Commitment, Idolatry, and the World we Inhabit

Norman Wirzba is professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School.  His latest book, From Nature to Creation: a Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World  framed this interview.

David George Moore conducted the interview.  Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.

Moore: You were trained as a philosopher.  How did you get so interested in ecological issues?

Wirzba: I grew up a farm kid on the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. I loved being outdoors and working with land and animals. When I started reading philosophy and saw that they often spoke of the “world” in rather abstract ways, I wanted to make things more specific and applicable to the lives people live in the day to day. I was especially drawn to philosophers who spoke of our involvement in the world as a way to derive meaning. Agricultural work did that for me, but not many philosophers engage agricultural traditions.

Moore: Your book is loaded with quotes and insights from Wendell Berry.  Tell us a bit about how your friendship with Berry.

Wirzba: We became friends when I moved to Kentucky to teach. I saw in his work a way of naming and describing things that are fundamental but often ignored by philosophers and theologians. He also spoke to my own agricultural story.

Moore: You do a terrific job of demonstrating that words or how we name things matters.  Why is it important to see our world as created rather than a hunk of matter?

Wirzba: How we name things determines how we are going to relate to them. I don’t treat a “weed” the same way as I treat a “flower” even though both are plants. If the world is a “store” we will position ourselves as consumers. If the world is God’s “creation,” and we appreciate what that name means, then we will have to position ourselves in unique ways.

Moore: The fast-paced and distracted nature of modernity makes thoughtful thinking seem impractical.  What can we do to slow down and be more aware of the world we inhabit?

Wirzba: The more I live the more I think that Sabbath is crucial to our well-being and the well being of the world. We need to be able to think carefully about why we are so busy. What is our frantic pace ultimately for? Will we discover that we have impoverished our lives with all this busyness?

Moore: Would you describe how a growing appreciation for the incarnation of Jesus brings greater awareness to the importance of physical realities?

Wirzba: First, there is the basic, astounding fact that God saw a human, fleshly body as a suitable home for the divine life. In his body the fullness of the divine life dwelled. Christians who argue the dualist view that bodies don’t matter or ultimately need to be left behind, deny the incarnation. Second, Jesus loves material bodies, which is why he heals and feeds and exorcises and befriends them. It is crucial to resist the impulse to flee material creation. As Revelation makes clear, God’s eternal destination is creation.

Moore: What are some ways we seek to gut the world of its mystery and so control it for our own consumer-oriented desires?

Wirzba: We want to make everything into a possession that we can then control. That way we can life on our own terms.  We are afraid of the messiness of our entanglements with other bodies. We are afraid of death. And so we flee into the worlds of our own making. There is a complex psychology behind all of this. We need to see that this is ultimately an evasion before life. Jesus doesn’t do that.

Moore: What are some practical things we can do to increase our awareness of how God provides food?

Wirzba: The best thing is to grow some, even just a little bit. You don’t need to plunge into a big garden to learn about the gift, fragility, pain, and beauty of life. If you can’t do much of that, make time to find and get to know gardeners and farmers and learn from them what you can. Read about our food system. Don’t be an ignorant eater. And then cook food together with family and friends to share. Talk about what you are doing and discovering.

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