Our Garden Context – an Excerpt from From Nature to Creation

The following is an excerpt from From Nature to Creation, by Norman Wirzba.

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It is of profound theological and anthropological significance that the earliest biblical creation story places human beings in a garden. Why this agrarian setting as opposed to some other?

Bonhoeffer suggested the setting represented a fantasy: for the Israelites, living as they did in an arid region and on marginal land, what could be more magnificent than a garden with rich soil, abundant water, and trees laden with beautiful and delectable fruit? This is why he argued that the garden imagery of this story needed to be translated into the language of today’s technical world (CF, 81‒83).

Cover ArtWe should ask if Bonhoeffer’s judgment is not itself a reflection of a modern, urban forgetfulness of and bias against agrarian ways of understanding human identity and life, ways that were common to most of humanity in the last ten thousand years, and that were presupposed by the writers and hearers of Scripture. Is not the rebellion against creatureliness that Bonhoeffer powerfully describes mirrored in humanity’s longstanding rebellion against the land? Perhaps the agrarian, garden setting, along with the practical sympathies and sensibilities it makes possible, is crucial because of its unique ability to illuminate our condition.

I should be clear at the start that my advocacy for agrarian sensitivities and responsibilities is not a recommendation that all people be farmers or professional gardeners. Owing to the complex intelligence and diverse skill set required, and the practical, logistical problems associated with moving a large population “back to the land,” relatively few people are cut out for this kind of work.

What I am arguing is that all people, no matter their location and occupation, must appreciate the fundamental importance of the land as the source and destination of their life, and therefore also make an encompassing, practical commitment to implement and support economies that promote the health of people and land together. This is no small matter, especially if we acknowledge that throughout much of history, economic “success” has been at the expense of, and has exhausted, the land.

Agrarian sympathies are crucial because without them people run the risk of distorting the character of their lives. Working with the land, people come to understand the importance of the practices of attention and care, seeing that without a commitment to care for the soil and all its creatures, the prospect of a flourishing human life comes to an end. This is why in agrarian cultures people’s desires and expectations are calibrated to meet the needs of the land. There can be no healthy people without a healthy land to feed them and provide for their needs.

©2015 by Norman Wirzba. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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