An Old Question, An Old Story

Apples DSC06312How do we make sense of evil in the world? Where does it come from, and what can we do about it? And what does it say to us about spirituality, about God?

These questions are not new ones. All of the world’s philosophies and religions, from time immemorial, have tried to account for the problem of evil. The Jewish bible begins with a beautiful story of creation, and concludes that, “God saw that it was very good.” But the very next chapter is about the fall from paradise. Yahweh God gave the humans an admonition: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall die.”

But then the serpent came to Eve saying, “No, you will not die! God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” And so Eve and Adam took fruit from this tree and ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked, and they covered themselves. When Yahweh God came to them, he said, “See, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life also, and live forever.” And so they were banished from the garden, and suffering entered their lives.

It is a powerful story. One way of interpreting it has been as a literal history of our first ancestors. According to some, Adam and Eve—and especially Eve—made a really colossal mistake by disobeying God, and now the rest of us are paying for it big-time. Original sin. But I don’t think it was ever meant as a story about a stolen apple. The Jewish writers were not so much speculating on origins, as describing the perennial human predicament. They saw the brokenness and suffering in their world and tried to tell a story that might express its painful contradictions.

The story itself is full of contradictions. Why did the tree of the knowledge of good and evil sit in the middle of the garden if it was forbidden? Why wouldn’t it make sense to trust the serpent, who is described as the most subtle of all the wild beasts that God made? Why did God make the serpent, if it would become a tempter? Adam and Eve lose their innocence, but why are they then described by God as “like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

The Jewish writers seem to be saying—reality is a trade-off. We try to imagine a perfect world, where nothing bad ever happens. But then there is no story. Only one chapter. We wouldn’t be who we are. Our eyes are open: we have knowledge, and the power to choose between good and evil. That’s reality. We can no longer be naked and unaware of it. Rebecca Solnit writes:

…imaginative Christian heretics worshipped Eve for having liberated us from paradise… The heretics recognized that before the fall we were not fully human—Adam and Eve need not wrestle with morality, with creation, with society, with mortality in paradise; they only realize their own potential and their own humanity in the struggle an imperfect world invites.

So we become choice-making agents, with power to act upon the world for good or evil. We can choose to conceal or to reveal ourselves, and thus the concept of truth and falsehood comes into being. Every choice we and others make has consequences which limit or expand the scope of our freedom. We are influenced and deceived and acted upon by those around us. Good and evil even masquerade as each other. This freedom and power in us means that anything can happen. The story is suddenly a real story. Unfinished, and unpredictable. Outcome uncertain.

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