Chuck Liu

100x100 Chuck LiuUnsettled

Chuck Liu, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Psychology

Norman Wirzba’s latest book, Agrarian Spirit, left me deeply unsettled. This discomfort comes not from a criticism of the content he presents, but from the disconcerting reality that not only do I not live up to the transformative impact of the Gospel, but I also lack the imagination necessary to move meaningfully towards that alternative reality Wirzba argues is the “agrarian spirit.” In essence, Wirzba presents a robust Gospel that calls us into an embodied Kingdom of God with significant implications for our relationships to God, to each other, and to the land and creation around us. However, I live firmly in a world and culture that seeks to detach God from God’s created order, disembody me from my physicality, disconnect me from meaningful community and interdependence, commodify my existence as a consumer, and treat the land as expendable, all the while mystifying the whole process so that the neo-capitalist machine can continue to extract profits and avoid being called to account for its human and environmental destruction.

Amid material plenty, I have found myself physically unhealthy, hungry in spirit, and living out of an attitude of scarcity and frenetic striving. This was highlighted during my COVID-19 in which sickness forced sabbath rest onto me and remind me how inseparable my body is from my overall well-being. As evidenced by the dramatic increase of mental health challenges in the general population during the pandemic, I suspect that I am not alone. In an economic world that foists independence upon us and seeks to obfuscate and diminish our creatureliness, it is unsurprising that individual and collective fractures appear when our already-fragile connections are severed, and embodiment, limitations, and mortality are highlighted.

Consider recent studies showing the efficacy of microbes found within soil, stirred up when gardening, that serve an anti-depressant and anxiolytic, or the impact of sunlight or green light therapy on Seasonal Affective Disorder (Seasonal Depression). It is no accident that gardening has a positive effect on mental health. Or consider the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions and the slowing of one’s thoughts and actions to attend to the present in addressing anxieties. How can we be grateful and generous if we move at a speed that fails to see, hear, and taste the gifts of God around us? All these practices, which are built-in as natural consequences of living God’s command to tend to the garden and eat from it, are now disconnected from the average consumer’s relationship to their meals. Sunlight, water, sweat, dirt, weeds, sheep, figs, soil; The depth of such rich agrarian imagery in scripture is lost on the average modern reader. If we have lost our understanding of how fruit trees are planted, nurtured, pruned, fertilized, and harvested, is it surprising then, that the fruits of the spirit are also difficult for us to grasp?

On Root and Sky farm, as a colleague and I built a chicken coop in the oppressive humidity under the sun, I lamented about the current economy that pushed a kitchen addition further outside my budget, and I whined about the hopeless and seemingly-inevitable march of invasive Bishop’s Weed in my own yard. What a frustrating financial decision, to own a yard that we can barely plant vegetables in. Should we even put money into a renovation if we don’t know how long we will stay? A small farm owner herself, my colleague shared about her own house addition and motivation to work the land because it was right for the house, and because it would benefit the future of those who lived on that land. What a radical reorientation of priorities away from a commodification of our lives and towards a responsibility for Creation and those that come after us. What an upside-down economy, where our hours of labor are not merely measured by billable units, but as promises to our community. What an imagination, to be converted into God’s economy of love and covenantal relationship instead of scarcity and self-protection. How beautiful are the feet of those who carry Good News!