Dominionism with Dr. Norman Wirzba

Dominionism with Dr. Norman Wirzba

Dr. Norman Wirzba, Professor of Christian Theology / Senior Fellow at Duke Divinity School and celebrated author of, "This Sacred Life," talks about the agrarian context in which Genesis 1:26 was written, and how that changes everything.

Dr. Wirzba audio transcription
interviewed by Rev. Dr. Dan De Leon
episode here:

god, people, world, life, jesus, creatures, animals, nature, creation, dominion, important, soil, land, idolatry, human beings, scripture, living, agrarian, earth, plants


Rev. Dan 0:01
Hey good people. This is Dan DeLeon. I am the guest editor for the Spring Equinox edition of And we are talking about Dominionism. That's our topic for this edition. And we're really excited to be having a conversation with Dr. Norman Wirzba today about Dominionism. And so I wanted to introduce him to you and we can get into this good conversation together.

Rev. Dan 0:26
Dr. Wirzba is the Gilbert T Rowe, Distinguished Professor of Christian theology, senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke Divinity School. His research and teaching interests are at the intersections of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies. He lectures frequently in Canada, the United States and Europe. In particular, his research is centered on a recovery of the doctrine of creation, and a restatement of humanity in terms of its creaturely life. He's currently the director of a multi year Henry Luce Foundation funded project entitled, "Facing the Anthropocene," where he works with an international team of scholars to rethink several academic disciplines in light of challenges like climate change, food insecurity, biotechnology and genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, species extinction, and the built environment. He's published and edited several books, the latest of which is, "This Sacred Life: Humanity's place in a wounded world." He was raised on a farm he likes to bake, cook and make things with wood. He also enjoys playing the guitar, which he and I have in common. He used to be a good athlete used to be, he enjoys being outdoors and spending time with his family and friends. And he tries to grow some food. All well and good. Welcome, Dr. Norman Wirzba.

Dr. Wirzba 1:58
Thank you, Dan. Good to be with you.

Rev. Dan 2:01
That's mutual my friend. I have been longing for this conversation since I first heard you speak at Bright Divinity School's "Ministers Week" back in 2017. And so I'm looking at this as a selfish pleasure continuing that conversation. So I know that I just shared a whole bunch about you just now. But if if there's anything else that you could tell us more about yourself, we'd love to hear that. And, specifically about the work you do and why you do it. What's it why is it important to you to be speaking and, and writing about creation and caring for the Earth?

Dr. Wirzba 2:38
Yeah, so for me, I think what's been most important is a background where farming was central. And that, you know, I think this is important to stress, because for a lot of people, you know, they've lived mostly in city, suburbia, and so forth. And, you know, that's not to say that's been bad living, but the perspective of farmers has not been very much front and center in either theological circles or philosophical circles. And I think theologically, that's really important, because as we'll get into a little bit later, the scriptures reflect a culture and a people that was thoroughly agricultural. And the way they made sense of their lives, and the way they made sense of God, was through the lens of what agricultural life reveals. And I think that perspective is a really important one, because as you might know, and as I think more and more people are discovering, we are sort of participating in economy and political systems that are making more and more of this planet uninhabitable. Right? We're degrading ecosystems, we're eroding soil, we're polluting and wasting freshwater. And there's just so much concern that we're not going to be able to live here very well, or very comfortably, very much longer. And you know, people are dealing with this all around the world.

Dr. Wirzba 3:59
And so for me, it's just a supremely important question to think about, how do we think about the world? What kind of a place is it? But also, who are we as people? What's our rightful place in this world? Because it doesn't seem that there could be a more important question than to figure out how to live well in our places with each other. I think theological traditions, scriptures have a whole lot to say about that. And unfortunately, I don't think theologians and biblical scholars have paid enough attention to this so that it reaches down to, you know, just regular people who want to know what Scripture has to say about how to live well.

Rev. Dan 4:40
Yeah. So the urgency of this is something where a lot of us might be hearing that for the first time. Right. And so, you've been doing this for well over a decade. Yeah. You have that sense of urgency about being passionate. This worked when you initially got involved with it, or was it more of a gradual warming up to that urgency?

Dr. Wirzba 5:06
No, it was, I think it was a gradual thing. And part of it was I, I grew up in the 70s and 80s, in southern Alberta. And the Rockies were my western horizon, right. And so I grew up in a place that was beautiful. The air was often fragrant with the smell of sweet grass. And it was, it was just assumed that I live in a world that's beautiful, healthy and fertile. But then what happened is, is I remember driving across the United States to go to divinity school. And I drove through Chicago, and Gary, Indiana. And it was a revelation to me, because it was the first time for me to see the heart of industrial pollution and smog. And the air was so putrid, the water had foam, and it was orange and, and people were fishing, right in view of these massive steel plants in Gary, Indiana. Wait a minute, how can we do this to our world? How can we be damaging it so badly. And so that got me thinking a whole lot more about how I need to get out of this sort of naive background that I had, where I just assumed that people take care of the land that they care about the well being of animals and plants. And as I started to read, and especially as I started to read more about what ecologists are teaching us, I began to see the extent of the damage. And what's become clear since then, right, this is the late 80s, is that the damage has intensified. And it has simply spread so that it's pretty clear that right now there isn't a part of this world that doesn't have some sort of imprint of human damage in some way or other. So our ability to do good is enormous. But our ability to do harm is also enormous.

Rev. Dan 6:59
Yeah. So the lens through which you're seeing the, you know, Dr. Seyyed Nasr is another one of our contributors shared a talk that he gave in 2009, and I was honored to watch that. And he was talking about reality with a capital R. . . And that that sounds to me, like in that drive through Gary, Indiana, for example, that that you were seeing "Reality," but through a lens that had been formed in, "Wait a minute. This is not, this is not good."

Dr. Wirzba 7:34
Yeah! No, it's not, right. I mean, you think about how it will get to Scripture again. But Scripture assumes a God who loves the world. And the question for me is, how can we say we worship a God who loves the world, but not give our love to the world at the same time? Right? You can't, I don't know how you really adequately call yourself a follower of God if you don't share the love that God has. And you know, there's no question that God loves people. But I think what's also so clear is that God loves the material world, because the material world is where God's love is continuously active, create, sustaining, nurturing Life. So to think about Life in this much, much more expansive way, not just our own individualized, but the Life that we participate in the lives of other creatures, plants, animals, the lives of ecosystems, right, that just expands the scope of what our concern can be. And that's a beautiful thing, because I think it makes Christian life a whole lot more interesting. But it's also terrifying, because you now realize it's not enough to just focus on people.

Rev. Dan 8:48
Yeah. Well, let's get into Scripture. Let's take a look at the creation stories then, from Genesis one, where it's written, And God said, "Let us make humankind in our image," we're talking about that likeness, "according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea," etc. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Rev. Dan 9:21
So, in looking at that scripture, a popular reading of those verses can often cite them as an airtight case of God blessing anthropocentrism and this idea of Dominion being humankind's birthright, to do whatever we want with the earth and everything in it that is not human. But that seems to fly in the face of what you write about the reconciling, healing, compassionate, caring nature of God, in whose likeness we're made, and about our relationship with the land that might not be human, but is nonetheless creaturely. So, in looking at Dominionism, what is a healthier, more just interpretation of us having dominion? And is it possible to reject Anthropocentrism and still maintain God's insistence on having dominion over the earth?

Dr. Wirzba 10:19
Right, right. Yeah, it's a great question. And there's a lot of dimensions to it. First of all, I would say that from a Christian point of view, any attempt to talk about Anthropocentrism is doomed from the start. Because discipleship means that our eyes are supposed to be theocentric, right? Not anthropocentric. It's not about us. It's always about God, and what God wants. So anytime you hear anybody say that it's fundamentally about us and what we want, you already know that they've stepped away from a life of discipleship, right? So that's the first thing.

Dr. Wirzba 10:53
I think the second thing to say, is that we have to take some time to think about these words like, "dominion," right or, "subdue." Because you have to think about the context of this scripture. And there's a lot of things to have in mind here. So first of all, this is the first scripture passage that really a enunciates, a kind of description of how the world is how it comes to be. And it was written by what we now know is the priestly writer who's writing in a context of exile, right? Israel, Judah, they are no longer in the Promised Land, they are in exile. Why? Because they have forfeited the promised land because of violating the commandments of God. So when they talk about subduing and having dominion, you know that they're talking about it with the full knowledge that they have disobeyed God, and they are not in their land. So that already brings with it the knowledge, whatever they've done in their living, it's not been right living. Okay, so dominion, as these people are characterizing it already is tinged with this notion that we can err dramatically in how we should live under God's covenant rule. So that's the second thing.

Dr. Wirzba 12:11
A third thing is, these are agrarian people, right? The Israelites, they are shepherds. They're farmers, they grow vineyards, they're, they're, you know, they're raising vegetables and food and so forth. And you have to ask yourself, What does a word like Dominion mean, in the context of an agricultural society. And here again, having been raised as a farm kid, and knowing what agricultural traditions do how they operate.

Dr. Wirzba 12:40
The first thing you know is that as a farmer, you don't ever presume to do with your land or with your animals, whatever you want. Because first of all, it's stupid. Because, first of all, you believe that you as a farmer are only successful, insofar as your animals are healthy. And insofar as your soil your land is fertile, which means that good farmers are always very attentive to the needs of the land, to the needs of plants, to the needs of their animals, this is again, this is not a punishment kind of thing. It's not an onerous kind of thing. It's the realization that you can't possibly succeed and be successful. If the world that feeds you, literally, the world that provides you your energy, your fiber, does not do well at the same time.

Dr. Wirzba 13:35
So Dominion, cannot be anything like ruthless, do with it, whatever you want, kind of dominion, because that would violate the integrity, the health, the flourishing of the very life you depend upon. And so my colleague, Ellen Davis, who's a biblical scholar, and Hebrew scholar says that really what's going on in this passage is that, that they're talking about a coming alongside -- making yourself a student of, the land. And so "subduing," doesn't mean that you just squelch, or get a tight grip or control of, it means learning to come alongside fellow creatures, so as to understand what they need, so that in taking care of their needs, you also take care of your own.

Dr. Wirzba 14:26
I think the reason this is so important to emphasize is that we are living in a post industrial world, which means we're living in the world where we've got the technologies of machinery, internal combustion engines, big Caterpillar equipment, that can literally move mountains. That's a world in which the language of domination means something very, very different than farming people because if you've got the equipment, where you literally can blow up mountains, where you can literally remake the whole landscape and geoengineer life. This is not anything that agrarian people could have imagined. And it certainly isn't anything agrarian people would have condoned.

Dr. Wirzba 15:13
So it's also, I think, instructive, then to bear in mind that this interpretation, which is anthropocentric, it doesn't really come along until the birth of modern science and technology. So when we look at say how other people in Scripture talk about the land, they don't ever use the language of just do with it whatever you want. When you look at some of the early church writers, you know, people like Augustine or people like Ambrose, or then even into the Middle Ages, Bonaventure, or Thomas Aquinas, none of them interpret Genesis One in an anthropocentric way. In fact, what's interesting is that many of these theologians when they talked about subduing and having dominion, they said, "We have to learn to subdue and have dominion over ourselves." Because we are susceptible to passions, like greed, that are the kinds of passions that get us into a a lot of trouble. And so we have to learn to control them, so that we can live more gently in the world more compassionately in the world. And so it's, I think, very, very instructive that the language of Dominion as it gets used by a lot of people today in churches, is something that comes about in the birth of modern Science and Technology, and is not reflected in Scripture. And it's certainly not reflected in the first several 100 years of church teaching.

Rev. Dan 16:42
Yeah, it's interesting, you just talking about the way that we use it in churches, especially in more progressive circles, what's coming to mind is maybe avoiding using it at all. But if you come across language that makes you uncomfortable, what do we do with this, then there's an avoiding it altogether, which does more harm than addressing it and not having anything to say and just letting it speak. So, understanding the context of the language is very helpful. One of the things you mentioned about how now we have the technology to literally move mountains, my mind goes to Jesus's parable of the mustard seed, and you can move mountains. And that's very agrarian, it's, it's, it's spoken through that filter. But when one sees it, as you're saying, through this industrial understanding of domination, it's, "Well, I can move mountains! So..." (*claps his hands*)

Dr. Wirzba 17:34
Yeah! And the thing is, I don't at all want to deny that human beings are different from other creatures, right? Sometimes, Christians get nervous about some sort of ecological frames of thinking that say, you know, we're not much different than any other animal. And and I don't want to put us on the same plane as every other creature, I think we have to be careful about elevating ourselves too much. But I think something like the Anthropocene, you know, which I've been studying for a while, is, in fact, a confirmation of the fact that human beings have tremendous power. Right, we now affect all ecosystems, all life forms from the cellular, all the way to the atmospheric level, and everything in between. So we are the most powerful creatures on earth, no question. But what is the question going forward is what are we going to do with that? How are we going to exercise it? And are we going to do it in such a way as to reflect God's way of being with us? Right,

Dr. Wirzba 18:35
And I think this is so important to also bring up in this Genesis One passage, you know, the passage happens right at the same time, as we are told that we are made in the image of God. So whatever way we think about Dominion or power, as to be an extension, or a participation in the power and dominion of God, right, we say that God is Lord or Jesus is Lord. But God's lordship or Jesus's lordship is never ruthless exploitation. It's not even coercive. Instead, it's power that moves in the in the sort of what the ways of love, we might say, the ways of compassion, the ways of healing and nurture. So if we're going to say that we're going to exercise dominion, and in our exercising of it, reflect God's way of exercising power, the whole idea that we can do with things, whatever we want, is out of question, because God does not do that with any creature, right? God doesn't coerce creatures, God liberates creatures into the fullness of their life. So this is again, a very important point to make, because I think what happens so much with this Genesis passage, is it gets lifted out of any sort of historical context, but also any theological context. And then it's allowed To do all this terrible work using assumptions that come from modern technology, and that come from a strictly anthropocentric framework. And both of those are.

Rev. Dan 20:13
Yeah. Another helpful word for me in what you're sharing was alongside. And that brings us to intimacy. This was something else that I wanted to, to get that you share in one of your books, making peace with the land. You right, that God created us, not only for intimacy with God and with others, but for intimacy with the land. Yeah. And so when I think of intimacy, and I like to think what most most of us think of intimacy, that we think about human relationships, and different understandings of intimacy within those parameters. So tell us more about what you mean by intimacy with the land, what what does it look like, and why is that important?

Dr. Wirzba 20:58
Yeah. So I think here, too, I want to, I want to first go to Scripture, because the temptation is to think oh, he's just gone woo-y on us here. And bringing in these concepts that are really foreign to a biblical way of thinking. But let's, let's go to the second creation story. Okay. It's just an amazing story. And it gets passed over because we focus on the first one, and then we go to The Fall, because it's got, you know, it's got sex and nudity and that kind of stuff. And so, that's interesting. But we forget about The Garden, and we forget about what's going on in The Garden, because it's supremely important. Right, the image you get there is the first human being, "Adam" (a-DAHM), being animated out of soil, right?

Dr. Wirzba 21:38
God is the first gardener holding soil in God's hand, and then breathing into it, kissing it, so that it takes the form of a recognizable human being. Now, first of all, what is that doing, but it's already showing how closely viscerally human beings are tied to soil, so that every time the A-DAM hears name, he also hears ADAMAH, which is the Hebrew term for soil. Okay, so already, you have this description in the naming of that first human being, so that you never forget that human beings are soil creatures, right? We're lifted out of soil. And as the story continues, when we die, we returned back to the soil. Then what's also so fascinating about this characterization is the breath that animates the soil that makes you and me is also the breath that animates the soil that makes plants and animals.

Dr. Wirzba 22:40
Right, the King James Version says that we are a little different because it doesn't, it says that we are a soul. And therefore we think, well, we're not animated soil, like plants, animals, but in the Hebrew, we're all nefesh, right? We're all created out of this soil. And then the most amazing thing is that this A-DAM, as we know, is alone. And who does God present as a potential partner, not another human being. The first right creatures that are presented to the A-DAM, as someone to help them in their loneliness, are animals. And so the animals are presented to the A-DAM, and the A-DAM is asked to name the animals.

Dr. Wirzba 23:24
And here too, we also have to stop and realize that a lot of folks, when they think about naming, they think of it as an exercise of domination, right? When you name something, you're putting it in its place. And I think that's entirely the wrong way to think about this. Because what the naming does is it lets the A-DAM know what kind of a relationship is going to be possible with this animal. Right. So if I call you, my friend, versus my enemy, that's a naming of you. If I say you're my friend, that means a whole set of relational possibilities have emerged. Whereas if I call you an enemy, a whole different set of relational kinds of qualities will emerge. And this is the kind of naming that's going on when A-DAM is presented with the animals.

Dr. Wirzba 24:13
And after being presented with these animals, we learn of course, that they're not going to be suitable partners in the way that the human being most desperately needs. So I want to sort of put a caveat on what I say about intimacy with the land or with other creatures and not mean it's the same intimacy that we can have with another human being. But it's an intimacy nonetheless, because we are all together shares in this divine breath that animates ground into the diversity of creatures that we see. Now, I think this is really, really important to emphasize because --

Dr. Wirzba 24:52
God puts human beings in a garden brings them out of the soil, ask them to take care of the garden. Because God understands that apart from our life in soil, plant and animal life, we can't possibly survive, we can't possibly thrive. And importantly, we can't possibly be happy. And we need to talk about that. Because we're living in a world where so many people feel alone, right, they feel that their lives don't really matter. And one of the reasons I mean, there's a lot of reasons, obviously, but one of the reasons is lost connection: we don't feel that we're deeply connected to other people. But also, we don't feel deeply connected to all the other life around us, and the earth, that feeds us.

Dr. Wirzba 25:47
Because we don't have any sort of deep relationship, practical relationship that you would have when you garden, grow food, grow flowers, when you take care of an animal, I mean, think about what happens, right? I see this often when I go either to campus or when I go to a nursing facility where I've got a father in law, the minute an animal shows up in the room, guess what happens? People go crazy, right? They want to hold the puppy, they want to be licked by the puppy, they want connection with an animal, right. And as kids were born with that desire for connection, kids love animals. And they think that animals are their friends, because they know that the life that they're called to live is not just specifically geared to other human beings, as important as that is, it's also geared to other animals. And think about the delight that kids take in plants and flowers. Right?

Dr. Wirzba 26:45
We are made to feel connection with soil, plants, animals, and people. Because those are all the places where God is active. And if we were to ever get to the stage where we say we don't need Earth, we don't need plants. We don't need other animals. Right, what have we done, but we've cut ourselves off from that access to God, which is always at work in these non human creaturely realities. So getting to an understanding about how we, we belong in this world. And the world that we live in is not just some absurd cosmic fluke, but is actually loved by God all the time. That gives us another point of access into God's desire to be with us. And when we come to that kind of understanding, there's a kind of contentment, a kind of satisfaction. That is something that the Sabbath is calling us to right where we learn to participate with God, in the delighting of the goodness of this world and the goodness of our shared life.

Rev. Dan 27:51
Thank you that distinction about intimacy, and you framing it in terms of the second creation story was incredibly helpful. I'm wondering about another distinction, that you write about, and that's between "idolatry" and "iconically seeing the world" so you talk about this in "From Nature to Creation," about idolatry and the iconic perception. And so morning, what the differences between those because as I was trying to unpack that, there's so much that you delve into in terms of idolatry, that rising epiphany for me, and then putting that in contrast with an iconic perception. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. Wirzba 28:43
Yeah, it's a really, really important distinction. And I think let's start with idolatry. I know that when people think about idolatry in Scripture, one of the places they go to pretty quickly is Moses, right? At the moment of the giving of The Ten Commandments and the Israelites, they're in the wilderness, they're, they're not happy, right? Things are not going quite the way they thought they would. And they're getting frustrated with Moses, they're getting frustrated because they're thinking that you know, God's abandoned them, and they're just gonna die in the wilderness and so forth. And, in their impatience, right, Moses is going up to the mountain to be with God in they're impatience, they go to the errand and they say, "Look, make us a calf!" And so of course, we get the story of how they bring the gold and they melt the gold and they make a golden calf, and they worship His golden calf. And they think, "Okay, now we have a God." And so when we think about idolatry, today, we think about it in terms of worshiping something that is not God. And that's sort of right, but it's not entirely right, because what's missing is that what the core of the idolatrous impulse is not just to worship something other than God is to worship yourself. Right because what you have to remember about this story is that how does this golden calf come to be? Well, it comes to be with all these people bringing whatever gold they have, and then some other human beings fashioning it into the shape of a calf. And so what does this calf represent? It represents all their hope, all their aspiration, all their fear, all their anxiety, it's all put in that calf. And so what they see in the calf is just themselves. Okay, now made glitzy whatever. And so the essence of idolatry is self-worship.

Dr. Wirzba 30:35
And then that self worship goes into all sorts of really messed up kinds of attachments, right? So we worship stock markets, we worship the family, we worship, all kinds of things. Because we see in those things, our hope, our security, and that's the big mistake. And this idolatrous impulse doesn't just take the form of golden calves.

Dr. Wirzba 31:00
I describe it in terms of how in the modern world, and this relates to the Dominionism conversation, where we take this anthropocentric view, which says everything exists for us. We call that instrumental ways of thinking, because everything is just a means to satisfy whatever I want. And in that process of instrumentalizing the world, everything becomes available, everything becomes appropriated, commodified, used up, even wrecked by us. This is not a world in which we see that all things are made by God, all things are loved by God, all things are meant to serve God in their particular way. And so we don't see things, we don't perceive things, we don't engage things, as if they were the gifts of God. And as soon as that happens, we've got an idolatrous impulse going on. And that's the serious problem.

Dr. Wirzba 32:01
So now, what does it mean to talk about something in terms of its iconic nature? Icons, of course, I think most people know roughly what they are. But, you know, they're images that have been drawn painted by saints. And their point, right there often of the face with a halo above, but ther e are many more than that.

Dr. Wirzba 32:23
Icons were always made by these artists in a posture of prayer, because the whole point of looking at the image was not just the image, but to see God active in the image. So the icon rather than being a mirror that just shows us ourself, it's actually a window that opens out to what life with God could be like. And so an iconic way of, of seeing things is to ask, What does God want for this? What is God's desire for this creature for this place. And suddenly you look at things differently, you engage things differently. And I'll give it just a silly example.

Dr. Wirzba 33:07
My grandfather was a farmer. And what was remarkable about him is that he understood that his animals were gifts from God. And so he couldn't abuse them ever. Right? He was a very gentle and kind man, the only time he ever got really mad at me was when I would ever presume to mistreat a cow, or a pig, or a chicken. You don't do that. Because that's God's gift to us. And our job is to take care of them. Because why they are not the instruments of our own satisfaction, right? They are gifts from God that we need to learn to receive, and cherish and take care of. Now, that doesn't mean you can't eat chickens, or pigs or cattle, you can. But if you're going to, you're going to make yourself worthy of eating them by having taken care of them first. Now imagine if we had an agriculture that practice that or if we had an energy system that said, forests are gifts of God, right? Coal seams, their gifts of God. How do we treat them? Do we just mine them to get as much profit as quickly as possible? Would an iconic way of relating things does is it always asked first, not "what can I get out of them?" But, "what does God want for them?" And that repositions the way we perceive things, and it certainly repositions the way we engage things. And that's why I think an iconic way of thinking about this world is so important in our time, because we don't often ask the question, What does God want for this neighborhood? What does God want for this physical house that we're living in?

Rev. Dan 34:56
So that repositioning of perspective or view is another thing that I was going to ask you about. And it kind of goes back to the conversation we had before about naming. And you talk about this in From Nature to Creation," in talking about nature and creation. And you know, put simply, what is nature? And what is creation? We understand the environment, the biosphere, most commonly as nature, getting out in nature. But if we name it, creation, then there's a shift. So, again, what is nature? What is creation?

Dr. Wirzba 35:32
Yeah, well, that's a great question. And I think the way to start is to first say that the word nature is a very, very complicated term, it has a long history of very, very diverse meanings. But I think in our own context, it usually means that area that is, or that place that is untouched, by human control. And, as I'm, you know, I've already said the Anthropocene means that we don't really have Nature anymore, because everything that we know about this world is now influenced by Technology and power, but, you know, when we think about nature, when we think of it as unspoiled, or as we think of pristine wilderness, it's the place where people don't belong, they might visit. But that's not their home, they don't live there. And of course, there's lots of problems with that whole way of thinking. And if we wanted to, we could get into more of that. But, you know, nature is, is that realm where, you know, there's birds and streams and butterflies and all that good stuff that we love to enjoy. I'm not knocking it's it's a good thing to experience.

Dr. Wirzba 36:35
Now, when we think about the word creation, what does that mean? Because first of all, you have to recognize that in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is no word for Nature doesn't exist. What Hebrew Scripture is the work of God's hands, which means from the start, the only way we can talk about the world is in terms of its relationship to God, the word nature doesn't have any of that. Right? You can talk about nature and say, oh, yeah, yes, it's a cathedral in which we can worship, right, John Muir spoke that way. And that's partly because he was Scottish Presbyterian in his youth. But there are plenty of people who would would not think of nature as immediately connected to God.

Dr. Wirzba 37:17
Now, what I want to say about the word creation is it's important to just slow down a little bit, because I think when a lot of Christians hear the word creation, they think it's a word that refers primarily to the fact that it was nature + God at the beginning. Right? So there's not much difference between nature and creation, all we've done is we put God at the beginning, as the one who gets it all going, and then we fight about, well, when did that happen? Was it 6,000 or 6 billion years ago? And then, you know, all sorts of evolution creationism debates emerge. And I think that's a real mistake, because creation as it gets developed in Scripture, and certainly, as it gets developed by theologians, has almost no interest in trying to figure it out, How did it all happen? When did it all happen? Because first of all, we can't talk about either of those things. Because to talk about when it all happened, or how it all happened, is to presume a mechanical explanation in time, when what creation is about is the creation of time, the creation of a material world in which scientific mechanical principles can be in play. So creation doesn't refer to a temporal or spatial beginning at all. So what's it about them?

Dr. Wirzba 38:36
Well, I want to say that Creation is a teaching that tells us the meaning and the purpose of everything. Because if you say the world is created by God, that means it exists only because God wants it to. It doesn't exist because it has to exist, it doesn't exist, because there was some sort of necessity in material things that they have to be. No, the reason things exist is only because God loves for something other than God to be. And so God makes it. And then God doesn't just make it. God sustains it all the time..., constantly present to every creature, right, not just as Genesis Two says, but as The Psalms say repeatedly, "As the breath within the breath of life". And so that if God were ever to turn God's face away from any creaturrly place, or critter or plant, they would immediately die. Rather than thinking about creation as just nature plus when God did it all a long, long time ago, and then God is basically irrelevant. No scripture affirms a position in which God is present to creatures all the time desiring them for them to live into the fullness of their lives. And that means that creation rather than just being about origins, is now about, Well, how should we structure our economies? How should we start structure our political systems, how should we build our environments, so that they reflect God's love for everything. Now, creation has become a profoundly, practical teaching. And it's become a teaching, I think that connects directly with what we might call the mission of the church. The mission of the church now isn't just about saving souls, the mission of the church is about participating in God's reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth, through the blood of Christ Cross, which means through the self offering life of Jesus, our job is to participate in the healing the reconciling of this whole world. Now, that means church mission has become a lot more interesting.

Dr. Wirzba 40:47
And you know, one thing like I like to tell my students is, you know, I love teaching the Christ in Colossians One where we're given this very short, succinct description of who Jesus is and why he matters. And I tell them, "Look, right from the very start in Christian circles, Jesus's mission is described in cosmic terms." And then right after the him, right, Paul, presuming, as Paul says, The Gospel that has been proclaimed to every creature ... doesn't say, the gospel that has been proclaimed to people. The Gospel has been proclaimed to every creature. And when I tell that to students, they're shocked. And they say, Well, does that mean we have to preach chickens? Well, in a way, yes. And the reason, and I know that people sort of laugh at this, but the reason is that God's covenant, right from the very beginning in the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, God's covenant is not just with people.

Dr. Wirzba 41:46
God's covenant is with the land, and with all the creatures in this is stated over and over and over again, right, and this is why when Isaiah talks about the new heaven and the new Earth, it's not people fleeing Earth, it's about the restoration, the healing of this Earth. And at the end of the New Testament, in Revelation, it's not about souls leaving Earth to go to be with God somewhere else. It's about God descending to Earth, to make his home among mortals, right. And this is going to be a world now that is transformed by God's love a whole world, not just people, because it doesn't make sense to talk about human flourishing, if everything they need in the form of water and air and food, if it doesn't flourish at the same time.

Rev. Dan 42:38
Yes. The idea of preaching to the gospel being brought to all creatures, changes that often cited, quote, have preached the gospel at all times and when necessary use words. Right, that change, it's it's exemplifying our way of living, which, as you said, changes the whole mission of the church. Yeah, you know, exciting ways.

Dr. Wirzba 43:02
Yeah, I mean, it's just fascinating. I don't know, if folks like to read accounts of the early church, mothers and fathers. But there's so many stories that get spoken, where we have these saints who lived with wild animals. And they were not afraid of the animals and the animals. Importantly, we're not afraid of them. Right now, what a lot of animals see human beings show up, they run because they say human beings are bad news. But the saints who were living in a very kindly way, they were welcomed by the animals, even the animals that normally would say, you get close to him, they will kill you. But it didn't happen that way. Right? St. Francis of Assisi, another example. Right, he hung out with wolves. Because the wolves realize that there's nothing to be afraid of with this man.

Dr. Wirzba 43:52
And the question is, what would it be like for Christians to live the kinds of lives in which not just other people said, oh, good news, here comes a Christian. But all people or creatures also could say, in whatever way they can say it. Good news is showing up here. We know that we're in the presence of folks who are desiring our good. We are we're meeting people who, who exhibit in their living what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit, right? These gentleness, kindness, self restraint, these qualities that we find are so absent in our world today.

Rev. Dan 44:34
I want to look at the another creation story. Getting back to Scripture again, and you talked about this just a second ago, but I wanted to get into it a little bit more about about Christ. Where Colossians one verses 15 through 17. And the creation story that we find at the beginning of John's gospel in talking about Jesus as creator Yes. And that changes things where most Christians are taught that Jesus has savior. And you ask, what does this mean? And why does it matter? Jesus has creator. So,,, What does that mean? Why does that matter?

Dr. Wirzba 45:19
Yeah, I mean, it's a hugely important question, because, like so many other people, I was raised saying, Okay, God, the Creator, right did long time ago, then things go badly. And so Jesus has sent us His Son to fix it. And that means Jesus is our Savior from this condition of sin and awfulness. And, you know, there's enough about that story that we can work with. But what's so clear is that from the very beginning of the New Testament accounting of this, we're told he's the creator. And I'm thinking, "Wait a minute, how did I go to church for 25 years? And nobody ever said this? I mean, it's just plain as day. I mean, you mentioned John One. Right?

Dr. Wirzba 46:03
All things came to be through this eternal word. Not one thing came into being without this word. Right? And this word became flesh. Right? Or then again in the Colossians hymn,, and not just there, but first Corinthians, we go to multiple passages that talk about how Jesus as Hebrew said, is the exact imprint of The Father, and that through him all things come to be. So what's going on here? Well, I mean, we can get into a little bit of theology here. But, you know, we talk as theologians that Jesus is God incarnate. That's what John 1:14 says, right? That the word, the Eternal Word, by which all things came to be, and through whom all things are, became flesh in the person of Jesus. That means that Jesus is a very, very unusual person, because Jesus isn't just a person, Jesus is also God, fully God, as the hymn says, the fullness of God dwelled bodily in Jesus.

Dr. Wirzba 47:08
What the New Testament writers are saying when they proclaim Jesus as the creator, is they're saying, the life that Jesus manifests in his ministries, right, the life of feeding, the life of healing, the life of reconciling, exorcising demons, befriending / touching ministries...

Dr. Wirzba 47:27
The way He lives in His body, practically in a ministerial way, that's the power, the same power that creates the whole world that sustains the whole world that keeps the whole world moving.

Dr. Wirzba 47:42
So it doesn't mean that Jesus of Nazareth living, roughly 2000 years ago was sort of transported to the very beginning of all time, no, what they're saying is that the power that creates and sustains the world becomes focused, becomes flesh, in this person of Jesus. So this is a supremely practical point to make. Because if we're wondering, well, what does God want for this world? Right? If God loves creation, loves creatures, and God wants these creatures to be reconciled? What is the nature of that reconciling work look like? Well, you go to Jesus, because he's the example he is the material embodied, manifestation of what healing looks like, of what feeding looks like, and what we see Jesus do. Jesus does not impose Jesus on anybody. Jesus comes alongside.

Dr. Wirzba 48:35
Jesus sees in every creature that he meets, what they could be, if God's love were at work. And you know, and one of the I think best examples of this is the story of the Gerasene demoniac, right? We know this guy. He's living a pretty awful life. He's living in a graveyard. First of all, he's chained up, because he's violent. You're not just violent towards others. He's violent to himself, hurting himself screaming, can't sleep, totally messed up guy. And all the people they don't know what to do with him. But Jesus comes along, what does Jesus do? Jesus says, "Look, you're beset by demons. Your spirit is an evil spirit. It's actually a whole bunch of evil spirits residing within you. And they're frustrating your ability to live the life that God wants for you. So I'm going to cast those demons out of you. So that rather than having this horrible, violent spirit inside of you, that's causing you this much pain and anguish. I'm gonna have the Spirit of God enter into you, which is the spirit of love, and gentleness and compassion."

Dr. Wirzba 49:43
And so the demons of course, are exorcised and he's "restored to himself!" Right? It's an incredibly important phrase, because God doesn't want this Gerasene man to be anything other than who he is. But what's happening, of course, is that his life is being distorted It is being wounded as being damaged by this evil spirit or set of spirits in him. And I think what you see in that is that Jesus is doing this all the time, not always an exorcism. But in other moments too, because what God wants is for creatures to flourish. And if you're hungry, you can't flourish, which is why Jesus feeds you. If you're sick, you can't flourish. So Jesus heals you, if you're lonely, can't flourish. So Jesus says, "You got to find friends, I'm going to befriend you." So all of these become ways of helping us understand that Jesus's miracles are not as they're often presented: interrupting the laws of nature, no, the miracles are actually acts of liberation, in which Jesus frees people, so that they can live into the lives that God wants for them. And what kind of life is that? It's a life in which the only power animating what you do is the power of God's love. Because if you're acting through the power of God's love, in all the ways that are particular to you, right, because everyone has different gifts and talents. When you're living the life God wants you to, animated by this loving power, there is no better life.

Rev. Dan 51:16
Amen. We're recording this on a Friday. I don't know that I need to go to church on Sunday. This is powerful. Thank you.

Rev. Dan 51:24
Ok, another thing Jesus teaches us, of course, is what we understand as the Lord's prayer. We pray it very often, if not all the time in corporate worship, if a Christian isn't in a worship service, part of which says, of course, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." And you're write that, "For it to really be the kingdom of God. It must also demonstrate restored relationships with the actual land on which people live." And so to make that sacred prayer realized, what are some practical ways that we can restore relationships with the actual land on which we live?

Dr. Wirzba 52:02
Yeah. So the first thing I think people should try to do, and this is, there's a lot of dimensions to this, right, a lot of ways you can go and, and the point is not to try to do everything at once, because it's pretty daunting. You can't do everything at once.

Dr. Wirzba 52:16
It's different, of course, when you're living in an agricultural society, like the people of the Bible did for the most part. But for a lot of people living in cities, climate control buildings, you know, hardly ever get outside, right, the amount of time people spend outside is so small, compared to how most people have lived historically, I think the first thing to do is for people just to get outside. And notice, look, pay attention, smell, feel, touch, breathe, because we've become so detached from land, from plants, from animals, but we don't even notice them. Right? We're going so fast through our days, because, you know, this is the nature of our economy today, you got to be more frantic frenetic than you were the last day because it's all about getting optimization maximization happening in every sphere of our lives. It's stressing us out like crazy, right? And I think COVID is causing a lot of people to say, wait a minute, why have I been living the way that I've been living? This is insane. And so the thing to start with is just to try to calm down and center yourself in your neighborhood, wherever that happens to be, you know, I'm not opposed to urban life, because urban places, too, can be places where the love of God is made manifest, right? A well built house is an expression of love, just as a poorly built house is the absence of love.

Dr. Wirzba 53:49
But take some time. And this really does take time. So I often tell students --

Dr. Wirzba 53:55
"When's the last time you sat under a tree and just looked at it, continue to look at it, and did that for maybe 15 minutes, even a half an hour." And first of all, the response of many of them is I can't do that. I say why not? It's only 15 minutes, but they can't they can't sit still for 15 minutes. But then sometimes students will say after sitting for 15 minutes. They're just amazed. Because trees are incredible creatures. Right? They're amazing what they do their shape, their form, their ability to do this most essential work, which is to transform sunlight, right into carbon. And we're carbon beings. We didn't have carbon, we'd be dead. The plants they give us carbon, they give us oxygen again, without them we wouldn't breathe.

Dr. Wirzba 54:52
So what we're talking about when we're coming into the presence of a tree, is we're learning to see how this is a world in which goes God has arranged so much from the soil and the worms to the trees and the birds, so as to give us company, to give us nurture, to give us beauty that can inspire us. It's just an amazing world, given us, and we're going through it mostly in modes of oblivion. And I think that's the great tragedy, I remember reading a rabbi who said that, on the Day of Judgment, God will hold all of us to account for all the blessings that God has given us. And we didn't take the time to even notice them, let alone express gratitude for them as just a powerful, powerful way of sort of recalibrating what's important in our lives and how we should best position ourselves with each other. And in our world.

Rev. Dan 55:58
You talk about that in terms of "metanoia," that Greek, of course, meaning change of heart and direction, and "purification," that make Christ like love effective in one's body and being and that being giving one the ability to see one another as God's creature. So I hear that in the exercise, for example, that you give your students have a look at the tree for 15 minutes. And that obstacle being I can't it in and of itself. That's the point of the exercise, as I hear it, that we have time for metanoia.

Rev. Dan 56:47
So I was going to ask you what was your metanoia, but given your childhood and adolescence, how you were raised, how you you already had that kind of formulation before traveling through the capital R reality of Gary, Indiana, etc. So if you want to talk about that, I'd love to hear it. But let me let me try to frame this, where we can wrap up with something more personal. Okay, and this is what I mean.

Rev. Dan 57:27
In "From Nature to Creation," one of the epiphanies that I had that you share that really resonated with me, was you wrote, "By sequestering nature to that realm apart from culture, people give themselves an excuse to be in attentive to and irresponsible with the urban / suburban areas in which they live, and the farm fields from which they draw their daily sustenance. And so this idea of, "I go into nature," or "I go into creation, when I go to the mountains, or when I go for a hike, or whatever, but in my daily living that's not creation. There's a distinction there." And that was an epiphany for me, where instantly changing how I see my the land in my immediate surroundings. And so I'm wondering how you see the places where you live and work and spend most of your time? What do you see there? And how does the way that you see your most common places affect your behaviors within them?

Dr. Wirzba 58:42
Yeah, so I mean, that's a great question, Dan. And it's one that I think you have to go into very carefully. Because we are so busy, our heads are so full of all the to do things, we have, all the stresses we feel. And so we don't ever really come into the presence of anyone or any place, we're too busy. Right?

Dr. Wirzba 59:06
So imagine you're with somebody and you know, the whole time their mind is somewhere else. They're not really focused on you. They're not really paying attention. They're there, but they're not really paying attention. So the first thing you got to do is you got to learn to pay attention to where you are, and that takes practice, takes training, right? There's a reason why in the great masters of prayer throughout Christian spirituality, they'll tell you that prayer is attention, right, learning to attend. So you got to slow yourself down, you have to say I'm going to make an effort here to attend to who I'm with to where I am.

Dr. Wirzba 59:43
And you know, I often tell people that the way into to the sense of yourself as a creaturely being is first of all through your body. Your body is a creature of reality.

Dr. Wirzba 59:54
And what you do then you start to think about, well, what's required for my body to do what it does. You realize, Oh, I got to eat. So you have to say what does it mean to come into the presence of food? That's not a small thing because food is a living reality for you to eat other creatures had to die, even if you're a vegan. And so you have to think about what what is what is the nature of food, what is the preciousness of food, and if you grow some food, you understand it in a lot more depth than if you don't, but then you think also, you know,

Dr. Wirzba 1:00:24
"My body, it's it's made for touch, to touch and be touched," right? We know what happens to children who are raised and are never touched or never held. They're emotionally distraught and stunted they can't function fully as their as themselves. And so touch becomes another way of understanding our embodiment and our need to be with others. What does it mean to be in touch with other people, figuratively, but also physically? Right? How important is it that when you meet somebody, that you, you don't just sort of give them the cursory glance, but you say, I'm going to be present, I'm going to be available to you, I'm going to give you a hug when you need it, I'm going to shake your hand, I'm going to look you in the eye. So coming into the presence of another is really important, but even I would say, our physical place, right? What does it mean to come into the presence of a neighborhood, so that when you see that, you know, if we had a park here, or some playground equipment, life would be so much better for our children. Right, or if we had homes that were designed in a way so that people didn't feel like they were in a prison, or that they were trapped. But this was actually a place where they could be creative, and they could dream about the kind of life they want to live. Right? That would make housing a spiritual issue, which it often isn't for a lot of people.

Dr. Wirzba 1:01:47
So the thing I want to recommend to people is, if you want to come into touch with the love of God at work in the world go through your body, not only it's not anthropocentric, in that sense, but the body is our first point of access, because our bodies stitch us into a world where we're constantly being benefited by, by earthworms, by strawberries, by Canaries, by children, right? Children are great, because being with children, they're just amazed by everything. Right? It's fresh for them, they still have a sense of wonder about how miraculous this world is and all of his life. And then as we get older, we slowly lose that sensibility. And in a way, you know, this, this creative impulse that that we have, is for us to become more like children. And I don't know if that's what Jesus had in mind when he said to, you know, "Be like the children or suffer," like, "Let the children come unto me." But you know, he held children up as important in the ways that we think about what a Christian life is about. So I don't want to minimize how children can be our teachers in some of these areas, too.

Rev. Dan 1:02:56
Yeah, yeah. Well, I thank you for this conversation. This has been tremendous, and I wish we had more time to continue. For those of you who are wanting to know more about Dr. Wirzba's work and hear more, learn more. check him out at

Rev. Dan 1:03:17
And for those of you who are watching the video, I hope you've enjoyed with the with the shirts that we have on and the white bookcases behind us full of books. I'm kind of like Dr. Wirzba's bizarro alter self!

Dr. Wirzba 1:03:32

Rev. Dan 1:03:35
But this has been tremendous. Thank you so much for your time with us and for being with us on AllCreation. And everyone else that has been tuning in. I hope that this has been insightful for you.

Dr. Wirzba 1:03:46
All right. So good to be with you, Dan. Thanks for the conversation. Thank you

Transcribed by

@BioIntegrity Partnerships