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.)