Our Entangled Banks

A series of posts about a collaborative project at Wingate University, resulting in a first-year course called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of Our Lives.

Mr. Darwin’s Lovely Thought
– detail 1; susanskuseart.com

Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2015) offers much to those looking to explore vocation in a COVID world. For Johnson, the human vocation is to praise the Creator and care for the natural world rather than destroy it. She suggests that in the process of falling in love with the Creator via caring for creation, human beings will find our true identities reimagined as “vital members of the community of creation rather than as a species divorced from the rest.” The entangled bank, an overlooked metaphor offered by Darwin, could be our guide:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

What if we took this vision of our participation within a community of creation seriously and contemplated Earth’s entangled banks as a source of wisdom for addressing challenges facing higher education? This post begins a series that will describe the co-creation of a high-impact general education class for first year students developed at Wingate University called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of our Lives.

It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.

Jerry Sternin

We are scholar-practitioners working in the interstitial spaces between theory and practice and have embodied this within the rituals of our course. The etymology of the word theory in Greek is found in theorein, meaning “to look at” or “contemplate.” While theory often is presented as separate or opposed to practice, remembering that, at its origin, theory is about observation and contemplation reminds us that theory can bring us along from observation to participation. Thus, when we look out the window into creation, we want landscapes to inform student mindscapes and move them to act into new ways of understanding their vocation as planetary citizens. We believe that when vocation is engaged through the lens of planetary citizenship, three cornerstone principles emerge:

  • We are all interdependent
  • We live in webs of relations so our identity is as interconnected people (being-with)
  • Co-creative processes are integral to a thriving environment (including universities)

We have translated these principles into verbs: building reconnection, re-rooting our transient students and siloed faculty/staff, and re-imagining life together around every table—from desks to dining hall tables, to conference room tables. In this blog we offer our rationale for the course and focus on interdependence: the success of the university (and any course offered) is predicated on the thriving of its greater community.

When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

– John Muir

Image from “The Universe as an Infinite Storm of Beauty: John Muir on the Transcendent Interconnectedness of Nature,” The Marginalian (2018).

The “storm of beauty” of the entangled banks of our campus have several defining features:

  • Fear: As a department there is an anxiety that our small program will be eliminated in response to enrollment and financial challenges.
  • Retention: We struggle with the retention of our first-year students and are especially concerned about vulnerable and marginalized student populations.
  • Disengagement: We are seeing behavioral, cognitive, and emotional disengagement due to COVID.
  • Siloes: We see an insularity of disciplines, paucity of collaboration, and a cultural trend of people living increasingly separate lives.
  • Crisis in confidence: Many fail to see the relevance of liberal arts degrees including religion degrees. Many cannot connect what is happening in religion classrooms with job acquisition and transferable skills, and this translates into fewer majors and degrees.
  • Call for curriculum innovation: We are revising our Global Perspectives General Education program to better meet the needs of today’s students and solicited new courses for first year students.

This storm of beauty intensifies when we explored the landscapes we inhabit:

  • Serious economic, social and health disparities: In our county there is an affluent western region and the east is economically disadvantaged. People who live in Wingate earn the lowest median income in the county and the poverty rate is about 30%. When health outcomes, life expectancy rates, and achievement in schools are examined the picture is even more dire.
  • We grow a lot of food but so many go hungry: Union county is one of the top agricultural producers in the state (4th overall) with farms comprising 46.2% of our landscapes. But it is also a food desert with nearly 10% of residents struggling with food insecurity and health issues associated with diet.
  • We are in the Bible Belt: About 4.5 million North Carolinians adhere to a religion and nearly 1.5 million (33% of all religious adherents) are members of the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus, there is a treasure trove of attitudes, rituals, and skills in religious traditions that could help people navigate our complex relationships with food. 

When we collectively considered our particular, entangled bank we saw the interdependence of food, hunger, religious rituals, retention, collaboration, and program relevance. The first three we tackled within the course content:

Food is our common ground, our vehicle of connection, a universal experience, a spiritual encounter. In this course we will be exploring the complicated relationship people have with food across the globe and how food and faith intersect. Students will be offered the opportunity to grow, tend, harvest, prepare, cook, serve, eat, and reflect on food and faith.

Catalogue course description

It also resonates in the overarching organizational structure of the course: students will move from an exploration of their own palates and plates to engaging with table fellowship in our local and regional community, to national and global issues related to food and faith.

We addressed the latter three elements, retention, collaboration, and program relevance, in our course design methods and pedagogical approach (i.e., service-learning and community engagement). We hope this course contributes to the reframing of religion and other liberal arts degrees as vital pathways to sustaining, reimagining, and improving shared culture and offering students transferable skills desirable for job acquisition.

Future posts will highlight other key aspects of this work: table-fellowship as a manifestation of vocation and being-with; service-learning and community engagement as the co-creative pedagogical processes helping us to re-imagine life together; and the sharing of the course as a whole for others to join in.

This project is a collaboration between Catherine Wright, Shea Watts, and Harry Workman. Catherine Wright is a transplanted Canadian ecotheologian with degrees in Zoology and Christian ethics. She is the author of two books, Creation, God and Humanity: Engaging the Mystery of Suffering within the Sacred Cosmos (2017), and an interactive ecotheology book (2020) which has used been by individuals and parishes across the US and Canada. Shea Watts is a Southern-born theologian. His forthcoming book Where The Spirit Is explores the political contours of the early Pentecostal movement in the US. His expertise in the affective nature of Pentecostal experience, his commitment to veganism, and fellowship with CreatureKind (an organization focused on animals and faith) sparked innovative additions to this course. Rev. Harry Workman is a Wingate alum, a bowtie wearing North-Carolinian, and long-time friend of the religion department. He is affectionately called the “Pastor of Disaster” because his vocation has always been to serve in spaces devastated by crises and minister to people who have been displaced, devalued, and have lost their sense of identity when industries left a community.

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