God the Gardener

Norman Wirzba

The Shakers traditionally practiced a period of silence before they ate. Why should anyone take time to stop before eating? One reason is, our heads are packed with all the things going on in our world. It doesn’t take long to discover that when we are eating, we aren’t paying attention to the significance of it. We don’t attend to what it means to eat.

Eating is one of those great acts of intimacy with the whole world. When we eat we are involved in the life of microorganisms in the soil, the life of worms, butterflies and bees, photosynthesis, weather systems. We starve without them. Our involvement extends to farms that produce the food. What is their condition? Are they healthy and vibrant? How is our water being used? What about the justice or injustice of the economies that bring food to us – those who harvest the food, who ship and process it, who cook and serve it?

There’s so much to think about every time we take a bite, it’s a wonder we ever get to eat at all! How long would we have to observe silence in order to take in the world behind every bite?

Mindless Eating

Mindful eating has become difficult in our fast-food nation. We eat on the run, or at our desks at work. We eat alone much of the time. This reflects a lot about cultural sensibilities. But I want to focus on why our eating has become so ignorant: We have so little practical or detailed knowledge of what it takes to grow food.

Never in human history have so few people had any intimate knowledge of the practices and affections required to grow food. In this great cloud of ignorance we are prone to consumer habits that are greatly destructive to land and farming. We know so little about the fragility and vulnerability of life, or the mystery, tragedy, serendipity, and hope that come out of the land.

To live in a consumer culture is to walk into a grocery store and see a lot of food there. It will be packaged beautifully. It will be fairly cheap. And we have it year round. Why then do we even need to be patient or attentive about how our food is produced?

We don’t consider the violence it takes to do agriculture the way we do now. We have come to believe that whenever we have a problem we should poison, bulldoze, burn, or explode our way through it. Our agricultural systems now rely on vast amounts of poison. To promote food fertility, we kill.

I know this violence myself. In my garden at home, I’m in a battle with deer and rabbits. I want to kill them! How do we live in a world where other creatures want to eat the same food we do? I go to the store, looking for fruit with no blemishes. But do you know what it takes to grow fruit with no blemishes? You have to spray it. That means no other creatures want to eat it – but we do. We’re feeding ourselves this poison.

The One-Night Stand

If we were to grow the food ourselves, we’d have to deal with these issues much more personally and up close. I’m trying to garden. I’m not an expert at it, but I am learning its hard lessons. We have been taught to believe food should be easy. And that’s a lie. Food isn’t easy. But, as modern purchasers of food, we show up when we want, with cash or credit, make the swipe with the card, and walk away to enjoy. This is a world unimaginable to people throughout history, a fantasy world.

Wendell Berry calls this the economy of the onenight stand: We meet, we’re anonymous, we pay our money, get what we want, don’t ask questions, and leave. But we need to ask questions. Under what conditions was this food raised? Do we know if these ways of production can be sustained for long?

Behind the slick packaging of industrial modes of food, we find stories of abuse, shame, degradation, exploitation – poison going into our water, soil being eroded, farmworkers and animals who are abused as a matter of agricultural policy. This is our best thinking and practice about food production. Yet how are we going to be healthy in a poisoned world that pits people against each other? Can we keep buying those big beautiful strawberries if we know there are farmworkers in near slave-like working conditions? We don’t know whether our food should be celebrated because it honored the land, the animals, and God as the provider of these gifts, or whether we should be lamenting and crying.

God’s Delectable Delight

Faith has something to say about this. It helps us to ask fundamental questions. To start with one: What is food? Naming things is crucial. How you name things determines how you relate to them. Imagine if I presented you with a plant and called it a flower. You hear the word flower and you want to behold its beauty, get closer and observe its pedal structure, smell its fragrance. But what if I say, no, it’s really a weed. Now what do you think about it? You want to eradicate it. A weed gets in the way of your bottom line. Or let’s say the plant is something else again – a vegetable. Your response is not to behold it or eradicate but to take care of it, and soon you’ll get tomatoes.

So the naming of a plant causes vastly different reactions. Think of how we name our food today. Food is a “commodity.” Standing behind this word is the logic of consumerism, which sees the world as one big store or warehouse where we can go and pick out products. Consumer logic shapes our questions. Is the food cheap? Is it convenient? Does it look attractive? Can we get it in copious quantities?

The price of food is important. But the desire that food be produced very, very cheaply – probably the cheapest it’s been in human history – imposes tremendous costs on people, animals, land, and water systems. It makes it extremely difficult for those who grow food. They are being squeezed at the margins where they can’t make a living without a subsidy check from the government.

What would a theology of food look like? In Genesis 1 and 2, the story of the creation of the world in seven days, we find a description of God’s desire that creatures multiply and be fruitful. This is amazing. God’s desire is that creatures achieve the fullness of their being. By realizing their potential, they maximize the divine love. From the beginning, God delights in the vigor, variety, and vitality of life. God didn’t have to make anything. God never created out of boredom or necessity. God creates as the one who loves material bodies and who offers those bodies as a perpetual invitation to joy and thanksgiving. As Robert Ferrar Capon has written, “God is eccentric; He has loves, not reasons. Salute!”1

This is an astounding idea – and important to understand, because when we think about God’s creation I think many of us are basically deist: We think God made the world a long time ago and exited the premises. We fail to appreciate God’s constant love and joy in a world that is beautifully, wonderfully, and mysteriously made.

This is the point of day seven in the Genesis story – God’s own Shabbat. God rested in order to enjoy this world. We tend to think resting means simply stopping from activity, so the opposite of rest is work. But God’s resting in the presence of the world is God’s deep immersion in it through the experience of joy.

In our culture the opposite of rest is not inactivity but restlessness. It takes many forms. Restlessness means that what we have is not good enough, and where we are is not good enough, and the people we are with are not good enough. Because of this restlessness, we despise or ignore our places and lands and gardens. Ours is an anti-sabbath economy, an anti-sabbath culture, preventing us from experiencing the joy that is possible if we learned to attend our world.

Shouldn’t it amaze us that we can live in a world that can taste so good? Food is not a commodity – it is God’s love and delight made delectable. To regard our food this way will require some major shifts in our thinking. It starts with the realization that the world is a gift. The language of commodity obscures this. It says we can achieve what we need to live by our own effort. I earned my life. I worked for my food. I don’t need to receive any gift. That would require humility. More than ever we need practices that help us live into a reception of the world as a gift. Gardening can help us restore an appreciation of that humility.

Divinity and Dirt

Turning to Genesis 2, the story of the Garden of Eden, we find an astonishing image of God: the depiction of God as a gardener. If you were walking into the scene you’d see God on God’s knees in the soil, holding it so close as to breathe into it the breath of life. Because that’s what you are – soil animated by God’s breath. Compared to other ancient Near Eastern depictions of God and the creation of the world that presuppose violence and bloodshed, here we find a gardening God who is on intimate terms with the material bodies of this world.

God loves soil. God loves you and me, but God loves soil first. Because without soil, there is no you or me. Yet how many of us have ever heard a sermon about God the gardener? This is a foundational story. It teaches something of God’s character and life. It’s impoverishing our imaginations to have lost this understanding.2

Then, in the same chapter of Genesis, God takes the first Adam and says go into the garden and take care of it. Some think this is God’s punishment of humankind for their disobedience. But this story happens before any punishment. It is saying that God invites us into the life of gardening work because that is the work that God is always doing. By gardening, we learn something profound about ourselves as creatures. We learn it is not easy and not always about happiness. It’s hot out there in July and August, and I don’t want to be weeding. But if I don’t, the garden will suffer. What if God too were to give up on the garden? We’d all die. Amazingly, God never does that. In our gardens we learn something about God’s patience and our impatience.

God is the prototypical gardener who leads us into a life of care. Every one of us eats. Each one of us is joined intimately through our bodies with the lives of all the creatures of the earth – a bewildering array of relationships that connect us to earthworms, butterflies, chickens, and co-gardeners.

Becoming Friends

How do we live faithfully with each other in such a world? In John 6, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 on a grassy hillside, Jesus blesses the food, distributes it to everyone, and has a lot left over. And the people there want to make him king. Here was a culture that was on intimate terms with hunger, then they meet someone who could produce food on demand. They want Jesus to be their king – their grocery store manager. But he wants something different. He doesn’t want them to become passive ignorant consumers. He wants them to nurture each other. He wants them to be friends.

I am the bread of life given for the life of the world, he says. What kind of bread is this? It is my own flesh, he says. He offers himself so that the bodies of others can be touched, healed, and reconciled. Where is Jesus’ concern that souls get to heaven? You won’t find that much. He cares about the health and happiness of bodies. He is part of a theological tradition that understands the material world to be loved by God, who wants creatures to flourish. That’s why Jesus practices so much hospitality.

John of Damascus, writing in the seventh century, says God’s act of creation can be seen as one lavish act of hospitality. God makes room within the life of God so that all these creatures can come into being and become themselves. God wants to teach us how to participate in this kind of hospitable love – the kind of love needed to welcome a refugee, or work a field so it will remain fertile, or care about a migrant worker who does work the rest of us despise.

John 6 is not simply pious. It’s revolutionary. He’s calling us to a new conception of life altogether, a life of abundance and resurrection. Learning to take care of each other becomes the means by which the glory of God is achieved. New kinds of economic life together can be imagined. Jesus dwells in us so we can learn to dwell with each other. We eat Jesus as the bread of life so that he can enter into us, transform us from within, so we can perform in the world the healing, nurturing ministries he makes possible. Jesus has become our food so we can be a source of nurture for others.

But we cannot love others if we are content to see them living in a poisoned, degraded world. God is in the food and farming business, and I suggest that faith communities get in the food and farming business too. It’s not that the pain of the world will go away. But the work of gardening together – a regular, physical, embodied activity – joins us to the people and places we claim to serve.

Memorable Meals

Growing up in Alberta, Canada, we didn’t have much liturgy or music at church. But the one thing we did have together was: We ate together, a lot. I don’t recall a single sermon. It’s the meals I remember. As people ate together, the work of ministry could happen. That’s where we’d learn that Fritz Zimmerman is sick, and needs help, because it’s harvest time. People could step in and be that help and live more deeply into the lives of each other. The life of the church becomes not the enjoyment of a show called worship every week but an economic joining of skill matching need.

Churches sit on a lot of property. There’s no reason why ornamental, poison-laden grasses and

bushes can’t be transformed into vegetable beds, flower gardens, and orchards for the feeding and the healing of the world. Today’s church-supported gardens are an exciting development. People I talk to say these gardens are revitalizing their congregations.

This is not to romanticize them. Many of them fail. Gardening is hard work. It’s tempting to yearn for an otherworldly piety that says the height of spiritual attainment is release from the care of bodies. That’s a huge mistake. The story of the Bible is the story of God who only and always wants to be with us mortals. For all those Christians who think the goal is to escape the earth and get to heaven, they may find themselves going up while God is coming down. And they will be so disappointed.

Norman Wirzba ’88 M.A.R. is the author of Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge, 2011), The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (Oxford, 2007), and other books. He is professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School. This article is adapted and abridged from a speech he gave at Siloam Family Health Center (siloamhealth.org) in Nashville in May. Reflections is grateful to Siloam for granting permission.


1 Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb (Doubleday, 1969), pp. 85-86.

2 See Ellen F. Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge, 2008).