I get confused when I hear Christians talk about the human condition. I hear them tell their teens, “God didn’t make no trash.” And then I hear them say over and over that they themselves are worthless but for the grace of God. That does not compute. The problem goes right back to the two very different creation stories presented in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. We need to get over it.
Let’s get back to the garden – actually a little before the garden, in the first round of the creation story in Genesis 1, which is obviously a different story than the one written about the garden by a different author in chapter 2. The culmination of story 1 is God’s thought to “make humankind in our (plural – hmmmm) image, according to our likeness.” And so, the story continues, God did exactly that, on that sixth day of creation and concluded that, indeed, it was very good. If God says it was very good, it must have been, must now be, must forever be very very good. And it’s not that the author modifies the story in chapter 2. It’s that someone else came along and wrote a different story. There is truth in both, certainly. But bottom line, in the culmination of story 1, we are created in God’s image and it is very good.
And now the garden story, the two-treed garden story. Recall that, in chapter 2, we ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we got scared and we ran. In essence, we experienced what we call sin. I don’t like the word, not because I don’t think the condition exists, but because I don’t judge it with the load of guilt and shame that Christendom has piled on for millennia. It is separation and nothing more. That’s enough, isn’t it, to be separated from love beyond imagination? It leads directly to, fear, greed, blame and violence – all the things an isolated ego does to try to care for, criticize or punish its poor vulnerable and lonely self in its terrified vision of a universe of competition and scarcity. Who needs more suffering than that? Create the devil and pile judgment on top and it’s no wonder we started killing and burning animals to try to appease the gods!
I assert, however, that the experience of separation was not the unexpected and horrible fall of humankind we have made it out to be. It was, rather, simply part of the plan, part of the process of being created fully in God’s image. Metaphorically, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a part of God creating us in God’s image. We must know both connection and separation, individuation and the whole in order to be complete.
God took a huge risk in granting that awareness. God risked losing us – or at least having patiently to spend millennia calling us back – in that act. We got scared. We separated. We ran. We murdered. We hoarded. We hid. We played power games, coerced and enslaved. We formed co-dependencies and took on addictions. OK, yes, yes, we sinned! But have a little compassion, here, on yourself and everyone else. This was quite a shock, this individuation, this self-awareness, this sudden knowledge of our capacity for good and evil.
And contrary to the way the books of the law and some parts of the New Testament tell it, God didn’t set up a system of blood sacrifice until God could figure out a better way. The prophets make that clear over and over and over again. I’ll take Amos 5 over Deuteronomy any day: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon . . . . But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The call has always and ever been to continue to grow into that full image of God in which we were – and still are – created; to eat from the first tree and to move on to the second; to know the depth and breadth of our potential for individuation and separation, indeed, to know suffering; and then, with that knowledge in hand, to turn with compassion, to abandon ego and to choose life, to move on to the Tree of Life. Moses, in his final address, implored the people to “choose life.”
What might that look like, to eat from the Tree of Life, to own our complete nature as beings created in the image of God? I think, perhaps, the Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, present a clearer picture of that than does traditional Christianity. The Judeo –Christian tradition became too stuck in the games of blaming and judging.
Buddhism does not see suffering as something created by the fall of humankind (the blame game). Buddhism sees suffering as, well, suffering. There is no value judgment. It is just a basic condition of life. If we were to try to understand that from a Biblical creation perspective, asking ourselves what God was up to by including suffering in the package, I think we would have to admit that it is hard to know anything without knowing fully its opposite. God, in full respect for us as beings created in God’s image, honored us with knowledge of the full spectrum of conditions and possibilities. We threw in the value judgments and got stuck with the blame game of burden and shame attached to our picture of sin.
Buddhism advocates responding to life with compassion rather than judgment, thereby transcending suffering. This is a practice, not a belief, although I suppose all of our practices are based at least to some extent on the things we believe.
But it is precisely this nonjudgmental and compassionate acceptance and response to all that comes from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – the pain and suffering of life – it is this response that transcends suffering and moves us to the healing home of the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life, in fact, might even be seen as the very same tree, viewed through the lens of healing and compassion. Perhaps that is why it is the only tree that remains in the concluding tale in the Book of Revelation, there with its leaves for the healing of the nations.
Whatever the case, compassion and healing are an active choice, a necessary choice on the path of our growing into that complete image of God, our intended and completed form of creation. They have nothing to do with fear or bloody sacrifice and everything to do with relinquishing ego, isolation, separation, judgment and blame. Compassion and healing are the choices God sets before us in the transformative path from the knowledge of good and evil to the full knowledge of life. Choose life. Life as intended in the image of God.