A New Opportunity by Ray Temmerman

The myth of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17) in the Garden of Eden, whose fruit Adam and Eve were not to eat, is at times seen as a test of the first humans, a test they failed. It was, in a sense, a one-time event, with calamitous consequences not only for Adam and Eve, but for all subsequent humanity.

Could there be a reasonable alternative understanding of this event? Allow me to outline one that is less of test and more of invitation and opportunity for human growth, and then propose that we are facing a similar invitation and opportunity today.

Consider the way loving parents encourage their child to learn to crawl, walk, and run. They hold out their arms, calling the child forth, encouraging her to take a step toward their open arms. They are not testing the child, seeking perhaps to trap her in failure; they are helping her to take actions which will strengthen her muscles, her sense of balance, and thus grow into the fullness of her latent capacity. That the child may choose to move in a different direction and so run into a coffee table instead of the parent’s loving arms does not change the intent of the parent.

If this is so for a human parent, why should we expect less from the God whom we call Father?

Prior to the tree of knowledge, man and woman were authentically and only human, as God had created them. They could walk, run, play, eat, drink, and sleep as they saw fit. Food was plentiful, no work was needed. They seemingly had everything. And yet, we know that we humans are meaning-seeking life-forms. We value being able to see, judge, and act, as part of the process of seeking and calling forth meaning in our lives.

Within their body, a child has all the latent capacity to crawl, walk, and run. Yet until the child begins to exercise those capacities, he cannot do any of these things. The body needs to grow into these capabilities, starting with small steps, then gradually developing into the strength of full activity.

The man and the woman of Genesis were truly human, nothing less, yet their ability to seek meaning, to see, judge, and act, had not yet been developed. It is here that the tree of knowledge of good and evil plays a key part. It provided a means whereby their latent capacities could be strengthened and developed so they could become the meaning-seeking creatures God had created them to be. The tree became not a test or a trap, but a sign and a sacrament of God’s loving call to growth into full humanity.

We see this in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. He began life in a normal way, being born to loving parents. Later we are told that he spent time discussing with the elders of the temple, then growing in wisdom and stature. He experienced the challenge of a long period of fasting, then by the tempter who offered him ample opportunity to feed himself, draw great attention to himself, seemingly accomplish his life’s work through a simple act of subservience. Yet in each case he saw the reality before him, judged the action being called for as inadequate and inappropriate to the life of true humanity before God, and chose to act differently. From there on we see, again and again, his capacity to see, judge, and act in a way that resonates with and remains faithful to his relationship with the God who is total, unconditional, and irrevocable love.

With the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God extended an invitation and provided the means to grow into the full expression of humanity which was until then only latent within Adam and Eve. Unfortunately, rather than choose to grow into this full expression, they sought to short-circuit the process—to become, in a sense, gods of knowledge themselves. The result was that they fell short of their meaning-seeking potential, as has all of humanity since. We still see through a glass darkly rather than with the clear, open, and transparent vision God had invited humans to possess, a vision demonstrated in the life of the truly authentic human we know as Jesus of Nazareth.

We can choose to see that Genesis episode as a one-time event, a simple story used to explain our present reality. I suggest, however, that it was not, is not.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we have encountered a new reality of energy availability and usage. By taking from the fruits of the earth, we have grown that usage enormously. In the process we have expanded our lifestyle and physical well-being, and enjoyed many wonderful privileges heretofore unknown.

We now come face to face with a new, contemporary reality. We are called to look at the fruits of the earth, judge how to relate to those fruits, and act in a way which expresses the stewardship God has given us of his earthly creation.

What will we do? Will we step forward in response to God’s invitation and opportunity, and choose to see, to judge, to act for the well-being of all earthly creation? Or will we choose instead to be the “gods” of energy?

If the former, I believe we can look forward to a new relationship as humans with all creation. If the latter, I believe the resulting destruction will be far greater—first of God’s earthly works like the forests, rivers, and oceans, and consequently the destruction of vast swaths of humanity itself.

I believe God is issuing such an invitation and opportunity. What, as people of faith, will be our response? ♦

Ray Temmerman (Catholic), with his wife Fenella (Anglican), administers the website of the Interchurch Families International Network. A former Board member of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC), he continues to conduct research into the place of interchurch families and the gift they bring to their churches and the Church.

Image: Chimney piece with Adam and Eve, ca. 1760. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

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