Sweat, Soil, and Salvation: An Interview with Norman Wirzba ‘88 M.A.R.

Norman Wirzba ’88 M.A.R. teaches theology at Duke Divinity School, working at the intersection of philosophy, ecology, and agrarian studies. He grew up on a farm in Canada. That experience of working the land, the sweat of physical labor, and a sense of divine blessing on creation infuses his writing. His recent books include Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity (HarperOne, 2016) and Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge, 2011; 2nd edition, 2019). “What God most wants is for us to learn to live more responsibly and more charitably wherever we are,” he writes in From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World (Baker Academic, 2015). “The point of faith is not to help us escape this life. It is, rather, to lead us more deeply into the movements of love that nurture and heal and celebrate the gifts of God.” He spoke to Reflections earlier this year.

Regarding the fraught relations between churches and climate change …

More churches need to be involved at the level of policy and economics. Right now that’s precisely where their energy does not go, and there are a couple of reasons for that. One of them, to speak bluntly, is gnosticism: In so many churches, the main purpose of life is to get your soul into heaven. The dominant notion is that salvation is only about people, whose destination is somewhere beyond the blue. But that’s a distorted, defunct view of what God is doing in the world and doing in the Bible. God’s redeeming work embraces heaven and earth – the earth that is God’s daily concern and delight. Colossians 1:23 says the gospel should be preached to every creature. According to Genesis 9:15, God’s abiding covenant is with all people and “every living creature of all flesh.” Yet it’s embarrassing to read that. Preach to the wetlands? To chickens? We’re embarrassed because we’re not thinking big enough about God’s divine economy.

A second reason for this lack of energy around policy is the very structure of our daily life. A primary mode of engaging the world now is shopping. We do it by laptop or phone – screens. But screens insulate us. The experience isn’t attuned to the real world. We don’t feel directly affected by volatile weather, drought conditions, an unexpected frost. The world “outside” doesn’t seem to matter much. But if you’re a grain farmer and there’s a hailstorm, you must pay attention. If you’re an apple grower and there’s a late frost jeopardizing the orchard, you have to pay attention. Fewer and fewer people in the cities and suburbs have an embodied, nurturing experience of the world.

On the greening of church property …

Churches today have all the reasons they need to become advocates of a just land policy – practices that repair the soil, improve farming, protect forests, fight hunger. Think the Farm Bill. That’s part of the solution. Another part is to realize that most churches sit on land – the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Sweden, or the big neighborhood church all come to mind. It adds up to a lot of land. What if churches agreed to become better stewards, encourage the organic life of the soil, put it under cultivation – flowers, fruits, vegetables – and bring healing to the earth and food to communities on their particular patch of earth?

We’ve developed an aesthetic that favors lowmaintenance grass and ornamental shrubs that don’t need much pruning. This is a demonstration to everyone that we want to live in the world without taking care of it. If we grew gardens of fruits or vegetables, we’d be part of the solution to food insecurity and also reflect a message that the church wants to be part of the healing of the whole of creation.

On care of the soil and care of the soul …

When churches start a garden, they learn that growing plants is hard. There’s lots of failure. But you don’t walk away, because great lessons are learned about the vulnerability, mystery, and hope of life. Working with the land, people come to understand the importance of the practices of attention and care. Without a commitment to care for the soil and all its creatures, the prospect of a flourishing human life comes to an end.***

I teach a class where the students are told to grow a plant – they pick the plant they want to grow, get seeds and soil, work at it, and write about the experience. The point is to understand what it’s like to put your life in relationship with another living thing. They come to realize they knew nothing about planting – how deep to plant the seeds, how much watering to do, how much labor is involved. It’s not a cerebral exercise. They get an embodied glimpse of what it means to be dependent on plants that provide us food, and they discover how dependent the plant is on them. They learn what farmers have to ask every day – not “What do I want to do today?” but “What does the land need today?”

On the hazards of theological abstraction …

Regard for the earth is deeply theological. Yet “theology” has become an abstract thing, divorced from real-life issues – and as a result theology is very boring to many people. This abstraction reflects an attitude toward the physical labor that care of the earth requires. We’ve been raised to despise it. The online shopping experience is similarly abstract: We see highly stylized products on a screen, then we click and they arrive at our doorstep and we’ve learned nothing about the sweat and friction and labor of real bodies sacrificed in the consumer economy.

More and more we hear of futuristic scenarios that seek to escape the pain of this world by reducing the human being to an information pattern that can be uploaded into a machine. It’s an odd sort of progress – the hope of escaping our bodies and the planet. But it’s a dangerous fantasy, this notion of techno-immortality. Our lives only make sense in sympathy with other lives in this particular ecosystem with its weather and dynamic relationships with plants and animals. We couldn’t live without them.

Regarding “dominion” and toxic ideology …

It’s time to read the Bible again and see what it really says. What does “dominion” mean in Gen. 1 25-28? Does it really advocate what we’re actually doing to the planet – disastrous exploitation? Show me anywhere in the Bible where God favors exploitation – the abuse of migrant workers, the suffering of animals, the despoiling of land. These things can’t be justified in Scripture. The Bible is an agrarian book that’s being interpreted by people who have no agrarian experience or sympathies.

Christians have been virtually silent about the destruction of the planet. What kind of theology embraces God the creator but not God’s creation? Such a faith is no different from a toxic ideology.

I speak to many ministers who worry that the gospel message they convey on Sundays isn’t enough to counteract what people hear the rest of the week – what they hear on talk radio to form their daily values. People do so out of fear – the understandable fear of losing their comforts and conveniences if, for instance, we take the threat of climate change seriously. I believe church is supposed to be a place where people come to trust each other and feel free to admit these fears and ask why we behave according to such ideologies and not by the teachings of Jesus.


*** See Wirzba, From Nature to Creation, p. 99.