Sunday, January 19, 2014

The problem with the 'knowledge of good and evil'.

Sometimes, reading a book that may - or may not - be generally quite interesting, a sentence or paragraph will leap out at me. A lightbulb clicks on in my mind; I have an 'aha!' moment. Another little piece in the vast jigsaw of life slots into place. Or, at least, a possible place.

One such moment occurred this week, while continuing to read 'The Adventure of Living'.  Here's what I read:

This is in fact the meaning of the account of the Fall (Genesis 3): The fatal error of men is this very aspiration to be like God, "knowing good and evil," wanting to have a moral code, so as to be able to act on their own, without any further need of God to enlighten them step by step. This autonomy was the very thing which God refused to give to man, despite all the spiritual insight with which he endowed him. Autonomy is his undoing. When he claims to know of his own accord what is good and what is evil, he deludes himself and goes after success instead of seeking God. 
(The Adventure of Living, page 151, Highland paperback edition) 

You might ask what is so profound about that insight.  Of course the Fall was about mankind wanting to be like God. 

Years - probably decades - ago, someone asked me, with genuine confusion, how Adam and Eve could have known that it was wrong to disobey God, if at the point before they ate the fruit they had no knowledge of good and evil. Wouldn't that mean, I was asked, that they actually didn't know that it would be wrong to disobey God? 

I had no answer to this paradox.

Over the years, I've seen the story more as a metaphor than literal. Even if Adam and Eve were the actual two first humans, created as described in Genesis, the stories were passed down over many generations before they were actually put in writing. Some details may have gone astray, I thought, or perhaps there was something that hadn't translated quite right into modern English. 

I don't have a problem with difficult questions or paradoxes, although I no longer enjoy debating them quite like I did in my teens. God is God, and details of Adam and Eve's mindset before biting the fruit are long gone in the mists of time. Even if I could resolve this question, I didn't think it would make any difference to me, or to anyone else.

But here's a throwaway paragraph in a book putting it in a new light. It wasn't that Adam and Eve were entirely innocent, with no idea about good and evil. Those concepts are planted in the human mind from birth; while some conventions are of course cultural, we are all created in God's image. We know intuitively that some actions or thoughts are wrong. A child of about a year old knows perfectly well what he's doing when his mother says, 'No, don't touch' and he reaches out a hand, slowly, while looking to see if she's watching. He doesn't know why it's wrong, to be sure; but he's well aware that he ought to do what his mother says. In the same way, Adam and Eve  - who walked in the garden with God, and knew him intimately - were well aware that if he said 'Don't touch', then it was very important to do what he said. They didn't even have the excuse of being immature babies. 

So - according to Tournier - what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represented was not just a general understanding of right and wrong, but a detailed knowledge that spelled out every single possible instance of right and wrong living, which would enable people to live without God. 

And then, despite knowing this story, that's exactly what the Hebrew Pharisees built up over the years.

God gave his people plenty of laws, some about relating to other people, some about hygiene (very useful in the days before germ theory) and some which, I have to admit, seem quite arbitrary, even bizarre. Maybe some of those are mis-translated - I don't know. But the Ten Commandments, perhaps the best known, make a whole lot of sense. Jesus summed them up: Love God, and love other people. 

But that wasn't good enough for the Old Testament pedants, who wanted not just general principles but exact details of what they meant. So God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, to make it a day of rest. A great principle - but people wanted to know what was meant by 'rest', and how they could avoid 'work', and what exactly was meant by 'work' in any case. Instead of seeing the Sabbath as a gift to be enjoyed, to take time with the family, to enjoy God's creation, to worship in a relaxed way.. they wanted to know what they could get away with. So more and more details were written down, with restrictions and limitations that God never intended when he said, 'Take a break once a week'.  

Around two thousand years ago, Jesus was walking on earth, helping people get things back in perspective. He demonstrated in what he said and what he did that God's law is a law of love, not of pernickety detail. It's right to do good on the Sabbath, irrelevant of whether the good deed might be defined in some rule-book as 'work'. It's right to love our neighbour, whoever he might be, and to help people in need, even if they are 'unclean' in some way. 

So, we have the benefit of hindsight in the Genesis story, and in the Gospel accounts. Surely we should get it by now...

But, in the paragraph preceding the one I quoted above, Tournier says:

The Biblical revelation gives us no guiding principle for our conduct beyond a few very simple laws such as that of honesty or love.
He is making the point that, even in the 20th century when he was writing, Christians wanted to turn the Bible into a rule-book. 

I think some people still do. I once heard someone say that in every situation or problem he has encountered, there are clear and specific guidelines in the Bible about what to do. I didn't even try to argue. I could have asked what the Bible says about a corrupt hard drive, for instance, or even about children fighting in the back seat of the car. He would probably have thought that I was belittling the Bible, or being sarcastic, although I was genuinely curious about what he might have said. 

But actually, I think I have a higher view of Scripture in believing that it gives us general principles, and the encouragement to seek the Holy Spirit to give us guidance in our specific circumstances. 

That's not to say that I'm a relativist. I do think there are some actions which are always morally wrong (such as violence or stealing), and some which are always bad for us health-wise (such as smoking). But in the vast majority of the decisions we have to make, day by day, we're not actually choosing between clear right or wrong actions. We have brains and hearts and experience to guide us, and we also have the Holy Spirit. The Bible is undoubtedly important as the revelation of God's love, but it is not - and should not be treated as - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

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