Fred Bahnson’s 2007 Orion feature “The Field at Anathoth” showed how faith, social justice, and caring for land can converge. Now he has co-written a new collection of essays with Norman Wirzba titled Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation, a book filled with thoughtful theology on God’s love for the earth and inspirational examples of what it might mean to reconcile with the land. Orion associate editor Hannah Fries had a few questions for him.
Many readers have heard the term “creation care” before. How does Making Peace with the Land both relate to the idea of creation care and go beyond it? How do you define the word reconciliation, and what does it mean to “reconcile with creation”?
I worry that the phrase “creation care” has suffered the same fate as “the environmental movement.” It’s become one more issue among many.
“At some fundamental level,” I write in the book, “the church views the current ecological crisis as yet another special-interest area. It’s just one more side dish on an already groaning potluck table, no more in need of sampling than the other offerings at the Christian smorgasbord: your tastes might lead you to ecological issues, but I’m more interested in Reformation history, say, or Wesleyan studies or liturgical dance.”
To get around that linguistic impasse, we avoided language like “creation care” and spoke instead about reconciliation. We’re really trying to describe a new way of life. Norman speaks of reconciliation as being able to stand before one another and before God’s creation without shame, and I think that’s a pretty good working definition.
How does this theology speak also to the need for justice, not only for nonhumans, but humans as well?
The biblical writers describe Christ’s reconciliation as being cosmic in scope. It’s not just about having Jesus in my heart in this life or the hope that my anemic soul will fly off to some distant heaven in the next. That’s neo-Platonism, not Christianity. No, God’s reconciliation is thankfully much bigger than that. The image the biblical writers come back to is that of a new heaven and a new earth. We don’t fly away to heaven; heaven descends to earth. And so if we are journeying toward a restored earth, then we need to align our lives with that coming reality. Which means we can’t selfishly fret over our own salvation while farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida are earning sub-standard wages so we can enjoy tomatoes in January. Neither can we ignore our complicity in climate disruption, topsoil loss, or mountaintop removal, all of which disproportionately affect the poor.
Making Peace with the Land is co-written with theologian Norman Wirzba. Though you each wrote separate essays that alternate throughout the book, they seem to be very consciously in conversation with each other. How did this conversation begin? What unique perspectives do you and Norman each bring to it?
Our book is the seventh and final book in a larger series on reconciliation. Each book is co-written by a theologian and a practitioner. For years Norman had been saying to the series editors, who are his colleagues: “This conversation about reconciliation is ignoring the physical world in which reconciliation takes place—how can you sing ‘Kumbaya’ when the world is going up in flames?” The editors said, “OK—write the book.” Norman then graciously invited me to be his co-author. He and I have been friends for a number of years, and so the book is reflective of many previous conversations.
Norman brings his vast knowledge of philosophy, theology, and scripture, as well as his unique experience of having grown up on an Alberta grain farm. He’s one of today’s foremost agrarian thinkers, and I’ve learned much from him. I bring my seminary training (I know just enough theology to be dangerous) as well as my years directing a church-supported community garden, which I wrote about in Orion.
There is a lot of scripture in this book, and it seems largely written for a Christian reader. Do you think it has something to offer people of different faith traditions or secular views?
We do employ scripture in the book, and every chance we get we try to knock the reader over the head with it. No, I’m kidding. The book was written primarily for a Christian audience, yes, though I think people from other faith traditions or secular viewpoints would appreciate what we’re trying to do, which is to help Christians see that caring for God’s creation is innately part of our professed vocation. We point to a number of compelling examples—church-supported community gardens in the U.S., an inner-city urban farm in Brazil, farmers re-greening the Sahel in Niger—that I think are hopeful whoever you are. We also point to examples like permaculture, Transition Towns, and Natural Systems Agriculture.
We often hear a lot in the media about the partisan politics of the Christian far-right—so much that the word “Christian,” for many people, has come to signify something highly politicized and hyperconservative. But clearly that is not how all Christians orient themselves. Perhaps you could offer a few examples of Christian organizations or individuals who—often quietly and behind the scenes—are doing the kind of “reconciliation” work you talk about in this book…
The hopeful examples are myriad yet those stories seldom make the news. I’ve done my small part to tell some of those stories, both in this current book with Norman and in one I’m just now finishing. This next one is tentatively called Soil & Sacrament: Four Seasons Among the Keepers of the Earth, and in that book I visit four faith communities who are doing the work of land-based reconciliation. I visit Trappist monks who raise oyster mushrooms, a Pentecostal farm working with ex-gang members, a Protestant community garden growing ton-upon-ton of organic produce for the food pantry, and a Jewish farm “repairing the world” through sustainable agriculture. In each place I become a theologically-informed immersion journalist, a sort of spiritual chameleon, spending a week in each place working and praying with my hosts. It’s been incredibly humbling and inspiring to visit these communities and to tell their stories. The book comes out next year with Free Press.
One of the most exciting things to happen recently is the groundswell of interest in ecological stewardship among seminaries. I’m biased here, because I’ve just been hired to direct a new Food & Faith initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. But it’s not just one school. Recently Wake Forest became one of twelve founding members of the newly formed Seminary Stewardship Alliance, a consortium of seminaries “dedicated to reconnecting Christians with the biblical call to care for God’s creation.” Seminaries are training people who will not only be future church leaders, but future community leaders, and their potential influence is vast. We who teach in seminaries get to inoculate these future leaders with the vaccine so that they can help spread the cure. I think this is an opportunity to create a massive cultural shift within American Christianity, one that will help create what in the book I call infrastructures of holiness—physical places and communities where God’s reconciliation is not some pious, abstract thing we talk about in church but is rather a lived, visible reality.
Ultimately, of course, the real agent of reconciliation is God, who works through us despite our proclivity for hubris and destruction. In his classic essay “Health is Membership,” Wendell Berry writes: “Divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”
Summoned toward wholeness. If I were to pick one phrase to describe our little book, and the work of reconciliation with the land toward which we point, that one comes pretty close.