By Joe Johnson
Norman Wirzba, professor of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies at Duke Divinity School and author of many books, will be speaking at Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church at 1218 Main Street Blowing Rock, NC on Sunday, September 15 and Monday, September 16.
Wirzba will be covering various topics during a Q & A with the audience at 9:30 a.m. on September 15, with an 11:00 a.m. Worship Service following the proceedings. 5:00 p.m. on September 15, Wirzba will give a lecture entitled “Discovering Sabbath/Discovering Life”. On Monday, September 16, Wirzba will give a lecture at 9:30 a.m. entitled “The Spirituality of Eating”. Childcare will be provided for attendees with small children.
Trained as a philosopher, Dr. Wirzba is an extremely influential theologian who has pushed the church to understand the world’s ecology as an index of its faithfulness. “It is especially exciting to have him in the High Country given our region’s focus on the land and concern for sustainability,” said Dr. Davis Hankins, Assistant Professor of biblical literature at ASU and Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church representative, “For a long time Appalachian State has emphasized and helped us think deeply about what is and is not sustainable about our lives, and I expect many in this community will be eager to hear a theologian’s perspective on these issues that are such an important concern for us and for future generations. Wirzba is no traditional theologian. He works at the intersection of environmental and agrarian studies, ecology, philosophy, and theology, and he is asking some of the most urgent questions facing us as human inhabitants of our complex planet.”
Wirzba wants to put a robust theology of creation at the heart of Christian faith. A richer understanding of God’s creativity, he believes, shows us that God cares not only about the salvation of individual souls but about the flourishing of bodies, communities, and places, including the food systems that sustain us. Wirzba shows how Sabbath rest, far from a break from our real work, is better understood as the climax of creation. Practicing Sabbath, he believes, can train us to remember that we are created for shalom—for dancing, singing, feasting, inventing, building, resting, and other forms of mutual delight among creatures and Creator. Rediscovering the rich tradition of Sabbath practices might therefore help us learn how to live well within the limits of a finite world.
Wirzba grew up on a farm in Lethbridge, Alberta, studied philosophy and religion at Yale University and Loyola University Chicago, and found a transformative encounter with the Kentucky farmer, poet, and writer Wendell Berry. Wirzba thought he was going to be a farmer or rancher while growing up on a farm on Alberta, Canada. “That’s what I really loved to do,” said Wirzba, “But when it was time for me to make these life decisions, in the eighties, agriculture was just not a way to earn a living. It involved a lot of financial debt and a lot of stress. The message to family farmers was to get big or get out. I didn’t see a future in it.”
Wirzba decided to attend college at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta to study history. Eventually, Wirzba fell in love with philosophy, completed his PhD in phenomenology, and wrote about Emmanuel Levinas for his dissertation. He thought he was going to be a run-of-the-mill philosophy teacher until he met Wendell Berry, who helped Wirzba see that he did not have to discard the agricultural context that framed his thinking growing up. “I studied the long tradition of agrarian writers and started thinking much more carefully about the way that agrarians think and inhabit the world,” said Wirzba, “I found that this opened up really fascinating, fresh ways to think about basic philosophical and theological questions.”
Among the theological reflections that Wirzba focuses are the topics of food and agriculture. Wirzba feels that the conversations on food in Christian circles tend to center around vegetarianism or feeding the hungry. Wirzba feels these are important concerns, but he wanted to think more expansively about food and Christianity. “That is how I came to write Food and Faith. I found that once you start to examine food and agriculture and their connections to people, land, and community, the paths of inquiry and the lines of insight are really unending.” Said Wirzba.
Among the other topics that Wirzba focuses on with his reflections is the Sabbath. Wirzba emphasizes that the Sabbath is not simply an add-on to religious life; the first creation story in Genesis shows that Sabbath is the climax of creation, which means it is a clue to what God’s creative work is all about. “That is no small thing.” Said Wirzba.
If you have an interest in theology, sustainability, the relationship between faith and food, or just have an interest in hearing a new perspective on the relationship we all share with the environment, make sure to attend the lectures conducted by Norman Wirzba at Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church on September 15 and 16.