“When God created man and put him in the Garden of Eden, He gave him the responsibility “to tend and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). To tend the land means to plow or to cultivate the ground. But in the Latin, it is the word cultura, where you get the English word “culture.” Herein lies a very important truth: culture is God’s original purpose for man! It is not a concept from the devil. It is an idea from God.Two major problems with Kong Hee’s theological interpretation of Genesis.
God wanted Adam to “do culture,” taking the seed He has put into Adam’s hands and releasing its potential into a mighty harvest. Therefore, in its earliest and simplest definition, culture means taking the raw material God has given to man, and creatively nurturing it to its fullest potential. Because doing it requires creativity, each time we do culture we are actually reflecting the image of Elohim—the God who is creative. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
In Genesis 1:28, God gave mankind its primary job description. The first phrase “be fruitful and multiply” has to do with people. It means develop the social world! Build families, churches, schools and cities. Establish governments and laws.
The second phrase “subdue the earth” has to do with nature. It means harness the natural world! Plant crops, build bridges, design computers, and compose music.
Consciously or subconsciously, the human race has been doing that in past millennia from cutting wood to build houses, to cultivating cotton to make clothes, to extracting silicon to make computer chips.
As we develop the social world and harness the natural world, we are creating culture and building civilization upon the world that God has ordered. In theology, this is called the “cultural mandate.” As we do that, we are given the awesome privilege to be God’s co-creators! No wonder King David stood in amazement as he pondered on the whole purpose of man: “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels [more accurately, ‘Elohim God’], and You have crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:4-6).
Man is to harness all the raw materials on the earth, in the ocean, and in space, and creatively release them into their fullest potential (8:6-8). As we do that, we are creating culture to the glory of God, and taking dominion over the world that He loves.” (Kong Hee, ‘Our Cultural Mandate’, Church & Society in Asia Today, vol. 13, no. 1 (April 2010), p. 54-55. An online version of the article is here.)
First, Kong Hee is reading into the text. Genesis 1 – 2 has nothing to do with the broad mandate to cultivate ‘culture’ in the world. These passages concern the specific agricultural work of the primitive family for their sustenance and not about “taking the raw material God has given to man, and creatively nurturing it to its fullest potential,” as Kong Hee stated.
Simply said, these passages are about God legitimating Adam to hunt and plant for food. Genesis 1.29-30 spells this out unmistakably, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”
Kong Hee only highlighted Genesis 1.27-28 and simply does not refer to the subsequent passages before coming to his conclusion. This is understandable because if Kong Hee had paid close attention to the entire text, instead of picking up just two verses from the narrative, he will not have anything to say about ‘Cultural Mandate’ from Genesis 1. This is the first major problem: flimsy theological interpretation that is insubstantial, lacking critical engagement with what the text says and misreading of the text entirely.
The second major problem is the repulsive corollary following from the first problem: justifying human’s unquenchable self-serving exploitation of the natural world in the name of God. By calling it as ‘cultural mandate’, suddenly Christians are led to think that they have all the rights to “harness all the raw materials on the earth, in the ocean, and in space, and creatively release them into their fullest potential.”
Peter Harrison in his brief survey of different interpretations of Genesis 1 has show that Kong Hee’s type of understanding of “have dominion” and “subdue” (1.26, 1.28) came to prominence during the rise of modern science. This interpretation was initially “incorporated into the rhetoric of scientific progress” which later being used as justification for “property ownership and colonization.”1 Yet there is a difference between these seventeenth century people from Kong Hee. They did all they did in the name to restore the creation or to reverse the effect of the Fall in the creation. Kong Hee is doing it and teaching others to do it because when we do it, “we are given the awesome privilege to be God’s co-creators.”2 With such justification, human race has not been only cutting wood to build houses, cultivating cotton to make clothes, extracting silicon to make computer chips in the past millennia. Human race has also been busy with developing guns, nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, advanced vehicles and machinery to kill humans more efficiently and effectively, abortion technology, artificial unhealthy food and all sort of useless fanciful consumerism-driven products by exploiting the natural world.
If God is the creator of everything then, as Rowan Williams stated, "Things in the universe exist in relation to the Creator before they exist in relation to us, so that a degree of reverence and humility is appropriate when we approach anything in the created order." (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p.50) This is a sharp contrast against Kong Hee's domineering attitude.
Kong Hee's entire thesis on 'Cultural Mandate' is grounded on his mis-interpretation of Genesis 1-2. It serves as his rhetorical justification for his agenda to push for a certain careless response to culture and society. A similar agenda-driven rhetoric used by Adolf Hitler. Perhaps the Church & Society in Asia Today journal is giving us an example of how a careless theology and biblical interpretation like that of Kong Hee can affect our response to the society and culture at large.
1 Harrison, Peter, ‘Subduing the Earth: Genesis 1, Early Modern Science, and the Exploitation of Nature’, The Journal of Religion 79 (1), (1999), p. 86-109. The article can be read here or here.