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

by
11 February 2022

George Pattison reads a case for acquiring a fresh perspective

WHETHER one finds the claim that we are now living in a new “Anthropocene” era appealing or appalling, Norman Wirzba’s new book shows that we need to take it seriously. It is not science fantasy to say that human societies and their accompanying technologies are now the great force shaping life on earth at every level “from the cellular to the atmospheric”. Climate change is only the most salient example. The less tangible mass-extinction event that we are living through (in fact, bringing about) is another.

This situation requires both a practical response and an extensive mental and moral reorientation. This includes theology — though Wirzba early on sounds a cautionary note when he tells how the poet Gary Snyder was disappointed to experience that the attunement to nature in Taoist and Buddhist texts didn’t stop contemporary Chinese and Japanese cultures from being as destructive of the earth as those of the West.

Wirzba is not persuaded by the transhumanist vision of designing self-developing conscious beings that will take the holy grail of consciousness (if not exactly human consciousness) to other planets — a vision recently endorsed by the Astronomer Royal. Even the more modest technological promise of a frictionless life is, he thinks, an illusion and, if realised, would involve the loss of what is most precious in human relationships.

Instead, Wirzba directs us to becoming rerooted in the earth, and to realise that we are part of a “meshwork” world, and, in the spirit of the original sabbath, to welcome and honour the other creatures we encounter in it with “attunement, enjoyment, and delight”.

This involves reversing modernity’s focus on the proactive agential “I”, and hard words are spoken about neoliberal economics. Instead of an ever-accelerating drive to achieve, we should let “the miracle of givenness” reveal the “sanctity” of life and accept the vulnerability of our interdependent lives. Both the Genesis creation narrative and the words and works of Jesus Christ can help us here, while gardening, too, provides an eminent milieu to relearn what it is all about.

Wirzba writes lucidly and moves easily from science to scripture, philosophy, and theology without cutting corners. I found myself cheering aloud at many points and can commend it warmly. I do have one small reservation. St Augustine of Hippo counselled Christians, like the Hebrews, to take the treasure of the Egyptians with them, in his case meaning the treasures of classical philosophy. As we perhaps exit modernity, must we leave all that modernity has taught us about individual subjectivity, its agonies and ecstasies, behind? Is there no place for Schubert’s songs or Emily Dickinson’s poems in the coming sabbath?

I am sure that Wirzba wouldn’t ban them, but his logic could seem to encourage the atrophy of those emotional and aesthetic sensitivities that make them still meaningful to us. But this is a thrilling and readable book that will be especially valuable for those trying to work out how their preaching and praying might bring theological resources to bear on the current ecological crisis.
 

The Revd Professor George Pattison holds the 1640 Chair of Divinity in the University of Glasgow.

 

This Sacred Life: Humanity’s place in a wounded world
Norman Wirzba
Cambridge University Press £21.99
(978-1-009-01258-4)
Church Times Bookshop £19.79

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