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.
And that place, Wirzba believes, is in gardens.
“Gardens are microcosms of the world in which human life and the forces of a creative and productive life meet,” he says. “As we eat, drink, and breathe we are bound to the biochemical processes at work in a garden for not only our benefit, but our survival. Gardens, and by extension farms and the land, are the places where our bodies and souls are fed.”
What does Christianity have to do with gardening?
Everything, says Wirzba, who is currently teaching courses on “Food, Eating, and the Life of Faith” and “Theology and Ecology.”
It was no accident that Scripture located the first human drama in a garden — the Garden of Eden, literally the “garden of delight,” he says. In Genesis, God charged people to “till and keep” the garden, thus giving them their most fundamental identity and vocation.
“A garden is the place where people first taste and fully sense the grace of God — with their eyes, mouths, noses, ears, and fingers — and Scripture tells us that this goodness of God is not only to be received but shared.”
Scripture communicates the idea that people’s relationship to the earth is like a marriage in that it’s a faith agreement, a covenant with the animals and land to take care of them and help create conditions in which they can be most fully the way that God wants them to be, says Wirzba.
Preserving healthy gardens and the work of gardening is essential not only because people have to eat to live, but because the world is facing an unprecedented and widespread ecological disaster. “Ecologists are warning of the possibility that someday we won’t be able to feed ourselves,” he says. “It’s terrifying.”
Making the situation even more precarious is that more people worldwide live in urban areas than in the country for the first time in human history. The result, says Wirzba, is increased estrangement from ourselves as biological beings and a loss of understanding of biological rhythms and ecological realities.
While most urban dwellers have been taught to think of food as a commodity that is available anytime they want it, exactly how they want it, and under their complete control, “gardening shows you that life comes as a gift, always.”
Wirzba learned that and other “gardening” lessons following in the footsteps of his grandfather on the family’s 400-acre farm in Alberta, Canada, where they raised cattle, wheat, barley, and alfalfa using traditional practices. He recalls the unhurried rhythm of each day as they did the hard but satisfying work.
When his family opened a small cattle feedlot, Wirzba quickly saw how even such small scale industrial farming was destructive to land and animals. In order to fatten large quantities of cattle for sale to a processing facility, a feedlot takes cattle off pastures and puts them in confinement where they are fed grain, silage, or corn. This requires the use of fertilizers and pesticides, growing only one type of crop on farmland, more acreage, and large machinery.
“I saw that farms cannot be sustained on this model of getting bigger and bigger to survive economically,” says Wirzba, whose experience led him to reject farming as a career. “It also makes farming no longer enjoyable, but stressful. Good farming, like my grandfather did, has at its core the care of animals and the land as its first priority.”
In college, Wirzba majored in history until “falling in love” with theology and philosophy. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy, he taught at Northern Illinois University and Loyola University in Chicago and at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. He then went to Georgetown as an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and later became the department chair.
Although he rejected farming as a career, Wirzba did become a theological gardener of sorts. “I am trying today to perform my work in the spirit of my grandfather’s work. It is the spirit I try to carry into my garden — both literally and figuratively,” he says.
Wirzba’s research, teaching, and writing interests are at the intersection of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian studies. He focuses on understanding and promoting practices to equip rural and urban church communities to be more faithful and responsible members of creation.
As Christians start thinking more seriously about eating and food production, Wirzba hopes they will demand changes in the economy to create a more just food system — one in which all people can eat, farmers are properly compensated, and the land and animals are treated with care and respect.
Some, including Wirzba and his family, are planting their own gardens and buying local and organic foods when possible. After moving to Hillsborough last fall, the Wirzba family planted strawberries, raspberries, and other fruits, and prepared raised beds for spring planting of tomatoes, lettuce, beans, and other vegetables.
The growth of community-supported agriculture, in which urbanites and churches partner with farmers to support sustainable agriculture, is a positive sign. There’s also a back-to-the-land movement in which young people are committed to small-scale agriculture that is supplemented by other income.
“It’s hard to argue against the good of a garden,” says Wirzba. “Once people get involved they witness the miracle and fragility of life, learning that sacrifice is at the heart of eating. Neither life nor food comes cheap. Until we see how precious life is, we’re not going to develop the kinds of affections and responsibilities we need to take care of it.”
Wirzba knows that none of these ideas is new. They have been indigenous to farm-based communities in all cultures and are central in all the great religious traditions. But worldwide growth of the ecological movement over the past 20 years has helped people realize their commonality in depending on food to survive.
“We’ve been sucked into this consumerist model and forgotten what our faith traditions have to say about eating,” says Wirzba. “Instead of focusing on the things that divide us, we can rally together to prevent millions of people from starving and millions of acres of land from being degraded.”
Wirzba’s not suggesting that everyone become a farmer. But he wants everyone to be aware of what’s at stake.
“We want not only to be able to eat, but we want to remain true to what God has called us to do — take care of