The Carpenter and the Gardener – Two Approaches to Spirituality

I first ran onto the metaphors of the Carpenter and the Gardener when I heard about a book by psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik who used it to discuss different styles of parenting in America. As I heard the explanation, I thought about how well it applies to spirituality.


Male hand measuring wooden floor

If you think about a carpenter and what a carpenter does, they build things that require precision; angles must be square, holes bored out at the correct diameter, hinges attached in the proper position. If these actions are not carried out with precision, then the product is flawed and does not perform properly.

So a carpenter must have the right tool for the right job. The tools must be properly calibrated, the wood must be of quality, the measurements accurate, and the plans followed without error.  If none of these are done, then the finished product is at best a poor imitation of what should be.



If you think about a gardener and what a gardener does, they create a planned space and design a landscape or vegetable patch to plant, and then install their design. In many ways, it’s not terribly different from what a carpenter does; even the quality of plant and proper tools matter. The difference comes in the essence of what’s being created.

One feature of a garden is change, often times unexpected, so improvisation is necessary. A piece of carpentry is designed not to change, though of course it eventually does, but a well-made piece of furniture can last many years, whereas a garden can change almost the moment it’s planted. A garden can experience an insect infestation, unexpected heavy rains, fungus, poor soil, a dry spell, and a gardener must be equipped to handle these issues in order for the garden to thrive.

A carpenter protects against change, a gardener expects it. A carpenter must follow a blueprint by the letter, a gardener is prepared to improvise. A carpenter cuts precisely, a gardener expects the garden to behave in sometimes unexpected ways.

Application to Spirituality

I thought of these comparisons to a person’s spiritual personality. In every gathering of believers, there will be carpenters and gardeners, which is great. As with all perspectives, there are extremes in both directions that must be prevented.

A well balanced Carpenter sees the value in immutable absolutes, in a fixed gaze upon doctrine, and the Bible as the foundation.

A Carpenter that moves away from the center, however, becomes a fundamentalist making no room interpretation and justifies their beliefs with cherry-picked verses ignoring the whole. They see the Bible as immutable constitutional law rendering black and white judgments rather than a living book of wisdom.

A well-balanced Gardener sees the value in making room for paradox, in a fixed gaze upon the actions of Christ, and Christ’s love as foundation.

A gardener that moves away from the center, however, becomes a relativist making no room for past theology and justifies their beliefs with interpretations so wide there seems to be no stance other than taking no stance. They see the Bible as a loose guide for achieving a well-lived life ignoring Biblical tenets.

As with all things in life, the middle path is the recommended route, whether you’re a Carpenter or a Gardener. And I believe that both are necessary for a person’s life. This is not an either/or situation, but a both/and. It’s incredibly important to have some philosophy or belief that grounds you in your life, especially during times of wilderness. It is equally important to allow yourself room to grow in your outlook as nothing in life is certain, and we must be prepared to take our most recent understanding of God into new, unexpected scenarios, especially scenarios that the writers of the Bible could not have foreseen.

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