Purpose of this blog

Exploring: theology, philosophy, religion, ecology, pop-culture...and seeking the good life!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An Interview with Norman Wirzba on Food, Agrarianism, and Ecology (for the "Contemporary Thinkers You Should Read" series)

  Dr. Norman Wirzba is a professor of theology, ecology and rural life at Duke Divinity School.  He trained as a phenomenologist at Loyola University under Adriaan Peperzak, but since then has produced some very helpful writings on Wendell Berry, Ecology, Agrarianism, Food, and the concept of the Sabbath.  Readers of this blog will, no doubt, recognize his name, because his work has been influential for my research concerning ecology and my practice as a community gardener. Dr. Wirzba is a humble and gracious man, this comes out very clearly in his interview on Duke's "Office Hours" concerning his new book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.   

One of the great things about Wirzba's work is that it is clear and sober; he does not go in for wild and impractical strategies for dealing with our societal woes.  Rather, when you read Wirzba, you get the sense that you are hearing a wise, faithful, and learned pastor...but don't let this fool you, his work is rigorously researched and very relevant.  (From here, the blog will be in bold, and Dr. Wirzba will be in regular type.  Also TAOTGL represents the blog's name)

1.)    Dr. Wirzba, I find the trajectory of your work quite interesting.  You studied philosophy (Levinas, phenomenology, etc) at Loyola University under Adriaan Peperzak, but most of your writings seem to reflect more on agrarianism, ecology, and food.  When asked about your work, I tell people that you are a theologian reflecting on creation, which means you think about food, agriculture, culture, ecology, and interestingly, the Sabbath.  Also I often describe your work as bringing Wendell Berry to the attention of theologians and philosophers.  Could you describe for us your intellectual trajectory?  Is there continuity between your philosophical work and your agrarian work etc? 

As I try to make sense of my admittedly unusual work path I say that I am a phenomenologist who has made a theological turn only to realize that I also needed to make an agrarian and ecological turn. I love many aspects of the histories of philosophy and theology, but what I am most interested in writing about are the forms of a faithful life that are attuned to the beauty and pain of our world. I want to explore what fidelity to God means and requires of us. For a long time I thought that meant paying attention only to human relationships. I now think that focus was much too narrow. Fidelity extends to the whole creation. And if we want to realize fidelity in a non-gnostic way we have to move into fundamental practices like eating and food production, practices that take seriously our embodiment in relation to all the bodies of creation.

2.)    Do you describe yourself more as a philosopher or theologian?  Since you are a Christian, what is your theological background/worshipping tradition? 

Lately I have been writing more as a theologian. In part this is because I want to see what the grammar of Christian faith looks like when creation is given more serious consideration. By creation I do not simply mean a teaching about how the world began. I mean creation as the realm of soil, water, plant, and animal through which God’s love and delight are revealed. At some point I hope to return to more explicitly philosophical kinds of writing because I think too much philosophy neglects basic ecological truths.

I write consciously as an agrarian. I grew up farming with Anabaptists in Western Canada and witnessed many of the sensitivities that I think make for an honest and decent life. The life of my forebears was hardly perfect, but it did show me things about what it means to live responsibly with fellow creatures. At my church we did not speak the language of sacraments, but if I had to say what we believed most fundamentally it was that Christ invites us to eat and work together in ways that manifest God’s love in the world. My fondest memories are times of “Kaffee und Kuchen/Coffee and Cake” shared after worship.

3.)    Do you situate yourself within a particular school of theological thought?

One of the joys of my teaching and writing life is that I have had the freedom to range widely among schools of thought, reading wherever my interests took me. I have never felt the need to become a Levinas or Barth scholar, even while recognizing their great influence on my ways of thinking. I am discovering more of the Orthodox theological tradition these days (from Maximus to Staniloae and Yannaras and Zizioulas) and finding it immensely helpful. Though I was raised Anabaptist I go frequently to the classical traditions of philosophical and theological thought. There is so much to learn and digest!

4.)    In your pursuit to develop answers and a social imagination to combat ecological degradation, you suggest the worldview/lifestyle of agrarianism.  Could you tell us what agrarianism is, and why it is such a helpful way to live given our current problems?

I describe agrarianism as the set of priorities and responsibilities that seek the health of people and land together. The last word is important. For much of our history progress has depended on the exploitation of the land and its workers. I want to help us imagine what genuinely mutual flourishing would look like. This is a very tall order because it means we have to talk about the wide domains of culture including economics, politics, education, built environments, food systems, public and ecological health … the list goes on and on.

For this work we need to learn from traditions of animal husbandry and land care that have been practiced around the world through time. We need the diversity of these traditions to address the complexity of the social and ecological issues we face today. I think it is important to remember that a “cultured” person used to mean someone who had the affection and skill to take care of a field. Now it refers to person who would never have soil in their hands.

5.)    Is Agrarianism a direct rejection of capitalism or can it fit into a capitalist structure?  Many who read its literature tend to dismiss it as socialism or add to it any other number of ideological labels.  What is your take on agrarianism and economics? 

This is a huge question! I don’t think agrarianism amounts to a rejection of markets. Nor is it an affirmation of centralized, “socialist” forms of production. James Scott’s book Seeing Like a State is very helpful here. Agrarians, as I understand them, are for economies that do a better job counting the costs of our production and consumption. There are clearly forms of capitalism and socialism that because of their centralization and obsession with bigness are going to be very destructive. Scott describes very well how this happens. What we need are economies in which producers and consumers clearly see and then live with (correct and modify) the effects of their decisions. I think this means that local economies in which the distance between consumers and producers is shortened are to be preferred. When the strawberries you eat come from several thousand miles away, you can’t know if they were grown in ways that honor the land, its workers, or its eaters. Scott described how large bureaucratic efforts (one of the fruits of modernity) lead to catastrophe. The same applies to large corporations. They can be very destructive if they lose the capacity for detailed, honest vision and the requirements of local adaptation.

6.)    If the agrarian vision were realized would all people move away from the city and become farmers?  Can the agrarian vision be practiced in an urban environment?  If so, how?

Absolutely not. I make the case that a viable future agrarianism is going to depend on cities. More specifically, it is going to depend on urbanites and suburbanites who recognize the importance of clean water, healthy soil, contented animals, and justly treated agricultural workers, and then reflect those commitments in the consumer decisions they make. The last thing we need are ill-prepared folks trying to romanticize farming. Farming is hard work. It requires an incredibly complex and nimble intelligence.

I am encouraged to see that so many young people are wanting to learn to farm again. That is great. But you don’t need to move to the country to do that work. You can grow food in your back yard or in community gardens. Urban agriculture is taking off in many cities now. I am hoping that the walls between cities and country can become more porous like they once were.

7.)    Are you familiar with “Freeganism” (modern day foragers, scavengers…dumpster divers)?  What do you make of their attempts at living a non-consumerist lifestyle? 

I am afraid I don’t know much detail here.

8.)    In your book The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age you write about the modern ecological crisis.  In your understanding what is the cause of this crisis? 

The heart of the crisis is that with modern urbanization and industrialization we have forgotten that land matters. We don’t love the land nor do we have much sustained or practical engagement with it. Add to that the fact that as urbanites we often live insulated lives that shield us from the destructive effects of our choices and you have the perfect recipe for ignorant destruction.

9.)    It is quite vogue to say that Christianity is to blame for positing an ideology of domination that has enabled modern ecological degradation, is this a fair reading of history? 

Lynn White’s essay (TAOTGL: "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis") has been incredibly influential. It has led many environmentalists to turn Christianity into a scapegoat. This is most unfortunate because it enables them to take their eyes off changes in modern economic life that have played a profound role. To read the work of someone like Gus Speth is helpful in this regard because he shows how our ever growing economy (along with the multiple religious and non-religious elements that nurture it) is really where we need to put our attention.

10.) Does your work on agrarianism, food, ecology etc. speak to other social ills besides the ecological crisis? 

I think so. We have not thought deeply enough about what it takes to be a community. Community is not simply an idea but a social and economic reality that can only be sustained with the right kinds of patience, humility, attention, skill, and affection. I think agrarians have a lot to teach us on all these points.

11.) You have written, in a very insightful way, that moderns (supposedly those shaped by naturalism) are not “natural” enough.  You argue that modern people need to be re-naturalized, can you explain what you mean by that? 

“Nature” is a very tricky word. I think it has become code for various kinds of idolatry. I think it more useful to say that we have not yet learned what it means to be a creature. What would it take to live deeply into our creatureliness, sharing a life with other creatures ranging from humans to earthworms? That is a great question. It is one that is often in my mind as I write. It was certainly central in my food book.

12.) Your most recent book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating deals with spiritual and social issues surrounding food.  Could you summarize your main concerns with the way modern society views food?  Dr. Wirzba, is food a topic that theology should address? 

I know there are many Christians who think the whole topic of eating irrelevant. They are not reading their Bibles very carefully. Eating shows up all the time. Why? Because it is through eating that fellowship and communion happen. The fellowship is not only with other people. If you are involved in food’s production you invariably find yourself thinking about the community or fellowship of creation too.

One of our biggest problems is that we have been trained to think of food as a commodity. It hardly registers as the gift from God that it is. As a result our eating is often a desecration. I think it is significant that Christian formation happens around the Eucharistic table. That is where we learn to be reconciled with each other. It is where we learn to be witnesses to God’s love in the world. I think kitchen tables and backyard gardens should be similar witnesses.

13.) If theology should address food, how should the church address it especially when most western churches live in under the hegemony of industrialized food complex? 

I think one of the best things to do is for church members to work together to grow food. Right now many churches have valuable land that could be converted into gardens and orchards. As people grow food together their eyes and sensitivities will open. They will begin to see scripture in new ways. The potential for ministry will expand. The church is not only in the soul business. It is also in the soil business. We should never forget how much time Jesus spent feeding and eating with people.

14.) Should Christians be “locavores?”

That has become a loaded term for folks. I believe that if you have a personal relationship with the people growing your food, that is a good thing. I know it is not an option for everyone.

15.) Who are some of your greatest influences: theologically, philosophically, ecologically?

The list would be very long. Here are just a few: Plato, Aristotle, Irenaeus, Augustine, Maximus, Bonaventure, Gregory Palamas, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Buber, Wittgenstein, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chretien, Henry Bugbee, Rowan Williams, Nicholas Lash, Fergus Kerr, Graham Ward, Charles Taylor, Ed Casey, Pierre Hadot, Balthasar, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Stan Rowe, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackson, and Wendell Berry. I know I have left out very important people.

16.) Since you enjoy Wendell Berry, I have to ask, which novel is your favorite?  Which book of essays? 

Hard to pick: Jayber Crow (novel), A Timbered Choir (poems), and The Art of the Commonplace (essays!) (TAOTGL: this last book was edited by Dr. Wirzba, and I count it as a good introduction into Berry's thought as an agrarian).

17.) Do you have a personal relationship with Berry? 

Yes, we are friends. (TAOTGL: I AM SO JEALOUS)

18.) Berry’s work is loved by a broad audience, and it is gaining in popularity…why do you think a writer/farmer from Kentucky who writes about rural life is so intriguing for contemporary audiences?

Berry writes beautifully, clearly and with more honesty than most. He is bringing our attention to fundamental truths.

19.) If someone wanted to get into food studies where should they begin?  How about ecological and agrarian studies? 

For those interested in food, start reading the work of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Marion Nestle, and Vandana Shiva. For those interested in agrarian studies, start with the collection I edited called The Essential Agrarian Reader. From there, get into the work of Berry, Wes Jackson, Gene Logsdon, and Fred Kirschenmann.

20.) I am very impressed that much of your work seems to come back to or at least engage in the doctrine of creation.  This includes your book on the Sabbath.  How is the concept of the Sabbath important for our understanding of food, culture, agriculture and the doctrine of creation? 

I am seeing that Sabbath is absolutely central. It really is a matter of life and death as the Bible says. Sabbath is not simply about taking a break or checking out. It is about learning our proper orientation in life, an orientation that has attention, gratitude, and celebration (worship) at its heart. So much of what harms us and our world stems from an inability to attend to where we are and who we are with. Sabbath compels us to slow down and stop so we can ask what all our frantic and often destructive striving is for.

21.) Do you garden?  What is your favorite thing to grow and eat?

I do garden. I have much to learn. I love growing tomatoes and peppers so I can make salsa and spaghetti sauce. My most favorite crop, however, is raspberries.

22.) If someone wanted to start reading your work today, where should they begin?  How should they proceed?

Probably with Living the Sabbath. It all depends on where you are in life and what your particular interests are, though.

23.) What is next for your personal research and writing?

I am thinking of some book projects now that I have just finished a book on reconciliation with the land that I wrote with my good friend Fred Bahnson (coming out with InterVarsity next spring). I would like to explore more what human creatureliness is and what it practically entails. I would also like to develop how agrarianism helps us rethink fundamental theological and philosophical categories. I am not sure yet what forms those projects will take.
Other good places to start encountering Wirzba's thought are: "Duke's Office Hours" that is linked above, his essay "Gardening With God" in the Huffington Post, or his work in The Gift of Creation: Images from Scripture and Earth.

Thank You Dr. Wirzba for your time and insights! 


  1. Love this...

    "Sabbath is not simply about taking a break or checking out. It is about learning our proper orientation in life, an orientation that has attention, gratitude, and celebration (worship) at its heart. So much of what harms us and our world stems from an inability to attend to where we are and who we are with"

    Beautiful! Thanks Jarrod and Dr. Wirzba.

  2. Great to meet you at the wedding, Jarrod, and thanks for informing me of this outpost on the internet. Happy to see you've included some Wendell Berry here.