Ragan Sutterfield's collection of essays, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline, is a call for churches to start gardens and grow food. He introduces the essays by saying:
My hope is that Christians will come to see one of their tasks as staking out claims for God's Kingdom by redeeming land from the margins and using that land to create gardens that offer not only good food but also community development and hope.
True to his comments in the book about the need for patient preparation of soil, he aims with this small book, to prepare the topsoil of the church with amendments of biblical reflection, kingdom theology, and agrarian sensibilities.
He starts out with the assumption that before engaging the practice of farming we must first grapple with our understanding of creation, which is ultimately a question about how we see ourselves in the order of creation. He says:
Farming is essentially the practice of cultivating creation, and how we see farming depends entirely on how we see creation.
Sutterfield grounds his understanding of the human place in creation in a perichoretic, or social understanding of the trinity, with God inviting us into the "eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and into the task of widening that divine embrace of love. The author lifts up sustainable farming as a generative practice that anchors us in the humus of created order, and ultimately in the triune embrace of the creator God.
He makes a keen observation about our typical response to the wreckage of rapid industrialization and the burgeoning green movement. He says:
So far, the answer seem to be mostly, keep doing what you are doing, only do it "greener."
Again here, he points to farming as a path to not just tweaking what we're already doing, but shaping an alternative path. He says:
Humility and frugality are both practices born of accepting our creaturely limits. Farming, perhaps better than any other practice, brings us up against the realities of the creaturely life and forces us to live within the limits of our power, knowledge and resources.
The two main essays are followed by a sermon given to Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sutterfield argues that the church should "seek a foothold for Eden," as a way of looking ahead to the ultimate fulfillment of what God is doing in the world. He says that the best place to start is with places on the margins, on abandoned patches of earth that need resurrecting.
It's getting quite interesting reading all these 28 books in a condensed period of time. I'm learning that perspectives on environmentalism and faith are shaped significantly by the places where people are standing in the world. Scott Saban sees the movement from the missions field among the poor, Tri Robinson sees it from his role as an evangelical pastor and leader in the church, Jonathan Merritt, author of Green Like God, sees through the lens of being a Southern Baptist, and Ragan Sutterfield's perspectives are shaped primarily through his experience as a farmer. All four advocate for the church to embrace the care of creation.
Sutterfield offers a small critique of some of these other approaches. It wasn't a direct critique that he targets at others, but one that I can see in the middle of all of this reading. He says that there are two heresies founded on the idea that we, as humans, are not part of the created order. One of these heresies has been roundly rejected in all of my reading so far, which is a rejection of an extreme environmentalism that sees human impact on the earth in a wholly negative light, as if the creation would be better off without people. That's a bit of a straw man, but I understand what he is saying. The other heresy, he says, envisions "creation entirely in terms of human use and value...," which includes those that warn of global warming because of it's negative impact on humans.
Tri Robinson lists as one of his foundational assumptions, that the earth exists for human use. Saban's main observation is that caring for the environment is a way to care for people, especially poor people. I have often spoken of care of creation in the context of loving our neighbors as ourselves. Sutterfield's point is that there is something in the story of caring for creation which runs deeper than human use and valuation. I think he's arguing against a modern, reductionist view of the earth, but I'd like to hear more about what he means by this.
Farming as a Spiritual Discipline is a small book that packs a big punch. It's more like a fresh layer of compost than a flashy quick-release packet of NPK fertilizer. Sort of unassuming at first glance, it is packed full of health and a great contribution to the debates about faith and environment. Personally, it has re-sparked my imagination around my work with the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden and Millwood Farmers' Market and helped me see how those fit into God's unfolding kingdom.