a broken world
It’s very common to hear religious people talk about living in a “broken world”. I may have even heard someone use that as an excuse a time or two.
Certainly there are bad things in the world. People starve, politicians are corrupt, teenagers play music too loud.
But is that because the world is broken, or is it because we are a species which is continually growing and facing new challenges? “Broken” seems permanent, inescapable, something we can do nothing about. It invites complacency and resignation. At least a few times, I’ve felt like I was hearing someone use it to excuse their failure to act.
I suspect that most people would point to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve to support this view of the world. But is that really what the story tells us?
The overall arc of the story is clear: it’s a move from chaos to order, from nothingness to a structure supporting human life. Things don’t start good and fall apart, they start dead and come alive. “The earth was formless and empty, and darkness was on the surface of the deep…” - this is how the story begins.
The big turn in the story is when God creates humanity. But this is not the end point, it’s the beginning; this is why God tells the new human species to “fill the earth and subdue it”.
A lot of people reading the story jump directly to the part about the Garden of Eden, and assume it is trying to tell us that the world was originally a paradise. But that’s the opposite of the point: the world in general was a wild and chaotic place, full of danger, inhospitable to higher life forms. The Garden is planted in the midst of this world, to give humanity a launching point, a place to be nurtured before taking on the difficult task of gardening the rest of the earth.
Humanity’s role, according to the story, was to improve the world. Yes, everything in this story is declared good. But it’s not perfect - humanity is not being given a pristine environment to experience, it’s being given an open wilderness in which to grow.
So when Adam and Eve go against God’s warnings, they find themselves cast out into the cold world alone. Thus begins human history; but it’s not a history that starts with brokenness, it’s a history of humanity’s premature emergence into adulthood. It’s a history of leaving the womb too soon.
The first Christians talked about Jesus in this way: he was the one who was allowing them to finally inherit their birthright. They had been children, now they were becoming adults in the household of God, taking control of what they had been promised all along. God, the gentleman farmer, is turning over his vast estate to his heirs.
Farming is not easy. It’s an ongoing struggle, one in which you slowly make progress against the elements. But the farmer does not claim his world is broken; he knows it is something to be shaped by his effort, to be tended and cared for.
That is our world. We are the farmers. The problems we face naturally emerge as we enter new territory, as we tend and grow and cultivate better produce.
Confronting every problem with the claim that the world is broken, seems a lot like the farmer continually blaming the dirt. Yes, dirt can be an obstacle, but that’s precisely the farmer’s job, to make something good come from it.