This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World

Written by Norman Wirzba Reviewed By Andrew J. Spencer

The place of humanity within the created order is a central concern of Western culture. There are extremists arguing for human extinction and others who describe maximizing the birthrate as a moral duty. The basic questions that underlie humanity’s relationship to creation are deeply connected to one’s location, one’s identity, and one’s proper way of life. These are the questions Norman Wirzba takes up in his book, This Sacred Life.

Wirzba is Gilbert T. Rowe distinguished professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. Much of his career has been spent exploring topics related to environmental ethics, including attitudes toward creation and a theology of eating. Wirzba understands the challenges of the modern age, recognizes that we cannot simply cease to be citizens of our time and place, and yet continues to call readers to a richer life that involves a deeper appreciation of the goodness of the cosmos.

This Sacred Life is divided into three parts. Part 1 offers a description of the problem. Wirzba begins by outlining some of the ways humans appear to have damaged the created order through thoughtless overuse. He then moves on to explore the growing urge to exceed natural human limits through transhumanism; this urge is represented aptly as a pursuit of a “friction-free life” (p. 49). Wirzba’s diagnosis of what ails citizens of contemporary Western culture is incisive and balanced, going well beyond handwringing and romantic longing for a supposedly simple age.

In Part 2, the book shifts toward more fundamental concerns. For Wirzba, the way out of the crisis is to consider what led into it. He points first toward the importance of regarding embodied life in a particular time, space, and condition as a good thing. The image of being rooted is useful, because it conjures up thoughts of the lilies from Christ’s teaching, or stately trees that flourish for centuries, being fed by the soil in which they stand. He also offers a less mechanistic metaphor of reality than the citizens of modernity often adopt. Wirzba argues this is a “meshwork world” (p. 90), which is intended to break down subject/object distinctions and remind us that humanity is part of creation, even as humans exist as agents within creation. Rather than viewing nature as an “other” that can be acted upon, a meshwork entails acting and being acted upon at the same time.

Part 3 transitions into a discussion of Wirzba’s proposed response to the problems and applications of the fundamental principles. He begins, referencing Charles Taylor’s analysis, by pointing to the need for a re-sacralization of this world. Such a reenchantment of nature begins with religious accounts of creation, which should be updated to accommodate contemporary scientific understandings. While Wirzba is open to thematic elements from various Indigenous cultures, he is particularly concerned to highlight his own appreciation of the concept of creation through Christ as a way to emphasize the goodness of the physical world. Within this world, humans are creatures who are meant to feel at home and are moved to be creative within their given contexts. Human flourishing is not to be found by transcending the bounds of this world, but by entering into it deeply and engaging with it beautifully for the good of all of creation. That, for Wirzba, is what it means to live a sacred life.

There is much to be commended in Wirzba’s careful handling of the question of modernity and his invitation to be healers and creators within a good world that has been much marred by human activity. Wirzba rightly rejects extreme approaches to environmentalism that see humanity as parasitical. He also avoids the opposite error that ignores the potential damage humans can inflict. This is a thoughtful book that deserves careful attention by those evaluating the place of humanity in the created order.

At the same time, the benefits of Wirzba’s theories are constricted by inadequate consideration of the importance of the resurrection—both Christ’s and the future resurrection of all humans. For Wirzba, the “resurrection life is a new form and modality of life” (p. 207), which is distinctly this-worldly and of the present age. In his attempt to re-sacralize creation, Wirzba seems to reject the eschatological aspects of the resurrection in favor of pursuing the fullness of the resurrected life now (p. 136). It is telling that even as Wirzba considers Christ as creator, emphasizing his participation in creation through the incarnation, he offers little analysis of how Christ’s transformative resurrection and ascension should impact the human imagination. The literal, physical resurrection of Christ is the central fact of all creation history. It should directly shape the relationship of human beings to the created order. The realization that the body we inhabit in this earthly life will be resurrected and redeemed for eternity inspires us to treat all of creation with dignity, since it too will be renewed at the end of the age. That such consideration is largely absent from this volume limits the vision of hope that otherwise could have been offered.

Andrew J. Spencer

Andrew J. Spencer
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Monroe, Michigan, USA

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