Symposium Introduction

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.

  1. I draw this phrase from Amy Plantinga Pauw’s response, “Living Wisely,” which appears below.

Amy Plantinga Pauw


Living Wisely

Before reading this book, I had never encountered any Christian theology that made me want to be more like a plant. This Sacred Life fills readers with awe at the creaturely world to which we belong and calls us to pay attention to its intricate rhythms. Traditionally, the doctrine of creation has not done much work in western Christian systematic theology, often serving merely as a scenic backdrop to the drama of human redemption. Theological anthropology has tended to center its attention on what makes humans different from other creatures. Wirzba emphatically reclaims the sacredness of our creaturehood in the Anthropocene era. From Ukraine to Myanmar, from the brutality of factory farms to the ravages of environmental racism, we see all around us the violence and suffering we humans have inflicted on our earthly home. We have structured our personal, political, and economic lives in selfish, abusive, and unsustainable ways. Wirzba calls attention to the deep connections between justice for human beings and justice for fellow creatures and the land. His book is both a lament and a lyrical summons to a transformed life in our meshwork world.

Christians have developed ways of reading the Bible that have undermined serious theological attention to our creaturely identity and have at times legitimated our abuse and degradation of the land and fellow creatures. Wirzba is especially critical of readings that portray our eschatological hope as an escape from earth. The biblical wisdom books seem to me a neglected resource for Wirzba’s argument. The theological horizon of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job is creation. Their focus is not on a lost paradise or a heavenly future, but on cultivating wise creaturehood in the present. Human wisdom is patient, attentive discernment of the character and patterns of creaturely life as God has given it. We ignore or flout those patterns at our peril. Those who seek Woman Wisdom find life. Those who foolishly ignore her ways find death. As Wirzba notes, “It takes discipline and skill, along with long periods of attention and commitment, for people to discern where beauty and vitality are happening, and what the conditions are that precipitate fragmentation and needless destruction” (88). This kind of slowly acquired knowledge is at the heart of biblical wisdom. God gives us earthlings a lifelong vocation to pursue it.

All wisdom ultimately comes from God, but the human search for wisdom in these biblical books is a broad one. In Proverbs and Job, non-human creatures like ants, badgers, locusts, mountain goats, and hawks display wisdom that can aid human creatures in their quest for a wise way of life. As Job counsels, “Ask the beasts and they will teach you” (Job 12:7). Similarly, Wirzba asks us to learn from plants and from the soil what it means to live a rooted life: “plants are our indispensable teachers because they show us how mistaken we have been about the world we otherwise think ourselves to be in” (88). The search for wisdom requires a receptivity and teachableness that subverts our assumed earthly hierarchies. The Anthropocene era forces us to confront in new ways the old folly of being “wise in our own eyes” (Prov 12:15) and to reconsider who counts as our neighbor.

Biblical wisdom also displays what Carole Fontaine calls “an intellectual ecumenism,” a willingness to share intellectual resources across boundaries of culture and religion. This is especially true in the case of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the motherlands of wisdom in the Ancient Near East. One of the pronounced features of current ecological reflection is its deliberate cultivation of conversation and collaboration across many different religious and cultural traditions. As a recent publication puts it, “Living Earth Community” requires wisdom from “Multiple Ways of Being and Knowing.”1 Wirzba likewise recognizes that Christian and Jewish resources do not have all the answers (and have at times been a significant part of the problem), and he thus draws on indigenous and other traditions. The wisdom we need to find humanity’s proper place in a wounded world will have to come from multiple sources.

In our own time, activists and ecologians like Wirzba are perhaps the voices closest to the biblical sages. They share the same sense of moral urgency about the communal cultivation of a wise and just way of life. They warn us of the terrible consequences of ecological folly. Indeed, the stock characters in the book of Proverbs all feature in Wirzba’s book. The wise, like Chief Coon Come, know that “our land is our memory,” and acknowledge “the vast networks of relationships that inspire, nurture, and complete” our lives (107). By contrast, the wicked, driven by greed and the desire for power, pillage the earth and enslave its peoples. The scoffers deny the depth of the earth’s distress, trusting in the power of human ingenuity or the promise of a far-off heaven to come to our rescue. The lazy know they should change their ways, but find their current consumerist lifestyle too convenient to give up. Wirzba reserves his special scorn for fools: the transhumanists, who dream of a “posthuman” physical invulnerability on earth, the futurists who pin their hopes on the colonization of other planets, those who yearn for a “frictionless life” courtesy of smart techno-social systems. Their folly is their attempt to reject the finitude intrinsic to creatureliness, the interdependence of our meshwork lives.

I have noted various ways in which themes in biblical wisdom bolster Wirzba’s argument. However, there is an important dimension of biblical wisdom that does not fit well within Wirzba’s theological narrative: biblical wisdom recognizes two kinds of creaturely death, while Wirzba really makes room for only one. Both biblical wisdom and Wirzba condemn the death caused by human sin and evil. This kind of humanly instigated death produces both biological death and the deathly life of alienation from God and fellow creatures. Wirzba joins the wisdom books in repudiating the death-dealing ways of sinful humanity—the many ways we choose death instead of creaturely flourishing, both for ourselves and for all our relations. 

Biblical wisdom also recognizes that suffering and death not due to human sin is a steady state feature of creaturehood. These books are resolutely honest about the fact that the creaturely life given and lovingly sustained by God is perishing life, life that is intertwined with death from beginning to end. As Ecclesiastes declares, “There is a time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Eccl 3:2). Of course, Wirzba knows this—he is a gardener after all. As he writes elsewhere, 

In the work of nurturing plant and animal life, people come into intimate contact with the powers of death as the matrix in terms of which life’s potential unfolds. Gardens are places where people learn that death is not simply an end to life but a vital ingredient and partner in the furthering of life. Put simply, there is no fertility without the deaths of countless bodies entering the ground. It is a humbling, even terrifying, thing to acknowledge one’s dependence on the deaths of others.2

There is no way to sustain our own creaturely lives without consuming, and thereby destroying, other creatures. Even vegans kill to eat. The problem is that in This Sacred Life this acknowledgement of what we might call “garden-variety death” is strangely muted. Wirzba ridicules the transhumanist contempt for human “finitude, frailty, and need” (36). He criticizes the tendency of modern western medicine to see death as “an enemy that must be resisted, at whatever cost and with whatever means, as long as possible” (54). In a lyrical passage, he declares that “we unself into birds, trees, parasitic worms, and sooner or later, soil; beyond species and individuals, we open to the community from which we are made” (87). This is a poetic way of saying we all die. But in general, Wirzba prefers to rhapsodize about “the ongoing fertility and fecundity of the world—the miraculous character of its ever-fresh natality” (142), without acknowledging the suffering and death on which all this fecundity depends. It would strengthen Wirzba’s theology of creaturehood to draw on a biblical strand that affirms both God’s “unending, abiding attention and love for [earth’s] most quotidian elements” (153) and the ambiguity of a God-given creaturely life vulnerable to disease, predation, and decay. Without serious theological attention to garden-variety death, Wirzba’s depiction of our creatureliness ends up skirting a major dimension of it. 

There are four main elements in Wirzba’s theology of creaturehood. First, there is God’s gift of sacred life that pulses through every place and every creature. Second, there is death and suffering resulting from human violence and neglect. Third, there is God’s promised transformation of the earth and all its creatures. As he writes elsewhere, “it is essential that the material world be transformed, so that in all of its characteristics life can flourish and flower. This is what love demands. It would be a contradiction for perfect love to live side by side with degradation, disease, and death.”3 And fourth, there are our good faith efforts to join with God now in healing the world. 

This theological narrative leaves me wondering about the fuzzy great horned owlets in my neighborhood. To my delight, they have started branching, leaving the safety of their nest and making their precarious way to adjacent limbs. For now, they are still dependent on their mother’s hunting. But soon they will fledge and become fearsome predators like she is. Are they part of the beautiful harmonium mundi Wirzba revels in? Does their predatory existence testify in its own way to “the primordial truth of being—givenness, graciousness, generativity, and goodness” (140)? Or does it testify instead to a fallen and wounded creaturehood that needs healing and purifying? What place will my neighborhood owls have in Wirzba’s eschatological vision of a new earth with no more suffering or death? Will they no longer hunt? Will they no longer reproduce? 

I worry that by neglecting garden-variety death, Wirzba’s theological narrative does not leave enough room for embracing “THIS sacred life,” the one God gives us now. God calls us to gratitude for and sustained attention to the rhythms and patterns of our carbon-based creaturely existence. This includes acknowledging, with Elizabeth Johnson, that “once life emerged there never was a literal garden of Eden or a paradise on this planet where death did not exist. Once nervous systems developed, there never was life without pain.”[/footnote] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 184.[/footnote] I agree with Wirzba that earthly life is precious and that “the essential work of God’s followers is that they join with God in the healing of this wounded world” (154). But there is no stepwise progression from our efforts at healing our world to a new earth “devoid of death, pain, and crying” (142). God’s promises of consummation require a transformation of creaturely life that is unimaginable (to us). 

The Community Supported Agriculture folks I hang out with are some of the most morally serious people I know. I doubt that their theology would pass muster with Wirzba. Their worldview is closer to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s earthly “covenant of reciprocity” than to any theistic notion of transcendence. Their future hope skews closer to Pema Chödrön than to Jürgen Moltmann. I admire the way their acknowledgement of the interdependence of creaturely life and death neither blunts their outrage at human degradation of the earth nor dampens their efforts to heal a wounded world. I have learned a lot from them about what it means to affirm “this sacred life.” As I bring my Christian theological resources to our shared work, I hope that they will also learn from me. Reading Wirzba’s book has deepened the resources I have to offer.

  1. Sam Mickey, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim, eds., Living Earth Community: Multiple Ways of Being and Knowing (Open Book Publishers, 2020).

  2. Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015) 99-100.

  3. Norman Wirzba, Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 231.

  • Norman Wirzba

    Norman Wirzba


    Response to Amy Plantinga Pauw

    I am especially grateful to read Amy Plantinga Pauw’s response to This Sacred Life since her book Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology is, in my view, an outstanding example of how the doctrine of creation more generally, and Wisdom writers more particularly, can be developed to affirm the sacred character of this life. I agree entirely that the Wisdom books could have bolstered and nuanced my position considerably. Their repeated insistence on human finitude in the domains of knowing and action, and their embrace of quotidian life as affirmed by God and worthy of our attention and respect, are themes I wholeheartedly support. For them the question of limits, both as a way of calling forth restraint in us, but also as a way of setting an honest context for human exploration and creativity, are crucial in contemporary contexts that seem committed to limitlessness in its many forms (in classes I regularly teach the book of Job as one of the most ecologically attuned texts in Scripture). I also affirm “intellectual ecumenism” since This Sacred Life was written in what I hope is an invitational manner. The wisdom we need to heal lands and communities across the world will come from diverse traditions examining their histories and commitments together (more on this in my response to Dirk Philipsen).

    In her response Plantinga Pauw also takes us to the heart of a fundamental and abiding concern: the nature and meaning of death. I will say straight off that I don’t claim to have “solved” the many concerns that circulate around and through personal death, so what I say in the following is my attempt to set some guideposts for further discussion. 

    It is correct that in This Sacred Life my emphasis is on the death caused by humans. I should have said more about the death that is a built-in feature of creatureliness itself (I have much more to say about this in my book Food and Faith where eating is our daily participation in the ways of life and death). I start with the assumption that creaturely finitude is at the same time an acknowledgment of creaturely mortality. Creatures are not immortal. Their condition is such that they must always receive their living as a gift made possible by the lives of others and, ultimately, by the God who gives life to all.1 I further assume that creaturely mortality is an abiding condition and not some evil or deficiency that needs to be overcome. To be sure, there are forms and means of dying that degrade the goodness of created life, but that does not mean that creatures should seek some form of immortality in which they no longer need to receive their life from God. Self-insufficiency is key to my understanding of our creaturely condition.

    My worry is that a desire for immortality, which is also a desire for self-sufficiency and invulnerability, is hard to resist. What I need clarity on is whether Plantinga Pauw’s statement of God’s promises of consummation that “require a transformation of creaturely life that is unimaginable to us” reflects a desire to leave creatureliness behind. In other words, will there finally be a time when creatures no longer need to eat (whether by predation or not) or reproduce or do the many things that embodied creatures currently do? Plantinga Pauw suggests something like this when in Church in Ordinary Time she writes, the “church knows that its final home is found only in God,” and “Earthly life is a great gift but not a final gift.”2  

    Let me highlight two passages in Scripture that are decisive for me in this regard. I don’t claim to comprehend their significance, but they stand as essential determinants that I don’t think have received the reflection they deserve. The first one is from the Christ hymn in Colossians where we are told that early Christians believed that “the fullness [pleroma] of God” was pleased to dwell in Jesus (1:19), further specifying that in Jesus “the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9). The second passage is in Revelation 21 where we are given a vision of God’s descent to Earth because the future and abiding home of God “is among mortals” (21:3). These two passages suggest that creaturely mortality is not ever to be overcome or left behind. Divine incarnation in flesh signals, at least to me, a complete and irrevocable affirmation of embodiment, and therefore also the limits such embodiment entails.3 When Christians express a longing to leave Earth—whether because they think it is deficient or because they think it will go extinct in a future heat death—and the inescapable entanglements of embodiment, I wonder if they are caught in the grip of a failure of incarnational nerve.

    Let me be clear: I don’t claim to comprehend what will happen “in the end” or the mechanics of how “the end” comes about. I simply want to stress my opposition to the very old Parmenidean logic that says becoming is always deficient, and that the realm of true being is a realm of eternal stasis. That logic has been a temptation to many Christians throughout the ages. It is with us still and is contributing to the resignation Christians express when faced with the damage and wounds of this world. I don’t mean to suggest that Plantinga Pauw embraces this otherworldly longing, or that she endorses those who write off this world as irredeemably fallen. 

    As I see it, Christian affirmation of the resurrection of the body requires a rejection of the dualist longing for immortality. The logics of resurrection and immortality are irreconcilable. The question that emerges, then, is what the nature of a resurrected body and world are. I think it makes sense to argue that resurrected bodies are always creaturely bodies, and as such are subject to becoming and co-becoming with others (no atomized souls floating off to some ethereal heaven far, far away). I think it also makes sense, given the wounded character of Jesus’s resurrected body, to argue that wounds remain and that even (non-malicious) wounding continues as a perhaps inescapable feature of our embodied entanglements. I wonder if a desire for a life entirely without wounds is also a desire to be exempt from a life of co-becoming. This is not to say that I endorse violence and needless suffering. It is to say, however, that a fully resurrected world animated only and always by the love of God—my short definition of heaven or the kingdom of God—will still be a world in which pains appear. In other words, there are forms of “crying” that will be over, but others that will remain.

    My most fundamental worry is that people, even while affirming the wonders and beauties of creation, in the end give up on creaturely life as somehow deficient. It’s as though God must have made a mistake in creating a finite world of creaturely, embodied, co-becoming. This is why we can’t ever be satisfied until our home is with God alone. I want to resist that impulse because I think God does not ever hate or give up on creatures, whether those who wound or those who are wounded. This Sacred Life was my attempt to articulate a theological vision that refuses to abandon creatures.

    I suspect that my framing in this response is a bit off because it moves within the polarity of the Parmenidean logic: either temporal, embodied, dynamic becoming/co-becoming, or static, eternal, disembodied being. What if the logic of resurrection, which in my view is the full affirmation of and abiding commitment to creaturely embodiment, is not beholden to this Parmenidean polarity? I suspect something like this is at work when we consider the nature of God’s transcendence. Too often this idea is meant to communicate God’s distance and utter removal from this world. Wherever God is, it’s not here, because this world is foul and fallen. This characterization of transcendence, as Plantinga Pauw well knows, is a mistake, because God’s transcendence and immanence go together. John of Damascus put the point succinctly when he says, “All things are far from God: not in place, but in nature.”4 This means, at a minimum, that God’s “being” is wholly unlike our own, such that God can be present to each and every creaturely being and place as the source and nurturer of its life, without being comprehended by any creature or place. This idea, I would think, can be welcomed by all sorts of people, whether subscribers to a religious faith or not, because it affirms God’s loving commitment to be with and for creatures at every turn and bump of their lives. It affirms that each creature’s life is precious, and not simply the object of God’s occasional attention but (in ways we can’t fully comprehend) the embodied manifestation of God’s creating and loving power. We need an idea just like this if something like a prophetic protest against the destruction of this world and its life is to be sustained. As This Sacred Life has attempted to argue, it is also an idea that can inspire people to participate in the divine power that is constantly working to create, nurture, heal, and celebrate life.

    1. I find Nicholas Lash’s formulation of this dynamic especially arresting and clarifying: “Life is God, given.” In Believing Three Ways in One God (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, 104).

    2. Amy Plantinga Pauw, Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 49-50.

    3. Maximus the Confessor once said, “God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.” “Ambiguum 7,” On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Wilken (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 60.

    4. John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Christian Faith,” I.13 in Saint John of Damascus: Writings (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958) 199.

    • Amy Plantinga Pauw

      Amy Plantinga Pauw


      Reply to Norman Wirzba

      Thank you, Norman, for your generous and thoughtful response. We are on the same page about human life as finite creaturely life: (co-)becoming, embodied, and wholly dependent on God. Resurrection hope is not hope of transcending finite creaturehood. Perhaps what separates us is what a “logic of resurrection” not beholden to a “Parmenidean logic” might look like.

      You worry about a sentence from my book Church in Ordinary Time about the church’s final home being found only in God. I was riffing there on Paul’s musings in 2 Corinthians 5:8 about being away from the body and at home with the Lord. Paul makes this distinction because he is convinced that not even earthly death is able to separate him from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38-9). On my reading, Paul hopes for life beyond earthly death that is still finite, still embodied, still dependent on God. Is there room in your theological vision for this kind of transformation of creaturely life?

      Perhaps you can help me on another point. I may have misread you, but I’m puzzled by your assertion that God’s love for the Earth requires the Earth to be “the embodied site of God’s unending, abiding attention and love” (153, emphasis added). Does this mean that, while Earth’s creatures continue to be born and die, the Earth itself never dies? How can that be? God is the loving creator of all that is, including all planets, solar systems, and galaxies. Yet planets in our own galactic neighborhood die all the time. Why should the Earth be exempt from this creaturely finitude? Why does entertaining the possibility of the eventual heat-death of our planet represent for you “a failure of incarnational nerve”?

      In his recent book Human Anguish and God’s Power (Cambridge University Press, 2021), David Kelsey writes an excursus titled “Must God have only one eternal purpose?” (167-203). In it he challenges the theological assumption that all of God’s ways of relating are ordered to one telos. Maybe that is what we are up against here. What if there are irreducibly different “goods” to which God’s ways of relating to creatures are ordered? Would that make sense of Natalie Carnes’s comment in this Symposium that “the sacred affirms the natural and, in some sense, upends it”?

      I’m raising questions here, not providing answers. As you can see, This Sacred Life has given me a lot to think about.

Natalie Carnes


The Natural and the Unnatural

There is a popular genre of environmental writing that begins with a litany of disasters: catalogues of rapidly deteriorating biodiversity, inventories of increasingly disastrous weather events, statistics presaging a massive climate refugee crisis—all the signs of the ecological apocalypse. The litany is meant to jolt the reader awake and prepare her to act. But to act how, exactly?  

Warning against treating creation as a “a problem to be solved,” Pope Francis exhorts his readers instead to approach creation as his namesake did, “a joyful mystery to be contemplated.”1 According to Francis, if we see the world primarily in terms of problems, then we act as masters over creation, assuming the same posture of domination and reiterating the same centering of human activity that led to those disasters in the first place.2 Better, for the saint and the pope, to approach the world first as a site of beauty, a source of wonder, an invitation to praise. 

Norman Wirzba’s This Sacred Life is written very much in the spirit of this Franciscan wisdom. Like the Francises, he even presents a way of looking to plants as inspirations for life in the world. Where Pope Francis narrates Saint Francis’s habit of leaving part of the garden wild, uncultivated for human use, to simply in its beauty call the mind to God, Wirzba’s own vegetative meditation interprets Jesus’s exhortation, “Consider the lilies,” as an injunction to learn from plants something about what it means to be human (77). The lilies and the wild plants exemplify the excessive beauty, wisdom, and wonder in the world, and at the heart of This Sacred Life is an affirmation of such abundance, which guides Wirzba’s engagement with our environmental catastrophe more than the problems, violence, and poverties that currently beset creation. In what follows, I want to appreciate the gifts of such an approach that understands the natural and the sacred together before asking two questions about whether and how it might account for the more unnatural impulses in Christianity.  

Wirzba’s book unfolds from the conviction that the world that is beautiful, that it is a gift, and that it is fitting to who and what we are as creatures. When he gives attention to what he calls the woundedness of the world, it is not through a litany of catastrophes but by a narration of how we became the kind of creatures who could wreak the kind of havoc on the world we have wrought. By telling the environmental crisis as a story of abundance betrayed, Wirzba can trace connections between it and myriad other crises of our time, casting the story of ecological devastation as a thread in a narrative that interweaves the desecrations of colonialism, racism, labor exploitation, and nationalist violence. They are all, in Wirzba’s telling, part of the story of denied abundance, sacrality, creatureliness. 

While attending to creation and the givenness of this sacred life, Wirzba frequently tracks towards the various ways of showing fidelity to this sacredness, especially through art. Vincent van Gogh, Makoto Fujimura, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Scott Cairns, and Gerard Manley Hopkins all make appearances in the last chapters as Wirzba evokes music, poetry, novels, and visual art to issue a call to creativity. As the breadth of these examples suggests, This Sacred Life is an extremely generous book—connecting disparate conversations and weaving a disciplinary meshwork that models for the reader the meshwork Wirzba sees in creation itself. 

Meshwork is a key descriptor in This Sacred Life. For Wirzba, we are in a meshwork, and we are a meshwork, from the microbes that co-constitute our gut to the trees that make our world habitable to the many other creatures whose sustenance is entwined with our own. “Human life,” Wirzba writes, “is always life together with other creatures” (75). It is life with and it is life in. Specifically, it is in a particular place, “soil-birthed and soil-bound,” (69) rooted, which is Wirzba’s other major model for human life. With this picture of human life as enmeshed with and rooted in creation, Wirzba’s call to action, when he does make it, issues in the language of tuning and attuning to the activities of the world around and within us. To describe the ethical life through attunement is both to frame human activity as responsive to, with, and in the activity of other creatures, and to suggest that there is an art to creatureliness, which his last chapter “Called to Creativity” draws out. 

Wirzba presents a beautiful picture of human life—one that is ecologically attuned and oriented toward creaturely flourishing. There is so much richness to the natural world in this account that it is hard to see what may lie beyond it. Even the terms “sacred” and “divine” point us emphatically back to the natural. As Wirzba puts it, “To speak of the sacred is to speak about a depth dimension that calls people into postures of gratitude that acknowledge the giftedness of life, and that inspires them to practices of care and nurture as the most fitting response to gifts having been received” (139). This seems an important corrective to theologies of an otherworldly sacred whose weight crushes the significance of ecology and the natural world. Yet I wonder how this vision accommodates features of Christian life, like asceticism and martyrdom, that are not obviously ordered toward natural flourishing. How exactly do they fit into this account of the sacred life? 

Certain kinds of asceticism fit neatly within the world Wirzba describes. There is an asceticism in which observing constraints opens up abundance, for restraints, he rightly argues, are internal to creativity. One cannot play a guitar, Wirzba points out, with infinite frets (27). He even commends “unselfing” as a critical aspect of life, before qualifying: “It is important to say that by ‘unselfing’ I do not mean self-denigration or self-destruction. Instead, I have in mind a self-opening disposition that is focused on and stays turned to the many ways that the creatures and processes around us are working themselves out in our bodies and lives” (87). This unselfing that is ordered to ecological and natural flourishing, that recognizes life is always life together and our becoming is always creaturely co-becoming, has a clear place in the world Wirzba opens for us. But what about forms of asceticism that are not so obviously ordered toward flourishing?

I’m thinking again of Francis, the saint this time, and his asceticism that was earthed in a deep love for this meshwork world, but that sometimes seems, on the face of it, contrary to flourishing in any natural sense. It is an asceticism that twins martyrdom, asceticism for love of God committed to solidarity with the least of these, those with whom Christ himself identified. Francis often had no very stable shelter nor food supply; he kissed lepers and drew near those who were ill. His asceticism was oriented to the promise of a future, eschatological life together, in which we are all invited guests at Christ’s wedding banquet, and so, like many saints, he consciously drew near death to lay hold of an abundance uncaptured by this life or the natural world. In his life, it seems, the sacred does not merely confirm the natural; it also, in some sense, upends it. And I wonder, then, about the differences in the two anecdotes about how plants are teachers for Wirzba and Francis. Where Wirzba interprets Jesus’s exhortation to consider the lilies as an invitation to learn about human life from plants, Francis sees the wild part of the garden raising the mind above creaturely realities to God, like natural incense drawing creatures to their maker. I point this out not because I think Wirzba and Francis are irreconcilable but because I want them to be reconcilable, and I’m hoping Wirzba can show me how, on his terms, they are.

This issue I raise about the sacred and the natural is kindred to another issue of Christianity’s nearness or farness to denials of the natural. One particularly insightful moment in the book came for me early on, in the chapter on transhumanism, when, after describing some transhumanists’ plans for more life and their discontents with the world, Wirzba points out that their hopes are, in a sense, not new, and he turns to the Phaedo to show how Socrates’s celebration of death as freedom from the flesh shares important similarities with transhumanists seeking freedom from their bodies (39-41). He marks some important differences between Plato’s text and the transhumanist manifestos, too, but the similarities were nonetheless striking and made me wonder more about Christianity’s complicity in this vision as well. Might transhumanism express, not just a repudiation of a Christian attitude toward the world, but something about the commitments internal to Christianity itself? I think of Gregory of Nyssa’ text On Virginity, which begins with the desire for immortality, echoing Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, and then ends with a call to follow the Crucified Lord, which is supposed to in some sense answer to while also transforming the desire for immortality. Might we find similarities between transhumanism and Christianity’s hope for the resurrection? Might we even discover positive homologies with or technologies of transhumanism, such as the way disability advocates and crip scholars orient bioenhancement imaginaries and technologies toward equity, justice, and diverse flourishing?3 Is there still more reckoning for Christianity to do, more complexity, temptation, and possibility, with transhumanism? Is the relationship with transhumanism both more intimate and more ambivalent than Wirzba explores?

My questions about asceticism and transhumanism are not unrelated questions, as I have been trying to suggest. Both are questions about how the large place given to the natural in Wirzba’s world can accommodate Christianity’s imbrications with the unnatural, the way all of this affirmation of life and the natural world and creaturely flourishing answers to a religion centered on a call to imitate the Crucified. How might the abundant and beautiful picture of the sacred life Wirzba paints contain within it proximity to its own betrayal, to the cross, and to the eternal Life it can, for Francis, signify but never contain?

  1. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, encyclical letter, Vatican website, 24 May 2015, sec. 12.

  2. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 11.

  3. I have learned a great deal on this subject from my colleague Devan Stahl, who contrasts technologies that seek to overcome or eliminate disability with those that celebrate disability and interdependence, in a chapter that begins, “Christians and transhumanists alike long for a world in which bodies and societies are radically transformed.”

  • Norman Wirzba

    Norman Wirzba


    Response to Natalie Carnes

    “I believe the world will be saved by beauty.” This oft-quoted phrase by Dostoevsky (through his character Prince Myshkin in The Idiot) can serve as an entry into Natalie Carnes’s insightful reflections on my book. In what follows, my aim is to see how the question of beauty, something Carnes has written eloquently about in her book Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa, can illuminate our thinking about, and responding to, our wounded world.

    Carnes is right to worry about a genre of environmental writing that often goes by the name “eco-apocalypse.” The worry isn’t that the practical and physiological scenarios of doom and gloom are incorrect. In fact, the scientists I consult say that several of the predictions about the dangers ahead (permafrost methane release and ice-sheet melt are two examples that come to mind) are too conservative. Rather, the worry is that an eco-apocalyptic framing trains us to perceive this world and its creatures in ways that occlude their gracious gratuity, or what I sometimes describe as their never-again-to-be-repeated freshness and vitality. When the focus is steadily and primarily on erosion, toxification, acidification, deforestation, and extinction, we are likely to miss the more fundamental (theological) truth of all creaturely life, which is that each creature and every place exists as the material expression of a divine pleasure that affirms their goodness and beauty. This world didn’t need to be, nor does it simply or boringly exist. It is fertile and fecund, and dynamic and ever-diversifying in its unfolding. It is also (potentially and surprisingly) fragrant and delicious. When people forget this, or worse, when they deny it, the prospects for cultivating a caring and cherishing relationship with this world are greatly diminished.

    I want to linger for a bit on the word “cultivation,” because I believe the perception of beauty is intimately bound up with people cultivating the skills of attention, good work, and care. As is well known, the temptation we constantly face is to perceive the world and others not as they are but as we want them to be. In From Nature to Creation I described this as humanity’s “idolatrous” relationship to places and fellow creatures. The effects of an idolatrous approach to the world are enormous and they are practical. To see what I mean, consider how instrumental approaches to places and creatures have yielded an Anthropocene world in which most everything is susceptible to manipulation and commodification. Most anywhere we care to look, ranging from the cellular to meteorological levels, we see the intervention of human ambition and power. The result? A world in which the categories of “nature” and the “natural” no longer make sense. A world which is becoming more and more engineered from top to bottom. But to what end?

    This is the point where Carnes’s questions about asceticism and martyrdom become especially salient. Though people are born into a good, delicious, fragrant, and beautiful world, it is not to be taken for granted that they will relate to this world in ways that honor its goodness and beauty. The practices of asceticism are so important because it is in exercises like fasting that people learn to loosen their grip on food, and recognize that a hoarding and ingratiating grip on the world damages the world and deprives fellow eaters of the sustenance and pleasure meant by God to be shared with everyone. The point of fasting is not to despise food or our own food-craving, food-needing, food-delighting bodies. It is to learn to love food (along with farms, farm animals, farmers, cooks, etc.) more properly as a delectable and nutritious gift that we must share and celebrate with others. In my view, one of the best succinct formulations on the point of ascetical practices comes from Thomas Merton, when he said in New Seeds for Contemplation, “We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God … There is no evil in anything created by God, nor can anything of His become an obstacle to union with Him. The obstacle is in our ‘self,’ that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will.”

    But as Carnes rightly points out, there are historical expressions of asceticism that do not seem to fit this description. They are “not obviously ordered to natural flourishing.” Pointing to St. Francis, she describes (1) how his love for “the least of these” and his desire to participate in Christ’s wedding banquet “upends” the natural order of things, and (2) how love for God and God’s garden world can induce the mind to rise “above creaturely realities to God, like natural incense drawing creatures to their maker.” 

    I am no expert on the life of St. Francis, but as I understand it, the world that needs “upending” is not God’s created world, but the various social and economic worlds that people have invented to satisfy their need and ambition. What could it possibly mean, and what would it say about God’s primordial and abiding affirmation of creatures as the power that daily sustains them in their being, if people sought to upend the divine love that is the only reason for any creature existing at all?  What needs upending, in other words, is not this created world but the tenacious need to maintain, elevate, and secure our egos, a need made efficacious in infrastructures and economic and political policies that we have seen do so much damage to our lands and communities. 

    I also wonder what it would mean to want to rise above creaturely realities to be with God. I recognize that there is a long spiritual tradition that speaks this way, much of it inspired by dualist philosophies that presuppose the shedding of all materiality and embodiment so that the mind or soul can be alone with the One beyond being, or gaze upon the “form” of Beauty itself. I reject this posture and orientation, since I believe that the sacred does not point us beyond or call us out of this world. Instead it calls us to enter more deeply into and among the lives of creatures so that we can meet the creating, creative, nurturing, sustain, healing, and reconciling love of God that is always and precisely at work there. As I noted in my response to Plantinga Pauw, the only experience of the love of God that people can know is the love that is embodied and made incarnate in this universe. In my view, it makes no sense to look for God somewhere beyond this world, because the nature of God’s “life” is always and everywhere to be at work in the material places and beings that God loves. If that is the case, then the forms of asceticism (and martyrdom) that we should encourage are precisely for the flourishing of this world and its diverse life. 

    I take the life and ministries of Jesus to be models of the asceticism I am talking about. Jesus does not ever say to people that they should despise their bodies or this created world (or that they should hang on until death, when their immaterial souls will depart to be with God somewhere far, far away). Instead, he touches and feeds and heals and exorcises and reconciles bodies that are wounded, hungry, demon-possessed, and lonely. He preaches against the systems and infrastructures that denigrate and violate the flourishing of creatures. The form his asceticism takes is not self-despising. It is self-offering, the perpetual giving of himself to others so that they might experience more abundant life here and now, the life that is only and always animated by God’s love, and thus is a witness to God’s kingdom. The cross is the pinnacle of this self-offering movement because it is giving that is without remainder. And the resurrection of Jesus’s body is the material sign that this love is the true power animating this world, and that the powers of violence and destruction will not have the last word, nor should they be the forms of power shaping our imaginations and deciding our policies. 

    A point that needs stressing, a point I realize I did not make in This Sacred Life, is that I think Jesus’s ministries reflected a distinct mode of perception trained on the beauty of each creature. When Jesus saw a suffering and lonely body, he saw through (not around) the suffering to the love of God that was currently being frustrated or demeaned, but was nonetheless struggling to realize itself. Jesus’s miracles can thus be characterized as acts of liberation in which bodies are freed from the conditions of hunger, disease, demon-possession, etc. What Jesus most wants is for each person to realize in the ways that are distinct to them all the possibilities that the love of God within them can activate. The beauty of persons, the beauty of creatures, and the beauty of places is, therefore, a feature of how the love of God is working itself out in each life. But to perceive this love in and through others – to perceive their beauty – people must practice the ascesis that gets their insecurities and ambitions out of the way. When people cultivate the skills of attention, compassion, and care, they can then become aids to the flowering of beauty that is intrinsic to each creature.1 

    I think these reflections show that I am not opposed to all forms of technological development since there will be interventions that are genuinely geared to the liberation of God-given potential, and that are not premised on the despising of our creaturely, embodied condition, or focused on transcending embodiment itself. 

    1. In Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022), I develop this Christological mode of perception in terms of the ascesis of Jesus’s life.

Jonathan Tran


The Materiality of Culture

Norman Wirzba’s otherwise wonderful book, This Sacred Life, starts off with a “nonetheless” I could not get over. The following comments ask whether Professor Wirzba fully meant the “nonetheless”—in which case the issues I flag here become increasingly salient, or whether he did not in which case I’m making a mountain out of a molehill (a possibility I fully accept). The “nonetheless” in question relates initially to his rejection of the term “Capitalocene” and ultimately to matters of method and how theologians go about the business of describing the world, including its problems and any remedies they might propose. My thought here is that theologians have been tempted to describe material problems in surprisingly immaterial ways. Often, they do so under the banner of a “cultural logics” approach (and it is notable that “logics” comes up often in the book) that introduces a false distinction between culture and its material production. Culture and the material features of a culture go together, like whenever (as Professor Wirzba describes throughout the book) material processes serve to culturally desacralize the world. As he says, “This is a world in which our engagement with places are mediated through switches, buttons, credit cards, and screens, all from within the comfort of climate-controlled offices and homes” (104). My wonderments about his book can be summarized as wanting to know how seriously Professor Wirzba takes these “switches, buttons, credit cards, and screens.”

Theologians sometimes overstate the role of culture by telling causal stories that make it seem like culture arrives sui generis and then makes material things happen. In this story, cultural beliefs all on their own bring about material states of affairs.  Bad theological beliefs—say, about the earth—effectuate bad behavior toward the earth, in turn leading to bad consequences for the earth. There is undoubtedly something compelling about this kind of story, since it puts human ideas in the driver’s seat of history. Humanists love this story, in part because it positions them to challenge bad ideas with better ideas, something they are uniquely suited for. If bad theological ideas about the earth led to bad practical consequences for the earth, one need only come up with better theological ideas to effectuate better outcomes. This kind of story, and this kind of theology, often comes with a view of theological doctrines abstracted from their material contexts (for an example of an alternative approach, especially as related to climate change, see Philip Jenkins’ recent book about how climate change throughout Christian history directly influenced Christian ideas). Against bad sui generis theologies one need only throw up better sui generis theologies, timeless principles counterpoised in a Platonic contest of “eternal ideas.” 

Such methodologies are especially surprising when they come in the name of Christian theology. The doctrine of the incarnation—connected to doctrines of creation, salvation, eschatology, etc.—affirms that the materiality of the world matters for how Christians describe God, that God cannot be understood by worldly creatures except in the terms of the world (that terms need to be analogically predicated of God simply proves the rule). God, the most unworldly of entities, submits Godself to the world and so comes to be understood in (according to the tradition, “condescends to”) its terms. Scripture puts it this way, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Discourses that seek to describe the world theologically should accordingly engage matters in terms of what Merleau-Ponty (someone not unfamiliar in Wirzba’s phenomenologically-inflected corpus) called “the flesh of the world”—by which he meant the world in all of its boundless materiality and bodiliness (e.g., those “switches, buttons, credit cards, and screens”). Another way of putting all this is to say that describing the world theologically first comes with describing it accurately. For theology, right descriptions (and their attending judgments) aren’t important; they’re all important. The work of theology, exemplified by theologians like Norman Wirzba, traverses the rough ground of the world—say, its concrete operations—resisting the gnostic tendency of allowing its complexity to scare one off. 

Those seeking to understand things culturally, then, will want to examine how culture gets conventionalized through complex interplays between concepts and the material realities concepts avail to those who conceptualize (i.e., speak, or as Stanley Cavell puts it, “word”) the world accordingly. This requires surveying the ordinary ways we talk about material realities like soils, political economies, human psychologies, etc. Such realities are no more understood without concepts than are concepts effective without answering to such realities. Concepts and facts go together. So do, as Merleau-Ponty was especially good at showing, perception and action (Merleau-Ponty can be read as responding to Kant’s concept-focused transcendental critique of “pure” reason by saying, “Yes, but don’t let Descartes’ hands overdetermine you; we are in fact bodies”). In the whirl of human practical reasoning, which is what goes into the human life in language, one cannot think culture without thinking materiality. Accordingly, Wirzba’s cultural-logics statement, “Once a strictly instrumental and utilitarian calculus is established and goes to work, the destruction and death that follow in its wake can be readily justified” (129), might be reversed to say, “The destruction and death makes necessary the formulation of a strictly instrumental and utilitarian calculus.”

Professor Wirzba no doubt knows all this. Which is what makes an early “nonetheless” all the more curious. The “nonetheless” in question occurs early when he first entertains and then rejects replacing “Anthropocene” with “Capitalocene.” In entertaining the replacement, he initially gives credence to the idea that understanding the Anthropocene as “the age of humanity” requires understanding the specific role capitalism plays in those determinations. Without something like “Capitalocene” on board, one will miss how these determinations specifically come about, who bears responsibility for them, and what responding to them entails. Along these lines, Professor Wirzba gives particular attention to the roles played by race and racialization in order to draw out a hugely important analogy between what humans—again, specific ones under the spell of capital—do to the earth and to one another. The point here is to say that while humans as such have contributed in a determinative way to the current state of the planet, it is important to carefully describe those determinations by paying attention to their concrete operations. Racialization introduces ideologies of race that conventionalize capital running roughshod over land and bodies. Wirzba provides evidence for these determinations through the material histories of capitalism, such as when steam power replaces hydropower, with ensuing effects on land and labor and the eventual rearticulation of property as a novel political economic innovation. Wirzba’s account of racialization—i.e., the conventionalization of race through racial capitalist material processes—powerfully shows the interplay between concepts and material reality that I earlier suggested sits at the heart of properly Christian theology. 

But then in comes the “nonetheless.” Let me quote the offending passage in full: “This brief narration is enough to demonstrate that the term ‘Capitalocene’ is, in several respects, an important improvement on the Anthropocene because it enables a more fine-grained analysis of changing political, racial, and economic contexts that privileged a small group of (white) people at the expense of many others. Nonetheless, the term is inadequate because it tempts us to think that modernity is the time when people first became agents capable of geologically significant change” (14, emphasis added). Notice the subtle shift that occurs when Professor Wirzba portrays “Anthropocene” as a concept meant to explain the primary determinants of significant geological change, with his rejection of “Capitalocene” having to do with the fact that humans long before capitalism contributed to such change. But isn’t “Anthropocene” meant to capture not geological change as such, no matter how significant, but change of the kind that now brings the world to the brink of collapse? The question the Anthropocene raises isn’t simply when humans started significantly affecting the earth but when and how that significance rose to the scale of an extinction-level event, such that the point of invoking beginnings (say, intramural debates about how to date the arrival of the Anthropocene) has everything to do with endings (say, how things have turned out). If the issue at hand is merely investigating when humans started significantly influencing things then one could identify the advent of human civilization and call it a day by saying all that follows amounts simply to differences in degree, with more civilization leading to greater degrees of damage. It then becomes difficult to establish a difference in kind between humans burning forests for hunting purposes and humans systematically doing so at industrial scale. And if this is the story then it becomes hard to make an evaluative statement about either (i.e., that one is definitively better or worse than the other) other than to say that the latter becomes the inevitable consequence of the former. This finally amounts to saying that the current global warming crisis became inevitable as soon as humans found fire, further having the effect of removing moral culpability from those who changed the order of things by mechanizing the process for the sake of abstracted notions of capital.

Just as there are moral consequences for the “nonetheless,” so there are theological consequences. The Anthropocene > Capitalocene formulation that suggests “humans have always done this stuff” parallels a theological story where sinful humans qua sinful always do sinful stuff. Just as the moral story puts everything on humans and civilization, so the theological story puts everything on sin. But in Christian theology, sin as an explanatory concept works within intentionally narrow confines. What it cannot do is explain away sin, as if to say, ascribing to some sorry state of affairs, “The sin did it!” This kind of explanation makes it seem like human actors could not have done any differently than they did, making them indeed less than actors. In fact, the Christian doctrine of sin presents exactly the opposite picture. It begins with a doctrine of creation that comes with a developed theory of action, where insofar as humans were created from and for good, they act, insofar they act, for and toward goodness. Acting toward evil is in fact no act at all; willing evil does not will; it is a distortion of human willing, the contraction of human action. There can be no Christian story where humans could not have chosen something other than evil. Insofar as they can choose/act/will at all, they intend the good. There may be significant costs that come with that choice/act/willing, but it remains an option. Sin as an explanation then amounts to relating the gory details of why humans act against the good when they could have chosen otherwise. And doing this requires theologians to get into the weeds of any particular human action or set of human actions (for a great—and literal—example, see 69–76). In the case of the current climate crisis, we need to pay attention to the determinations that put humans in particular places doing particular things, always with the possibility of doing good while resisting evil. “Sin” then comes as a retrospective judgment about how evil ensued rather than good. Sin doctrinally cannot be used to preclude those investigations and their attending evaluations. 

The specification named by “Capitalocene” then does significant moral and theological work, and rejecting it the way Professor Wirzba’s “nonetheless” does (i.e., I’m less concerned with the rejection than the reasons given for it) precludes that work, work the rest of the book often, and admirably, performs despite the early refusal. “Capitalocene” and similar specifying notions (recall Austin’s point that the concepts populating human life are not arbitrarily chosen but comprise distinctions humans find useful for navigating the world) help makes sense of the world by recounting the particular choices particular people, many of whom considered themselves Christian, made on the way to bringing Earth to the brink of collapse. The point here is not simply properly assigning blame, disaggregating specific humans from humanity as such. More so it is to tell a story that comes with normative evaluations about how things turned out, and to trace out possible lines of redress given that things could have turned out differently. This is the kind of work I’m imagining when I portray theological description as all important, and the kind of work (call it “specifications of the world in which we find ourselves”) we cannot afford to preclude (which we do once we give up the distinctions “Capitalocene” critically introduces). 

For example, a thoroughgoing account of capitalism’s effects on the current state of things helps us assess certain capitalist-driven remedies on offer. I recently heard David Wallace-Wells—whose The Uninhabitable Earth painted a particularly grim picture of things—striking an unexpectedly optimistic note regarding renewable energy becoming more profitable than fossil fuels. Wallace-Wells was suggesting that we have reached a tipping point where the market can save us just as it previously doomed us. It’s an interesting proposal. And a controversial one (does it propose, on Wirzba’s terms, something “friction-free” (60) or does it sit uncomfortably within his salutary account of work, making, and sympathy (218–35)?). As both interesting and controversial, the proposal requires getting into the weeds to assess it. The question I have been asking is whether Professor Wirzba meant his “nonetheless” or not, and hence whether the kinds of material attention a theology as incarnationally-minded as Christianity is can help us think through the problems we are facing, and the possibilities that remain.

  • Norman Wirzba

    Norman Wirzba


    Response to Jonathan Tran

    Both Jonathan Tran and Dirk Philipsen took issue with my treatment of the Capitalocene, so I want to take some time to clarify what I was doing in the first chapter. The issue is very important, since I am in complete agreement with Tran’s caution that we not “describe material problems in immaterial ways,” and that we not simply say “humans have always done this stuff.” I also agree with Philipsen that we should not put an undifferentiated human at the center of the story of destruction. So, what was I trying to do with the word “nonetheless” that Tran finds objectionable?

    To start, I was not rejecting the term Capitalocene. As I said in the offending passage, the term enables fine-grained analysis that we clearly need. In fact, in later parts of the book I develop in further detail how capitalism works itself out in particular forms of work that are destructive to land and people alike, and that it affects the design of our built environments (as when specific policies segregate our cities, and when financial institutions set the terms for housing). I also speak about the neo-liberal policies associated with Thatcher and Reagan that have brought so much harm to our communities. As I say throughout, great numbers of people now live within and make sense of their lives through infrastructures that have been built to separate them from each other and the created world, and that these structures and systems prevent, or at least greatly inhibit, something like the feel of creaturely sympathies and responsibilities.

    One way to frame what I was up to is to say that I want to “provincialize” (Chakrabarty’s illuminating term) capitalism by setting it within a larger context of human practices that are not sui generis. When I describe pre-modern cultures I am not pointing to an undifferentiated humanity, nor am I saying people have always behaved badly. Instead, I am pointing to particular manifestations of logics of destruction that cannot be ignored. The desertification of the Fertile Crescent and the erosion of the Mediterranean Basin are not small-scale events! Moreover, these events depended on specific practices like deforestation, the consolidation of wealth and power into a small number of elites, and the conscription of coerced and slave labor (Roman latifundia are, in multiple respects, precursors to plantation systems that were installed in the Caribbean and the American South). By drawing our attention to these world-shaping and world-defining realities, my aim was to bring to attention the destructive logic animating these practices. It is important to understand this logic, and to sense its wide appeal—an appeal that did not emerge sui generis with capitalism—so that we can then see in better relief a logic of practices that is committed to the care, rather than the exploitation, of places and communities. 

    The foregoing should also make clear that I am not saying that all of our problems stem from a universal condition Christians call sin. To me it matters greatly that we give descriptions of the practices that are producing so much harm in our world. This is why I speak about limits and the need for restraint, and why I deploy the site, and not merely the metaphor, of gardens as way to understand our creaturely condition. It is also why I highlight the work of gardening as a way to appreciate creaturely sympathies and responsibilities. The logics of sin are not exhausted in gardens (as made evident in poisoned soil and water). They take shape in urban neighborhoods too, as when houses are poorly built, affordable transportation is unavailable, and community members feel abandoned by political and business leaders. By zeroing in on particular places and practices, people are better positioned to appreciate what a logic of care looks like, and what it requires of them (sustained attention and commitment, honest naming, skills of making and repair, awareness of the systems and policies influencing one’s place, the skills of community organizing, advocacy for participatory and democratic institutions, etc.).

    I am all for the kind of theological work that specifies “the world in which we find ourselves in.” What I have tried to do in This Sacred Life is show how embodiment roots and enmeshes people in specific places that have particular ecological, social, economic, and political limits (and possibilities), and that these limits shape the kind of living people do through them. One of my main contentions is that Christians have often done a rather poor job of understanding this because they have not taken embodiment (and the facts of eating, drinking, breathing, reproducing, working, nurturing, sheltering, and making) seriously. They are guilty of what I call a failure of incarnational nerve. My hope was that an articulation of the logics of creation, creatureliness, and creativity—logics that are not abstractions about the world but the metaphysical assumptions that are being realized in the world—would enable people to nurture the places and communities that nurture them, and thereby contribute to the healing of our wounded world.  

Saskia Cornes


Soil, Situatedness, and Repair

Agrarianism in the Anthropocene

Soil, in its complexity and in its fragility, in its liveliness and in its mystery, is at the root of what’s sacred in This Sacred Life. We are reminded that in the Book of Genesis, it is from soil that human beings are first formed, a relationship embedded in the Hebrew term for human being – adam—and Adamah, the word for ground. Wirzba’s God is “a gardening God—knees on the ground and hands in the dirt” who “scoops together and shapes soil into a recognizable human form” (64). Given these origins, for Wirzba “[h]uman beings do not merely relate to the soil from time to time or as occasionally needed. They are soil that has been fashioned to have the forms and powers that define human life” (66).

Working as both metaphor and substance, soil provides the answers to the deceptively simple questions that animate This Sacred Life, because “it is by studying a life of the soil, its vulnerabilities and possibilities, and by attending to the life and death that comes in and out of it, that human beings come to know who they are, where they are, and how they should live” (66). In its humility and immediacy, soil is the ultimate teacher of the collective and “self-unreliant” nature of all life, of our core dependence on soils and their communities. We learn this not as mere observers of soil, but “by entering into a relationship with it, and from out of that experience discover its characteristics and ways of being” (68). The book therefore illuminates the value of work with the soil, the feeling of reciprocity that can emerge through the process of tending plants, and, specifically, growing food. Agriculture at any scale can open up these modes of thinking and being with others.

My own work is very much alive to and inspired by the question that Norman poses: “If people were to dig into the land, and make a serious study of what they encountered, what would they learn? (72)” For Wirzba, this encounter between people and land teaches us that “participation in the complex life of the soil…is not optional or sporadic, but necessary and continuous” (73). That our lives are shot through with the boundary-defying complexities of something as seemingly simple as dirt reveals to us what miracles we live among. More than most at a university, I’m grateful to be in contact with this mystery, and to have what the text calls “creatureliness” in my daily work. As a farm educator, I’m able to facilitate the kind of human/soil encounters that Norman describes. As a faculty member in the environmental humanities, I work with students both in the field and in the classroom to be in relationship with land they will never own and soils they are unlikely to ever settle near. At the Duke Campus Farm, I’m part of a small team that works with hundreds of students each year to restore Southern soils and their human and more-than-human communities in the wake of the Plantationocene. We see positive impacts on the land and people we work with, and this gives me courage, even delight. Our farm creates a context in which students can imagine, and build, a restorative relationship with the non-human world, a form of active and practical hope imperative to the challenges that climate change poses.

But if I’m honest, I am very much aware, and very much afraid, that these are insufficient responses to the crisis at hand. We work to repair because it’s the right thing to do, and at an elite university, we have this luxury. We work to repair as a way of learning how to grow food in broken places because there will be more and more of these. But is this any match for the overlapping crises that climate change presents? “Hope in a wounded world” has real limits.  Can we intensify, amplify, or scale these kinds of attunements to the non-human, through agriculture or other means, or is this a contradiction in terms? If this work takes so much time, so many hands, is work with the earth at best a strategy for adaptation, rather than reversal or even mitigation, of the immense challenges posed by climate change?

The landscape I work also confronts me with the limits of regenerative soil work, miraculous as it may be, in healing divided human communities. The ground that we farm is part of a former plantation that enslaved at least thirty-six people and likely many more. The wrecked soils that we came to in 2010 bear witness to this history of extraction – over two-hundred years of commodity agriculture that wrested a cruel maximum from the land and those who worked it. I’m aware, and have been called into conversations that have made me aware, that we are already farming on someone’s apocalypse, that apocalypse is old news to many. In the words of Occanneechi Band of the Saponi elder Vivette Jeffries-Logan, we work “the dust of the bones of [her] ancestors.” American farmscapes are made of beauty and miracle and also of dispossession, enslavement, and suffering, legacies that soil regeneration can only go so far in redressing. Wirzba calls for a move from a contractual to a “covenant sensibility” that recognizes that we live entirely by and through gifts, and through the relationships that these gifts create and sustain. Citing Lewis Hyde, Wirzba acknowledges that “[t]he transformation [of the recipient by the gift] is not accomplished until we have the power” to share the gift in turn, “on our own terms” (242). What would it mean for farmers, already so embattled, to acknowledge that however generous we may be or become, whatever relationship to plants, soils and pollinators and all members of our foodshed we might forge, the founding wound of land theft and enslavement in the United States still festers? For those of us with the good fortune of having land to steward, of being emplaced, who is it that has made room for us? Are we aware of who and what have been pushed away or aside? To be authentically covenantal, we would need to fully acknowledge this movement and loss, in a way that sees this both as a wrenching facet of the human condition and allows all of us, giver and receiver, to be more truly generous, to give and receive on our own terms. 

As a farm within a liberal arts context, at a university with no formal course of study for agriculture or food studies, I see our work at the Duke Campus Farm is in large part to create what Bruno Latour calls “Terrestrials” or terrans—people who have a felt sense of where they are, a sense of the humans and not-humans with which they dwell, able to witness the diminishment of the land we’ve been given over both geological and human timescales, with a willingness to work toward, in Latour’s words, a true “taking into account [of] a larger number of beings, cultures, phenomena, organisms, and people” that was the (broken) promise of globalization. 

The “terrestrial” feels distinct from This Sacred Life’s framing of the “creaturely” insofar as to land within this framework, to have a place of origin, is not a given. For Latour, “There is nothing more innovative, nothing more present, subtle, technical, and artificial (in the positive sense of the word), nothing less rustic and rural, nothing more creative, nothing more contemporary than to negotiate landing on some ground” (Latour, Down to Earth, 53). The operative word here to me is “negotiate.” It takes negotiation to land, to find a way into the place in question and its communities. And there is less and less room for us to land. Less and less space for all of us. Not enough land that is not degraded. Less and less of us who are from any particular place. No room for everyone to have the standard of living that many of us consider to be non-negotiable. 

There can be a kind of cruel optimism, to use Lauren Berlant’s phrase, in many a sunlit vision of small-scale agriculture that takes landing for granted, that posits dwelling as fundamental to stewardship, for soil or for places. It’s clear to me that fidelity in our relationships to land can and does sustain our intimacy, and by extension, our care, for soil and for places. And yet, permanent land tenure, even temporary land access, are available to increasingly few, and it’s counterproductive to continue to hold this, implicitly or explicitly, as the ideal. While it’s true that “the ready endorsement of mobility, along with the abandonment and negligence that are often mobility’s accompaniment” have often been “a disaster for the Earth and a diminishment of our humanity,” we need to rethink the injunction to “stay put and sink down roots” (80).  Dwelling has become a luxury that few can afford. Climate change is altering the conditions of life for those able to stay put. The ideals of permanence and dwelling, while tantalizing, become practical and affective dead ends. We need to find alternate modes, timescales, or rhythms for developing these kinds of much-needed intimacies with the places that we are, and the communities that enliven these places. For these reasons, an ethos of situatedness rather than rootedness, of one’s landing place as a site of negotiation, ultimately seems more life-giving, and more adaptive, in a climate-changed world.

With these limitations in mind, I’m grateful to continue to explore with Wirzba and others what an orientation toward the creaturely, or the terrestrial, would look like within the university. How can we bring the work of the body alive within institutions that have traditionally privileged the life of the mind? And if climate change is actually, in Margaret Atwood’s words, “everything change,” and we have decades, rather than centuries, to adapt, we should be radically altering how and what we teach. Along with our students, we are living in a critical time and place, with the collective capacity to change our current trajectory on climate. What, therefore, would a new pedagogy for the Anthropocene look like?

  • Norman Wirzba

    Norman Wirzba


    Response to Saskia Cornes

    Saskia Cornes raises multiple, essential questions that take us to the heart of life in a wounded world. The soil that is the generative matrix of terrestrial life is also the site at which our work, if we care to do it, will bring us face to face with what Jeffries-Logan names “the dust of the bones of [her] ancestors.” Soil is a witness to fertility and fecundity, but it is also a witness to violation and pain. I believe the foundation story in Genesis is aware of this fact, which is why it presents God saying to Cain, “your brother’s [Abel’s] blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen 4:10-12). It is as though the biblical writers are aware that the violation of life is a defining feature, from the beginning, of the soil’s life-giving potential, and that woundedness saturates and is the regular accompaniment of whatever fertility and healing the land manifests. This is hard to bear, and Cornes is wise to counsel resistance to a cheery and perpetually sunlit vision of small-scale agriculture. There is, it seems to me, an unavoidably tragic dimension in the history of agriculture. It is worth asking if this tragic dimension is to be found in every form of human life, including hunting and gathering forms of life, that depend on the visceral action of sustaining life by eating another’s life. I grant that not all tragedies are the same. But it is to say that a wound-free world is a fantasy. Wounds can be healed under the right conditions, enabling the wounded to carry on, and even find new forms of flourishing. But the wounds do not entirely disappear. They remain as scars that remind us of the histories we must always name, remember, and address as we seek to live care-fully and more peaceably with each other. 

    Cornes also highlights the important matter of learning to repair the places so manifestly damaged by decades of commodification and exploitation. I would argue that we need to reconceive what the work of repair is all about, and stress that this work includes repentance, reparations, and reconciliation as essential co-ingredients. There is now a growing acknowledgement of the place of grief and mourning in the environmental humanities. I want to argue that we need to go further and seek forgiveness from the land and its creatures, and that we do this by creating habitats that are hospitable for multi-species flourishing.1 The skills of repair—naming histories of wrong-doing and violation, building fertility, protecting species diversity, cleaning waterways, building community coalitions, etc.—certainly need to be taught to individuals who can then realize them in their homes and communities. But it will also be crucial that people as citizens advocate for the economic policies and political priorities that make land and community health the measure in their decision-making. I have no illusions about, nor do I want to recommend a back-to-the-land movement in which people become farmers. But for those who desperately want to farm, it is crucial that communities support them and that citizens advocate for the food policies that will enable them to make a decent life. 

    I recognize that the work of repair is complex, improvisational, and constantly in need of mutual correction. It may seem idealistic, perhaps even naïve, but I want to argue for its necessity as we speak and work together for a more nutritious, fragrant, and beautiful future. To learn about and face the multiple histories of violation and abuse is both excruciating and essential. To have a vision of what to move toward is also crucial, especially if our aim is to enlist the many departments, institutes, and schools at a university like Duke. The question I most want to pose to academic colleagues in the natural and social sciences, and the humanities and fine arts, is this: How would your discipline, its methodologies and aspirations, need to change if it made the repair and healing of our lands, waters, and living communities its abiding and determining priority? I suspect that labs, syllabi, pedagogical models, and reward structures would change dramatically. “Upward mobility,” especially as this has been characterized in American contexts, would look a lot more like the “Earth-bound” and “Earth-directed” spirituality that Latour describes in his many texts. Cornes is right to say that this would be a “negotiated” pedagogy because “landing” anywhere always requires that we take into account, learn to honestly name, and democratically address the very particular features of a place and its histories.

    Cornes asks us to rethink the injunction to “stay put and sink down roots.” There simply isn’t enough land for permanent land tenure for many people. Moreover, the realities of climate change will require ever more land holders to leave the places of their settlement owing to sea level rise, extreme heat, drought, and flooding, and the (often armed) conflicts that will arise in contexts of social unrest and political instability. I agree. I suppose the question turns on what we mean by “dwelling.” Does it require “permanence?” I am not certain that it does. But it does require the building of “much-needed intimacies.” We can’t care well and over the long term apart from the sustained engagement with a place and community that builds our knowledge and sympathy. It takes time to learn the history of a place and community, what has worked well and what has worked poorly, and it takes time to discover the potential that is latent wherever we are, along with a place’s limits. To learn from mistakes made takes a lot of time and communal input, quite often because the work of repair and correction is rarely simple and quick. In other words, it takes time to appreciate and honor the various forms of dependence and interdependence that root us in places and communities. (This means that a viable future agriculture will require that more people work smaller farms, since scale is crucially linked to the kind and amount of care that can be given. Big, mechanized, industrial farms cannot be sustained over the long term. A central question, therefore, is how to make it possible for people who want to farm well to get access to land.) 

    I am not sure if the language of “situatedness” is up to this task. One of the reasons I argued against the term “environment” is that it can make our residence in particular places seem optional. As the place that “surrounds” us, we can just as well switch one environment for another. I chose the language of “rootedness” because I want to communicate that our entanglements with places and fellow creatures are inescapable and necessary. To be sure, we still make choices about where we will be and how we will be wherever we are. But I prefer rootedness because roots both draw nutrients from the ground and feed the soil via photosynthetic activity. I am much enamored by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s suggestion that people learn to become “good medicine” for the soil where they are planted. Can we be good medicine apart from (literally and figuratively) burrowing into our lands, waters, and communities? I also prefer the term rootedness because it does a better job emphasizing the organic, dynamic, and eco-bio-chemical character of the relationships that join us to each other and to our habitats.

    I do not know if my proposals are adequate to meet the multiple challenges of our climate change, Anthropocene time (I think Cornes’s term “Plantationocene” is certainly good and illuminating). I am not much interested in “optimism,” whether cruel or not. What I am interested in is hope, and how to cultivate it. If hope “lives in the means rather than in the ends,” as Wendell Berry writes, then our focus should not be on trying to predict the future. Instead, it should be on learning and cultivating the affection and skills that can repair and heal our lands here and now. That is hard work to do, but I think it is also the right work to do. And for that work, I believe, a conception of this world and this life as sacred can play a very important role.

    1. I give an example of what this search for forgiveness from the land practically looks like in the last chapter of Agrarian Spirit.

Dirk Philipsen


This Life

Sacred or Not, Precious Indeed

The longer I’ve taken part in the life of the mind, the more certain qualities in people and their writing stand out, like curiosity and energy. My soul tends to drift away from those who never ask questions—from those who have answers, but who rarely seem to inquire or seek to understand. When it comes to energy, my whole “being” feels drained when people bring unresolved conflicts, unexplored tensions, and unprocessed anxieties to their personal interactions. What a treat, then, to be in the presence of positive and curious energy, and an open embrace of life and all of its potential, both of which suffuse This Sacred Life.

One does not have to agree with all of Wirzba’s reasonings to be enthralled by the beauty of his explorations of what a fuller, more connected life can, or perhaps should, be. In a troubled and frantic world that so often seems fundamentally disconnected, reading about “this sacred life”—the inherent interconnectedness of all living things, the importance of networks, of un-selfing—feels, well, not just good, but right. Wirzba’s book is one of those surprisingly rare works that does more than just invite a fascinating conversation. As a reader, one almost feels tossed and pulled into thinking deeply and widely—and, in the process, led to raise provocative inquiries. 

Below, I want to probe only a few of these provocations as a standing invitation for many longer conversations with Norman, and with other interlocutors, perhaps best over coffee, wine, and meals. As his work suggests, after all, intellectual work done in community is always most engaging.

The Sacred Materialist

Throughout This Sacred Life, the reader finds artfully crafted explorations as to how place and condition shape and inform how people think and feel—and not solely about self and others, but also about values, aspirations, and identity. Wirzba returns to this again and again. In chapter 1, he writes that “person and place can no longer be thought apart from each other” (25). In the final chapter, he returns to this theme in writing, “people, in other words, do not exist apart from their places but grow out of them” (227). And once more, at the very end of the book, he states, “a particular thing is what it is because of all the other things that have intersected in it to enable its coming-to-be” (231). Such an understanding of life as essentially rooted and informed by place, time, and circumstance is not very different from the contention of perhaps the most famous materialist, Karl Marx, who once memorably observed that “people make their own history, but they do not make it under conditions of their own choosing.” I should quickly add, however, that I find Wirzba’s rendering of life as situated in and informed by its material roots quite a bit richer and more beautiful than Marx’s—in no small part because it is also informed by indigenous and non-Western wisdoms that include notions of flow, mindfulness, love, and, perhaps above all, responsibility toward the common good.

A key concept Wirzba develops throughout the book is “creaturely condition,” by which he presumably means a life rooted in place and community (20). He juxtaposes this original condition to what has come to be a pervasive modern reality—namely, a kind of disrespect that, in his words, “is readily seen in the…conversion of people, animals, fields, forests, and watersheds into units of production to be harvested as cheaply and efficiently as possible” (20). Those who fully inhabit the “creaturely condition,” as understood by Wirzba, would instead “trust that God provides the gifts one needs to live, and that one does not need to take the world by force” (194). Beautiful, yes, but here arise the first of many inquiries: What would such trust and accountability really entail? What, in modern human communities, would be its origins? Pressing further, how would Wirzba respond to what appear to be his own doubts about the foundations of this kind of trust? In chapter 6, for instance, which treats the logic of creation, Wirzba refers to the work of two scholars (Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Swimme) who have made attempts to build religions based on a scientific understanding of the world. After describing their wide-ranging aims, Wirzba concludes: “I support [their] ambition. My question, however, is whether or not the Universe Story can deliver on producing these good aims” (157). My mind immediately begins to wonder: Can the same question be raised about Wirzba’s work? I support the ambition behind This Sacred Life, but 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? 

Progress—or not?

My second question is informed by some reflections on this concept of “progress,” so central to modern discourse, yet so elusive, even deceptive. Throughout This Sacred Life one often finds the claim—expressed almost as a taken-for-granted afterthought—that humanity has “clearly created improved living conditions and unprecedented levels of comfort” (8). Further, “there is no doubt that the exercise of freedom…has brought many benefits to our species” (23). Applying Wirzba’s own criteria of the creaturely condition, I wonder: What is the evidence for this progress? To put it differently, and to return to Wirzba’s own question: “[W]hat might freedom look like if its aim is to honor the embodied, nurturing, and vulnerable contexts through which people live? Can we imagine and create a shared world, held in common, and committed to honoring the sanctity of life and the dignity of all people?” (19).

Some of this imagining has been done by a burgeoning anthropological and historical line of research on foraging societies—a recent explosion in literature on the way humans lived for more than 90 percent of their existence. One quite radical conclusion emerges as a possibility in the work of authors like Chris Ryan or the late David Graeber, which, in describing life in foraging societies for the first three hundred thousand years of human history, is close to the opposite of what Hobbes famously described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Indeed, many foraging cultures may come much closer than modern societies to what Wirzba has in mind when he speaks of the creaturely condition. Given the scattered record of progress, and the possibility that the very idea of progress can be upheld only when ignoring or downplaying the violence and destruction it leaves in its wake (or perhaps was its necessary precondition), what, in the end, does Wirzba have in mind when he speaks of comforts, benefits, and progress? And what elements of this progress are equally implicated in the North American history of stolen land that was worked, so often, by enslaved people, and rationalized by the epistemological frameworks of monotheistic religions? If one were to hold on to that notion of progress, what is the path forward to a reality of real progress not premised on the wide-ranging destruction This Sacred Life so vividly details?

Transactional vs. Relational

Deep into the book, Wirzba asks “what recommendations can be made that would better facilitate a person’s participation in the flows of a receiving and giving life?” (240). His answer is that we need to try to move from “a contractual to a more covenantal way of negotiating our relationships with others” (240). Translating this into language with which I am more familiar, I understand this as a call to deeper connection to others and the world that is not transactional, but rather relational. If so, count me in. It’s a beautiful vision. And yet, as someone who studies the history and logic of economic systems, I wonder: As much as I agree with Wirzba’s recommendations—including the four building blocks intended to sustain relationships and revitalize democracy—what, in the end, can it accomplish if we are still part of an economic system whose logic inherently and voraciously turns everything and everybody into marketable commodities for the sake of profit and growth? Aren’t we in danger of simply becoming passengers who stick our hands out the window in an attempt to stop the train from driving off the cliff? If I am part of a system—indeed, if I cannot be understood as separate from it, as Wirzba suggests throughout his book—should we then not pay primary attention to the very systemic forces that so often turn me, turn us, into transactional humans trampling the commons we depend on?

Anthropocene—“cene,” Yes; “anthropo,” Perhaps Not

Wirzba makes a very persuasive case for ditching the term Anthropocene in favor of Capitalocene. As he states, “the world we currently find ourselves in was shaped, and continues to be remade, by a colonial ambition to capture and extract from the earth and its communities whatever wealth there is to be found” (14). This is as good and concise a definition of capitalism as I know. In the end, however, Wirzba rejects the idea of replacing Anthropocene with Capitalocene based on what seems to be the argument that large-scale destructive impacts of human endeavors on land long predate capitalism. But isn’t this a little like saying traffic fatalities cannot be blamed on cars, for people died on streets prior to the invention of the automobile? Strictly speaking, yes it is. But if the name we give to an entirely new epoch puts an undifferentiated anthropos, or human, at the center of the story rather than the nature, logic, and ideology of an extractive colonial system, don’t we end up missing major causes in favor of a directionless yet comfortably inclusive term? Following Wirzba’s persuasive critique, my vote continues to be for Capitalocene. 

Dominion, Domination, Stewardship

By training, I am a political economist and historian, not an expert in religious studies or theology. The next question might best be understood with that caveat in mind. Wirzba claims that the early Christians rejected the idea of absolute private property. How does that sit with an understanding of a God that presumably created the earth (predating the natural environment), and from which others have deduced that God has dominion over the land, perhaps not unlike the way that modern property owners think about the private domain (viz., seeing land as serving a purpose, and in a way that is exclusive, serving some while denying others)?  In large part, Wirzba seems to follow Lynn White’s central argument in his famous 1967 essay “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” which states that “what people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.”1 White seems to conclude that the Judeo-Christian tradition is profoundly implicated in causing our escalating environmental crisis. Does Wirzba’s logic lean in the same direction? Or does he find arguments like White’s to rest on faulty understanding?

Back to the Roots: The Foundations of Ethics

And, finally, a question not rooted in expertise but unavoidable as I read. Wirzba points to God as the origin, or, at a minimum, the foundation of an ethics of sacred life. This, to me, seems deeply unsatisfactory. I’ve struggled with figuring out what to call myself—an animist, a secular humanist, an atheist. None of these terms seem adequate; much less do they get to the larger and inevitable question: Is the source of the sacred life internal or external to us? If Wirzba is correct in arguing that everything from poverty to depletion and science have emerged because of human creations, isn’t the same necessarily true of God? Who, if not humans, have created sacred stories? To be clear, I have no interest in making a case for a purely secular future. There seems little doubt that traditions and communities fashioned around historically specific religious practices have resulted in many things, good and bad. 

My question here is more focused: When we seek to understand the origins of what Wirzba calls “the sacred,” and what I would call—somewhat more ascetically—the good, how does it help to imagine, or posit, its origin as something external to us? Something that is not also another human invention? Put differently, why try to get around what, at least in part, seems to be the core message of This Sacred Life—that we need to see ourselves as part of a bigger, interconnected and marvelous natural world? Wirzba locates our best hope, and perhaps our responsibility, in figuring out peaceful ways to live—to live with each other as much as with other living organisms. In some ways, he poses one of the oldest philosophical questions: Are we capable of governing ourselves? And I wonder, can we do so without relying on an external authority? For even if we assumed such an authority existed, what it represents, what it would ask us to do, would still be up to us to decipher. Why not, therefore, start with us?

These provocations have been a joy to write, as they come in response to a work crafted by a person deeply immersed in and highly adept with humanist and theological traditions. Given the unprecedented range and depth of challenges that we earthlings face at this moment in history, Wirzba serves as a valuable and inspiring guide. 

Reading through This Sacred Life also encouraged me to dig up again a wonderful little  seventeenth-century folk poem. Here is to you, Norman.

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.


The law demands that we atone

When we take things we do not own

But leaves the lords and ladies fine

Who takes things that are yours and mine.


The poor and wretched don’t escape

If they conspire the law to break;

This must be so but they endure

Those who conspire to make the law.


The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

And geese will still a common lack

Till they go and steal it back.

  1. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203–7.

  • Norman Wirzba

    Norman Wirzba


    Response to Dirk Philipsen

    Dirk Philipsen raises a crucial question when he asks whether or not the creation story that I propose can deliver on the aims I most desire. He notes that I have doubts about the “Universe Story” that has been articulated by Tucker, Swimme, and others. Why not have similar doubts about my own? 

    First, I don’t believe, from a historical point of view, that the logic of creation has been well understood and applied. For too many Christians, the doctrine of creation has been reduced to a teaching about material origins, and thus as mere staging/backdrop for the presumed-to-be-much-more-important-and-interesting human dramas enacted upon it. When this has happened, it is all too easy for Christians to pursue their ambitions at the expense of the material world. When a body/soul, dualistic spirituality is attached to this presumption, then the way is all but clear for people to exploit and abuse Earth to the max because it is all going to burn in the end anyway. I wish this was a caricature, but it isn’t. I hear this kind of talk, and see its results, all too often. My hope is that This Sacred Life will help folks like this see the errors in their thinking and acting. I can’t do this alone. I doubt I will fully succeed. But I needed to make the effort to persuade some Christians so that a critical mass might emerge that can become a force that makes a substantial impact. 

    Second, I have focused on the ideas of creation, creatureliness, and creativity because I wanted to make clear that these ideas entail practical logics that inspire their realization in the world. Of course, for some people they may remain only at the level of ideas, but when they do remain there they put the people who profess them in a performative contradiction. It is a practical contradiction to affirm that God creates the world while consenting to or participating in the destruction of the world God creates. It is a practical contradiction to affirm oneself as an embodied, mortal creature while pursuing the life of an immortal, disembodied god. It is a practical contradiction to affirm God’s invitation to participate creatively in the making and healing of a good world while being satisfied with a passive consumer, spectator lifestyle. I wonder whether or not Christians have understood how self-involving and how practical these ideas/teachings really are. I hope This Sacred Life will go some way to making this clearer and more compelling.

    Third, in arguing for the close connection between the practical logics of creation, creatureliness, and creativity, my hope is that ideas like dominion and stewardship will no longer be presented as endorsing something like a capitalist conception of private property. At its core, the logic of creation demands that people perceive and engage life as a gift. This does not mean that ownership is always out of the question. It does mean that however ownership is practiced, it will do so with a deep appreciation for the fact that our ownership comes with significant ramifications, like the need to share with others what one “owns” and the need to reject monopolies that lock others out of access to the sources of their own livelihood. 

    All of this is to say that Christian traditions are deeply tainted. Christians have often misunderstood and misrepresented their scriptures, and they have refused to do what God has asked of them. This doesn’t mean that their teachers and teachings should be abandoned, especially when we also acknowledge that throughout history Christians have often done considerable good as the direct result of what they have been taught. In this respect, Christianity isn’t much different from other institutions that have also abided and sometimes encouraged malpractices of diverse sorts. The distortion of a tradition, in other words, is not a sufficient reason to abandon that tradition. If it were, then we would have to abandon pretty much every institution created, ranging from medical to financial to educational to political institutions. For instance, I would not want to reject the insights of Karl Marx because his work has been distorted or put to nefarious purposes.   

    Philipsen also raises a good question about “progress.” What can we mean by this term, and what measures would we use to mark it? When I talk about benefits, I mean things like improved sanitation, the invention of antibiotics (which I know can be abused, as in much of industrial farming today), and the forms of emancipation that no longer accept the inferiority and subservience of multiple groups of people. I fully agree that the “march of progress” in many of its colonial and international development forms has rested on violence and the seizure of lands, but this is a distortion of what I take to be a better form or expression of what a good life is. I do not doubt that we have much to learn from foraging societies, but I think we also need to be clear that we can’t turn back the clock (there isn’t enough space for billions of people to become foragers or farmers), and we shouldn’t be too quick to pronounce that foraging societies had it all figured out. 

    Which raises the question: what are some of the marks of a good society? We need these marks because otherwise we will not know what to strive for in our economic and political policies and in our infrastructures. We will not know if we are doing better (making progress) or worse. Philipsen has done excellent work in this regard by showing how GDP figures are terrible markers of a healthy world and happy communities. I share many of his assumptions and conclusions. My hope is that This Sacred Life gives theological reasons for getting behind his vision, not because we will agree on every matter, but because we both affirm that creatures and places are precious and worthy of our care and celebration. 

    For my response to Philipsen’s concern about my treatment of the terms “Anthropocene” and “Capitalocene,” and our embeddedness within economic systems, see my response to Jonathan Tran.

    To answer Philipsen’s question about the sources of ethical reflection and life, my chapter “Why Sacred Anything?” is central. In it I try to show the shortcomings of an entirely immanent frame, i.e., a way of thinking that is without any transcendence whatsoever, and therefore is internal to us. I won’t summarize that chapter here. Instead, I want to focus on whether or not we fool ourselves into thinking the sacred, however conceived, is anything other than a human invention. Ludwig Feuerbach raised this question in a forceful manner when he argued in The Essence of Christianity that all theology is merely anthropology, and (to use Karl Barth’s formulation) that when God is thought to speak, it is really human beings speaking in a very, very loud voice!

    I do not doubt that our framings and articulations of the sacred will invariably reflect the human cultures in which they appear. They will reflect the limits of specific languages and the metaphysical assumptions each language encodes. This does not mean, however, that the sacred is reducible to human invention. Why not? Because when people attempt to articulate the sacred they are responding to the experience and the felt sense that this world and its life are gifts, and that these gifts, though susceptible to causal explanations (as when I give Dirk a gift for being such a fine human being!), ultimately rest on the giftedness of being/becoming itself and the gratuity of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? This question takes us to the ontological “cause” that does not fall within a cause-effect or mechanical chain described by scientists. It is also the “cause” that is reflected in multiple indigenous and religious traditions that speak of the sacred character of this world and its life. I don’t think we can “start with us” or say “the world simply is,” because then we lose the possibility of approaching the world as a gift to be cherished and celebrated. If it all starts and ends with us, why not simply say, as Thrasymachus did in Plato’s Republic, that the good is determined by those who have the most power? To confine ethics to exclusively intra-human concerns is to lose the integrity and sanctity of a world that calls forth respect and even reverence. To say it is all human invention is to set up a struggle between people as to whose “invention” is going to win out in the end. 

    Reflecting on Philipsen’s folk poem, I believe that the idea of the world as a sacred gift can aid the poor and the weak who have had their commons stolen from them by lords and ladies. It can serve as the refutation of the laws of enclosure that put them in such dire and inhospitable straits.

Verified by ExactMetrics