*** DEBUG END ***

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

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
Church Times Bookshop £19.79

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)