Friday, 6 January 2012

Discovering We Are Naked

Prompted by reading an essay by Wendell Berry, I've been thinking about the second and third chapters of Genesis and what they have to say about our current environmental predicament.

Many scholars think these two chapters represent the earliest Hebrew version of the creation account, with the opening chapter added at a later date.  They record the creation of humanity, and the fall of the first humans from their state of innocence.

We are accustomed to think of ourselves as somewhat separate from nature, as shown in the diagram below.

We understand that we are, to some extent, natural beings.  We know we need to eat and drink, that we get sick.  However, we see ourselves as fundamentally different from the rest of creation.  Hence, we see "nature" as something to be conserved, managed or exploited by us.  This is why we are able to talk so easily about balancing environmental and economic factors, for instance, as if the economy was something seperate from the environment, or nature was just one factor of production.

This is not the picture I see in the second chapter of Genesis. 

...the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

We are made of dirt.  God did not make the earth, and then make us.  He formed us from the materials that were already there.  We are wholly creatures of the earth, coming from the dust and returning to it. 

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

We live in the garden, and our primary task is its care.  The garden was not planted for us, it was planted by God for reasons which are not explained.  Instead, we were created - from the same materials used to create it - to care for it on God's behalf.  The diagram should really look like the one below.

We are a part of God's creation, with our own job to do and our own particular characteristics amongst all the other diverse creatures God has made.  So how did we come to see ourselves as separate from it?  Chapter 3 gives us the answer.

The serpent, it says, tempted Eve with the prospect of becoming "like God, knowing good and evil".  There is no word in the English language adequate to translate the Hebrew word yada, rendered here as "knowing".  When we think of "knowing", we think of intellectual knowledge, of information.  Yet the word is used in a wide variety of contexts.  It serves, for instance, as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, as a description for intimate friendship or acquaintance, as an ability to discern or decide, to declare or instruct. 

Good and evil, the serpent suggested, would become Adam and Eve's constant companions, the subject of their deepest thoughts.  They would not only recognise good and evil when they saw it, they would declare some things good and others evil.  They would no longer simply occupy their place in the natural world, they would stand above it as its judges, arbiters and controllers. 

The results were immediate.  They knew themselves to be naked, and they hid.  They were no longer comfortable in their own skins, in their natural state.  They needed something more - leaves, animal skins.  They began to exploit nature, to cover their nakedness and make up for their discomfort with who they were.  They began to justify themselves (another aspect of yada) and to make excuses.

The LORD understands that there is no going back.  Indeed, he himself placed the cherubim with the flaming sword to bar that way.  The human dream of a return to Arcadia, that state of blissful nature, is just that.  We have knowledge and we cannot un-know.  The question is, how will we use it?  Will we remember our own nakedness, our own vulnerability?  Will we remember that we are made out of dirt, the same substance that made the forests, the animals , the birds?  Will we learn once again to tend the garden?  Or will we persist in defining good and evil in a way that ensures our return to the dirt from whence we came?

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