A Feature Review of
Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land
Reviewed by Tyler Selby
Gloom about the state of North American society has become commonplace. While it is difficult to discern the extent to which the gloom reflects our actual lived reality, the pervasiveness of media depictions of a society on the brink of dissolution would make discovering the real story almost a moot point. Our immersion in the perceived reality of turmoil and social distress is enough for us to internalize that narrative and to filter our world through that expectation. If our mind is trained to see the world as breaking apart, we will expect to see the fractures and fissures everywhere. How our perception of the world is shaped matters.
But the problems we face are not only a matter of perception. As one example, we are coming to know the ramifications of a climate in crisis with drought and water issues; wildfire smoke and air quality; and the increasing power of storms that wreak havoc on infrastructure. The health of the global ecosystem reveals how a dysfunctional connection to the created world directly shapes the health of our societies—and it is not a far leap to see that exploitation of the earth often results in exploitation of people. In truth, both our perception of the world around us and our lived reality within that world matter if we are to live well within our society. Economics is a window in which we can see this clearly. Keeping with the original sense of the term (oikos, meaning household and nomos, meaning rule or law), our economic habits reveal much about how we think about this world, other people, and how we live in God’s creation.
Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land by Norman Wirzba is well-situated in the intersection between our perception of the world, the lived realities of our societies, and God’s created world. Wirzba’s newest work flows out of the stream of his previous writings, dealing with the constellation of topics surrounding creation, Sabbath, food, and our relationship with the land. Agrarian Spirit looks to our interior world and deals with the cultivation of habits and disposition that, in turn, flow into the created world and our societies. Split into two sections, the first explores a kind of resurgence of gnostic worldviews, and how they disconnect us from the created world. As an antidote, Wirzba suggests an “agrarian” mode of being in the world, built on realizing that we are embodied souls woven into God’s good creation and that our own wellness and the wellness of that creation depends upon our seeing it as God’s good gift that we have been made to nurture.
The second part of Agrarian Spirit explores the spiritual disciplines of living in an agrarian mode: prayer, seeing, descent, humility, generosity, and hope. While Wirzba’s work is certainly helpful for shifting the thinking of individual persons towards a better understanding of how we are in the world, the potency of the book for our current moment lies in Wirzba’s bringing to the foreground the notion of “meshwork.” Our world today is marked by “the reduction of places and (human and nonhuman) creatures to units of production to be claimed, controlled, mined to exhaustion, and then abandoned” (36). It is difficult to square the neoliberal capitalism today—and the worldview that it assumes—with a biblical vision of what God intended for creation. The example of the climate crisis is a revealing window into the fruits of neoliberal capitalism. Running on engines of industry and the production of an endless supply of commodities, neoliberal capitalism proposes a world in which the creation is a resource; people are human capital as either workers or consumers; regulation and limitations are seen as unnecessary roadblocks to progress; and the marker of success is return on investment. We are living with the ecological first fruits of this worldview. And yet the proposed solution is that through technological innovation, we can continue on the same course and somehow expect “progress” as the goal. We are caught in what Wirzba refers to as the “capitalist web” (190). While, it is true that in a web, we are still somehow interconnected, it is more true that we are tangled up in a mess of someone else’s devising, blind and struggling against each other for a better position in the web.
In contrast, the notion of meshwork counteracts the narrative of the capitalist web. In the web, each person is a self-contained being with no innate connection to anyone or anything else. People are individual units and can therefore be quantified and manipulated against the backdrop of the pool of natural resources. “Meshwork thinking undoes this inversion by saying that things are their relations…’Minds and lives are not closed-in entities that can be enumerated and added up; they are open-ended processes whose most outstanding characteristic is that they carry on. And in carrying on, they wrap around one another, like the many strands of a rope…The rope is always weaving, always in process…” (40).
In the notion of meshwork, the human person is like a knot within the whole woven mesh, including all of the creation as part of the mesh. But Wirzba enhances the idea of meshwork, coupling it with Maximus the Confessor’s key ideas of logos and theoria—the first, being the recognition that everything in creation has its own origin from and connection to the divine. All things have their own logos that connect it to the Logos in Christ. From this point comes the latter idea, theoria, in which we learn “to see creatures in their relation to Christ” (98). In this, Wirzba brings forth a potential antidote to the long tradition of degradation found in neoliberal capitalism. Our current economic habits reveal a vision of the world in which people and creation are disposable capital, to be caught up in the machinery of production and profit. Wirzba offers a balm—a restorative perspective that undermines the values of disposability and exploitation. You cannot dispose of something that contains a share in the divine, but you must learn to see the goodness of each part of creation and how God desires it to fit into the meshwork.
Perhaps the true beauty of an agrarian spirituality and its contrast to neoliberal capitalism is the hope it offers for solutions to our current gloom. In our current mode of living, we lack the solutions to our problems—what is required is some kind of progress and innovation to discover what we lack. We need to innovate our way out of this mess. But an agrarian spirituality shapes our imagination of our world in such a way that it gains a proper hesitation towards innovation and progress, believing that we can keep the same habits but leave behind neoliberal dependence on exploitation. Agrarian spirituality recognizes that God created the world so that it already contains everything it needs to be what it was meant to be. Wirzba reminds us that in Christ, all things and all people contain a connection to the divine. What we lack is the proper sight, or theoria, of how this is true, and how we are connected. Everything required to make this perspective our reality is already at hand.
Tyler Selby is the Director of Maintenance at Englewood Community Development Corporation (which serves a largely marginalized population in the Near Eastside of Indianapolis). He is a graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College, enjoys cooking, growing tomatoes, is on Unit 14 of Duolingo Spanish, and is almost certified in pest control.
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