Genesis 1-2 and Man as Artist

One of the ideas that emerges from the first two chapters of Genesis is the distinction between creation and cultivation, nature and art, or even chaos and order.

For instance, when God makes the world it is a chaotic emptiness (Genesis 1:1-2), but through the next several verses, he organizes it into a series of useful categories. Then he makes humanity, explaining that not only would they reproduce and eat, like the other creatures, but that they would be blessed, take dominion, and bear the image of God. So man is to subdue (or cultivate in context) the created world.

In Genesis 2, while the timeline is intentionally obscured (man is made before the plants, Genesis 2:4-5), the same distinction is further articulated. There is the wild world, but man is placed in a garden planted by God. And so there is nature (that which is) and art (that which is skillfully designed), creation/culture. The idea of subduing/having dominion over the created world is more fully defined in Genesis 2: name the animals, don’t eat poison fruit, eat fruit that gives life, protect the garden, tend the garden, control your body (it’s made of earth, you know), and so-on. In other words, man is to be an artist who makes culture out of creation or art out of nature.

Aristotle’s used the word techne to describe¬†know-how. Later Latin writers translated the word ars. We now use the word art. For Aristotle, art was a virtue of the mind. And I think our tendency to reduce art to the fine arts has led us to undervalue the fact that any human skill that can be acquired through practice is art: mathematics, grammar, cooking, gardening, shepherding, the scientific method, communication, and so-on.

Aristotle’s understanding of art is helpful for seeing what Genesis is getting at, even though Genesis doesn’t use his terminology. Part of our quest for meaning in a world that sometimes seems repetitive and meaningless is acquiring the skills necessary to cultivate the world around us into something beyond what it is. Trees can become parts of a garden, rocks can become a wall, gold can become food containers, currency, or circuits.

Of course, Scripture warns against wrong ways to cultivate creation¬† (Gen 11:1-9). If you try to unite heaven to earth yourself, you’ll end up utterly confused (which is bad from a personal experience perspective, but good from a necessary moral lesson perspective). I suspect that you’ll find the wrong ways to cultivate insofar as they do lead to confusion which forces different modes of cooperation and thought.