Whenever I teach the second creation story to my undergraduates, some of them often express dismay over God’s “decision” to place the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden. For them the Tree represents an unnecessary test of Adam and Eve. God was setting them (and us) up to fail. He knew what was going to happen, but he put the Tree out there anyway. And the reasons go on…
Their responses reveal, among other things, their inability to step outside of a literal/historical hermeneutic. I try to help them approach from a different perspective: what does the tree represent?
It seems to me, that any story attempting to mythically convey the anthropological depth of “original” humanity must necessarily include some similar literary element. After all, the Tree really represents freedom. The presence of the Tree is the presence of the possibility of humanity’s rejection of God. God creates man and woman in his image, with an intellect and with freedom, that is, with the capacity for love.
Humanity is created for love. Love must always be freely given. It cannot be forced or demanded. In order for women and men to have the capacity to freely respond to God’s love with love, they must also have the capacity to respond to God’s generosity with selfishness.
This emphasis on the anthropological fact of freedom resonates with my students. It speaks the language of choice, which is a language they (and we) are familiar with. Furthermore, this approach helps to highlight the gravity of the choice. Augustine explains it as follows: “Everyone knows there is a divine law which forbids theft, so if I can steal [pears] and get away with it, this will show that I am not subject to God or to any divine law. And if I am not subject to any law which defines what is good, then the good will simply be what I say it is. Hence I will be free and omnipotent. I can do what I want and what I want is the good.”
If the tree itself is the anthropological fact of human freedom, the decision to eat from it is the rejection of God a creator and lord. It seeks to decide for oneself what is good and evil. Thus the consequences of eating the fruit of the tree are so grave not merely because the eating of the fruit represents an act of disobedience but because it represents an implicit claim to choose for oneself what is right and wrong, to choose to be one’s own arbiter of the True and the Good, to be one’s own God.
Of course, with the modern rejection of God and nature and the simultaneous elevation of human reason as that than which nothing greater exists, we have philosophically repeated that very act of claiming the fruit for our own on a nearly universal scale.
In the quote above Augustine makes implicit reference to what might now be called the Natural Law: everyone knows it is immoral to steal. As C.S. Lewis points out in the Abolition of Man, this natural law “is not one among a series of possible value judgments.” The rejection of the recognition that freedom is received as a gift and is given in order to enable us to choose love inevitably means that the capacity to choose has been decapitated and severed from its ground. It now floats freely lacking any anchor, any roots.
Put another way, the reduction of nature to scientific facts means that no moral message or responsibility can come to use from without. Morality has no objective. In practice this inevitably leads to violence. For, a society cannot long function with some common sense of the moral good. When morality has no objective referent, when each individual can choose for himself or herself what is right or wrong, what is good and evil, then eventually one person’s subjective ethos will come into conflict with another’s. When this happens, might makes right. The majority, whose subjective morality has no greater relation to truth than does the minority’s, get to impose their ethos on the others.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the anthropological structure of our freedom. We have real freedom, which is always given so that we might choose to love. When this gift is seized for one’s own and systematically perverted into license, then humanity itself becomes in danger of being abolished. This is the world in which we live.