Delivered at Easter Vigil, St. Vincent de Paul Church, April 19, 2014
In Genesis 1 and 2, God gave us a world that was bursting with everything good. Then in Genesis 3, He kicked us out of it.
My mother’s diary reflects that Thursday, September 8, 1955 was my first full day of elementary school. I believe that was also the day I received my first religious instruction. I recall how I and twenty-five or so boys and girls sat at our little desks in a basement classroom at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, listening to Sister George Ellen, a sweet-tempered and benevolent young woman, teaching her opening lesson. It was the story of Adam and Eve.
And she proceeded to tell a bunch of impressionable and easily frightened first-graders all about how Adam and Eve disobeyed God and so He told them that they were going to die, and so would everyone else who would ever live after them. I was appalled. At six I didn’t really grasp that I personally was going to die; and I hardly knew anyone who had. But that just made it worse. Death was this exotic terrible thing, it was almost inconceivably rare, and now God was saying that it was coming for me and my parents and everyone I’d ever loved, just because two people I’d never heard of had disobeyed one lousy order long, long ago.
I mean, so what if they disobeyed? I’d been known to do that too. I certainly didn’t think I deserved to die for doing that. And even if I had deserved it, what about every other human being who had ever lived or would ever live? Just ‘cause I disobeyed one time?
Now, as a child growing up in the Fifties, I trusted authority. If Sister George Ellen said God was a good guy, then I kind of had to take her word for it, because I sure couldn’t work out for myself how that could be. I wasn’t much of a profound moral thinker at Age 6, and I don’t think I’d ever heard the word “disproportionate,” but I did know that good guys don’t go around wiping out millions of people because of any one person’s sin.
Later on, in my adolescent years, when everything was about sex, I remember hearing from non-Catholic sources that Adam and Eve’s sin was about sex, and being relieved that the Catholic authorities at least didn’t preach that, because if God made inherently sinful the activities necessary for Adam and Eve to produce Cain and Abel and the rest of the human race, it would certainly ruin my chances of salvation. But if that wasn’t the key to the story, what was?
By the time I got to college, I started studying the Bible as literature and as historical artifact, and recognized that the heart of the story was the two trees: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Whatever it means, clearly Adam and Eve get the benefit of the Tree of Life only so long as they don’t seek to add the benefit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Presumptuous? Or Mission Statement?
For now let me focus on that second Tree. In the world of Genesis, knowing the difference between good and evil seems to be a bad thing. Adam and Eve develop what in English we call modesty, the sense that some things should stay private, which they experience as embarrassment. And somehow that makes them God-like. And even more confusingly, God treats this as a bad thing, objecting as if He were afraid of the competition.
What a thematic mess, at least for a modern-day Christian! We’re always told to be perfect as our God is perfect. We can’t succeed at this, but we can try. For us aspiring to be like God is precisely the description of our mission, not some kind of presumptuousness. And surely an aspect of perfection is distinguishing good from evil. Jesus spends a great deal of time, after all, teaching us the difference between good and evil. So we have to accept that either Genesis Chapter 3 has it backwards or Jesus does. Well, I personally am not prepared to say Jesus has it backwards.
Still, Genesis 3 is part of Scripture. We’re supposed to know it, supposed to derive something from it. Well, what? – and note by the way that I’m leaving to one side all the insane stuff with the serpent.
Stick with the Questions
The conclusion I’ve reached, after obsessing over this tale for about three weeks, is that what Genesis 3 is useful for is not the answers there, but the questions. This is the very beginning, Bronze Age stuff. The community that wrote it was just starting to come to terms with a bunch of propositions anyone of faith is going to have trouble reconciling even today, and this was just a first draft, and a rough one at that.
But I think one thing they got right was that good and evil can be known.
As the name of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil suggests, these things can be known, they can be distinguished. They are real.
Now, I’m not sure I’d start illustrating that the way Genesis does, namely with Adam and Eve’s shame about their nakedness. My own attitude on the subject was summed up by a seven-year old girl in a lake cottage one summer’s afternoon when I couldn’t have been more than ten myself, and four of us kids were all getting out of our swimsuits and into warmer clothes. She gave a moment’s thought to doing something to be more modest but then shrugged and slipped out of her suit saying “It doesn’t matter if you’re bare naked.” My attitude precisely. If it matters that you’re bare naked, it matters only because of all the cultural attitudes surrounding it, not because it’s inherently bad.
But there are a lot of things that really are bad. And a lot of things that really are good. And we humans know it. That’s part of what it means to be human, is to have that knowledge. Sometimes we call it a conscience.
Think about that for a moment. Conscience tells us, so we know it, that certain things ought to be or ought not to be. And it’s elementary philosophy that you cannot reason from “is” to “ought.” There is no set of facts, no information from what is, that can prove morality, what ought to be. There is no way to know, just from information about the material world we occupy, what is right or wrong. But we do know.
Disagreements Illusory and Real
And mostly we agree about it. Oh, views may vary some from individual to individual and from society to society, but that can be deceptive. Differences tend to fall in the areas where one principle, say, devotion to the well-being of the society, conflicts with another principle, say devotion to the value of individual human lives. That’s why we have debates over the morality of war and over the morality of the death penalty. Those who think war and the death penalty are permissible don’t think human life is of no value, and those who think war and the death penalty are unacceptable still do care about the security and well-being the societies they live in. The only difference is in how they balance those considerations. But there are remarkably few basic considerations to balance. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, listed only eight of them.
In the last century there were many committed philosophical materialists (and by the label materialist I mean one who thinks that there is no transcendent world, but only the one we occupy daily). The militant atheists of today, the Richard Dawkins types, also usually fit into this category. These materialists argue that we only have those few core values because evolution has programmed us to hold those few core values, and that evolution resulted in that programming because those values were most conducive to the survival of societies and of the individuals who made them up. But to really believe that, to hold that our values are simply the outcome of our breeding, is to hold that our values are arbitrary – including, of course, the values of those who say that our values are simply the result of our breeding. Their values by definition must be as worthless as everyone else’s. They’re sawing off the branch on which they sit.
The existentialists who also bloomed in the last century were at least were more consistent. Their position was that all values are arbitrary, including their own. There is no objectivity to our consciences, they said. We each decide whether to have a code, and what that code is. But, said the existentialists, we have to accept that it comes from within us, and there is no objective right or wrong to which we can refer.
But it’s almost impossible to hold this position for long. Every day, all day long, we make choices and decisions based on our sense of right and wrong. It doesn’t feel a bit like something arbitrary. Indeed, I would submit that we can’t consciously choose our values any more than we can consciously choose our own idea of the color yellow or the law of gravity or the sum of 2 + 2. Our values don’t really meet the definition of values unless we consider them to be true, meaning they make demands on us regardless of what we choose or don’t choose. If we’re the ones doing the choosing, they’re not values.
And sane human have values. They may be taught, but only the way math is taught. You may not start out knowing what 2 + 2 is, but once someone teaches you, you recognize that it’s objectively so.
It’s a glorious aspect of humanity, that we know these things.
So, let’s get back to that roomful of horrified first graders.
The Tree of Life may have some positive meaning, but for us it mainly comes down to the fact that we were sent away from that Tree, and in the process life was taken away from us. We’re mortal now. In fact, not merely mortal but sentenced to painful childbirth and hard labor in the fields up to the point at which we do die. Rapper NAS sums it up for us in words we all know: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” Comedian Woody Allen opened the classic Annie Hall with the same idea: “There’s an old joke; two women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says ‘The food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’”
The Bible tries to blame the small portions on Adam and Eve. Which again raises the proportionality question. Okay, Adam and Eve. We’ll give you Adam and Eve, ‘cause they ate the forbidden fruit. But all of us? Later thinkers, like St. Augustine, tried to justify the unjustifiable by saying that somehow we all participate in Adam and Eve’s sin. As the New England Primer succinctly put it: “In Adam’s fall/ We sinned all.”
Not Taking the Fall or the Credit
But the linkage Genesis draws between sin on the one hand, whether Adam’s or anyone else’s, and death on the other, is a non-starter once you know modern science. We didn’t cause death. Death had been part of our universe for billions of years before there were any humans to commit sins of any kind. All the metal in our world was cooked for us in exploded stars, long deceased. The metals are vital to our bodies and our lives. All animals – and there were animals for eons before there were humans – from the very first have survived only by dint of the death of the other creatures, the plants and animals that they eat. In other words, our universe is designed so that there is no life that does not owe its existence to earlier deaths. And there is no life that does not end.
In other words, death enables life enables death enables life … ad infinitum.
Whatever else we may think we know of the Divine plan, therefore, death must be an integral part of it, integral to its creativity, and we can’t claim the blame or the credit.
A Good and Painful Thing
And indeed it’s hard to imagine how social life would progress if there were no death, if all the people that ever lived were still with us. If older workers never retired and made room for younger ones. Think of the pileup. Prince Charles wouldn’t just be waiting for Queen Elizabeth to go so he could get his crack at the throne. He’d be waiting for the first Queen Elizabeth to go. He’d be waiting for William the Conqueror to go.
It would be a nightmare.
Of course, while death may be on balance a good and necessary thing, that doesn’t mean we like it. How could we like something that in the end rips every friendship and every love apart? How could we like something that hurts so much?
How could we like something that so mocks all human aspirations? For, make no mistake, nothing we build and nothing we achieve will ultimately survive. Death awaits our species, our planet, even our universe, thanks to the Law of Entropy.
Adam didn’t cause this and we didn’t cause this. That part Genesis has wrong.
And Then You Really, Really Die
But at least Genesis confronts it for us. It tells us that whatever we finally decide about God, we have to reconcile our idea of him, and our idea of morality, with the fact that we die. And this is an uncompromising view of death at the outset of Genesis. It’s more definitive than that, even. For the community that gave us Genesis, once you die you’re dead. There’s no eternal reward or punishment to serve as some kind of basis of morality. You’re just outta here. And God doesn’t care. Having decided to banish us from the Tree of Life, God seems to have turned his back.
Of course further on in Genesis, we’ll hear of a significant change in the perceived Divine response to the human plight. He unturns his back by promising immortality of a sort to Abraham, but it’s not personal, only tribal.
We’re hundreds if not thousands of years away still from the answers the New Testament provides, that death is not the end, that there is justice and proportionality in the Universe, that God didn’t just throw us out of the Garden and turn his back.
But what we have at the end of Genesis 3 is still simply what NAS promised: Life’s a bitch, and then we die. And that God is okay with that.
And that, I would submit, is something we humans can never be okay with, even if we believe it to be true.
. To me, the serpent’s name will always be not Satan but Rollo. Back in law school we had two professors who drew up their exams as a joint project. You’d encounter the same characters in both professors’ exams. One of these joint characters was Rollo the Snake, personal property in one exam, a dangerous, liability-creating pet in another, an instrumentality of crime in a third. I’ve always felt that the serpent here was Rollo the Snake, who had crawled out of my professors’ exams and taken refuge in the wrong story.
More seriously, Rollo has the feel of a refugee from a different folktale doing a cameo role in this one.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn