In his recent book, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving our World, Norman Wirzba makes a case that much of the ecological degradation that has occurred and continues to occur due to a shift in the human relationship with the world around. His argument is that the shift from seeing the world as God’s creation to seeing it as mechanistic nature has allowed disregard for and utilitarian abuses of the environment to perpetuate.
Wirzba is Professor of Theology, Ecology and Agrarian Studies at Duke Divinity school. He is highly regarded among religious environmental ethicists for his expertise on this topic and his creative approach. This, no doubt, led to his inclusion in ongoing series from Baker Academic, “The Church and Postmodern Culture,” which seeks to engage timely topics in an incisive manner.
After an introduction, the book includes five chapters. Chapter One outlines the disassociation that many contemporary individuals feel from the world around. When Nietzsche declared God to be dead it reflected the attitude of many in the world, not simply the intelligentsia. However, when the concept of God faded from the forefront of society, so did the notion of an ordered creation. This allowed the value of nature to be reduced to its utility, whether aesthetic or functional. It also tended to accelerate the sense of separation that human had developed from the created order. The Enlightenment, as diverse as it was philosophically, had tended to treat the world mechanistically and humans as superior mechanism within it. This was accelerated by the so-called death of God, and this only increased the loss of a sense of place and order.
One response to the the rise of the idea of nature was a disassociation from it. A second was the idolization of nature, which Wirzba considers in his second chapter. In some interpretations, nature was viewed as a good in and itself and the preservation of it untrammeled by human hands an act of absolute necessity. On the hand, some idolized nature for the benefits they could extract from it. Modernity, according to Wirzba, resulted in the process of humans bestowing meaning to the world instead of discovering meaning already in the world. This led to the ultimate idolatry, which is really worship of ourselves. Viewing the world as God’s creation prevents such a perversion.
In Chapter Three, the point is that creation must be perceived as it is and that the process of rightly interpreting the world around is a necessary part of the human experience. Disassociation from the world around, which has been encouraged by many forms of technology, clouds people’s perceptions. It is thus necessary for Christians in particular to seek to gain, as much as possible, God’s perception of the world and its value. By seeing the world as it is and as it is meant to be, the idolatrous turn can be reversed.
The fourth chapter details the importance of regaining a sense of our status as creatures. Perception helps to prevent the negative development of idolatrous attitudes, but humans are only situated in the world properly when they understand themselves as creatures made by God. In this chapter, Wirzba pushes for an agrarian understanding of the world, claiming that a greater connection with the soil is both biblical and vital to rightly understanding the world. He also ties the understanding of creatureliness into good eating habits, which are contemplative of the food eaten and the time, space, and community of the eating event. This sort of romantic solution to the environmental problems will resonate with hipsters and others who are pushing through the postmodern milieu. Whether it will truly help stem environmental degradation is another issue.
Finally, Chapter Five focuses on thankfulness as “the most fundamental and honest expression of what it means to be a human being, because it is here, in the thanksgiving act, that people appreciate and attempt to live into the knowledge that life is a gift.” (131) Wirzba blames a lack of gratitude on the use of money instead of trading. Currency increases the exactness of transactions, which thus leads to a sense of completion rather than open ended thankfulness. The reduction of the environment to its monetary value, as it sometimes is in cost benefit analyses, also reduces the notion that creation is a gift from God. Wirzba comes back again to the notion that gardening helps restore a sense of thankfulness for creation since, after all, the gardener can do nothing to actually grow the plants. An attitude of thankfulness is at the heart of a right understanding of the created order according to Wirzba.
Analysis and Conclusion
Although this volume is short on practical application, it is a fine text and conveys many ideas that are worth mulling. Wirzba’s diagnosis of the problem is especially astute. Environmental degradation occurs when there is a sense of disassociation from the creation. It’s just dirt. Or, it’s only a bird. That sort of mechanistic understanding undermines compassion for other living creatures and a theocentric vision for seeing God’s handiwork in all of creation. As such, this is a worthy contribution to the series and an important book to read.
However, there are points in the volume where Wirzba—who is an good scholar—gets sloppy. For example, he makes a bold assertion: “Many theologians believe bodies to be something that must be finally overcome and left behind.” (21) The trouble is that he cites none of them. In fact, I’ve been looking for someone to make that argument so that I can include it in my dissertation. The sad fact is the no orthodox theologian actually believes that. I have been unable to uncover a single one, though I am hoping that I find someone. It may be a sentiment in the pews of some churches, but it is certainly not a belief that is widely believed by theologians.
In another place, Wirzba appears to misrepresent the atonement, which is no small criticism for a Christian volume. He writes, “The reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth that the Christ-hymn in Colossians describes happens through the blood of Christ’s cross, which means it happens through the self-offering life that Jesus demonstrated in his ministries of healing, feeding, exorcising, attending to, and touching others.” (24) He is exactly correct that the reconciliation of all things happens through Christ’s blood on the cross. He would have been correct to argue that the nature of that reconciliation was demonstrated or illustrated by the way Christ lived on earth. The context is talking about living on earth and not waiting to get plucked out of physical existence, but this passage makes it seem that Wirzba is moving the atonement from Christ's substitutionary death to his obedient life; both are important, but the penalty for sin was paid in blood, not servitude. It may be that this is simply worded poorly, but the atonement is one area that clarity is worth every moment spent.
These problems are significant. However, they do not undermine the overall value of the volume. This is an important entry in an ongoing conversation and Wirzba’s argument of the importance of understanding the essence of creation as a gift from God carries significant weight. Thus this volume has a place in the library of those seeking a deeper understanding of the contemporary issues in Christian environmental ethics.
Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.