Participating Well Means Doing Less!

By Ron Pate

Participating well with God and others gets us back to the Garden!

“Natural farming is not simply a way of growing crops. It is the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Masanobu Fukuoka

“To know imaginatively is to know intimately, particularly, precisely, gratefully, reverently, and with affection.”

Wendell Berry

The awakening:

The life of the world is not knowable from a position of individual detachment. Attempts at a detached way of knowing all the facts about living things literally obscure both the story and any awareness of our participation in the story. This is as true about theology as it is about biology. The path of detached knowing leads to death, whilst communicating well with others enables amazing life and goodness to happen.

In mid-1900s, the young college student and aspiring plant pathologist, Masanobu Fukuoka, had come to the end of his rope in his ambitions to know about plants. His long days were spent inside the laboratory, feverishly learning everything that he could about the problems of individual plants. His evenings were spent imbibing intoxicating libations, perhaps attempting to quench his heart’s desire for something more than problems, facts, and professional detachment.

Over time, the combination of his detachment and a partying lifestyle got the better of him. He suffered a break-down. Forced to take time away from studying and partying gave him a much-needed time for reflection, during which he had an awakening. He saw nature, which included himself, as perfect when participating together as a whole in mutual and reciprocal relationships. This vision eventually led to Fukuoka’s discovery and practice of natural farming, which is known today as permaculture. Natural farming is a reversal from the detachment of modern agriculture and human conquest of plant life, and a turn towards a way of mutual participation with nature that produces exponential goodness.

The practice:

After regaining his health, Fukuoka returned to his family’s farm, where he asked new questions. Instead of focusing on what was necessary to do in order to control a plant’s individual problem(s), he began asking what can we stop doing to promote plant health? He focused on learning from and with plants within their natural context, hoping to understand how to participate well with nature. He believed that nature could reveal to him how his participation could be mutually beneficial for the entire ecosystem. He decided to stop cultivating, fertilizing, weeding and tilling, and all chemical applications, which were standard practices in agriculture. He shifted his attention from the problems of individual plants, to understanding the relationships with others that create the conditions wherein plants and creatures thrive together. Ironically, to participate well meant his ceasing from trying to control nature.

The practice of what Fukuoka called “natural farming” involved organizing nature into mutually beneficial relationships where nature accomplished with great efficiency what humans could not accomplish without producing a host of damaging side effects. For every costly and time-consuming step forward in conventional farming, humans took several steps backwards. Fukuoka realized that the hidden benefits of natural farming, or permaculture, were “given to us for free,” which included considerably more free time—literally months, and not just days or weeks. With substantially more leisure, the “natural farmer” would also have more time for family and neighbors, which aided their personal development.

Permaculture emphasizes the concept of the natural farmer as a communicative agent. This is a sharp contrast to modern agriculture, where the type of agency that is employed is that of individual mastery; the presumption that the detached individual can know how to use facts to bring nature under human control for designed ends. This type of agency illustrates a combat motif, as the human is the conqueror, and nature is the conquered. By the middle of the twentieth century, some feared that this agricultural combat motif was a threat to the entire planet. The expected destruction prompted counter, or postmodern conceptions of human agency, which framed nature as the dominating agent, and humans as the conquered. However, both worldviews reinforce the combat motif, while only differing about who wins in the end.

In contrast, the agent in natural farming/permaculture is communicative, and has ceased believing that the detached individual can know what is best, much less produce what is entirely good. The natural/permaculture farmer embodies a position of humility. At most, she/he is a community organizer, and is empowered to do so only to the extent that she/he has listened reverently to others and is thereby guided into new practices by and with others. This is both a generative and a shared power. This kind of knowing by attending well affords fuller notions of the self and the other(s), which leads to the coproduction of efficient outcomes.

There are many types of permaculturists today. Some attempt to stay true to the humble participation that is demonstrated in Fukuoka’s original vision. Others have reduced the vision of being a “natural farmer” to a series of design principles and facts that individuals can master and apply programmatically from an impersonal position of detachment. In such reductions, becoming a natural farmer is negated, as are the personhood forming benefits.

The open and relational theology:

Clark Pinnock, a contemporary founder of Open and Relational Theology, warned that the theologian can get lost in the individual details of theologizing, and miss the story all-together. This detached theologian focuses on individual words and facts, rather than entering the fluid dynamics and tangled webs of a story which enables one to see what’s going on between oneself and others, and God. But if all theology is applied, the first step of being a good “natural theologian” is to enter the story humbly, where new and regenerative relationships between self and other can emerge. This process of mutual communication and loving communion, as Fukuoka was aware, informs and motivates good participation.

Genesis 1-4 provides storylines that are remarkably parallel to those of Fukuoka. J. Richard Middleton interprets how we ought to live in relationship with nature, God, and others, from the story of creation. Creation is not an act of power over, but of shared power with, where nature is invited to step forward and participate in helping complete the creation process. While it doesn’t start out as a solo effort, before it is done, creation itself is filling out various tasks, and it is so good that God can go on an extended rest. As humans enter this relationship with nature and creation, they are partnering with God, who is the benevolent Creator.

But, in the garden story of Adam and Eve, humankind takes big steps backwards. First, they believe they can know what is best from a position of individual detachment, and second, they hide themselves from God and cut off communication. Both acts of detachment propelled them down the path of self-determination and competition, which, like modern agriculture, leads to death.

Similarly, in the story of Cain and Abel we see a situation unfold, which illustrates the advancing combat motif of oneself against another. Cain, believing he was no longer where the food was free and human work was organizing and communicating with creation, fell into a pattern of food production by tilling and thus conquering the soil. But his brother Abel was a herder, who cared for his animals by moving them around so they could eat freely from earth’s bounty. The combat motif took root in Cain through his toilsome conquest over the soil, which contributed to forming his reaction to his discovering that his hard-earned gift to God was rejected, while his brother Abel’s easy work was warmly received. By killing Abel, Cain further entrenched himself in his toilsome role of tilling the land and seeking power over nature. Like Adam and Eve, Cain chose his own path forward.

What can get lost in this story is how the vocation of each brother plays a formative role in how each lives their life. Cain, a farmer and cultivator, lives in competition against others, while Abel, a herder and organizer, lives with and for others. The latter demonstrates Fukuoka’s communicative way of being a natural farmer, which is broadly redemptive and personally formative.

These stories demonstrate the demise of individual certainty and knowing from a position of detachment. They also illustrate a way of being with others, including all of nature, that motivates cooperative efforts and co-produces exponential goodness. Those on the communicative/relational path clearly appear to be the good soil in the parable of the sower, in whom the seeds of the gospel take root and multiply exponentially with ease. Being in communicative relationships leads to participating well with others, and reaping exponentially more goodness, while doing exponentially less. Surely this is that good and free path to on earth as it is in heaven, that Jesus came to awaken us to.

Question: How does this story deepen or alter your ideas about spiritual formation, community, and evangelism?

Ron Pate, PhD, is an interdisciplinary scholar with a doctorate in urban studies and planning from Portland State University. He uses narrative processes with learning communities to facilitate new visions that are broadly just and good, ( In his leisure, he enjoys hiking and growing edible mushrooms.


To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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