This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World by Norman Wirzba (Cambridge University Press 2021). Review by Emma Pavey.
In his book This Sacred Life, Norman Wirzba seeks to address three questions: where are you, who are you and how should you live? He seeks to consider these alongside each other, a grounded exploration of belonging, purpose and sanctity in an era some have named the Anthropocene, where humanity is “the dominant force…responsible for the widespread alteration of the world’s land, ocean, atmospheric, and life systems” (xiv). Wirzba states in contrast that the world is not “accidental or amoral…[to be] manipulated and exploited” but rather is a sacred gift, “divinely created, and therefore to be nurtured, cherished, and celebrated” (xvii). He explores the context of this anthropocene and the transhumanist response. He continues with two chapters describing our interconnectivity and concludes by developing his theology of sacred life.
By “sacred” he essentially means that places and creatures (including but not limited to human beings) are “the embodied expressions of a divine affirmation and intention that desires for them to be and to thrive” (xviii). A sacred experience is therefore an encounter with “a gratuitous and gracious presence” (143).
Wirzba is interdisciplinary in his range of sources and he acknowledges how the idea of sacred life is present in many cultures and worldviews. But this is a theological work, and so Wirzba presents the theological argument for his sense of life as sacred, exploring “how one faith tradition works out and enfleshes the abstract logic” he describes (16). His argument is aimed at Christians of a different view than his: he presents “an explicitly Christian characterization of the logic of creation, not because I think it is the only legitimate one but because it is a characterization many Christians fail to appreciate and understand” (168). He wants to argue that you need a sense of sacred that includes divine connection for understanding our interconnectedness to each other, to the planet, to other living things: “What happens,” he asks, “to the meaning and feel of life when it is no longer dependent on a transcendent creator?” (126). This is certainly a helpful question for theologians and those of faith. On the other hand, I’d suggest his chapters on meshwork world (drawing on Tim Ingold) and a rooted life, by describing well a deep relationality and sense of presence, actually support the argument that you can motivate this kind of life-affirming attitude and consequent behaviour without necessarily invoking the divine. So, the “idea of life as divinely created, and therefore as also communicating a divine intentions that affirms the goodness of this given world, give us a means,” rather than the means, “for both evaluating particular events as catastrophic, and as calling people to work for creation’s emancipation and burgeoning” (147, emphasis added).
He argues that we can only witness this sacredness, not know or control it (138). And yet even to give it the label sacred and use theological language to define its transcendence and origin is to determine it in some way – such is the nature of language. But the framed sense of sacredness he describes does serve to call to mind moments of wonder and presence and he successfully encourages the reader to seek out and recognise these moments.
There are places where the tenets of theology have something unique to offer a sense of the sacred, for example in the practice of a “Sabbath orientation” (144) – stopping to rest, note, and revere (150-151). What comes across clearly is Wirzba’s argument that to recognize sanctity requires witness, presence, participation and patience. These postures in raising plants, to use his extended example, reveal layers of “co-becoming” and interconnectivity not otherwise noticed (84). What we see as a thing is a story of change and connection – creation ex amore, as he writes (167). While acknowledging the range of natural processes and our creaturely limits (190), Wirzba’s view is that it is life, fertility, thriving, fecundity, and flourishing that are good, and the divine intent (86-7, 145). Natalie Carnes wonders about the place of asceticism here and similarly I wonder about the place of solitude and created processes of decay and decomposition. Wirzba argues that sin “fragments and violates the relationships that bind…a derivative, distorting reality that presupposes the world’s primordial goodness, beauty, and rational order” (94). Goodness, beauty and rational order are all in the eye of the (human) beholder, and order seems a strange word. He seems to mean underlying patterns and connections to place (145), but it’s interesting to consider ‘rational order’ alongside creativity, which is a poetic play of possibilities between chaos and order. His discussion on creativity as “tracing the outlines of hope” reminds us of the power of crafting hope, of imagining the new, especially in difficult circumstances, “tap[ping] into the gracious and generative roots of reality” (140).
The weaving of sacred transcendence and rooted earthiness is interesting and he wonders how a world without transcendence can be held sacred. Can we see something as sacred without seeing a divine intent undergirding it (158)? He says we need to perceive this underlying divine intention otherwise there’s no reason to choose to treat each other well. One might also reverse the question – is positing divine intention a way of explaining why we do often treat each other well? Is transcendence (or the idea of it) homeless without that connection?
Wirzba argues that “without a transcendent, divine context,…naturalism…leaves us stuck in the inexorable flaring forth that, without intent and without mercy, produces massive amounts of suffering and pain, and, if we are lucky, some pleasures along the way (158). But for so many, this account is easier to digest than a theology where God is behind, or at least a part of, all the suffering and pain. Wirzba addresses these topics in later chapters, noting how colonial religion has contributed to that very suffering and pain under the banner of Christian theology. He explores the relationship at the heart of humanity between the events that happen, our relationship to them and the meaning we make of them. Seeing this as gift deters us from the sins of grasping (192), looking but not seeing, controlling, fearing and harming.
This is a rich book with far more to contemplate than can be done here. Wirzba’s breadth of sources and ideas, and the thought-provoking argument he builds, are worth investing in.