I live in Washington D.C., and I love the excitement and conveniences of living in a big city. But one of my favorite things to do on the weekends is escape to go camping in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. There’s a peace in the wild that you can’t find amidst all the concrete.
Joni Mitchell has a song called “Woodstock” that reminds me of this desire to disconnect from the busyness of society (emphasis added):
I came upon a child of God/He was walking along the road/And I asked him where are you going/And this he told me/I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm/I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band/I’m going to camp out on the land/I’m going to try an’ get my soul free/We are stardust/We are golden/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.
Mitchell’s song creates a visual of a very natural human desire to “return to the garden.” This desire manifests itself in different ways in different people, and it’s all tied back to the concept of human flourishing.
For many, it means a love for nature and a reverence for God’s creation. We plant gardens. We go on long hikes. We admire plants and animals. We discover new ways to farm more productively and sustainably. We strive to be good environmental stewards.
But for others, I’ve found that it means we should reverse human progress. Industrialization is sinful. Technology is evil. Humans are pillagers of the earth. And our only recompense is to return to the land and live a lifestyle of subsistence farming.
In the globalized economy we live in today, it’s easy to romanticize a simpler life without all the technology and pollution that industrialization brought us. Can’t we all just join the character in Mitchell’s song, go to Yasgur’s farm and camp on the land to get our souls free? That sounds like a lot of fun to me.
But what I find interesting is that the Bible only begins in the garden. It doesn’t end in a garden; it ends in a city. This has huge implications for human flourishing and the church’s dealings with poverty.
The Garden of Eden – Remade
God isn’t preparing for us to go back to the Garden of Eden. He has something better for us. He is preparing a Garden of Eden remade, a Holy City, the New Jerusalem.
Tim Keller says,
[W]hen we look at the New Jerusalem, we discover something strange. In the midst of the city is a crystal river, and on each side of the river is the Tree of Life, bearing fruit and leaves which heal the nations of all their wounds and the effects of the divine covenant curse. This city is the Garden of Eden, remade. The City is the fulfillment of the purposes of the Eden of God. We began in a garden but will end in a city; God’s purpose for humanity is urban! Why? So the city is God’s invention and design, not just a sociological phenomenon or invention of humankind.
Cities booming with commerce, trade, culture, art, and technology are God’s image of flourishing.
If our story starts in a garden and ends in a city, perhaps it means we are meant to move towards something greater, towards something more developed. Maybe it means, with a righteous human touch, the world can reach a better and more productive state.
God has given us resources—natural resources, science, art, architecture, economics, individual gifts and talents, etc.—to do something productive with his creation. He’s given us a mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. That means we have a huge job assignment.
God wants us to harvest crops. He wants us to build cities. He wants us to create culture. He wants us to develop economies and lift full nations out of poverty.
If God’s plan for his people is flourishing here and now—for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven—that means we aren’t meant to stay in subsistence poverty. It means we are to leave our community, our world, better than how we found it.
Flourishing in a Globalized Society
Last summer, I spent four days camping on a farm in Tennessee. I was excited to get away from the city and experience the peace of simple living, if only temporarily.
Imagine if that was my permanent lifestyle. I would only have access to the few resources within walking distance of my campsite and the limited skills of my fellow campers to survive. Would I be fulfilling my calling by cutting myself off from a global community?
God created us dependent on him and dependent on one another. That means we need each other to flourish, and we flourish more in a global community.
He has also given us the tools to flourish and alleviate extreme global poverty: our minds to understand how prosperity is created, our bodies to carry out the work of his hands, and our souls to enter into loving relationships with our neighbors. We are far more effective when we come together and leverage the resources God has given us to fight poverty as one global church.
The church has an enormous challenge and incredible opportunity to give the world a glimpse of heaven, where poverty is no more. Will we take this challenge and opportunity seriously? Will we long for the days of Eden, or will we move forward to an even better garden, the New Jerusalem?