This follows on from the previous post.
The account of the “Garden of Eden” in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 is, I suggest, primarily offering a way of seeing the human condition wisely.
Human life is difficult. For most people, most of the time, it is much more painful than we suspect it ought to be. There are three ways to react to this, which I will call the ways of denial, of confusion, and of hope.
What I call “denial” is the claim that there is not, fundamentally, a moral problem here. Life is painful, but that is just how it is. The feeling that “something has gone wrong” is misleading. Nothing has gone wrong, or right—things have just happened. This attitude was well known in the ancient world, and it was the form that “religion” mostly took. For many it was the idea that “the gods” have little interest in the well-being of humankind. For some it was the idea that the universe is just the result of mindless swirling of atoms in the void. In the modern world both attitudes are also widespread.
Next, “confusion”, is the idea that there is not a problem, because life is good. “The natural world is beautiful,” says confusion, “and people are fundamentally good, deep down”. I call this “confusion” because whereas the natural world does display large amounts of beauty, one must acknowledge that it also displays large amounts of ugliness: the ugliness of extended or purposeless suffering, for example. The idea that people are fundamentally good is also confused, I think. This may be a confusion between innate value and moral innocence. It is true that everyone has innate value, and great potential for good, and I think this is what people are seeking to affirm when they say we are basically good. However, the fact of the matter is that we are all also morally compromised by our attitudes and decisions. Nobody is entirely good, and nor is anyone even close to the kind of goodness we should aspire to. Conditions of starvation persist in poor countries while those in rich countries have comfortable lives and moan about taxation; this would not be the case if we were all good. The truth about human culture is that, throughout the world, human culture raises to adulthood deeply flawed human beings. We are, all of us, not as good as we might be and not as good as we should aim to be.
The third view, “hope”, is the view that there is a deep problem in the way human culture has developed, and this impacts on the wider world, but there are also resources that will be sufficient to putting this right. These resources are made available through a partnership with God. The truth of our situation is not fatalism and the outworking of amoral mechanisms, nor is it that there is no deep problem. The truth is that we are in a situation of moral failure but have reasons for hope.
This is what the community that wrote the stories gathered into the book called Genesis were aware of, and what they were exploring in their account.
One of the issues they were thinking about was the issue of the great mismatch between how things are and how things ought to be. If God is good, then how did we get into this mess? How come life is so difficult? Those are the sorts of questions that the writers of Genesis were thinking about. They concluded that the way we got here is by early humans making choices that formed the direction that human culture took. One thing led to another, not in the sense of arbitrary mindless processes, but in the sense of human choices leading to dysfunctional relationships, fear, and bad working practices, then to an increase of envy and hatred, and on to murder and so on.
Although the Garden of Eden story is largely symbolic, this does not change the fact that it is telling us, in symbolic terms, about what lies behind real and very literal problems of our present human life. For example, early humans certainly did “name the animals” as their conscious life reached the point where they could do this. And also, we do now behave in the sort of way that is described in the story: suspicious of God’s goodness, listening to contemptible voices that invite us to see ourselves as judges over each other, passing blame, and so on. We have inherited a human culture which is awash with these sorts of attitudes, and we don’t know how to give the next generation freedom from them. The Garden of Eden account dares to say that this is not how it had to be: another way of life was, in principle, available, but was spurned.
It is important to place this in the context of facts about anthropology and pre-history which are now well established. These include, for example, the fact that predation and parasitism in the animal kingdom have nothing to do with human choices. Those behaviours were present in the Cambrian period and the Devonian period and all the other eras as life developed. They are a natural and altogether expected result of the way inheritance, selection and reproduction works. This does not change the fact that a good life can be lived in this world, when one understands the need for communal support and clean water (to avoid many forms of illness) and when different groups do not try to exclude each other from natural resources. The title ‘Garden of Eden’ has the connotation of ‘delight’ because the world can indeed be delightful, when life is lived wisely and generously, but ‘Eden’ does not mean ‘idyllic’ or without the need for work or altogether without pain and physical death.
We should also bring in further things that have been learned since ancient times. The New Testament presents, among other things, the message that the solution to our problems has been made available in the form of a gift. It is the gift of freedom from the way of thinking that is focussed on self-exoneration and self-sufficiency.
This is a freedom we experience as we realise that what makes our communal life flourish is about seeing the present and the future as a gift which we did not earn or deserve. We need to see this, because otherwise our self-protective decisions end up causing great injustice to those who have no protection.
The word “Adam” is used, in the New Testament, to refer in general to the way of life that we inherit through worldly culture, and this is contrasted with Jesus of Nazareth and what he achieved. The fact that there is this contrast between Adam on the one hand and Christ on the other has led some to worry that if we suggest that Adam is not necessarily a reference to a single biological genetic ancestor, then we will also undermine the historical evidence of the New Testament documents, and thus undermine the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a serious issue because it is important that we don’t suppose Jesus to be some sort of mythological invention. He was as flesh and blood as you or I, and this is important.
However, the above-mentioned worry is misplaced. The Garden of Eden account is simply a different sort of document and a different sort of literature from the gospels and letters of the New Testament. The first is a symbolic story of attitudes and events for which there is no direct memory or written record; the second is written-down memories fairly close to the events, with some interpretation going on.
Furthermore, when we assess, quite correctly, that the Garden of Eden is a largely symbolic story, that does not mean we think we have not got any real flesh-and-blood human ancestors. Of course not. We certainly have got human ancestors. The names “Adam” and “Eve”, which in Hebrew signify “ground” and “life”, can serve as names for those ancestors, or that ancestral population, whoever they were. But we are referring mostly to a cultural ancestry here, rather than a genetic one.
Much of what is essential to human life is spread by cultural and spiritual transmission, rather than by direct genetic inheritance. For example, children have an innate genetic capacity to acquire language, but this is not enough on its own. They learn to talk by being talked to by others. Similarly, they learn to love by being loved. By the name “Adam” we make reference to the worldly part of this human process, the part that goes wrong when it tries to be god. Thus “Adam” refers to the attitudes and existence of our human ancestors who were like us: bewildered and compromised by bad choices.
This use of the word “Adam” will, I hope, one day be more familiar, because it can help us to get clarity about who we are now. However we are currently in a transition period in which the word “Adam” has come to represent, for many people, a reference to wrong ideas about human origins, and to a literalist approach to reading the Bible. This means that one has to be careful when talking about the lessons that can in fact be learned here, or one will be misunderstood.
So, to repeat, “Adam” comes from a Hebrew word which generally refers to the whole of humankind. It emphasizes that all humanity is a single family and has inherited the same deep problems, through cultural influences.
In the case of our relationship to Christ, we discover new life which gradually overturns or corrects our inheritance from Adam. The way we receive it is twofold. Our genetic inheritance lets us be human in the first place, and the extra part, centrally reconfigured by Jesus himself, opens the way for us to come to embody, as individuals and as a community, the potential of human life in full. He is not our genetic ancestor, but one from whom life has spread and grown by cultural and spiritual transmission.
A final comment
I will add a final comment about the question of whether or not humanity emerged gradually or abruptly in the development of life on Earth. There is abundant evidence from genetics that humans are descended by ordinary biological processes from pre-human forms, but this does not tell us the nature of the inner life of those forms. My aim in this final comment is merely to show how the possibilities may be seen, and to point out that this is not of central importance.
In the above discussion, nothing essential depends on whether or not the transition from pre-human to human life was abrupt. We really do not know whether it was abrupt or not.
On the one hand, it might have been abrupt, in the following way. One can imagine that at some particular moment, in the course of a single lifetime, thoughts and aspirations “came together” as one or two people had inspired insights into themselves and each other. This might, perhaps, have created a type of feedback that opens the way to conscious thinking. We really don’t know. If this happened, then those first people would then pass on their new life by teaching and showing the hominids around them.
On the other hand, it might have been very gradual. There might have been intuitions and lessons here and there which were deposited in the cultural “bank” through song and ritual, building gently over centuries and millennia.
Both of the above possibilities are rather thrilling and beautiful. But nothing essential in Christian theology depends on which is the truth of how God graciously brought the first humans to know something of the love which is God’s true nature.