The other day, just after it was announced that the world had reached 400 ppm of atmospheric CO2 my wife said to me “You know, I think they got the Garden of Eden story back to front.” What she was alluding to was a thought that that “The Fall” didn’t stuff things up all those years ago – but that the actions of humankind in these past two centuries have signed the death warrant for planet earth.
We have always understood the Garden of Eden Story and the part we call The Fall as an etiological story explaining how humankind’s original perfection in God was degraded into the sinful status we now struggle with every day. And we as Christians have understood that through this event the whole creation was degraded and subjected to death and decay.
So I began wondering if there was a new way of working with that early myth to connect us with our current circumstances.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, one interpretation of the meaning of the Temptation of Eve and Adam in the Garden goes beyond the idea of them both obtaining some knowledge of good and evil. The tempter’s response to Eve’s explanation that they had been told by God not to eat the fruit of this tree or even touch it – otherwise they would die – was to say “That’s not true; you will not die. God knows that when you eat it you will become like God.” That was the temptation – to become like God. Another way of saying this is that by eating the fruit of the tree Adam and Eve were usurping the role of God – taking God’s place in the world God had created. And that was the beginning of the downward spiral.
All the evidence we have about the plight of our planet where the atmosphere and weather cycles are becoming more and more destructive to human existence suggests that things started changing dramatically about 200 years ago.
It was about that tie that we developed an appetite for large-scale consumption of coal for heating and steam-powered transportation and machinery for manufacturing. Not all that long after, electricity generation with coal, supplying vast grids for industrial and domestic use, added to the consumption of coal for steam, and then not long after that motor-vehicles, powered by liquid fossil fuels came onto the market on a huge scale.
Concurrent with those developments was the full blossoming of the Age of Enlightenment in which the scientific world-view was finding natural and scientific explanations for all sorts of phenomena that earlier generations attributed to God. In fact, one of the features of this growth in knowledge was a growing body of people who began to displace God altogether from their world-view with some suggesting that as our knowledge grew so humankind would evolve into better and better people.
I can’t help seeing a parallel here in the idea proposed as a way for understanding the temptation of Eve and Adam – for it seems to me that in this age humankind tried to take the place of God in the matter of a responsibility for the earth. Did we really have a Garden of Eden serving us all up to that time? If so, have we chosen a pathway to destruction that no-one, not even God had dreamt of or intended.
We thought these wonderful resources had been given for us to use and use to make the world and our life on this planet better and better.
So we consumed. We consumed and we consumed as if there was an unlimited supply of the resources we dug up out of the earth. We consumed and consumed oblivious of the negative impact our consumption was having on the land, seas, our drinking water and the air, all of which were vital for our survival. We believed the global system was so big that all of our actions were so insignificant that they could not be affected by our activity.
And the consequence of our failure to recognise our God-given place within creation and our interdependence with all other creatures is that we are living with the threat that all these things shall pass away – or at least our human part within it will come to an end.
Maybe this is what it feels like to be excluded from the Garden of Eden. Maybe we have had the Garden with us all the time – but we just didn’t know it. And so we didn’t care for it as we might have had we known.
It sounds regressive to say it and I want to affirm that our knowledge of life and the scientific world view has many good aspects to it. Without it we would not have overcome many sicknesses and diseases. Without it we would not have been able to cultivate enough food for us all to eat. But if there is an underlying attitude that seeks to take God out of the equation, putting us in control of our own destiny (at least so far as we thought of it) maybe this is us trying to take the place of God – and there are consequences for that.
In our time there have been Christian prophetic voices seeking to rally humankind into a force that would take sides with God in restoring the creation we have so degraded. That is at the heart of the Ecumenical Movement’s mission. There have been social justice commissions of churches all around the world that have tried to call their people back into a new relationship with Creation that partners with God in sustaining the life that sustains us all.
Many have been calling us towards a simpler lifestyle that consumes less – less goods and services, less extractive resources, less non-renewable resources. But the world seems to be running helter skelter in the opposite direction wanting ever-increasing consumption to ensure ever-increasing dividends to shareholders.
So, where will you find your Garden of Eden. As Milton dreamed of Paradise restored, do you dream of the Garden Restored. I try to – every day I try to think of us coming through this crisis into a better world – but I am still prone to despair at times. How about you?