The Leading Voices in Food
E08: Norman Wirzba: Does Faith Shape your Relationship to Food?
For most of us today—getting food is a relatively easy trip to the grocery store or a restaurant. Agrarian theologists see this as a trend of capitalism and urban life. But is this good for us…as individuals and as stewards of our environment? Are we becoming too spiritually and ethically removed from the realities of food production? We’ll explore these questions and more on The Leading Voices in Food with Dr. Norman Wirzba.
Dr. Norman Wirzba is a philosopher, distinguished professor of Christian Theology at Duke University Divinity School and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke. Norman is a leading scholar in agrarian theology. In his research and teaching he draws, connections between theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies. Norman’s work focuses on understanding and promoting practices that can best equip both rural and urban church communities to be faithful and responsible members of creation. He is the author of seven books, including the award-winning book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, and Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation. He is also the editor of a book series called Culture of the Land, a series on the new agrarianism published by the University Press of Kentucky. Norman, welcome to the Leading Voices in Food.
Could you explain the concept of agrarian theology?
Sure. I think a good place to start is to recognize that we are in this new experiment that is really unprecedented in the history of humanity. And what I mean by that is that people are now, for the most part, urban people. That means that we have lived now for so many thousands of years, hundreds of years specifically around agricultural modes of life, and that has really come to an end for many people. It’s true to say that people lived in cities long before, but today’s urbanization means that people are really cut off in both sort of the modes of emotional and sympathetic connection, but also, I think more cognitively, because they don’t have to think about how their embodied life connects them to particular places of land and the lives of the plant and animal creatures that lived there. As agrarians people always had to work with land and animals and plants to make possible their own sustenance.
And that’s no longer the case. People live by shopping, right? You can buy all the food that you need and what that does, I would argue is it gives us a dramatically shrunken conception of our place in the world and our need of the bodies of plants and animals to make our own embodied life possible. And so agrarian theology is a way of trying to open people up to the experience of land and fellow creatures as the very means of our own livelihood. And then also to open up some questions about, well, what’s the spiritual significance of our dependence upon plant and animal life and death?
It sounds like you’re saying that there’s a greater distance between people and their food than what used to be the case. Physical distance and then also a psychological distance, if you will, because they don’t necessarily know how it’s made or who grew it or things like that. It sounds like you’re arguing to shrink that distance. So why would that be important?
Yes. I want to shrink the distance, and I want to help people expand their imaginations for food because when you think about how food comes to us primarily as a packaged commodity, the histories of life and the histories of struggle in that life are often clouded to us. We don’t see how to have a, something like a tomato or to have an egg or to have ice cream… how these different realities presuppose so much else that’s been going on. And a lot of what has gone on has got all sorts of ethical values and spiritual dimensions embedded within it.
So what’s wrong with the current system then the people are distant from their food. And why should it change?
Well, if we think about how people, generally speaking, of course, desire is to have food as cheaply and as conveniently as possible. Well, to do that, farmers are going to have to engage in particular kinds of practices where they’re not going to devote the kind of care that we might associate with the humane treatment of animals or with the very considerate care of our lands, our soils, our waters. Because to get a really cheap strawberry or to have a really cheap piece of hamburger meat means that we’re going to probably, not always, but probably we’re going to abuse either the cattle that are making the beef possible or we’re going to rely on agricultural practices such that people who pick the strawberries do not get paid a very good wage or they’re going to have to use a lot of poisons to deal with pest management.
And what’s at issue in those kinds of practices is whether or not we think the life of a cow or the life of a farm worker or even the life of a strawberry plant…do these really matter for us in some larger frame. And I think one of the things that makes people ask about the spiritual dimensions of eating is that people are growing a bit more unhappy about the way so much of the food is being produced. There’s a kind of disregard of what we might call the sanctity of life that is embedded in the food that we eat. And so it’s not surprising then that we find people who, when they start to think more carefully about the food that they put into their own bodies or the bodies of their children, they say there’s something wrong about our food systems that seem..that seem to degrade the life of plants and animals, and farm workers and gardeners. And so they’re wanting to think about a better way to raise food that honors the life. Because if we honor the life that feeds us, we’re also honoring the bodies that are eating.
What drew you to this work originally?
Well, that’s a great question. I started out thinking that I was going to be a farmer and not an academic, and so I came to academic work sort of thinking that I could leave farming behind and just focus on the more intellectual pursuits of philosophers and theologians. But that all changed for me when I met Wendell Berry, who is a Kentucky farmer and poet and also a major cultural critic; and he helped me understand that agrarian traditions actually contain within them a pretty comprehensive cultural framework to think about the large questions of life, to think about social organizations, the forms of politics that we have in it, but also the economic systems that make our life possible. And so he helped me think about the work that I could do as an agrarian, as making a contribution to more academic disciplines because the truth is, of course, that farmers don’t show up on university campuses very much. And so I want to try to represent something like agrarian ways of thinking because agrarian traditions are very old, and they have shown up across the world’s diverse cultures. And so to bring their insights to academic discussions I think is a really important effort.
I understand that your children tease you about God as Gardener. And the theme of the rural life and gardening resonate throughout your own life and work. In your talks and writings, you help people explore questions about the meaning of food and spirituality of eating. What do you think people are seeking?
So yeah, I think one of the reasons I use the image of God the gardener is, first of all, it shows up in Christian and Jewish scriptures with some importance I think. But what we need to do when we bring up an image like that is help people understand that the image that many have of God as being really far away, and distant, and then also mostly angry, is really a misconception. That you get this creation story in Genesis where you first discover God on God’s knees holding dirt in God’s hands and then kissing it so as to breathe into it the life forms that eventually become beings, plants and animals. And you know, I’m not interested in reading the story in a literal way, but what that story communicates is something about how God perceives the world to be precious at the most fundamental level, which is the level of soil and that God is present to the world in the forms of nurture and care.
And what that translates into, I think when, with people who are in Jewish and Christian faith traditions, is they want to suggest that if God engages the world in this mode of gardening, that maybe gardening can be a way for us to think about our place in the world. Not because everybody is going to be something like a professional gardener, but that something like the dispositions and the sympathies and the habits of care and nurture that gardening will entail, need to be exercised in the context in which we move today. And I think we’re seeing some of that with a real interest in natural systems and agriculture, local food economies, things like the farm to table movement. People who maybe don’t garden themselves, but they want to know that the food that shows up on their plate has been raised in a way that exercises nurture and care. And so I think religious traditions, and I will say that we can go well beyond Judaism and Christianity here, these religious traditions often have some really valuable things to say, not just about the value and sanctity of life, but also as a way of thinking about what life is for or more directly what’s eating for. Is eating just about fueling a body or is eating about something like creating a world that will be more beautiful, more fertile, and maybe also more delicious.
We’re talking at sort of a theoretical level about how scriptures are interpreted and the way different faiths may be looking at this issue. But let’s talk a little more concretely about how food and faith communities are addressing food issues. Could you give us an example or two of how this might play out on the ground out there in the real world?
Sure. So I’ll give you an example of a program, a project that I’ve been involved with for several years is called Anathoth community garden, which happens here in northern Orange County. This community is a very rural community where there has been a history of racial tension and also real economic disparities in any qualities. And this church community, Cedar Grove United Methodist Church (UMC), now a dozen years ago or so, decided that the way to respond to some of the division and the inequality was to bring people together around the growing and the sharing of food. And so they started this garden through the gift of one of the community’s residents, Synovia Taylor, an African American woman who partnered with a white woman pastor at Cedar Grove UMC to get this project off the ground. What this is doing is it’s trying to get people who are coming from African American, Latino communities and White communities together around growing good food.
And this is no small thing because as you know, our society is quite polarized. People are suspicious of the other; however, the other is being seen. And so for people to work together around growing food, and then to also eat together around the table–what that does is it creates a condition in which we can see how the people that are across the table or across the garden plot, are people very much like us. That have certain kinds of fears and hopes and aspirations. And working around eating together and growing food together bridges some of the distance, it helps reduce some of the suspicions and helps us think more about our common humanity. Right, so that’s one program that I would lift up. I think another one is a friend of mine, Nate Stuckey at Princeton Theological Seminary has started a farm project called Farminary, where university and the Divinity School have some land that they have devoted to agricultural production and students from the seminary will take their classes out at the Farminary. They will bring agricultural texts along with their Biblical and theological texts to see what does this mean for the forms of ministry that pastors might engage in as they start their churches.
And I think what’s exciting to see for me, is I travel around the country talking with different folks about agriculture and food, is to see the number of congregations, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim–mosques and synagogues and churches all over the place–are deciding that food and agriculture, the growing of food, the feeding of people really gets to the heart of their faith convictions. And so for churches and synagogues and mosques to either develop some of their lands for agricultural purposes or to partner with agricultural people is a way of doing several good things at once. They are providing healthy nutritious food for their members or for their communities. They’re building bridges, they’re making their faith institutions places for community development, but also economic revitalization. And these are all really good things and, as the best plus of all, you get to enjoy some really good food with good people.
Norman, when I first met you, it was kind of an epiphany to me, if you will, that there was more to food and faith-related issues than I originally thought. So in the background that I have in most detail: public health, people would do projects with churches like trying to reduce hypertension among the parishioners, for example, mainly considered churches a place where lots of people were gathered. So you could intervene with a group much like you would a school or a work site, but there wasn’t anything special about the church and its philosophy or food being part of its fundamental mission. You’re really talking about food and being part of the fundamental mission, aren’t you.
Oh, I certainly am. Because if you think about food in it’s deeper philosophical and religious sense, what we’re talking about is that food is not simply a fuel or commodity. It’s actually the means of life and love. It’s the way we communicate that life is either precious, or it’s not. And so for us to be able to, to highlight how from a religious a point of view, that food is really this expression of love and nurture and cherishing, that really transforms the way people will think about themselves. The way they’ll think about their neighborhoods and the way they’ll think about the world more generally. So I think the work of faith communities in food and in community development and public health and revitalization efforts is going to be really crucial. Because if all we think food does is give us the fuel that we need to keep our bodies going, in the most convenient and inexpensive way forward, we’re not really changing the paradigm by which people are so concerned about how there is so much degradation of our lands, of our waters, of our plants and animals that are going on all around us. We really have to get to the basic question about what we believe food to be and what we think eating is fundamentally about and what purpose it serves in our world. And if we can get to that more fundamental level, then I think we can build some common work around this idea that everything that lives is in some way, not equally, but in some way precious, and we have to get busy caring about it and caring for it. And I think this is what communities can do if they recommit to fundamental values.
There are, of course, many faiths and faith traditions and we’ll be recording podcasts with people from different faiths in the future, but I wonder if you might comment on themes that might weave through different faiths with respect to food?
Yeah. I think one of the really basic ones is simply the sanctity of life. I think what’s been very clear in recent decades and centuries really is to see how the commodification of the world goes hand in hand with the degradation of the world. And so people are wanting to know how can we speak about something like the sacred character of life in fresh ways. And this is something that faith traditions across the world share in common. That this idea that life is not simply an accident. Life is not simply atoms crashing into atoms. That there is something about life which renders it sacred. And so something about the sanctity of life calls us to give diverse expression to what this might look like in our communities and in our world. I think another shared theme besides the sanctity of life is that the creation in which we live–and I know that the language of creation isn’t going to be shared across traditions–but there’s an understanding about how life at its most fundamental level is good and beautiful and so to recover that sensibility I think will also be important when people are often wondering whether or not the universe in which we move is fundamentally absurd or meaningless. I think people who have come from some faith traditions will be able to say there’s fundamental goodness about this world and about life and we need to find ways to recover it.