The Zacchaeus Hermenuetic
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
June 17, 2013 - The sweeping global changes wrought by the industrial and digital revolutions make it difficult for Christians to grasp the contingency of human artifice. Although creation itself is not eternal, the witness of Scripture signals a normativity for nature that cannot be claimed by any aspect of culture.
On the sixth day of creation, God surveys all that “he had made” (Genesis 1:31) noting, as he had on the five days previous, the inherent goodness of his created works. What is striking about the Genesis 1 creation narrative is that the goodness of what God makes consists in its givenness - i.e., in the very fact that it exists. Because water, land, heavenly lights, plants, trees, and animals are all declared “good” prior to the creation of man, their goodness is not merely a function of their use. Rather, they are gifts, gracious signs of God’s presence in reality.
As the so-called “cultural mandate” (Genesis 1:28-29) suggests, the gift-nature of creation is compatible with use. At the same time, both the givenness and goodness of the natural world into which man is placed point to an inherent constraint. Use of created things must conform to the givenness of their respective natures.
To ignore the nature of a magnolia (or a giraffe or a hummingbird), which almost certainly includes the inherent goodness of its existence, treating it merely as a means (or worse yet, an obstacle) to some other cultural end, is to treat the “cultural mandate” with contempt. Parking lots must justify their existence in ways that forests need not.
Of course, dangers here abound. Matters are complicated by our sub-eschatological, fallen state, one characterized by disease, drought, death, and so on. So, there’s no simple, logical line from the presence of a given flower to its at-all-costs-preservation. At the same time, it seems fair to say that despite the curse, the natural world, as a shadow of the primeval creation, occupies a position in the order of reality that no skyscraper or retail shopping district ever will.
Specifying the exact place of that privileged position is more challenging. But perhaps it is not too much to suggest that nature’s superiority consists in the essential, regulative role that natural metaphors in Scripture play. For example, the fact that Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God in terms of nature is not a contingency to be dismissed by pointing to the cultural era in which he lived (as though such metaphors could be adequately replaced by those of machine or computer). Rather, both the nature and on-going work of God’s kingdom must (despite the “achievements” of industrial and digital culture) be understood in light of the givenness of the natural objects to which Christ’s words point (e.g., mustard seeds).
If this is right, the continued existence of trees is essential to the preservation of our capacity to understand the Gospel in a way that the perpetuation of mass media is not. Perhaps Evangelicals would be wise to spend less time clamoring after screens and more time climbing trees.