When I was at the Duke Divinity Center for Reconciliation conference, I picked up a copy of their newest publication, Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba’s Making Peace With the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile With Creation. I enjoyed this book and I agree with its basic premise that God’s work of reconciliation, in which we are invited to participate, involves all of creation. It is part of our calling, therefore, to care for creation, which includes practices such as wise, sustainable agriculture.
At a number of points, however, I wonder if the authors protest too much. Let me offer a few thoughts as perhaps a friendly critique.
A big emphasis for sustainable agriculture of the sort Bahnson and Wirzba promote is the notion of “working with the land.” If a particular region is mostly savannah, say, or rain forest, then agricultural methods and crops appropriate to those regions should be used. Fair enough, as a matter of baseline practical wisdom. But there is also a theological and philosophical claim being made: God made this land savannah or rain forest, and therefore an effort to transform the landscape into a different kind of biome is an affront to the integrity of creation.
Here we run into a significant problem: what is savannah today might have been a swamp, or a sea, or a desert, or a forest, or an ice sheet during other periods of geological time. Part of God’s design for creation is that it constantly changes and that biomes continually flux and adapt. That is the genius of evolution. The notion that reconciling with creation requires preservation of a particular biome as it appears at some moment in geological time therefore seems to me highly problematic.
I should be clear that I am not here agreeing with Christian global warming skeptics who think polluting the atmosphere with globs of carbon is nothing to be alarmed about because creation will adapt. That’s nonsense. We humans are capable of transforming the land in terribly harmful ways, even catastrophic ways. But transformation-qua-transformation isn’t unnatural – it’s how the world is made.
A related theological-scientific problem is a notion that runs throughout the book concerning technology, particularly genetic modification. The authors clearly are against genetically modified (“GM”) crops and animals. But, once again, genetic modification is part of the genius of evolution. God is the great architect of GM crops and animals, from the root of the evolutionary tree of life to today, and beyond. When humans engage in GM technology, they are using God-given knowledge about the created fabric of biological life. Life was created modular and flexible, and there seems to me no principled reason why human understanding of these capacities is inherently violent rather than an aspect of the cultural mandate. Indeed, there is no kind of agriculture, however organic and sustainable, that doesn’t make use of old-fashioned GM: selective breeding.
This isn’t to say that modern industrial practices of GM are all good and healthy. From my perspective, one of the main culprits here is the patent law system, which too easily allows large multinational corporations to monopolize seed supplies. But again, the problem isn’t GM-qua-GM. The problem is the social-cultural-legal frameworks for what kinds of GM are done, and how the results are made accessible.
And this finally highlights what for me is another ambiguity in this book. Many of the practices mentioned could be a form of small-scale witness, such as a church growing a sustainable garden to help supply a local food pantry. Amen! But how do such acts of witness translate to broader cultural action, policy-making, and the living out of life in the every day world for those of us (most of us) unable to relocate to home farmsteads? There is a big tension here, only passingly acknowledged, between the already and not yet of eschatological time. The prophetic imagination still must connect with the present reality. I’d like to hear more about this from the authors and from my agrarianist friends.