By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, September 27, 2023 – Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, which is the church I attend on the near west side of our capital city, is about as urban as a church can get in Iowa.
But over the last seven months in our beautiful sanctuary, big community rooms, study groups, publications and social media, we’ve had some of the most provocative and insightful dialogues you could find anywhere in the state about agriculture, gardening, animal husbandry and environmental stewardship.
The focus of it has been on what’s come to be known in spiritual communities as “creation care.”
One of America’s leading thinkers on all this will be speaking at Plymouth Church’s three services this coming weekend, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, which of course is prime-time in Iowa’s great annual harvest season.
Our distinguished visitor is Norman Wirzba, 59, a philosopher, an ethicist, a professor at the Duke University Divinity School in North Carolina, and author of more than a dozen books. Maybe most important to what we’re going to be talking about at Plymouth Church this weekend, he is a grown-up farm kid.
Norman Wirzba. (Photo from Duke University Divinity School)
(You are welcome to attend in-person, stream the two Sunday morning services on the internet, or join us in-person for his lunch-and-learn program Sunday from 12 noon to 2 p.m. No reservations are necessary, but a $10 offering is asked for the lunch. Details are at www.plymouthchurch.com.)
Wirzba’s relevant text is his book “Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community and the Land,” published in 2022 by the University of Notre Dame Press.
I read it late last winter, and then had a long interview with him in March for a story I wrote in the new Plymouth Magazine our church has launched.
Subsequently, a couple hundred Plymouth members read “Agrarian Spirit” in an all-church-reads project. There were discussion groups for adults and “creation care” activities for kids from mid-April to late-May, and our pastors focused on “creation care” in their sermons in that same period.
My own view of all this now is that it’s more important than ever that all of us – especially here in Iowa – have new understanding, concern, involvement and advocacy for all of life and our environment. Wirzba’s latest book helped get me there.
Let me introduce you to him.
“I’m from a small farm outside a small community in the southern part of Alberta province in western Canada,” he told me in our phone chat.
He graduated in a high school class of 15 (“and played basketball on a team that won a provincial championship”). He obviously knows rural life, and early on thought he’d be a farmer.
But post-Farm Crisis of the 1980s, the Wirzba family decided they either had to expand their 400-acre operation and accept a much heavier debt-load or get out. They chose the latter, and Norman went on to degrees in history at a local university, a master’s in theology at Yale and a Ph.D. in philosophy at Loyola of Chicago.
So how is Plymouth getting him here this weekend?
“He’s kind of a hero of mine,” said our Senior Pastor Dr. Jared Wortman, who studied under Wirzba at Duke and issued the invitation. “He’s been one of the major voices in the fields of creation care and environmental studies.”
Wirzba has heroes and mentors, too.
They include people he’s worked with like Kentucky writer Wendell Berry; Iowa State University’s former guru in sustainable agriculture Fred Kirschenmann, and a Duke Divinity faculty colleague Ellen Davis, who has written extensively on the ties between agriculture, ecology and religion.
Wirzba’s 194-page “Agrarian Spirit” book is good reading (although I told myself that if he used the word “Anthropocene” one more time, I was going to quit). It is both informative and challenging, with excellent historical and religious context. Honestly, every Iowan ought to consider it.
The book reflects some of the same concern about food production, rural life and the future that helped Storm Lake Times Pilot editor Art Cullen win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017. Ditto for Beth Hoffman’s excellent 2021 book “Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America,” about the small farm she and husband John Hoagland have outside Lovilia in southeast Iowa.
But make no mistake about this: Neither Wirzba nor his book are attempting to launch a “back to the country” movement by urban people, thinking they can show farm folks how to do things better.
“My call to people is that even if you live in a city, you have to nurture the world that nurtures you,” he said. “It’s sometimes hard for urban people to understand that. Two things I try to make clear to them. First, I don’t vilify farmers. They’re caught in a horrible position in an agriculture economic system that rewards the wrong things. Second, urban people have to get involved. If you eat, you have to care about farming.”
How should urban people help?
“I hope that urban people, when they come to understand what’s at stake, will put the pressure on politicians and policymakers so that we can change the system of food production in America,” Wirzba said. “We’ve got an industrial agriculture system that has developed over the last few decades that actually siphons money away from farmers to financial people.
“We’ve seen the replacement by people in farming and food production being replaced by machines. So much of farm ownership is now absentee. The system demands cutting labor costs and increasing profitability. It’s not sustainable. And in fact, profitability is so narrow in farming that sane young people don’t want to go into it. What we wind up with is a dwindling farm population, which means the small towns that served the farmers are being evacuated, and the whole farm base is so diminished.”
Urban people must help family farmers change the system, Wirzba concludes. Especially so for urban church people.
“Too much of agriculture today is being done in ways that are not good for the land, crops, animals or people, and they’re not honorable to God,” he said. “We need to make a big change in our agricultural practices. If people of faith won’t help with that, who will?”
He urges a return to “agrarian” practices by us all.
“Real agrarian practices are making sure that we are working for the good of the land and the wellness of people, crops and creatures – all together,” he said.
Actually, that’s how life started out for all of humanity.
“When you think about it, nearly all of early history was based on the land and creatures and plants,” he said. “Farming was the way we ate and the way we lived. The Bible was written by agrarian people for agrarian people. I regard the prophets Hosea and Amos in Proverbs as being the earliest agriculture writers. They were teaching that if you want to take care of people, you have to take care of the land.”
For centuries, nearly everyone was directly involved in farming, or at least gardening, and food production.
“It’s only in the last couple of generations that people have moved completely away from farming,” Wirzba said. “Think about that. It’s pretty alarming, isn’t it? We’ve lost so much.”
Read this passage from his second chapter: “For a growing number of people, dependence on the land has been eclipsed by dependence on the Internet, while the skills of tracking, growing, harvesting, building, and repairing have been replaced by shopping.”
Does it concern him about bringing this message to Iowa, arguably the nation’s No. 1 farm state, a place where industrial agriculture may have its strongest hold?
“Yes, it does,” he said. “But I’m in no position to tell Iowa farmers what to do. It’s too easy for a professor to tell farmers they’re doing bad stuff. What I really believe is that, deep down, most farmers love their land, they love their animals, and they really care about all this. That’s an agricultural system we need to honor and restore. Change will come when farmers who understand this need, begin talking to other farmers about it. Iowa is a showcase for the struggle.
“In the meantime, I want to talk to congregations about doing the right things. Is the food you eat being produced in ways that honor God? I have a dream that congregations will come to believe that good food honors God.”
It’s interesting how all this has sprouted in divinity schools, like Duke’s in Durham, N.C.
“I think Duke was one of the earliest divinity schools to move on this,” Wirzba said. “Part of that is that we prepare a lot of pastors for rural congregations.” The seminary there is allied with the United Methodist Church, but it produces as many pastors for other denominations as it does Methodists.
Duke Divinity has an annual “Pastor School & Convocation” that focuses on “farming, food and faith.” That has drawn up to 1,000 people to hear prominent speakers on those topics.
Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey now has a “Farminary” curriculum that links theology and “regenerative” agriculture.
“There have been many other related start-ups recently, run by seminaries or congregations,” Wirzba said. “Some are actually engaged in farming, probably more in gardening.”
It was Duke Divinity’s leadership in all this that drew Wirzba to its faculty, after he’d taught 13 years at Georgetown College, a Baptist school in central Kentucky. He was chairperson of the philosophy department there.
“After I got settled at Georgetown College, I told friends that I needed to learn more about Kentucky,” he said. “They immediately said, ‘You should know Wendell Berry.’ So I read his 1977 book ‘The Unsettling of America,’ and he described agriculture in the terms that my own family had lived out in rural Canada.”
He already knew Berry was an acclaimed writer and speaker on agriculture, conservation and the environment, and he learned that Berry was living and writing only an hour away near Port Royal, Ky. “I wrote to him, said I’d read a bunch of his books and that friends had told me I needed to meet him,” Wirzba said. “Wendell wrote me right back, sent a hand-drawn map of how to get to his place and told me to come on up.”
Berry’s books and their conversations led to “an enormous change, a complete paradigm shift” in how Wirzba viewed history, philosophy, agriculture and spirituality, too.
And that’s what he’ll be sharing in Iowa this weekend.
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