The Common Good
April 2011

For God So Loved the Dirt ...

by Norman Wirzba | April 2011

Whether Christians do right by the environment depends on whether we can see the Earth as a megastore where we can 'shop' for whatever we want -- or as a garden that needs careful ...

So much of knowing how to act depends on knowing where we are. As parents we have to teach our children that behaviors appropriate at a playground -- jumping, running, climbing an apparatus, throwing things -- are not appropriate at a dinner table. One of the clearest signs of a polite, respectful, and responsible citizenry is that we are able to look around and consider the lay of the land before we act.

People of faith have not done a very good job helping each other consider the lay of the land. We see this in the ease with which people in synagogues, churches, and mosques name and narrate the world as a stockpile of natural resources. The mainstream behaviors in our society indicate that we perceive the natural world to be one vast store or warehouse, a place where mining and then purchasing goods as cheaply and quickly as possible is not only appropriate but a national duty. The effects of our inconsiderate ways -- catastrophic climate change, anthropogenic species extinction, the annihilation of mountains, soil and water degradation, the privatizing of the "natural commons," the abuse of agricultural workers -- are now becoming impossible to ignore.

But what if our rush to drill, blow up, burn, and buy up the world is like the action of children who have come to a dinner table but treat it like a jungle gym or football field? How do we know that we have not fundamentally misperceived and misunderstood the world, and that our behavior is not of a most inappropriate kind?

It ought to astound us that scripture introduces the world to us not as a superstore but as a garden. In stunning contrast to the violent creation stories that circulated in the ancient world, the Jews chose to name and narrate the place of our living as a "garden of delight" (this is what Garden of Eden means). Equally astounding, and fully aware that first impressions matter, they described the creator of the world not as a warrior but as a gardener: "And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there put the human whom God had formed" (Genesis 2:8). And then, to top it all off, they said that humanity’s fundamental and most appropriate role is to join with God in the gardening of this world: "The Lord God took the human and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (2:15).

If the world, theologically described, is God's garden, then there is nothing more appropriate and important than for us to learn to garden like God does. Gardening matters because that is how God continuously creates, cares for, and sustains the world. It is the way both God and humanity more fully discover the world -- with our eyes, ears, noses, tongues, and toes -- as a delightful place worthy of Sabbath celebration. How would our political, social, and economic worlds have to change if people came to see planet Earth as an immense and diverse garden, the focal point of God's abiding attention, devotion, and love?

When shopping rather than gardening is our primary relation to the world, we forfeit a deep appreciation of life as a precious gift to be gratefully received, carefully nurtured, and generously shared. When our shopping becomes arrogant and ignorant, as it clearly does in today's forms of global capitalism, we undermine life's potential wherever we go. To accept that we are made in the image of God the gardener commits us to a high calling: personal work and public advocacy for the transformation of our world into a beautiful, aromatic, and delectable dwelling place.

God loves dirt. The God we meet in the garden is not a white-collar or managerial deity who relates to the world by mining or purchasing it. This God kneels and bends down with hands in the soil, molding human, plant, and animal creatures into their distinctive shapes. This God takes the soil and holds it close, taking in its fresh aroma, and then breathes into it life’s vitality, resilience, and beauty. The eyes of this God never come off the land (Deuteronomy 11:12). As the psalmist put it, God is the eternal farmer who comes dressed in overalls ready to water and weed the world, and then revels in its fertility and bounty (Psalm 65:9-13). We need this soil-cherishing God, because the day God ceases to garden and farm is also the day that all creatures die and return to the ground from which they came (Psalm 104:29).

It is tempting to dismiss these theological observations on gardening as both impractical and naïve. Have we not (quite gladly) moved past the time when most people had a direct, laborious hand in their own food production? Is not the idea that people should cultivate gardens an irresponsible version of escapist romanticism that ignores, and thus also condemns, a hungry population to a more crowded and warming planet?

There are several reasons for advocating gardening work. To start, it is work that is inspired by God's own nurturing and celebratory ways with the world, and so becomes a practical way for us to participate in God's reconciling and redemptive desires for the whole creation (Colossians 1:15-20). For a number of people, "stewardship" has become the best way to describe creation care. The image of the steward can certainly be helpful, but what it lacks is a sense of the painstaking and joyful intimacy that exists between a gardener and his or her garden. Gardeners do not simply "manage" their plots. They are on their knees and deeply involved because they know that their sustenance and aesthetic enjoyment depend on the quality and the care of the work they do. When the work performed is excellent, gardens are beautiful, aromatic, delicious, and bountiful.

When we accept that gardening is our fundamental vocation, we will discover that the focus of our desire and ambition will shift. One of the most destructive effects of our consumer economy is that it creates a profound restlessness in us. Unlike the Sabbath rest that rejoices in the grace of the gifts before us, consumerist desire keeps us constantly on the move and forever ungrateful, searching for the new and improved product that is promised finally to make us happy. This economy depends on the exploitation of every place and the acquisition of as many “goods” as possible. It results in a world that is exhausted, ravaged, and destroyed.

When acquisition is the goal of our striving, there can be no limit to how much our economy should grow. We see no need to apologize for the media-manufactured expectation that what we buy should be procured as cheaply and conveniently as possible. The view from the garden teaches that this vision of the good life is a destructive fantasy. Gardening compels us to come to terms with our ignorance and hubris. It teaches us that there are limits to what we can achieve and to what our land can provide. Being in gardens, we will discover that the eternal gardener is constantly surprising us with gifts beyond our comprehension, planning, or deserving, gifts that are precious and delicious.

Foremost among these is the gift of food. Our increasingly global food system is wreaking havoc with the world’s ecosystems and local food economies. Industrial methods of food production that depend heavily on the use of fossil fuels (scientists estimate that up to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to these methods) -- to run machinery, pump irrigation water, produce fertilizers and pesticides, and then transport and process the food -- are slowly killing our soils, depleting our waters, and impoverishing small-scale farmers around the world. It is an illusion to put our hope in expensive "super seeds" grown on a degraded planet by disenfranchised farmers. It is pure superstition, as Wendell Berry once observed, to believe that money brings forth food.

Our hope for a just and sustainable food system, and thus also a healthy planet, does not depend on the massive companies that are patenting and licensing life forms or privatizing the world’s waters and lands. It rests in the attentive care of persons who join with God in the nurturing and cherishing of every plot of land. We are fooling others and ourselves if we think we can effectively advocate for the health of the diverse gardens of this world by neglecting the care of our own. The kind of care that will be needed will require people around the world to think at a scale that will enable us to see the effects of our actions. We need to be more committed to staying where we are so that we can then correct our mistakes and make improvements within ourselves and our land. We need to become more vocal about the injury and injustice carried out against all creation’s eaters, and then advocate for policies that heal our land and protect its creatures.

A gardening vision and vocation will enable us to see that the consolidation and integration of our food systems is a big mistake. Food security depends on food democracy, the idea that people should be free to grow the food that they need and that is suitable to the region in which they live. The great advantage of local economies of this sort is not only that they give us more nutritious and delicious food. They also make possible the kinds of attention and accountability that minimize abusive relations to the land and exploitative relations among producers and consumers.

Is it quixotic to argue for local food economies in a time of global environmental crises? Ecologists have taught us that all life forms one unfathomably complex and interconnected whole. Every part matters and every part, however minutely, influences the rest. This is good news because it means that if we get something as basic and far-reaching as eating right, so much other good will follow. When people of faith band together by advocating for healthy food grown with care and respect, they will begin to grow more of their own food. They will also find themselves supporting farmers who share their vision. In some instances these farmers will not be close by. But if we are serious about counting the costs associated with our desires, a local economy is indispensable because it enables us to see up close if our choices are harmful. It becomes the lived context that will make our sharing and celebration more honest.

Imagine how our world would be transformed if synagogues, churches, and mosques recaptured God's gardening vision by turning parking lots and manicured lawns into vegetable and flower gardens, and then became a focal point and inspiration for local food economies of the future. Imagine if all followers of the gardening God became advocates and supporters of public policies and economic practices that made the healing of each place a top priority. This would not only be a powerful witness to God's desire that creatures be well-fed and cared for. It would demonstrate that we have joined hands with God's healing and reconciling ways with the world, ways that not only make the world more beautiful, aromatic, and delectable, but also bring us more deeply and directly into contact with the forever fresh and fertile grace of God.

Norman Wirzba is professor of theology, ecology, and rural life at Duke Divinity School.

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