Evolution & the Two Trees in the Garden
Evolution. The very word struck fear into the hearts of 1980s homeschoolers everywhere – myself included. I remember my first encounters with the term, in an Answers in Genesis video series that our Douglasville-area homeschoolers association banded together to purchase and watch. Kids 4-17 huddled together in the Prays Mill Baptist Sunday school room, adjacent to the gym, to watch long, sweeping caricatures of evolutionary theory dismissed with two refrains said derisively-yet-sweetly by Australian creationist Ken Ham (who still had red hair back then):
It’s only a theory! and,
Were you there?
This video series (and the accompanying subculture) were all we needed to realize that the universe was created in six literal days 6,000 years ago, with carbon dating a sham and evolution a Satanic plot to discredit the bible and promote abortion, homosexuality, and one world government by the same godless people who took prayer out of public schools and watch Susan Sarandon movies.
Fast forward to college around the turn of the century. A philosophical young lad and fellow student turned me on to Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe, with his argument that the Big Bang and an old earth/universe was indeed compatible with the biblical narrative of Genesis. I took to Intelligent Design like a duck to water – it was refreshing to not have to believe that God made rocks and stars appear old as a test of faith (as SBTS president Al Mohler apparently believes). It turns out some friends in my Atlanta-area house church were Hugh Ross fans, and indeed he was invited to speak at the school where one of them teaches – so I joined them there one night for a lecture from the man himself. While I was more convinced than ever of the scientific arguments for an old earth and cosmos, I learned that night Ross did not extend the same courtesy to biology that he did to physics – he rejected ‘macro’ evolution outright, seemingly on theological grounds.
It wasn’t until 2007, when I with TheOOZE helped put on Soularize in the Bahamas, that I heard a clear, passionate, positive articulation of the relationship between science and faith – in one Michael Dowd, pastor and author of Thank God for Evolution, curator (with his wife, scientist Connie Barlow) of the Evolutionary Christianity interview series. From Dowd I discovered Bruce Sanguin, author of Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity, The Emerging Church: A Model for Change and a Map for Renewal, and the beautiful, poetic, prayer/worship book If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Finally, thanks to my buddy Tripp Fuller, I discovered the dizzyingly brilliant heart and mind of Philip Clayton, whose insights on evolution and Christianity are many and substantial. I really want to read his The Predicament of Belief : Science, Philosophy, and Faith, coming out in a few days!
From their insights (and the many antecedents they point to), I began to see the evolutionary impulse as emergent nested creativity, a divine spark that is ever-expanding in complexity and empathy, bringing us, quite possibly, to an approximation of Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin‘s idea of an Omega Point, where the universe is becoming conscious of itself (vis-a-vis us) and all of reality is forming the cosmic Body of Christ. Celebrating the gifts of the scientific community, these thinkers and idea-leaders embrace science with zest as (to put in Augustine’s terms) God’s other Sacred Book – nature.
More recently still, I’ve been reading some more cautious, but equally vital, works of scholarship: Peter Enns‘ magisterial Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins and Christopher Southgate‘s The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.
A Tale of Two Trees
With all this as preamble, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about the second creation narrative in Genesis 2-3 – with Adam, Eve, the Serpent, two Trees, God and the garden. I’ve been pondering its significance, and how certain epiphanies in this narrative have led me to substantially re-imagine an eleven-year personal writing project. I’m currently staying in a lovely rural house with friends about 40 miles outside of Raleigh, on a writing ‘semi’ sabbatical. In addition to serving my many clients (don’t worry folks – I am still working!), I’m looking to at long last complete at least the ‘First Act’ of my Four-Act book. The book – and this is the first time I’ve said this publicly in 11 years – is titled Eat God, provisionally subtitled Taste Heaven, Party like a god, and Save the World.
“People who believe God is punishing humanity because a chick ate an apple. Why?”
There were some fun answers, which you can read if Shane’s privacy settings are sufficiently low (I’m not sure). Here’s what I said, edited slightly for better coherence:
I’m not always fan of Augustine, and I’d like to get away from the idea of “The Fall,” believe me. I enjoy Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing, and I think he makes some compelling arguments for the original and sustaining goodness of creation, affirmed in Scripture and our experience. And yet, I can’t believe that humanity was just blissfully enjoying life when one day some grumpy religious people made up the myth of Eden and the rotten fruit. No…we must have felt something happen, some kind of existential shift, and then told this story of a primal human pair, two trees, and a tragic dietary choice.
Do I believe that God is ‘punishing’ us? No way! Do I believe a literal piece of fruit was ‘eaten’ by some first woman? That is highly debatable. But here’s what I think happened:
For some 200,000 years, homo sapiens enjoyed a pretty good life. Far from being ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short,’ a growing number of today’s anthropologists and archaeologists are pointing to a quite new vision of our deep pre-history. During the paleolithic era, we seemed to enjoy a deep sense of connection to our own bodies, one another, our natural environment, and our sense of the sacred (the last one of which seemed to include a High God/Creator, an immanent sense of the ‘spirit-ness’ of everyday objects and things, plus an ongoing communion with ancestors who have gone before us). We can see this way of living mostly neatly glimpsed in the rare, surviving aboriginal cultures on our planet today.
During most of our history, we shared everything. And there was abudnance – enough. We lived on a relatively ‘virgin’ planet, and population was much lower, for instance. Women were equal to men, and organized warfare was unheard of. I know this sounds like pie-in-the-sky, but read some Jared Diamond or Jetha and Ryan’s Sex at Dawn. It’s astonishing, the new consensus emerging about our original culture.
But then…something happened around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture – there’s debate about which factor(s), but there’s a clear demarcation in our collective psyche, beginning in the Fertile Crescent and radiating outward along trade paths and weather patterns. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but ‘suddenly’ in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers. Psychologists call this until-now-unheard-of process self-reflexive consciousness.
Self-reflexive consciousness, the ability to reflect on ourselves “as though” from the outside, turned out to be a burden as well as a blessing. Over the milennia it’s given us planes, trains, and automobiles, but also war, pestilence, and famine. It’s given us art and ache, innovation and envy. This development of the ego is fundamental to all that is recognizably human. And yet, it is what gives us this undeniable feeling of four-fold alienation: from God, self, others, and our environment.
I think that the Hebrew bible and it’s narrative arc is wise beyond it’s years, but of course we (whether fundamentalist or modernist) over-literalize and argue about details. In its broadest strokes, though, I think that the break with ‘oceanic,’ interconnected ways of knowing to this four-fold alienation is “the fall.” I think that the Tree of Knowledge represents self-reflexive consciousness, dualistic thinking, and discursive reasoning, whereas the Tree of Life represents a kind of non-dual seeing, a holistic living in the present moment that embraces all of life as it arises.
This ‘Tree of Life’ consciousness, which is more a practice than anything (a practice I call eating God), is both backward-reflecting on our deep-time roots as humanity and forward-looking to our aspiration of integration: Taking the best attributes of our recent 10,000-year adolescence in division, judgement, and Fruit of Knowledge indigestion, putting us on a Tree of Life de-tox regimen so that unripe knowledge is purged from our systems, making way for the ripened fruit of the Wisdom we need before it’s too late for us as a species or an ecosystem.
[As a parenthesis, the story of Cain vs. Abel is the story of ascendant complex agrarianism (on its way to nascent urbanism) clashing with hunter-gatherers and simple pastoralism. God prefers the worship-connection of the hunter-gatherers over those of the upstart agrarians – the violent farmer knows this, and murder is born. For more on this perspective, see Brian McLaren‘s novel The Story We Find Ourselves In, and Daniel Quinn‘s fascinating Ishmael trilogy]
I think that Christ can point the way, or even BE the Way, if we ‘eat Christ‘ and take him as both Life and the Wisdom of God. Seeing what Jesus sees, and knowing what Jesus knows, is the route out from the dead-end of small-egoic consciousness and the on-ramp to four-fold re-connection with God, self, neighbor, and ecosystem.
Eat God: Act 1 (‘taste heaven’) transfigures the classical Christian mystical stages of ascent – illumination, purgation and union – into tasting, de-toxing, and digestion – and looks at how to make this practicable every day. It should be juicy. But in the meantime, if you’re interested in these concepts, I’d recommend you check out The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History. It’s not from a ‘Christian’ perspective (which is fine by me though the author missed some obvious, rich literary material) and the guy could’ve used an editor, but the research he pulls together is pure gold.
Eat God: Acts II – IV weaves all of this together with spiritual practice, Jesus’ subversive meal-sharing habits, and our contemporary food and water crises as a clarion call to a new way of being spiritual and human in the 21st century. It’s rooted in the deep tributaries of the Christian tradition, but incorporates science, poetry, and a good deal of strategic foresight and systems thinking as it applies to our food and water systems.
When Man ate of the fruit of the Tree, he discovered himself in the field of duality instead of the field of unity. As a result, he finds himself out, in exile. The two cherubim placed at the gate are there representative of the world of the pairs of opposites in which, having been cast out of the world of unity, he is now located. You are kept in exile by your commitment to that world.
Christ goes past that – “I and the Father are one” – back into the realm of unity from which we have been expelled. These are the mysteries. Here is an echo and a translation into another set of images of what we ourselves are experiencing. What comes forth now with the grain, as particles of that one life that informs all things, is the revelation of the spiritual unity in all its aspects.
Adam and Eve are separated from God and they are aware of this break in their sense of oneness. They seek to cover their nakedness. The question becomes, how do they get back to the Garden? To understand this mystery, we must forget all about judging and ethics and forget good and evil as well.
Jesus says, “Judge not, that you may not be judged.” That is the way back into the Garden. You must live on two levels: One, out of the recognition of all life as it is without judging it, and the other, by living in terms of the ethical values of one’s culture, or one’s particular personal religion. These are not easy tasks.