In the middle of our cultural crisis, issues such as politics, economics, and education may come immediately to mind. Though these issues are vital to our culture, the crisis stems in part from something even more fundamental. We’ve lost touch with the most basic aspects of culture.
An important answer to our crisis can be found at the beginning of Scripture. The first command addressed to humanity in the entire Bible is to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” (Gen 1:28). This command is addressed to man and woman in the first creation story and is addressed to all of humanity. In the second story, Adam is said to have been placed in the Garden “to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). God’s first commands are cultural commands. This reveals his primal will for all human beings: to be fruitful in themselves and to enhance the fruitfulness of the earth by their efforts.
There are many ways to respond to this primal call. I will describe one way it is relevant to me by providing a short theology of gardening. I will then broaden the discussion to show the relevancy of God’s cultural commands more generally.
I bought my first house last year, which contained a large patch of weeds that had served as a dog pen. It looked like a perfect place for a garden, our first, so I rented a tiller and went to work. About half way through I stopped and the primal command I mentioned above just hit me out of nowhere. I realized that I had finally responded to the most basic command that God had given us. It felt good!
As I mentioned, this patch was completely covered by weeds. Grappling with those weeds also took me back to the Garden. They weren’t meant to be part of the plan, but came after Adam had already disrupted his first mission. Tilling the earth would never be the same and now we have to work by the sweat of our brow. The weeds are a reminder of what human work is meant to be after the Fall: not just a work of human culture, but also a work of reparation, or more positively of restoration.
Since my yard was in disarray, I felt the restoration aspect of gardening very strongly. In this work, I have seen so many parallels to the spiritual life. Looking around at the house, inside and out, I had a clear image of what happens when you neglect to care for something. What you want to be there, such as grass, begins to die without proper care, and things you do not want just creep in without anyone noticing, until they begin to take over. Once the weeds are established it seems that no matter how much you pull, they keep coming back. What a great image for virtue and vice! Forming virtue takes constant care and vigilance, while forming vice comes so easily and is so hard to root out.
There are many other parallels as well. Pope Benedict XVI referred to prayer as a kind of oxygen for the soul (cf. Meeting with Priests, Sep. 14, 2006). One could not live without it. The thought keeps coming back to me as I water my garden. When you live in a desert region (the high desert for me), if you miss one watering you immediately notice it. Seeing the plants wilt so quickly makes me think of what goes on inside of me when I miss prayer.
I also think a lot of Jesus’s parables and images when I am gardening. Living in an area that is not ideal for gardening, I realize how important it is to prepare the soil for seeds. It makes the parable of the sower more vivid, watching plants languish in poor soil and fighting against weeds. Other parables come to mind as well, such as weeds mixing with what’s sown and the growth of the mustard seed (which like the parable of sower can be seen in Matthew 13). It is one thing to know the reality of sowing seeds intellectually and another to experience it, which makes the words of Jesus more striking and present.
From the theology of gardening, we can also see how things like gardening and other works of culture can help us respond to our current crisis of culture.
The first is that working with plants teaches us something about ourselves. Aristotle distinguished different kind of souls: vegetative, animal, and rational. The rational soul contains the powers of the other two souls (this was affirmed by the Council of Vienne when it said the soul was the only form of the body [Decree 1]), which means that we have vegetative/nutritive functions. Cultivating growing things reminds us of these very basic and overlooked human functions.
The vegetative aspects of human life may sound trite, in general, but given the fact that our culture has become so abstract and removed from nature, it is actually quite important. Christopher Dawson identified four foundational aspects of culture: land, people, social functions, and beliefs. All of these areas are in jeopardy in modern culture, but even the most fundamental aspect of culture, from which we cultivate things, the land, is so far removed from our everyday lives. Think of all the children that think food just comes from the grocery store. Deliberately reemphasizing culture’s link to the land puts us back in touch with a fundamental aspect of life.
If we share the nutritive connection to the land with plants, the animal powers of the soul build upon this foundation. We are desperately losing sight of how God’s primal command also entails fertility and reproduction. No one has made this clearer than the agrarian writer, Wendell Berry. Berry insightfully notes: “There is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. Between our relation to our own sexuality and our relation to the reproductivity of the earth, for instance…” (The Art of the Commonplace, 118). This latter relation can be seen in “the household, which was the formal bond between marriage and the earth, between human sexuality and its sources in the sexuality of Creation” (ibid., 119). The crisis we are experiencing in marriage and the family can be linked to a prior cultural crisis in which the family has been removed from its roots and has lost sight of its central mission.
But humanity is more than just our nutritive/vegetative and animalistic/reproductive elements. We stand above plants and animals as rational creatures toward which they are ordered. In our cultural crisis, some people overreact to our separation from nature and make nature an end in itself. Nature is not a regular part of most of our lives and the environmental movement is actually another symptom of this isolation. Rather than recognizing the purpose of nature, some environmentalists hold it up as something for its own sake. We are all too familiar with politicians seeking to limit births and using the environment in order to manipulate and control. Producing works of culture, on the other hand, clearly reminds us that the rest of creation is subordinate to us and is meant for us. Agriculturally speaking, planting seeds, tending plants, and harvesting give us a glimpse of God’s creation being cultivated in order to sustain and uphold us.
Another problem in modern culture is our dependency on the mass state, in which economics and politics are large scale with the individual as subordinate and dependent. Agriculture itself has become something that is now industrialized and even has become subject to manipulation at the genetic level. Gardening is one small but important way among many to break absolute dependence upon “the system.” This kind of relative self-sufficiency is a crucial element of subsidiarity, the principle by which things should be done on the lowest level without intervention from above, unless necessary. Most people in human history were able to support themselves, at least in part. There are many ways that we can become more self-reliant and live a more human lifestyle.
We would not want to take self-reliance too far or we’re right back in another modern problem, the isolated self. Rather, works of culture should be acts of love for God. How? He has given us a cultural vocation and he intends all of us to respond to this call. We can get so caught up in our desires and ambitions that we lose sight of the most basic elements of our life and vocation. From this perspective working with our hands in building or caring for something helps our humility. God wants us to focus on the simple, to get our hands dirty, to bend over, and to perform menial tasks. It is good for us and keeps us “grounded.” At the same time, as rational beings we need to express ourselves creatively, sharing in God’s own creation by continuing to shape it through culture. I think this is why God’s first commands are cultural ones!
There are many ways to respond to God’s cultural commands. I have found that gardening is an important image for our broader cultural vocation. This thought has been confirmed by the recent words of Pope Francis on responding to God’s primal command:
Cultivating and caring for creation is an instruction of God which he gave not only at the beginning of history, but has also given to each one of us; it is part of his plan; it means making the world increase with responsibility, transforming it so that it may be a garden, an inhabitable place for us all (General Audience, June 5, 2013).
According to Francis, everyone needs to be a gardener! This literally can mean putting one’s hands in the soil or, more generally speaking, cultivating the goods of creation and even our own lives to make them more human and in accord with God’s will. We are all called to be cultural creators and by doing so we explicitly follow the Lord’s commands to “subdue the earth” and to “till it and keep it.”