the doctrine of creation shows us the significance of all creaturely life and how God’s saving, redeeming, healing, fulfilling work connects to creaturely life.
If we have a richer conception of creation, we can see that an environmental agenda should have been with us from the very beginning. And that’s more than having a green committee at church or volunteering to pick up litter on the weekend. We can think in much more creative ways about the ministry of the church—not simply caring for the salvation of individual souls but the healing of the whole world. How are we supporting good agricultural practices so that the production of food creates more health in our land or more clean water rather than polluted water, so that it honors the lives of the livestock and the lives of the agricultural workers and farmers? In our industrial food system, it’s just egregious what happens to workers.
We can also think about the bodies of the people who eat this food. So much of the illness in our culture is a feature of the diets that we have accepted and grown to love. We can think about how we heat and cool our homes and how we get the materials for building our homes. If the entire world is going to be reconciled to God through the blood of Christ, as Scripture says, that means the self-offering sacrificial life of Jesus can shape every sphere of our economic life. We would see a dramatically different world if we put these ideas of creation into practice.
TOJ: When you talk about these things to churches and other groups, what responses do you get?
NW: I’ve been with pastors who say, “I don’t have time to deal with food and environment issues because I’ve got to deal with sexual orientation issues, or race, or class, or gender, or divorce.” There’s a long, long list of concerns, and I try to offer a logic of Christian life that no longer puts each issue in a separate silo. The logic of creation lets us see the healing of land and people together. There are always going to be gender, race, class, and ethnicity issues, and they need addressing, but we have forgotten that our abuse of people has always been mirrored in our abuse of our communities, lands, and animals. The same logic of degradation is at work. We can see that when we look at the history of slavery and its connection to agricultural life and the way that agricultural workers are still abused today.
TOJ: I stopped wondering whether buying organic food was elitist when I learned about farmworkers and the harmful exposure to pesticides and chemicals that they deal with.
NW: It’s ironic that people say you’re elitist when you advocate for good food. I want to say, “Isn’t it elitist that we’re fine with selling food to people that we know is going to hurt them and that exploits the workers who prepared it?” It is important to remember that it is poor people who suffer the most from unhealthy, highly processed, cheap food.
TOJ: You’ve done quite a bit of scholarship on Wendell Berry. When I was in college, I found his vision of local, self-sustaining agrarian communities deeply inspiring. But now his work mostly fills me with guilt, as I eat some industrialized dreck for lunch, hunched over my computer and working too much. That sort of vision of locally grown, farm-to-table meals, always eaten at communal tables, can be inspiring, but also accusatory. How do we get around that?
NW: Wendell himself has written about this. He says that just because I’ve written good, beautiful, and saintly things, don’t take me to be a good, beautiful, and saintly person. One of the things that is so wonderful about Wendell and Tanya when you get to know them is how much laughter and self-deprecation there is about their lives. So the first thing to do is to realize we’re not going to be perfect. When we start with that, we can be a little more merciful with each other.
When we’re trying to build local economies and communities and promote the healing of our lands, we’re trying to do so in the context of an immense economy that touches every corner of our lives and which is devoted to doing the opposite. We have an economy that wants to commodify everything and profit from everybody, including human bodies, which means the selling of foods that we know are bad and then the selling of remedies that may or may not help people get better. Our bodies have become sites for profit maximization. So we shouldn’t be surprised that it is so difficult to live something like an agrarian vision. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the agrarian vision as a point of inspiration, a point of correction and a point of hope.
TOJ: When I worked as a climate change reporter, I watched evangelicals try to promote the idea that environmental stewardship is a biblical value. They called it “creation care” and argued that it doesn’t need to be a partisan issue. There are also evangelical scientists like Katharine Hayhoe who are doing wonderful work talking to church groups about climate change. But it doesn’t seem to be working. White American Christians elected a president who is a disaster for safe water, air, soil, and food, a president who quit the Paris climate agreement and is crippling the EPA. He and the people he appoints generally reject the idea that we owe anything to the earth that sustains us. To white Christians, this seems to matter less than that he’s a Republican. I can’t help but wonder: is creation theology utterly feckless in the face of American partisanship?
NW: Oh my, I wish I had a silver-bullet answer to that one. One thing that concerns me—and it’s so fundamental that I don’t know how you change it—is that so many American churches think that the only thing that matters is your soul and its postmortem journey to heaven. Faith, they think, is primarily a private affair. American churches don’t think much about human bodies in relation to all the plant and animal bodies. If they did, faith would become a much more economic and political matter. They would come to understand that we can’t take care of people while we steadily degrade the land upon which their bodies depend.
When Christians lack a robust doctrine of creation they are also deprived of the sort of imagination that can contribute to the flourishing of the world. We get stuck in nostalgic desires like bringing back coal-mining jobs, which, according to energy production experts, is just not going to happen. Instead, we could imagine new forms of energy production that create more jobs and also contribute to the healing of our lands and waters, but that would require a different sort of imagination, one that is no longer dualistic, that doesn’t see a false choice between jobs and the environment.
It seems to me that Christians ought to be using their theological imaginations for this. The fact that Christians have almost nothing to say about these matters, even with their great political and economic power, indicates how anemic our Christian faith has become.
We are living in the context of tremendous fear and anxiety, and when fear and anxiety grip people, the capacity for imagination or compassion vanishes. People become mean and entrenched in reactionary politics. I think one of the best things Christians can do right now is to relieve the fear that is coursing through our culture. We need to show how to make love the inspiration of what we do, rather than hate.
TOJ: That connects to your thinking about Sabbath. Anxiety seems to be at the root of so much of our dysfunction as a culture.
NW: I don’t know that people realize how much fear forms the way they think and act in the world. When I first came to the United States from Canada, I was amazed by the news broadcasts, which I thought were designed to create fear. Politicians use fear to promote their agendas. I was astounded, for instance, by the way Donald Trump talked about America during the 2016 election. Even in his inaugural speech, he said this was a country that is strewn with graves and the death and destruction of everything. What kind of world is this guy looking at? But it clearly resonated with a lot of people. This culture is obsessed with fear.
TOJ: He was tapping into anxieties that, it’s become clear, the church has not answered. Why haven’t churches been more effective in responding to that anxiety?
NW: In many instances, the church is not engaging people with the issues that are most significant to them. I talk to many, many pastors, and it’s become very clear to them that when people come to church they’re often not coming to be formed into the ways of Jesus Christ. Their real formation is happening through talk radio, whereas the church is the place we come to share a few pious songs and praises and then go our own way.
I wonder what would it be like if more pastors said, “Let’s talk about things that we’re all struggling with”? That would require pastors to know what people in their congregations and communities are struggling with. It would mean taking the message of Christianity out of the realm of abstraction and putting it right where people eat and make babies and raise their children. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of pastors who are working hard to try to make the gospel alive in the daily and very mundane places of their lives, but sometimes I think there is a kind of theology-speak that happens in churches that is utterly disconnected from what people care about. Words get used that nobody knows what they mean anymore.
I’ve talked to pastors who tell me they’re bored being in church, and they look at their congregation and know they’re bored too. Churches, I think, have to figure out how to make the life of Christianity more interesting again. Because if it’s done right, it’s not just interesting—it’s the most incredible, adventurous life you could possibly live. To put this another way, how do we make the love of God incarnate in all the things that we do, from eating breakfast and shopping to the ways in which we spend our leisure time?
TOJ: For progressives, I think the key might be that we’re called to more than just doing more, or being more socially engaged, or worrying more about the world’s injustices. It sounds like you’re talking about drawing from a deeper wellspring, about finding in creation a deeper meaning that helps us see the challenges of modern life as coherent.
NW: That’s not to say that churches shouldn’t be involved in progressive causes, but, yes, they ought to be founded in something richer than just adding one more voice to the cacophony of protests on this or that issue. I think churches must offer a compelling vision of life for people that reaches these very important social justice concerns and that also includes the whole sweep of personal, family, and economic kinds of choices that we’re making daily. That would be such a blessing.
TOJ: To shift directions, you’re leading a grant-funded program at Duke called Rethinking Humanity’s Place in an Anthropocene World. How is the term anthropocene useful to you?
NW: The word comes from earth-systems scientists who are thinking in geological time. For the very first time, human beings are shaping all of life’s geological processes, from the cellular level to the atmosphere and everything in between. There is no place on earth that is not affected by what human beings do; there is nobody—literally no body—that is not affected by our actions. This is an entirely new situation in the history of the world.
If this is indeed the case, we need to think differently about economics, politics, law, philosophy, theology, psychology, and all academic disciplines. What do we understand the human being to be? How do we think about human agency? How do we think about the goals of economic life? Virtually every ecosystem on this planet is exhausted, degraded, or nearly dead. We’re in charge of a planet that we have done a whole lot to destroy, so how does the work of economists, law professors, or politicians change because of that? In the humanities, how do we rethink our humanity?
Our hope with this grant is to attract senior scholars in different disciplines to engage these questions. We also hope to work with doctoral students from across disciplines and to help them see the Anthropocene as a major concern that will guide their careers.
Along these lines, I’m working on a book right now, Creature: Rethinking the Human Place in the World, that I hope to finish next year. It’s about creatureliness, which is a way of describing the human that has been rarely understood by Christian theologians. Even when we use the language of creature, we’re basically assuming philosophical categories derived from Aristotle or Descartes rather than thinking about the logic of creaturely life from the perspective of Jesus Christ as the one through whom creation comes to be. I think that a proper understanding of human beings as creatures can open up new ways to think about the human place in the world. It helps turn our presence in the world from a destructive one to a healing and creative presence.
TOJ: I want to return to that line from Judaism—that if we celebrate the Sabbath properly and fully even once then the Messiah will come. We’ve been talking about embodied life and justice and restoration in the here and now, not just in the afterlife. But that line still seems to say something about spiritual salvation. How do those fit together?
NW: Once you take seriously the idea of embodiment, the idea that God affirms our material, fleshly life, then you realize that any notion of salvation that only focuses on our disembodied souls is really a profound misconception. Embodiment means that our lives make no sense apart from other bodies. We can’t live without eating and breathing, so our bodies, by definition, entangle us in the bodies that touch every part of the universe. One of the reasons that Christians make this mistake is what I call a failure of incarnational nerve. We don’t believe that God really became incarnate. We don’t really believe, as Colossians says, that in the body of Jesus Christ “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19 ESV).
We can start with this incarnational principle and then move in the direction of Maximus the Confessor, who says wonderfully in his seventh Ambiguum that “The Word of God is such that it wants to become incarnate in everything.” That helps us understand that our work as Christians is to be witnesses to God’s love in the world, a love that can never be restricted to human beings but that, as revealed in God’s loving creation, implicates us in caring for everything too. So the vision of redeemed, saved lives is a much more holistic vision, one in which the lives of people and the lives of all creatures are saved.
I think that is what the logic of creation compels us to do. Plenty of theologians would resist that way of speaking. They want to limit the love of God to what they can understand. But because I’ve got the microphone now, I can say it: I think they’re wrong.
TOJ: That’s a beautiful vision. A big-tent vision.
NW: It is. I sometimes hear Christians ask people who are not interested in Christianity, “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” And the response is, “How boring would that be?” It’s sad we can’t even make heaven sound interesting. To many outsiders, not only is church life boring, but heaven is boring too. That’s a travesty of theological imagination.
TOJ: Last question: what’s giving you sustenance these days?
NW: I would say that to see love made visible, into action and through the work of other people, is a real source of encouragement and hope. I see plenty of people, many of whom are not Christians, or not trying to be explicitly Christian in the work that they do, and they’re doing good things. Some of them are young people, and it’s encouraging to know that not everyone has given up, not everyone is locked in the habits of fear. There is a sense that the world we’ve received is a gift.
We don’t know how to solve all of our problems, but we know that we are called to do good work and to love. As long as we can keep that as our focus, open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit, we’ve got enough to do. Along the way, beautiful things happen, and you learn to relish those things.
Jonathan Hiskes is a writer and communications director at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Mother Jones, River Teeth, the Sun, Image, Books and Culture, and elsewhere. Read more of his writing at Jonathanhiskes.com.
Norman Wirzba is professor of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies at Duke Divinity School. He pursues research and teaching interests at the intersections of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies. His books include Living the Sabbath, The Paradise of God, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, and Way of Love.