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This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World

Norma Wirzba
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2021

In this book, Wirzba takes on the challenge of what many are calling the Anthropocene. Many scholars and scientists – but not all, of course – consider us to be in a new epoch. The Holocene era, beginning with the recession of glaciers about twelve thousand years ago, was characterized by the proliferation and concentration of human activity. The Anthropocene, a term coined by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, is the era in which human beings are not just increasingly active. They are now “the dominant force in planetary history.” 

The word dominance is important. The Anthropocene marks a shift in how human beings find themselves. They used to discover themselves to be dependent recipients of life. Now, our children discover themselves to be the masters of life on this planet. Perhaps we don’t assume that we control the planet per se. But the combined effect of the size of the human population and its cultural, scientific, and technological power makes human life the most important factor determining whether the rest of the planet can thrive. We are also our own worst enemies. Current human ways of life are creating a situation in which the planet will have warmed by four degrees by 2075. Wirzba states the implication simply: “no recognizable human society has existed within a climate that is three degrees warmer than the current one.”

Wirzba puts forth physicist Michio Kaku’s stark alternatives: “leave, adapt or die.” We can simply succumb and receive the death that awaits. We could escape the planet with the help of the generous billionaires trying to create a pathway to the Moon and to Mars. We could escape by working to create machine bodies that are invulnerable to death or that are fit for the Moon or Mars. We could wait for a divine escape, such that we get removed from a material world through rapture or other means. We could adapt to our changing planet, but that’s just another way of delaying death.

In this context, Wirzba argues for another alternative. We should recognize “the sanctity of places, humans and fellow creatures, and the work people do.” In short, everything that exists – worms, fingernails, cells, babies, and the lilies of the field (to quote someone named Jesus) – is sacred. All that exists is sacred because it “is itself a witness to the divine, personal love that delights in creaturely becoming.” God enjoys all of us, from the mourning dove to the struggling teenager, and our very existence is evidence of that joy. What’s work, then? Work is “a skilled activity whereby people direct their talents and interests to the making and maintaining of shared life.” Not simply the shared life of human beings. The shared life of sharks, elm trees and, yes, that baby crying on the plane. Work is, essentially, preserving the planet while enhancing it. 

Wirzba is not thinking about creation care as a matter of stewardship. Wirzba doesn’t talk about taking care of creatures that are in our charge. It’s more that we are taking care of creatures that share a fellow dependence on God and each other. More than that: we need to learn how to become rooted in changing landscapes. More than that yet again: we need to recognize how our fellow creatures take care of us. Wirzba wants his readers to learn that, as creatures, human beings are “needy and dependent” on God, one another, and worms and spiders. Wirzba wants his readers to recognize that human beings are gifts to our fellow creatures and our fellow creatures are gifts to us.

In part, the book is a kind of apologetic to those who think that the problems of the Anthropocene can only be tackled by replacing religious commitment and language with something else more benign. In more elaborate language and argumentation, he’s arguing that if all creatures are gifts to each other, that’s because there is a Creator. In other ways, he’s trying to counter any Christian communities which recommend that “the best thing to do is endure its (Earth’s) tribulations until the time of death when the faithful will be rewarded with another, eternal life in a far-removed heaven with God.” Lastly, he’s trying to show, with requisite care, that the problems of the Anthropocene can’t be laid simply at the feet of the Christian church. He notes, for example, how deserts were created by deforestation in central Mesopotamia. All this is to the good.

I have lots of relatively small critiques of the book. But, after considering it for a few months, I mostly have a desire for another book. I would like to teach this book to students. However, I would be ecstatic about another book for my students where Wirzba tells the story of how he came to these ideas. I’d like to read about his encounters with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the midst of the kinds of communities he recommends. Think Augustine’s Confessions in the context of the Anthropocene. Even more, I’d almost covet a book that didn’t just present arguments for really good ideas with amazing potential impact. Nowadays, as a teacher, I want to introduce students more deeply to the living Christian community where they can find the Spirit drawing human beings into dependence on their fellow creatures. To quote Bonhoeffer (one of Wirzba’s sources), I’d like to move from the “phraseological to the real,” from scholarly argument for the sacredness of life to the gift of God that brings forth such argument. A book that listened to the concrete day-to-day existence of the church in the center and on the margins as places where the Spirit moved us into the healing of creation. If I had a book like that, I could show students that Christian communities up until now are not merely concentrated forms of the common human tendency to tear up the planet. I could show them the hope of creation right where they least expect it.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg is Professor of Theology at Trinity Christian College.

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