Norman Wirzba’s This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World opens with a stunning provocation: What might it mean to respond to our living in the Anthropocene—and the challenges and threat this implies not only for human existence but for all forms of life—by seeing the world as “sacred gift,” as “divinely created”? In a world increasingly degraded and desacralized, might it be possible to find our way forward by reorienting our understanding of the human person and its place in the world in a theological key?
Wirzba thinks that we can, which makes This Sacred Life an unusual but compelling intervention in literature on the Anthropocene. He argues that it is precisely in seeing the world as God’s creation, and human persons as creatures emplaced by a creator within a “meshwork world,” that we might fashion a rudder by which to navigate our current and coming storms. Seeing ourselves as such, says Wirzba, illuminates our “sacred vocation” to cherish and care for those beings and environments with which we are entangled, and on which we depend. All said, This Sacred Life seeks to display the “interrelation and the practical significance of the logics of creation, creatureliness, and creativity,” categories largely absent from contemporary reflection on the Anthropocene (xix). The recovery of these categories and the logics that animate them, maintains Wirzba, can provide us with a guide for life in, and perhaps beyond, this epoch.
How Wirzba, a Christian theologian, develops his claims is striking. He draws from Jewish and indigenous sources as well as Christian ones throughout This Sacred Life, and he employs not only Christian theological insights but insights from disciplines and thinkers that remain agnostic, at best, about Christian theological conviction and commitment. This makes This Sacred Life a genuinely interdisciplinary effort, characterized by what Carole Fontaine names as an “intellectual ecumenism.”1 Engagement with the Jewish story of creation appears alongside an excursus on the nature of plant life. In a meditation on language and classification, Aristotle finds correction by Potawatomi Nation member Robin Kimmerer. Anthropologist Tim Ingold’s notion of the “meshwork” finds nuance in the work of Canadian Cree Chief Matthew Coon Come. In this way, Wirzba weaves together the insights of a broad range of interlocutors to show that confronting the Anthropocene, and the predicament it represents for us, must be a pluralist endeavor. As such, This Sacred Life reads not as a work of Christian theology as much as an effort by a Christian theologian to combine the wisdoms of various religious and indigenous traditions with insights from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to issue a vision and ethic that might speak across the boundaries of religious and cultural difference.
This Sacred Life develops its argument in three parts. In the first, Wirzba describes and diagnoses the logics that have led us to the Anthropocene, logics that center mastery, domination, and the exercise of human freedom without limits. He describes the form of life that awaits us if we do not discern an alternative approach, issuing a trenchant critique of transhumanism as yielding a future that will “erode…the capacities that make us human” (51).
In the second part, Wirzba counters this transhumanist vision with one that emphasizes the goodness of embodied experience. “Rootedness” serves as the animating center of this section, in which Wirzba relishes in the majesty of soil and plant life and the dependence of human life on land and non-human creatures. Life is a “rooted, communal phenomenon,” one in which the human person is “soil-birthed and soil-bound,” entangled from the start with the conditions and realities that make life possible (86, 69). With this in place, Wirzba depicts a mode of human relating to the world marked by limits and constraints because of its love of particular creatures and places. Ingold’s notion of the world as “meshwork” looms large here, as it captures the interrelated, weblike character of life in which human persons find themselves.
In the third part, Wirzba moves most fully into a theological key as he describes ways of being in the world oriented by the logics of creation, creatureliness, and creativity. He anchors his account of the world as “sacred gift” in the doctrine of creation, the gift of a transcendent source that is simultaneously immanent to creation (163). He renders our creatureliness in a “symbiogenetic” manner to emphasize that we are “profoundly self-insufficient beings,” constituted by our relations with others and our “becoming-with them” (178-79). A final chapter describes how human action might be transformed by these logics, and the implications of this transformation for economics, politics, and human relationships with built and natural environments. Throughout these chapters, Jesus serves as a “hermeneutical key” for the mode of life Wirzba seeks to display, animating his reflections about living in a manner characterized by care, devotion, and love for the world (173).
As Wirzba suggests, if discerning our place within, and possible future beyond, the Anthropocene necessitates interdisciplinary thinking, then so must be the assessment of his proposals. This symposium draws together commentators from both inside and outside the discipline of Christian theology: Natalie Carnes, Amy Plantinga Pauw, and Jonathan Tran from within, and Saskia Cornes, who works in the environmental humanities and with experiential pedagogies in food and food justice in her role as director of the Duke Campus Farm, and Dirk Philipsen, an economic historian who also teaches at Duke. Each brings a varied perspective to bear on Wirzba’s turn to the theological in the Anthropocene.
Observing that, traditionally, the doctrine of creation has done little more than serve as a backdrop in Christian theology, and theological anthropology has done little more than emphasize the difference of human persons from other creatures, Plantinga Pauw upholds Wirzba’s efforts to reverse these tendencies in This Sacred Life by emphasizing the interdependent and emplaced nature of the human creature. She finds echoes of biblical wisdom in This Sacred Life, pitching Wirzba as a modern-day biblical sage who cries out about what it might mean to live wisely in the Anthropocene. What she finds missing, however, is a recognition that God’s gift of creation is one of “perishing life, life that is intertwined with death from beginning to end”—a feature consistently recognized by the wisdom books but “strangely muted” in This Sacred Life. Plantinga Pauw forcefully argues for a greater wrestling with the “ambiguity of a God-given creaturely life vulnerable to disease, predation, and decay” and what this might mean for discerning our place within, and a path beyond, the Anthropocene.
Carnes takes similar tack, asking whether Wirzba’s vision for wise living in the Anthropocene is capacious enough. With echoes of Plantinga Pauw’s “perishing life,” Carnes points to asceticism and martyrdom, asking whether Wirzba’s framework can accommodate these forms of Christian practice—“forms…that are not so obviously ordered toward flourishing”—or whether it breaks under their weight. She raises something of a parallel line of questioning regarding transhumanism, asking whether “the relationship with transhumanism is both more intimate and more ambivalent than Wirzba explores.” If so, might there be forms of transhumanist intervention that do not erode human dignity and the modes of attention toward which Wirzba wishes to draw us?
Tran focuses on Wirzba’s critique of recent attempts by theorists to replace “Anthropocene” with “Capitalocene.” For Wirzba, to rename our epoch as such fails to recognize that humans have been altering the planet in destructive ways prior to the emergence of capitalism. Tran pauses to ask whether this critique is justified, particularly given how “Capitalocene” more explicitly names the political, racial, and economic dimensions of our epoch (which Wirzba recognizes; see 14). Tran then asks whether this critique is indicative of a broader failure on Wirzba’s part to attend to material processes through This Sacred Life. Put differently, Tran asks whether Wirzba’s focus on the logics of creation, creaturelieness, and creativity proceed in abstraction from the realities with which Wirzba is purportedly concerned. Given that theologians are susceptible to, if not often guilty of, trafficking in abstraction at the expense of the concrete, Tran essentially raises a species of this question here.
In a manner that perhaps departs from Tran’s provocations, Cornes finds This Sacred Life deeply concerned with a particular form of materiality—soil and its “complexity and fragility, liveliness and mystery.” Cornes affirms Wirzba’s turn to “human/soil encounters” as capable of illuminating our dependence on the natural world—an insight familiar to Cornes as director of Duke Campus Farm. Yet, reflecting her concern with pedagogy and practice, Cornes asks whether facilitating such encounters, and broader practices of placemaking, is sufficient for responding to our current and coming crises. In doing so, she raises powerful queries about how much a concern with place and locality can do for us given the gravity of our predicament.
Philipsen reads Wirzba as a “sacred materialist”—that is, as one who has much in common with Marx but who renders his vision in a more beautiful and compelling key. He likewise finds Wirzba’s argument illuminated by the diversity of voices he engages, particularly his indigenous interlocutors. But he ultimately finds himself provoked rather than reassured by Wirzba’s vision of life as sacred gift. His questions are legion, but it bears highlighting perhaps his most pressing pair of queries: “Can God and the creation story deliver on producing Wirzba’s good aims? And why, in his own telling, has it done such a poor job at doing so up to this point in history?” With Cornes, Philipsen raises questions that Christian theologians must continue to reflect on if they are to develop categories and frameworks that will inspire assent for those standing outside religious belief and conviction.
Taken together, these responses to This Sacred Life bear witness to the richness of Wirzba’s proposal to see the world as sacred gift. For me, it has been a gift to convene this conversation in the spirit of “intellectual ecumenism” that This Sacred Life so beautifully models.
I draw this phrase from Amy Plantinga Pauw’s response, “Living Wisely,” which appears below.↩