Reading God’s World: A Meditation on Cultural Hermeneutics

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Christians are familiar with reading God’s word. We hear the Bible read and preached every Lord’s Day. This is the most obvious way that we hear God’s voice and learn God’s will. Down through the centuries, the Church has interpreted God’s word through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and passed on Christian orthodoxy. This process of reading and interpreting the Bible (hermeneutics) is a staple of Christian life. But what about reading God’s world? Does the created order, with its multifaceted cultural institutions, also need to be interpreted? And is there a hermeneutical principle, a process of good interpretation, which can help us to read God’s world faithfully? To all of the above, yes.

As American culture seems to disintegrate before our eyes, let me suggest a rule of reading which might help guide our cultural interpretation: God intends earthly things to lead us into heavenly realities. God has a certain “grammar” which he intends for creation to proclaim: “The heavens declare the glory of God…” (Psalm 19:1). The silent voice of God speaks to all creatures, and especially those human creatures imprinted with his image. When we read God’s world, his creation, we should see glimmers of his glory. But God also intends culture to convey a certain “grammar.” The “text” of culture also needs to be read well.  This cultural script is often garbled and illegible, however, because of humanity’s commitment to sin. Reading God’s world is difficult because the characters in this story (we sinners) regularly deviate from the divine plotline. Still: God intends earthly things to lead us into heavenly realities.

God intends earthly things to lead us into heavenly realities.

A few examples might help. I mentioned above “those human creatures imprinted with God’s image.” That’s us, of course. We are meant to “image” God to each other, to put God on display, to somehow mediate God’s life and love into God’s world. Think about the family from this perspective. In the family, God intends earthly fatherhood to lead us into the heavenly reality of God’s own Fatherhood. He provides for us, protects us and lovingly leads us as his children. When human fathers live out these traits, God is revealed. God intends human fathers to “teach” us about himself, not in a sterile classroom kind of way, but rather to convey a “gut-level” knowledge of God in which his Personhood is relationally revealed. Marriage is another prime example here. When wives submit themselves to their husbands, and husbands self-sacrificially love their wives, earth gets a glimpse of heaven. We penetrate through the earthly veil to see a heavenly picture of Christ and his Bride.

The cultural institution of marriage fundamentally consists of a man and a woman who “become one flesh.” Now, how do you “read” such a situation? Paul reads marriage to be a mystery: “I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). Marriage is about Jesus and his people. Marriage is a mystery, meaning that human marriage is an earthly thing which leads us into heavenly realities. At least, that is God’s intent for marriage. That is God’s intent for fatherhood. That is God’s intent for human culture at large, to act as a mystery in which eternal realities are conveyed through earthly means. But here’s the tragic rub: we twist these cultural institutions so that they fail to convey their divinely-intended message.

As the culture slides away from God’s intended design (that is, to act as a mystery which reveals his love and glory), believers and unbelievers alike can be deceived. God intends creation and culture to teach us about himself and lead us into his own divine life. But when human beings misuse God’s world, people “read” a faulty message in the culture. What do people learn about God when fatherhood disappears from a large portion of the population? What message is being conveyed about Christ the Bridegroom and his ecclesial Bride when same-sex partners are licensed to enter the mystery of marriage? Human culture will teach us something about God, his character, and his will for our lives. The sad truth is that the message conveyed through culture can lead us into realities other than the heavenly ones which God intends.

We will not solve these problems here. I do hope, at least, to highlight the importance of cultural hermeneutics. We all engage in “reading God’s world” and should be aware that we are doing so. But maybe I can offer just one point which may help the Church amidst the swirling soup of today’s culture.

When we interpret God’s world, we need to see it for what it actually is, no more, no less. Evangelicals have become adept at speaking of the world in terms of “the goodness of the created order.” This statement is true. The world is good. Created matter is not inherently evil. “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The created order is certainly good, but this statement must be qualified. The creation is not good in an absolute sense. Rather, creation is only good in a relative sense – because it stands in relation to the God who is inherently good. Here’s how Paul makes the same point: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The world exists “in him,” in relation to the God who is himself the epitome of Goodness. God’s world is good, because it is suffused with God’s own goodness. We need to read God’s world rightly, seeing it for what it actually is. Creation is good because God made it good in the beginning, and because it continues to participate in the very life of God.

In light of these truths, we should be careful about describing God’s world as inherently good. This kind of language could imply that the world has a goodness in and of itself, an autonomous kind of goodness. But the reality is that the goodness of creation, and the goodness of culture, is a derived sort of goodness, always flowing as a gift from the God who is good (see 1 Corinthians 4:7). The triune God is the transcendent ground of all truth, goodness and beauty which exist in the world. And God intends for the created order to be a window onto divine realities, through which we see the goodness and glory of God himself (Romans 1:20). God intends earthly things to lead us into heavenly realities. But we should remember that, even though God allows us to share in his own goodness, “no one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).

The created order is to be used, enjoyed and enculturated as a means of finding ultimate enjoyment in God.

When Christians exaggerate the intrinsic goodness of the world, we risk separating the creation from its grounding in God. The creation can then “stand on its own feet.” The ultimate purpose of creation and culture are then up for grabs. In an autonomous world that’s disconnected from God, we can “do what is right in our own eyes.” So, instead of emphasizing the inherent goodness of the world, we should focus upon its relative goodness, and thus become less prone to define cultural goodness by our own autonomous standards. Creation and its cultural products should always be directed God-ward, pointed towards the One whose heavenly presence permeates the cosmos – who shares his goodness with the world.

What are the implications of this outlook on God’s world? Here’s the main takeaway: God never meant for creation or culture to exist for their own sake. The created order is to be used, enjoyed and enculturated by people as a means of finding ultimate enjoyment in God. He intends earthly things to lead us into heavenly realities. And this perspective gives us a firm, supernatural anchor for all our cultural endeavors. Take race relations in America, for example. This cultural phenomenon is currently in shambles, and it’s conveying the wrong message about God’s character and will for his world. But pursuing (and finding!) racial reconciliation transmits a different truth. When blacks and whites live together in peace, we catch a glimpse of the one new humanity in Jesus Christ. The heavenly reality is that the eternal Son of God took up a human nature and became the second Adam, refashioning the human race to live as one new man in Christ. The earthly situation of racial harmony leads us to the heavenly reality of the Incarnation.

These are some initial thoughts on how to “read” God’s world well. But this is also a call to “do” God’s world well. Let us teach what fatherhood (and motherhood) should be, and be good fathers in our families. Let us teach what marriage should be, and live out our marriages to convey the reality of Christ and his Church. Let us pursue racial unity so that the new humanity founded by the incarnate Son of God might be put on fuller display. We can use cultural hermeneutics as a way to faithfully interpret the world around us. We can also use cultural hermeneutics to cultivate this world in a way that fulfills God’s intention: that earthly things – creation, culture, our lives of love and service – might lead many more people into his heavenly realities.

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Owen Kelly

Owen works as a faculty secretary at Southeastern Seminary where he is currently finishing a Th.M. in philosophy and patristics. He hopes to begin a Ph.D. degree soon, focusing on St. Maximus the Confessor.

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