When I reflect on technology and modern life, I find myself continually returning to these ancient words from God to Adam:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. (Gen 2:15)
The word that usually gets all the attention in this passage is “cultivate” (it even has its own conference!), and it forms the basis of what theologians call the “creation mandate” or “culture mandate” in which God urges humanity to create things from what he has made. Just as Adam might have pulled weeds, planted vegetables in neat rows, and added a border around it, we continue to rearrange God’s creation (i.e. cultivate the Garden) into useful and meaningful things.
But while we normally think of a garden as being “natural,” especially when compared to a modern gadget like a cell phone, in another sense a garden is very much “unnatural” in the sense that gardens don’t just happen their own; they only exist with human intervention. A garden is composed of naturally occurring things in an unnatural order corresponding to human needs and desires, a mixture of what God has made and what we have remade.
Moving beyond the garden, every object and thing around exists somewhere along the spectrum from natural to unnatural: the plant in the corner is quite natural, while the desk made of wood is only mostly natural. The shirt we wear tells us it’s 50% cotton / 50% rayon, our computers are even less natural with their plastics and exotic metals, and the website on which you’re reading this is perhaps the least natural of all.
Yet each of these things – however “natural” or “unnatural” – is a reflection of the creativity of God embedded in his image bearers, and each honors the command to “cultivate the garden.”
Because the idea of “cultivating” is so interesting, we often miss the fact that God gave Adam a second command. He was not only to “cultivate” the Garden, but also to “keep” it. In the context, “keep” probably just means something like “care for and maintain” in reference to the Garden.
But stretching the vocabulary a bit, “keep” can also mean “guard” or “preserve” or even “keep in one’s memory.” These meanings seem to offer a contrast to cultivation in which God is saying that we must balance our acts of making with acts of preservation. We must work to maintain a healthy balance between the natural and the unnatural, between neatly tended gardens that sustain human life and the untouched, natural world that is also essential to human life.
The Risk of Imbalance
It seems that if we fail to balance the acts of cultivating and keeping, of balancing natural with unnatural, we risk losing something of what God has designed for humanity.
When we fail to cultivate – that is, when we fail to create “unnatural” things like shelter, medicine, and food – our bodies will waste away. But when we fail to keep – that is, when we fail to preserve our connection to the natural world – it is our souls that languish. When we surround ourselves only with what we humans have made, that which is unnatural, and fail to balance that with connection to God’s creation our souls become parched.
The most obvious way to regain a bit of balance is to pull away from the computer, the office, and the city to be outside for a short time. But the principle of balance applies not only to city vs. garden or server farm vs. pig farm, but also to our human relationships.
It should be quite obvious that human relationships are one of the most “natural” things that we experience in our lives. Any yet we have invented all kinds of “unnatural” ways to conduct these relationship. In recent years, with the advent of social technologies, its possible to conduct a huge number of relationships with little or no natural contact. When this happens, we are failing to obey God’s command to “keep.”
Social media, like fast food, presents us with an unnatural form of the natural. It takes the rough beauty of life and repackages it into something easily digestible. It is quite tasty, and one bit cause no harm. But over time, continually, repeatedly, exclusively consuming an unbalanced diet of unnatural human connection will cause both our bodies and our souls to rot.
So my encouragement to you over the holiday season would be to attempt tip the scales back in the direction of “keeping” and “preserving” your connection to God’s image bearers with whom you’ll commune. As much as your occupation allows, try to disconnect from mediated relationships and work towards removes the unnatural barriers to those around you. Perhaps then the Table will reflect the Garden.