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Norman Wirzba: Godly gardening

In this excerpt from “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating,” a Duke Divinity professor argues that our work as Christians is to develop into godly gardeners, who witness to the life-creating presence of God in the world.

November 22, 2011

Besides being a practical, life-nurturing task, gardening is also always a spiritual activity. In it we attempt to make room for what is beautiful, delectable, and even holy. Every act of gardening thus presupposes and embodies a way of relating to creation and to God, a way that invariably invokes moral and theological decisions. Though membership in a garden is a given, how we will take our place in the membership is not. Our aim, theologically understood, must be to develop into Godly gardeners, gardeners who work harmoniously among the processes of life and death, and in their work witness to the life-creating presence of God in the world. This means that besides vegetables, flowers, and fruit, gardeners are themselves undergoing a spiritual cultivation into something beautiful and sympathetic and healthy. A caring, faithful, and worshipping humanity is one of the garden’s most important crops.

As with vegetable crops, we cannot assume that the cultivation of humanity will easily or always produce the desired fruit. Gardeners are not automatically rendered virtuous simply by being in a garden and performing gardening work. Gardeners can be petty, impatient, and destructive like anyone else. They can be arrogant and presumptuous, and so bear witness to themselves rather than the grace of God. This insight is well captured in an Israelite tradition that elevated wilderness life over life in the garden. Deuteronomy records God’s provision of a new land “flowing with milk and honey.” This land is not like the land of Egypt “where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, a land that the LORD your God looks after. The eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:10-12).

Besides giving us a striking portrayal of God as the ultimate gardener and farmer (God “looks after” the land continuously), this passage warns us of the temptation to take life into our own hands and presume that we can control it. As the history of Egypt shows, when people take control of the forces of life, their power invariably becomes oppressive and violent (the greatness of Egypt was not founded upon kindness and mercy). The Israelites are to be different. They are to bear witness to the power and glory of God, a power that is evident in rain that waters the land that produces grain, grass, wine, and oil (11:14-15). As a people, they are to remember that God feeds them (recall the stories of manna and quail in the wilderness), and that whatever work they do in food production is always dependent on God’s primordial and sustaining work. Deuteronomy is not suggesting that the Israelites are to do nothing with regard to food -- they will grow grain and raise livestock -- but that the work they do ought always to allow God to be seen and honored. Life and the prospect of gardening success is never our achievement. It is a gift and grace of God.

To speak about the spiritual cultivation of people means that we need gardening exercises like weeding and fertilizing to be applied to us. It is not only plants that need specific kinds of nurture to become healthy and strong. So too do people. Weeds that crowd out desirable life in a garden can also take root in our hearts, crowding out virtues and desires that witness to the glory of God. Traits like envy, arrogance, and impatience need to be yanked out of us so that the love of God and creation can take root. We need to learn first that we are creatures dependent upon God and each other, and then act accordingly. In large part, this is what the work of the church is: to graft (Romans 11:17-24) its members to the life of God in Christ so that together they can become a healthy and whole membership that reflects and extends to others God’s healing, feeding, and reconciling life.

For Christians the shape and character of real life are embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. One way to think of his presence among creatures is to say that he came to cultivate the gardens of this earth and our lives. The history of sinfulness reveals that our gardens have become overrun by weeds and bad fruit and our gardening practices unjust and vain. Though the gospels refer to Jesus as the shepherd who takes care of his flock, it is also helpful to think of Jesus as the gardener who came to clean up his garden and lead it into abundant and fruitful life. We have no direct proof that Jesus was a gardener in a professional sense. What is clear, however, is that he, like most people in the world’s history, had an intimate understanding of gardening realities. How else are we to account for the numerous horticultural images that are often the medium of his message and kingdom? Jesus advises his followers to put their trust in God rather than themselves, learn from the lilies of the field, and gratefully receive the gifts of God (Matthew 6:25-33).

It makes sense to think of Jesus as a gardener particularly when we recall that God is the first gardener. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:8-9). God does not merely create the world and then let it go. Rather, God attends to the world by tending it like a gardener, holding its soil and breathing life into it.

You visit the earth and water it,

you greatly enrich it;

the river of God is full of water;

you provide the people with grain,

for so you have prepared it.

You water its furrows abundantly,

settling its ridges,

softening it with showers,

and blessing its growth.

You crown the year with your bounty;

your wagon tracks overflow with richness. (Psalm 65:9-11)

God is continually in his garden creation, watering and feeding it, but also weeding and pruning it. God delights in the fruitfulness of its life, just as God expresses profound sorrow over its disease or death. God is continuously watchful and alert to the dangers that can disrupt the garden’s life. God is faithful even when the garden does not produce fruit as planned.

… The true gardener, inspired by God, demonstrates the kind of curiosity, delight, and devotion in which no detail is too small not to be attended to, and no life so insignificant as not to warrant celebration. Like God, gardeners find their Sabbath rest in the garden, are committed to its well-being, and know there is no other place they would rather be and no work they would rather perform. When we garden well, creatures are nurtured and fed, the world is received as a blessing, and God is glorified.

Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, by Norman Wirzba

Copyright © 2011 Norman Wirzba. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.