As a new professor of philosophy at Georgetown College in the mid-’90s, Norman Wirzba asked a Kentucky native what he should read to get a sense of place.
The friend recommended The Unsettling of America, a book by writer and farmer Wendell Berry that tells the story of agriculture’s transformation into an industrial enterprise, and explains why it’s so destructive.
The book ended up giving Wirzba an unexpected sense of home — reminding him of the Canadian farm where he was raised and eventually witnessed such destruction firsthand — and a sense of Kentucky, where he became one of the country’s best-known “ecological theologians.”
“As I was reading his book, I immediately realized that Wendell was giving voice to the same concerns that I understood implicitly but had never articulated,” says Wirzba. “In many ways, it was the story of my own growing up.”
Berry’s description of agrarianism, a social and political philosophy that describes the cultivation of plants and the care of animals, or farming, as a means to a fuller and happier life, led Wirzba to think differently about his own work. As he continued reading Berry’s works, he began to examine theological and philosophical questions and traditions in a new way. He also developed a close friendship with Berry and has since collaborated with him on numerous projects.
“Theologically, agrarianism has given me ways to think about what it means to be a creature in creation with other creatures,” he says. “Philosophically, it has given me a way to think about what the good of human life is, and what are the practical skills we need to become responsible as Christians in creation.”
As Duke Divinity School’s first research professor of theology, ecology, and rural life, Wirzba is now extending the work he began in Kentucky — trying to understand the place of human beings in the world.