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Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land

Norman Wirzba
Published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2022

There is now a well-developed Christian literature addressing the dualism of mind- body, and the consequences for our health and flourishing when this dualism is taken for granted, ignored, or unchallenged. Theologian Norman Wirzba suggests there is another dualism that similarly threatens our spiritual-physical-social health; this is the dualism between humanity and the rest of creation. This might be thought of as the split between humans and nature, but Wirzba, the son of Canadian farmers who has been profoundly influenced by the life and thought of poet-scholar-farmer-theologian Wendell Berry, does not just want people to get in touch with nature, swarming national parks to vacation off the grid. Rather, Wirzba wants people to get in touch with the created order through the work we undertake in cultivating, harvesting, and consuming that creation. He wants us to live in a deep understanding of our relationship to, and interconnections with, creation in order to flourish in our lives together and with God.

This recent book offers his readers the theological and theoretical support for his position, while ushering us into practices and postures that can transform our relationship to creation. Like his other many books, the writing is lucid and compelling, immanent and transcendent, calling Christians to a new understanding of how we can reform our theological imagination to be part of God’s work to bring all things—human and nonhuman—back to a restored order. No book can do everything, and there are elements of Wirzba’s work that may prompt the reader to bring more voices to the conversation, but this is an outstanding place to start for both personal and communal work in the redemption of our earthly call to live fully within God’s creation and live wholly in our creaturely selves.

Wirzba begins with a section of three chapters to establish the importance of his project. Chapter 1, “On Not Losing Creation,” points out this common Christian dualism in which “spiritual practices [are designed to] liberate the soul from places and bodies that are variously described as fleeting, frustrating, or foul” (3). The next two chapters develop this contribution to a robust holism in more depth. Chapter 2, “Why Agrarian?,” makes the case that for all the abuses seen in agrarian contexts, from the exploitation of land and labor, to the culturally embedded racism, sexism, and xenophobia that have often been present in these contexts, the agrarian example can be one that confronts the alienation of humans from God’s non-human creation. He argues that the agrarian ideal applies to humans in every place, from urban centers to wild outposts, and everywhere in between. What is best in the agrarian example, he argues, are the commitments to “work for the well-being of their places and communities…by developing the practical skills that cultivate the material and social goods…that promote a thriving world” (15). Chapter 3 unpacks the misreading of scripture caused by the twin legacies of enlightenment dualism and capitalist pragmatism. Wirzba argues that Christians have been deformed by these cultural-intellectual roots. This deformation has led to the alienation of human spirituality from the physical world of our bodies, food, animal companions, and created material world. Leaning significantly on the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold, but with a clear resonance with (and citation of) the scholarship of theologian Willie Jennings, Wirzba lays out his approach to Christian practices and postures through which he leads the reader in the next section.

Part Two, then, walks through “agrarian spiritual exercises,” calling Christians to spiritual formation through practices and virtues. The six chapters—learning to pray and to see, learning descent, humility, generosity, and hope—each contribute something unique while reinforcing the central message of seeking to interact with place and creation in new ways. For example, the chapter on “Learning Descent” calls us “to acknowledge that we are not self-possessed or in control of our lives, but, as rooted beings, live by the mercies and blessing of what our neighborhoods make possible” (111, italics in the original). In this chapter, Wirzba asks us to reconsider mysticism as a “practical process and a way of life” in which communing with God is not an ephemeral, transcendent experience, but is the deeper awareness of God’s presence in all his material and immaterial creation. There are echoes of Augustinian notions of what it means to love all things through our love of God. “Our goal,” Wirzba avers, “ought…to be to perceive and engage creatures as God does, recognizing that God relates to creatures not through instrumental means but in the mode of unconditional love” (115-116). And we do this, Wirzba argues throughout, by sinking into our own creatureliness, our own bodies in place, our communities, God’s created world.

As one who has recently been thinking about how our common evangelical gnosticism creates a gulf within ourselves, between ourselves, and between us and God, I found a great deal in Wirzba’s work that resonated with that interest and concern. At the same time, he took me beyond much of what I have been reading by addressing not only the dualism of mind and body, but the dualism of human and non-human. As one who is not deeply familiar with Wendell Berry’s work, I cannot say to what extent Wirzba’s work would push the Wendell Berry fan into new territory. Wirzba is clearly inspired and guided by Berry’s life and work, so my sense is that anyone who is deeply familiar with Berry will find Wirzba’s thought both complementary and original. Agrarian Spirit brings Berry’s practical injunctions to prioritize human emplacement and flourishing together with a wide range of thinkers, from Simone Weil to Jennings, Ingold, the Apostle Paul, and the wisdom of Don and Marie Ruzicka, farmers in Alberta struggling to make their family’s property profitable and flourishing. It’s an intellectually diverse approach to the question of human flourishing that would teach beautifully in many courses around theological anthropology, theologies of land, economics, food, or community, as well as serving as a substantive choice for a thoughtful book club.

If there is anything missing from this book (and there is always something missing from every book), it is a stronger approach to the structures and politics of sustainable food, environment, and human flourishing. That is not to say he makes no references to the economic and political structure in which we live out our lives; he most certainly does. Yet, in his final, powerful chapter, “Learning to Hope,” Wirzba focuses very closely on the aforementioned Ruzicka family to illustrate how anyone might reframe an approach to life on God’s creation as one of mutual dependence, relationship, and the moral order, rather than lived through the economics of exploitation, and a human-centric approach that leaves aside questions of a whole creation. This very personal narrative does not wholly exclude references to the wider system in which the Ruzicka’s labor, but it does not directly challenge the decisions and decision makers who have constructed these particular, and often inequitable, limits. At one point, Wirzba notes that “the capitalist web that has shaped decisively the way farmers do their work has also profoundly affected the way urbanites perceive and understand the land” (190). He develops the logic of capitalist consumption that makes the perception of land and creature, in their vulnerability and God-given worth, difficult if not impossible for the urbanite, while also making it financially unfeasible for the farmer. But he does not develop the systemic and political dimension of this, nor suggest a wider political response. Questions of returning land to indigenous communities, requiring consumers to pay for the externalities of production that allow them to have access to strawberries in January or fresh sushi in Omaha, linking a prophetic imagination to the theological imagination that would allow us to re-form our lives in response to God’s redeeming presence in all things do not get as much play in the book.

This relative lack of a political scope is not a weakness, so much as it is a reason to read this book, and then read others. Wirzba offers this gift to the church as a way for all of us to cast aside an ideology we may not have known we have, one that puts humans in a singular relationship with God and leaves all the rest of His good creation as merely a backdrop. God did not bring the animals to Adam because they were simply food. This was God’s quest to find a companion for us. Though he knew Adam would not find a suitable partner among the earlier creation, he also knew that Adam needed to be acquainted with his community, his land, the world God had made and declared good. This has always been our home, and it always will be. It is my hope that we receive Wirzba’s gift as a call to re-encounter God’s world: this place, these places, and all that is in it.

Cite this article
Brian M. Howell, “Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 52:1 , 122-124

Brian M. Howell

Wheaton College
Brian Howell is a Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College where he writes and researches global Christianity, short term missions, and the intersection of theology and anthropology.