IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN
( quotes from The Harper Collins Study Bible, The New Revised Standard Version)
The Genesis story and I have been having something of an intellectual wrestling match for quite a number of years. The question regards the purpose of the two Trees in the center of the garden. What is the lesson lurking in the relationship between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life.
The commonly agreed upon interpretations do not satisfy me for a number of reasons.
God tells Adam he can eat of any tree in the garden, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.”
What dies in Adam? He himself, doesn’t die that day; but maybe something important inside of him does.
He and Eve get sent from the garden to the farm. They have a family, and like all mortal creatures, after what we call a life time, he does die. According to the story, he was sent out to a different kind of life. The temptation to know more than he was intended to know led him somewhere unexpected.
God says: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”
But hadn’t God warned Adam not to eat of that tree because if he did take a bite of that apple he would die? Isn’t the implication in that warning then, that if he doesn’t eat the forbidden fruit, he won’t ever die?
So why is God worried that Adam might steal a bite of whatever fruit it is that provides immortality? If he had been obedient either he wouldn’t die, or at least, he would simply live without ever knowing about it.
Maybe that’s what the story is about. Not simply dying, but facing death, that is, knowing we are going to die. That early childhood terrifying discovery we all encounter. The other animals don’t suffer with that knowledge. Nor, until that re-defining moment, did Adam: no shame, no guilt, no anxious anticipation of his own death.
The discovery that we have to die is dealt with in the language of evolutionary biology in an extremely interesting book written by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower:
Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind.
The book makes two interesting points. It proposes that initially, the discovery of our mortality led to a depressive reaction. There is no surprise in that. But unless we could overcome the depression, we would have died off, wasting away in our caves. Wrapped in the surprising debilitating realization that no matter what precautions we took, each of us would someday die. That knowledge would doom us as a species.
But we did survive. We managed to overcome that depression via the psychological practice of denial. Somehow we learned how to stuff that scary truth out of our consciousness, otherwise we would not have the courage to live day by day, to create families. We would not have evolved from a hunting, gathering life, to that of agriculture, farming, and the social structure to support that kind of life.
Prior to eating the apple, there was neither guilt, nor shame for Adam and his partner Eve. And there was neither an invitation nor an expectation that they would pro-create. They were in the garden, and that was all there was to it. Eating the apple made them recognize they were mortal, and living with that knowledge sent them from the garden of unknowing, into a life of farming, a life of family and of course a life of planning. The recognition of our mortality is the threshold experience out of our innocence.
Same story in two different languages; two different ways of telling it, and thus, two different ways of understanding it.
Now to make sense of the idea of immortality we need to return to the first tree and its forbidden fruit. Why, as the story is told, didn’t God want Adam to find out about Good and Evil?
What do we make of the story of Adam and Eve, as it unfolds and manifests those ideas in their sons? Is that important to our understanding?
We turn again to the other animals with whom we share this earth. While current research indicates they possess intelligence that we are just beginning to understand, there is, so far, no indication that they think in abstractions.
Perhaps the discovery of Good and Evil, is a short hand reference to the knowledge of and the creation of conceptual thinking.
What promoted the development of those abstraction based concepts that are the foundational structures of our individual and social selves? Did they emerge as part of what our mental processes required in order for us to live with the realization of our mortality?
In one story we develop the function of denial. In the older story we eat an apple, and as a species, we ingest that fruit as children and continue eating and digesting that meal throughout our entire lives.
Other animals live only in the present. They do not make plans. We alone live in what we call, the past, the present, and the future. Out of that on-going, interactive process of thought into action into new thought into new action, we build and bury our civilizations.
We find and lose ourselves and each other, in the complexity of abstraction.
Out of our tribes we create nation states and designate rulers, citizens, slaves, and enemies. One tribe’s warrior of salvation, is another tribe’s killer.
We have not yet learned how to live any other way.
I am suggesting that the story of the Garden of Eden used the language that we refer to as religious, to describe as best it could at its time of creation, the same human experience that the language of evolutionary biology uses to describe our discovery of mortality, and our movement from hunting and gathering into an agricultural society.
But another question remains: who was God talking to, when He said, “See, the man has become like one of us”
Who is the “us”? Angels? Perhaps. But there are other possibilities depending upon which language we choose to use.
If we take the religious languages of our early Western culture, the Greek and Roman languages, we could imagine many gods; immortals who according to those stories, do live forever.
There are other, more contemporary languages that we might employ to further our understanding. At the moment, the Jungian language of archetypes and synchronicity seems inviting and worthy of further investigation if not belief.
Belief is itself a curious phenomena; one which requires more caution than we seem to give it. Perhaps further studies in Quantum Physics will provide us, in its language, with another way to understand 5what appears to be a continuing process of creativity within us and the rest of the universe.
Rather than pledging allegiance to any particular system of belief, I prefer to think of our attempts at understanding our reality as demonstrations of the language of the person doing the thinking.
At certain times a kind of inspiration manifests itself in a handful of people whose pursuit of that perception develops what we refer to as a “school of thought”. As with any school we grow up in, loving our Alma Mater is a common experience, but, again, one that requires some caution, along with a willingness to learn something else from another school.