Saturday, February 02, 2008

Paradise and Human History

Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7
Romans 5.12-19
Matthew 4.1-11

This ancient story from Genesis is about the anatomy of temptation. The very definition of paradise is at stake. If we are living in paradise then, by definition, we have everything we need. Once we begin to think that there might be something more, we are no longer in paradise. That is why God forbids the man to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is for his own protection.

Why the serpent chooses to tempt the woman is unclear. However, there are three reasons why the serpent is able to tempt her. The first is that she is open to persuasion. She can see the limitations of living in paradise. It would be nice to want for nothing and to be content with our lot, but what if we thought there was something more to life - that we were missing out somehow? And isn't paradise likely to grow dull? Change and uncertainty make life interesting. If the man and the woman leave paradise they will expose themselves to risk, but they will also open themselves to new possibilities, and that's exciting.

The concept of falling in and out of paradise is not unlike the idea of falling in and out of love with someone. To be in love, and to be completely happy when we are with a particular person, is like being in paradise. The temptation to stray beyond that relationship, and to seek something new and different, is like the temptation faced by the man and the woman in the garden.

The second reason why the temptation works is that the prohibition on eating the fruit is based on a lie, albeit a white lie designed to protect the man and the woman from themselves. The serpent is able to point out that the fruit is not really poisonous. It is dangerous, but only because it will open their eyes. And this appeals to the woman because, of course, one of the defining things about human beings is our curiosity. Animals are not curious but we are, and so the woman falls for the temptation.

The third reason why the temptation succeeds is that the serpent also lies, but its lie is a dangerous one designed to cause mischief. The serpent tells the woman that knowledge is the route to wisdom and that it will make her like God. Unfortunately, this is very far from the case. By itself, the knowledge of good and evil does not make us wise or God-like. Knowing that something is right does not necessarily persuade us to do it and, regrettably, knowing that something is wrong does not always stop us from wanting to do it, either. God cannot do what is wrong, but we can.

This is partly because of human nature. We are weak and fallible. We give in to temptations, just as the man and the woman did in paradise. But it is also because knowledge and wisdom are two different things. Wisdom grows out of a mixture of experience and insight. Religious people would also argue that it depends to some extent on faith. Knowledge, on the other hand, is fed by curiosity. It can be combined with wisdom but it need not be - which is why their new found knowledge destroyed the man and the woman's sense of being in paradise and launched the course of human history with all its false starts, dead ends and tragic mistakes.

People sometimes ask, 'Is this story true?' In the sense that it charts the moment when human beings became different from the rest of the animal kingdom, and at once both superior and inferior to the other animals around them, it is true. The first truly curious person started us on the path of scientific and material progress, but they also destroyed the paradise from which we first emerged.

It's difficult to accept at face value Paul's assertion that, unless the first man and woman had left paradise, no one would ever have died. If, however, he means that - without their natural curiosity and its tragic consequences - human beings would not have been separated from God and death would not have been final, it is possible to agree with him. Sin, in its Biblical sense, means that same separation from God which the first man and woman experienced, although in his letters Paul uses the term both in this technical sense and in the more popular sense of 'bad things which sinful people do'.

The heart of this passage from Romans is verses 18-19. The beginning of our separation from God was the awakening of that sense of curiosity which has now become the defining characteristic of our race - homo sapiens. Once we realised that we could shape our environment, and that we could also change things both for better and for worse, we became different from other animals, even from our closest cousins, and this realisation marked the dawn of human history. But there has been another epoch changing event in human history - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Just as the first revolution caused our separation from God, so the new revolution - ushered in by Jesus - makes it possible for us to be put right with God again.

Paul is at pains to explain to his readers that Jesus had to be a human being, albeit a very special one, in order to rescue us from our human predicament. For this same reason, Matthew also believes that we need to know Jesus was tempted in all points as we are.

He was tempted by the need to get back to a kind of paradise - to the feeling that his wants were being satisfied - though the Devil is very subtle here, tempting him not with the promise of luxuries but simply with his hunger for bread. To be truly faithful it seems we must trust God to provide for us, even when we are hungry. But if we followed that idea to its logical conclusion we would never plan for our retirement or buy any insurance, so perhaps this temptation is a matter of degree. We shall not live by bread alone but, of course, bread is still necessary for life so it could be that Matthew is simply asking us to consider where our priorities lie.

Then Jesus was tempted, like the first man and woman, to take unnecessary risks, trusting in God to save him from the consequences of his own folly. In this respect he was not unlike the directors and executives of Northern Rock, who took stupid risks and trusted in the Bank of England to bale them out when things went wrong. Bankers may live like this, but Christians should not. This is why we cannot join our voices to those who say, 'But global warming may not be our fault, or may not be as bad as some scientists are predicting.' Even if these things had a slim chance of being true, we are not supposed to gamble with human destiny by continuing to pollute the earth.

Finally, Jesus was tempted by the promise of power. He knew, however, that power for its own sake is not worth having, and that power won by political scheming or brute force is always fragile and can be lost just as quickly as it was gained.

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