Reviewed by Christiana Peterson
Flourish Magazine, Winter 2010
Last week, I was listening to a scientist on public radio describe the mating calls of the amphibians she was studying. She said, only half-jokingly, that these frogs had been around for thousands of years and would still be around long after humans were gone.
This idea that humans are at best a trivial part of the natural world, and at worst “some sort of colossal mistake on the landscape,” is one of two “heresies of human alienation in creation” that Ragan Sutterfield describes in his small book of essays, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline. The other heresy, one of which many Christians have been guilty, is that humans are masters of creation, and that nature is utterly submissive to the needs of humanity.
Sutterfield describes what should be our correct relationship with nature: that of creatures of a loving God who, by extension and Imago Dei, should love creation. Practically speaking, Sutterfield says that farming is a route to reconnecting with the ways of loving creation that we have forgotten.
When it comes to growing food and farming, Sutterfield says that we can react to the changeability of nature in two ways: artificial control, or cultivation. Either we “attempt to overcome the variables” of the environment with cruel and harmful means, or we use a way of farming that forces us to order our lives around the unpredictability of the changing seasons and weather. Farmers who don’t cater to the pressure of consumerism and expansion live out the disciplines of humility and frugality, virtues that Sutterfield believes are “paths to find our way back to a true understanding of what is valuable.”
My husband and I recently moved from Washington, D.C. to an organically run farm in a Mennonite community in rural Illinois. We decided to move partly because we wanted to be more intentional and responsible about how we eat and live.
We are just beginning to learn to live into this idea of cultivation. What we are discovering is that our food comes at a cost. The asking price is either our own personal sacrifices of time and energy, or it is our earth and the people who are exploited and sickened through low wages, pesticides, and the greed of corporations that monopolize and patent living things.
Despite the title of his book, Sutterfield is speaking not to farmers who wish to be more intentional in their Christian disciplines, but to church communities who are seeking to live as more loving participants in God’s creation. Sutterfield rightly insists that is isn’t necessary to be a farmer to live with an “agrarian mind.”
For example, as an urbanite living in Austin, Texas, my sister was inspired by the film Food, Inc. to join a local food delivery service and start her own vegetable garden. Even in a big city, she has found ways to make small changes that will make a great difference not only in her own family’s life, but also in the lives of local farmers. She is learning to live with an agrarian mind by finding out where her food comes from and giving her money to things that she can ethically support.
As Sutterfield maintains, it is our responsibility as stewards of the earth to become more aware of how our lives are dependent on things that exploit God’s creation, and to learn how we can change our lifestyles to rely less on the control of unethical practices and more on the inherent unpredictability of God’s creation. It isn’t a task that any one of us can perform perfectly, but small changes can be great blessings in our lives. As Sutterfield says, our efforts should begin with prayer and a willingness to get our hands dirty, both metaphorically and literally. If you’ve never grown your own tomatoes or tasted fresh lettuce, it doesn’t take much more land than a planting pot.
Just as the Spirit moves where it wills, so do the wind and the weather. Accepting the limits of our control is part of this spiritual discipline. It isn’t an easy life but it is incredibly satisfying.