This Sacred Life: Humanity’s place in a wounded world by Norman Wirzba

Review by Peter Reason

What does it mean to see the world, and life on Earth, as sacred? How might this change our approach to life? These are questions that Norman Wirzba addresses fruitfully in this book. But while finding a lot to value in his writing, and despite the enthusiastic recommendations of many whose views I respect, I am left asking whether we cannot view the world as sacred without invoking God. As Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke University Divinity School, it would be surprising if Wirzba did not want us to understand the world as God’s creative grace. I remain unconvinced, but have been greatly stimulated with wrestling with Wirzba’s arguments, agreeing strongly in places, disagreeing in others.

The book focussed on fundamental questions:

  • Where are you? What kind of place is Planet Earth: a warehouse of resources? A stage for human drama?
  • Who are you? What kind of being is a human: the random result of an evolutionary process? A child of God?
  • How should you live? Does our striving have larger, even cosmic, significance?

The book is discussion of these three questions taken together: an ‘argument for the sanctity of places, humans and fellow creatures, and the work people do’. I was attracted to this discussion because, after years of purely secular thought, I have come to the conclusion that a moral and worthwhile life depends on a view of the cosmos, and so Earth and all her beings, as sacred; that what we might call divine is immanent in life on Earth. Wirzba’s view, in contrast, is that an understanding of the world as God’s gift is essential. We can only hold life as sacred if we understand it to be divinely created: ‘To narrate the world as created is to affirm that reality is fundamentally good and beautiful, a graced realm that is both hospitable to and generative of fresh and diverse life.’ But he also wants us to understand human beings a ‘creaturely beings’ whose work is ‘the creative effort to contribute to a flourishing world’. Wirzba states in his introduction that he views the book ‘as an exercise for others to think with’, and certainly in that he has succeeded. I have long been persuaded that we need to reclaim language and ideas that have traditionally been the exclusive domain of religious thinkers if we are to address the key questions of human and other-than-human life; and I count religious writers from many traditions as among my greatest teachers.

The book starts ‘assessing our situation’ with a clear review of the notion of the Anthropocene: Wirzba prefers the term ‘Capitalocene’ because it draws attention to the fact that ‘capitalism was built on excluding most humans from humanity’; and because we ‘cannot understand modernity apart from the enslavement of African people and the enslavement of land’. This echoes the argument made by Amitav Ghosh in The Nutmeg’s Curse [1] that non-white humans and the other-than-human have been ‘actively muted others by representing them as brutes’. The second chapter is a critique of the ‘transhumanist urge’ to resolve ‘humanity’s discontent’, to find ways to exceed the limitations of the human condition through technical means—linking the human to artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, nano- and bio-technology, and the colonization of other planets. This attitude is based on a ‘contempt for humanity’s creaturely condition’ which Wirzba abhors.

This review leads to the fundamental argument for the ‘inescapably embodied and symbiotic character of life’. Humans are creatures of this Earth, grounded in the land, rooted in place, located in symbiotic relationship in a ‘meshwork world’. Metaphors that evoke the world as a ‘stage’, as a ‘production platform’, a ‘store’ or a ‘warehouse’, of the world as a ‘globe’ which can best be seen from space, are all dangerous because they presuppose a separation of people from place. Land is not a place people visit from time to time: ‘it is ‘where life and personal identity are worked out… where people are fed and sustained’. A ‘meshwork’ world is a world of relationships rather than things, verbs rather than nouns: ‘things are their relations’ with ‘no existence, no life, and no meaning apart from the relations that entangle them’. All this leads Wirzba to see the world as harmonia mundi: not to deny tension, violation, and discord, but to assert that the world is good and beautiful and deserving of praise.

Wirzba turns then to what might be seen as the ‘religious’ argument of the book. He quotes Charles Taylor’s view that a secular society is not simply one where the practice of religion has declined, but one in which the world and its life are no longer regarded as sacred.[2] “Why would we see the world as sacred?” Following Walter Benjamin he replies that without a sense of kairological time, life is just one damn thing after another. Kairological time gives each moment a sense of significance: each moment matters, carries meaning as part of a larger story. Or as Benjamin puts it, “every second of time was the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter.” Without such a sense of significance, people ‘lack or reject a larger cosmic or sacred story, they will not know how what happens and what they do contributes to a larger narrative framework of meaning and purpose, a narrative expressing why the coming-to-be of things matters and what ends or goals there coming to be should be directed toward’. 

This leads Wirzba to his central point, to consider the significance of thinking of life as sacred—and not necessarily in a formal religious sense. He argues for ‘The idea of life as divinely created, and therefore as also communicating a divine intention that affirms the goodness of this given world, gives us a means for both evaluating particular events as catastrophic, and as calling people to work for the creation’s emancipation and burgeoning’. I find an echo of Aldo Leopold in his assertion that ‘Events are catastrophic when they violate the ability of places and creatures to live into and realise their given potential. They are praiseworthy when they honour life and celebrate its fertility, fecundity, and diversity’. [3]

At this point in my reading, I was reminded of Thomas Berry—who called himself a ‘geologian’—and his articulation of a ‘new story’ drawing on our modern scientific understanding of cosmological evolution. Without a story that in some way is greater than ourselves, we are lost—which is a telling way of seeing the tragedy of our present world. However, this is not the line that Wirzba wants to take. He disagrees with Berry’s view of the universe as the ‘supreme reality’ and ‘our primary sacred community’; for he argues that ‘without a transcendent, divine context that is, in some way, both “beyond” the universe itself and “within it” at the same time, the grounds for speaking of the universe as a sacred gift to be received, cherished and celebrated evaporate’. If we are not to collapse into a purely material understanding of life, we need the idea of God as the creator of what makes creaturely life possible: ‘in our encounters with physical things we are also encountering a reality of a different order, a miraculous order that speaks to the surprising realisation that they exist at all.’ Divine love is the sole reason for there to be any existence at all.

At this point I find myself parting company with Wirzba. I am reminded that David Hinton, the Taoist scholar, explores a similar theme: as we empty our minds in meditation and gaze out at the world, we encounter Existence: ‘miraculously here when there might just as well be nothing!’ [4] Do we need to invoke God as an explanation of this extraordinary mystery? Can we not experience life, existence, as sacred in its own right?

The difficulty I have with Wirzba’s argument is that he collapses the immanent into the material—seeing immanent as not only as dispensing with appeals to the transcendent, but as seeing material explanations as the only legitimate means by which to make sense of our experience. Further, I think he misrepresents Thomas Berry in reducing his position to the solely material scientific frame, as assuming that only the physical order exists. Berry’s writing draws strongly of contemporary scientific understandings, but not in the reductive sense that Wirzba implies. From Berry’s perspective, we can understand life as sacred because the universe itself, from which all life derives, is itself imbued with a sacred dimension. As he writes, ‘from its beginning in the galactic system to its earthly expression in human consciousness the universe carries within itself a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical-material dimension… Every being has its own interior, its self, its mystery, its numinous aspect… Reverence will be total or it will not be at all’. [5] An immanent perspective is not purely materialist: it is a perspective that sees what we might broadly call the ‘sacred’ as integral with Earthly existence. In their biography of Thomas Berry’s life, Mary Evelyn Tucker and her colleagues quote Berry’s experience as a Passionist monk of participating in the daily and yearly cycle of Divine Office—the cosmological sequence of each day and each year—as an ‘age-old effort of humans to bring human life into accord with the great liturgy of the universe’. [6] This is not the perspective of a materialist.

I see Berry’s position as essentially panpsychist (although he does not use this term): mind—understood in the broadest sense as sentience, subjectivity, the will to self-realization and meaning—is a fundamental aspect of matter, just as matter is a fundamental aspect of mind. In this view the cosmos is One, a coherent field of mind-matter, which in its evolution differentiates into Many, self-realizing and self-reflexive beings. Thus, all things, including the Earth, are integral to the fabric of the living cosmos, all of the same sentient cloth; the empirical world of classical physics is the outward appearance of a field of subjective presence. [7] This panpsychic perspective has roots in the C17 writings of Barach Spinoza. In his Ethics Spinoza works through a series of logical propositions to arrive at a monist position that identified God with Nature. [8]

In a panpsychic perspective being itself holds and articulates those qualities that Wirzba wants to attribute to God—qualities we might well call ‘sacred’. And as panpsychic practitioners we can be blessed, graced, by encounters with this sacred dimension of existence, as if the world actively desires us to witness its depth, sanctity, and mystery. [9]

While I disagree with Wirzba’s theological arguments that we cannot understand the universe and life as a sacred gift without God, I am at one with his final arguments for a creative life: ‘People do not simply live on earth… They grow out of it and are daily blessed by it… We should be astounded by the fact that we live in a world that can be so beautiful, fragrant, and delicious—so alive’. We humans are called creativity as an expression of the ‘unfathomable powers of creativity that found and fund the world’. 

The final chapter includes a trenchant critique of Ayn Rand’s division of the humans into ‘creators and parasites’, or Donald Trump’s ‘winners and losers’; and an exploration of the nature of human work. He  explores five fundamental forms of creativity: recover a covenant sensibility (as Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy puts it, begin in gratitude)[10]; advocate for transparent economies so we understand how each thing we consume fits within the meshwork of the world; reinvigorate democratic processes to restore the sense of humans as participative beings; build life-supporting infrastructures to counter the destructive practices of the Capitalocene; attend to interior life, for people who experience themselves as brutalized and insecure cannot properly respond to the ‘goodness and grace of the world’, for ‘Fear and hate corrupt the soul’. 

These are broad, but essentially practical suggestions. Wirbza’s contribution as a theologian is to cast them within a moral framework, derived from, but not limited, to a Christian perspective. This, surely, is the essential contribution of the religious thinker: to show how the challenges of life are intractable if viewed from a solely pragmatic perspective; that some engagement with moral question—what is worthwhile? what is good, true, and beautiful?—is essential for a well-lived life and a sound body politic.

References:

  1. Ghosh, Amitav. The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. London: John Murray, 2021.
  2. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
  3. Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, 1949.
  4. Hinton, David. Existence: A Story. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016, p5.
  5. Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988, pp.131 & 134.
  6. Tucker, Mary Evelyn, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal. Thomas Berry: A Biography. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019, pp. 35-36.
  7. This view is summarized in my paper with Jacqueline Kurio “Voicing Rivers through Ontopoetics: A Co-operative Inquiry.” River Research and Applications, Special Issue: Voicing Rivers (2021).
  8. Spinoza, Benedict de. Ethics. London: Penguin Classics, 1994 (1667).
  9. See Kurio & Reason for examples.
  10. Macy, Joanna Rogers and Molly Young Brown. Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 1998.
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Peter Reason seeks to link the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times. He is currently engaged in a series of experiential and co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? How would we relate to such a world?  His most recent publications include Voicing Rivers Through Ontopoetics (with Jacqueline Kurio; and (with artist Sarah Gillespie) On Presence and On Sentience. His online presence is at peterreason.net and Twitter @peterreason.

Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World. (Cambridge University Press, 2021). 978-1009012584, 300pp., hardback.

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