Thinking allowed

the tree of knowledge of good and evil

This Sunday’s read­ings include part of chapter 3 of the book of Gen­es­is, the cent­ral story of the fall, in which Adam and Eve are temp­ted to eat the fruit of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil, planted in the centre of the Garden of Eden, and which God has for­bid­den them to eat.

The con­sequence of this is that the couple are expelled from Eden, and they will die.

What are we to make of this?

The key to our under­stand­ing this today is per­haps in the words ‘know­ledge of good and evil’. Our human ancest­ors, at some point in their evol­u­tion, developed enough con­scious­ness to become self-aware. This is a fun­da­ment­al human trait — to be aware of your­self, and to be aware of oth­er people and real­ize that they too are self-aware. Per­haps this real­iz­a­tion, this con­scious­ness, went hand in hand with the devel­op­ment of lan­guage, the devel­op­ment of com­mu­nic­a­tion with fel­low humans. And con­scious­ness and the recog­ni­tion of oth­ers leads to con­science — the recog­ni­tion of good and evil, as the writers of the Gen­es­is story put it. Humans had eaten of the fruit of the tree, and there was no going back.

And along with this self-aware­ness must have come the real­iz­a­tion that things die: that oth­er creatures die, that oth­er humans die; and even­tu­ally the real­iz­a­tion that each of us will die too — the real­iz­a­tion of our own mortality.

Like the writer of Gen­es­is chapter 3 we can under­stand the link between this high level of con­scious­ness, or self-aware­ness, and death. The writer of Gen­es­is puts the story in myth­ic lan­guage, lan­guage that all can under­stand. He (most prob­ably it was a ‘he’ or sev­er­al ‘he’s) starts from the inno­cence in which we assume the non-con­scious to live: the inno­cence where one does not have to make mor­al choices and the inno­cence in which one’s own life is the centre of the world, indeed the only thing that makes the world, the inno­cence in which one has no idea that one’s life is finite. And he points out that self-aware­ness leads inev­it­ably to a loss of that inno­cence which cul­min­ates in the know­ledge of our own impend­ing death.

And in this myth­ic lan­guage we too can grasp at the truth, that in our self-aware­ness we do things that we know to be wrong, and in our know­ledge of our own mor­tal­ity, we live in dark­ness and fear, fail­ing to reach the great heights of cre­ativ­ity and light of which we should be capable.

What then of Jesus? Jesus pro­claims to us the king­dom of God in which is life in all its abund­ance. In this king­dom we are freed from fear of death to live life, a life in which we can make mor­al choices, a life in which we are not con­sumed with jeal­ousy or with bit­ter­ness towards oth­ers, but a life in the light, a life of cre­ativ­ity. The apostle Paul wrote, ‘As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ (1 Cor­inthi­ans 15.22.)