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Norman Wirzba
Ciara Reyes-Ton
 on May 31, 2022

Norman Wirzba: Sabbath, Soil and the Sacred Life

What can soil teach us about God? How can the sabbath help us recover delight and find rest? What is sacred about our wounded world?

A trey of soil and baby plants

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Norman Wirzba is a Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, Senior Fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics and author of several books. I remember reading his book, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight for an environmental theology class I took as an undergrad. I can’t help but find that the words I read then, are still relevant today, if not more so.

This Sacred Life, book by Norman Wirzba

In a world ravaged by things like environmental degradation, social injustice, greed and war, Wirzba believes there is reason for hope and that we can join with God in its healing and restoration. In this interview, he revisits some of his older work on the Sabbath reflecting on how its practice can help us recover delight and find rest in a restless world. He also explores what soil and working with our hands can teach us about God, and discusses his new book, This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World.

Ciara: The recent pandemic has in many ways forced the world into a Sabbath so to speak, giving us pause and causing us to slow down. You write that Sabbath is ultimately about delight in the goodness that God has made—in everything we do, every day of the week. What ways have you found delight and seen God’s goodness during this prolonged and painful pandemic? What lessons might we learn and cling to about the Sabbath as this pandemic lifts?

Norman: Over the years, I have become even more convinced that the failure to practice Sabbath and perceive/evaluate the world through a Sabbath lens, is doing tremendous damage to people, communities, and our world. We live in what some scholars call “the Great Acceleration,” which is a time where everyone is trying to maximize/optimize everything. But for what? People are buying more, doing more, worrying more, trying to be more, but it doesn’t seem that they are measurably happier.

I think what the COVID pandemic has done is force people to slow down, even stop, and ask, “What’s the point of all our striving and exertion?” That, of course, is the fundamental Sabbath question. The Sabbath answer is that the point of life is to share in God’s “rest” in a created world that is wonderfully and beautifully made.

What Sabbath asks us to do is to pause and slow down so that we don’t overlook the beauties and graces of our shared life.

The opposite of rest is not activity, but restlessness. Sometimes restlessness is a good thing, as when it is born out of dissatisfaction with injustice. But so much restlessness is life-degrading because it is premised on a deep discontent with life as given. What Sabbath asks us to do is to pause and slow down so that we don’t overlook the beauties and graces of our shared life. That has happened for me with COVID.

I’ve spent much more time at present walking, being outside, reflecting, and cherishing the times I could be with people. No question, COVID brought about so much suffering to too many people. That fact should strengthen our future resolve to do better in the spheres of public health and workplace justice. A Sabbath perspective can help us figure out what “doing better” in these spheres would mean.

Ciara: You gave a public lecture recently during your appointment as visiting Senior Fellow at Oxford University on how soil and agrarian ways can teach us something about our faith in God. Can you unpack this a little for us here? Is there something inherently spiritual about soil, the earth and the living things that God has made?

Norman: Soil isn’t just dirt. As Genesis 2 puts it, soil is the first created place that God kisses by breathing life into it that animates you and me and all other terrestrial (plant and animal) creatures. That means if we want to find God, we should look down and around rather than up and away. This reveres the trajectory of a considerable amount of spiritual advice. This is what agricultural peoples have always done—worked to nurture the ground that nurtures us. When people think they are exempt from the care of the soil, they not only precipitate unnecessary damage on Earth, they also walk away from God.

As I read scripture, God is constantly working to make his love incarnate in bodies and places. Insofar as we want to participate in God’s nurturing ways with the world, ways that heal, feed, and reconcile life, we have much to learn from farmers and gardeners who are constantly working to “tend and keep” life. To put it provocatively, the God of Scripture is an agrarian God because God seeks the flourishing of land, creatures, and people together.

Onions growing in garden

When we make beautiful and useful things, God is glorified. When we disparage, degrade, or waste matter, God is desecrated.

Norman Wirzba

Ciara: I see that you like to bake, cook, make things with wood, enjoy being outdoors and try to grow your own food. What is it about the outdoors and the very tactile relationship of growing and making things with your hands that gives you joy? Does nature and craftsmanship connect you deeper to God as creator?

Norman: Baking and making are fundamental human tasks, but they are also the fundamental divine tasks. God creates by cooking the world, we might say, because God creates the conditions in which diverse ingredients, by coming together, make something that is delicious and good. Life moves by eating. This is a profound thing to realize. When we bake or cook we have the chance to discover how delectable this world is, and how it can be our intimate participation in the membership of life we call creation. It is no accident that Christians have a meal as central to their liturgical life. We eat Jesus so that he can become the nurture within us that empowers us to nurture the world like he did.

Similarly with making. It is not for nothing that Jesus was a carpenter. When we make things we are drawn into a much deeper understanding of the material contexts (and constraints) of our living. As I put it in my book This Sacred Life, when we make, we participate in the world’s unfolding of itself. When we make beautiful and useful things, God is glorified. When we disparage, degrade, or waste matter, God is desecrated.

Person baking bread and kneading dough

Ciara: Tell us more about your new book, This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World. What is our place in a wounded world? How might we find hope and healing in a world ravaged by things like environmental degradation, social injustice, greed and war? 

Norman: The first task is not to turn away from it or despise it as being of only temporary interest (the perennial temptation of the dualist spiritualities that govern some expressions of Christianity, but also recent transhumanist ways of thinking). God loves this world. Period. Every creature and every inch of it. And God does not ever abandon it. As Revelation makes clear, in the end God will live here with us mortals forever.

The question then is how followers of God will join with God in its healing and reconciling. That is not a simple thing, because it means we need to rethink ourselves as finite and vulnerable beings that need each other and this earth, and then figure out how our shared need can be the basis for new economies and political systems. This means we should be thinking about what a Chirstian-inspired built environment looks like and requires of us, and then work with others to create the many homes where God will feel welcome and will want to live with us.

God loves this world. Period. Every creature and every inch of it. And God does not ever abandon it.

Norman Wirzba

Ciara: You’ve written extensively about food, and were recently featured in Taste and See, a docuseries on the spirituality of food. In your book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, you write: “To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that ‘something more’ is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.” What is this sacramental life that we hunger for without realizing it?

Norman: I think people want to know that life is sacred, meaning that life is precious and good and worthy of cherishing. Put another way, in a world saturated by loneliness and feelings of abandonment, people want to feel that this world is fundamentally a hospitable place, a place that welcomes, nurtures, and honors life. This is what God does in creating the world. It is what we can do by participation when we make our kitchen and homes and places of work, sites of hospitality.

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About the authors


Norman Wirzba

Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, and a Senior Fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. He is the author of several books, including (most recently) This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World and Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land.
Ciara Reyes-Ton

Ciara Reyes-Ton

Ciara Reyes-Ton is a biologist, science writer and editor who is passionate about science communication to faith communities. She has a Ph.D. in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan. She has served as Managing Editor for the American Scientific Affiliation’s God & Nature Magazine, and previously taught Biology at Belmont University and Nashville State Community College. She is currently the Digital Content Editor for BioLogos and an Adjunct Professor at Lipscomb University. Outside science, she enjoys singing as part of her band Mount Carmell and being a mom. She recently released a new single "To Become Human," a song that explores the biology and theology of what it means to be human. She is also the author of "Look Closely," a science and faith devotional that explores the life of Christ by bringing scripture in conversation with science, from water walking lizards to dividing cells and resurrecting corals.