If you live in the US, you probably have a certain perception of Christians. Generally, many secular people imagine a close-minded, MAGA hat wearing conservative who complains about how Universities are brainwashing his/her kids with all that talk about Evolution and Postmodernism and other liberal, Marxist schemes. I generally try to remind myself that this is a stereotype which isn’t too hard considering most of my Christian friends are intelligent, friendly people. But it’s easy to see where this stereotype comes from. After all, 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, who has proven to be an outspoken opponent to science, and Texas continues to fight the teaching of evolution in its school system. And while it’s possible this is a mischaracterization; it should be easy to see where people are coming from with this view when evolution, a theory that has been accepted by the scientific community for well over a century now, is still a point of contention for many Christians.
So where does this apparent conflict between science and religion begin? Perhaps we could trace it back to the Scopes Trial and Darwin, or we could trace it back further to Galileo and Copernicus and in a historical sense, one of those is probably correct. But the conflict might go back further still, all the way to the beginning of Christianity itself, to Genesis 2.
Genesis 2 begins with the Divine Nap. From there we see what is either a different account of creation or a different perspective on some of the same events, depending on who you talk to. Either way, Moses restates some of the same stuff from Genesis 1 but goes into a little more depth on the creation of mankind and shrubbery. In this account, God plants what is probably the most famous garden of all time, Eden and after finishing that, decides they don’t really want to take care of it, and so they create a gardener named Adam.
Now, prior to creating Adam, God planted a tree in this garden called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and Adam could eat from every plant in the garden except for this one tree and apparently, if Adam ate from this tree he would die. This has often been considered a precursor to the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
If you know anything about religion, you probably know what happens with this legendary tree, and you probably know that it wasn’t as cute as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment videos you can look up on YouTube but we’ll get to that in Genesis 3. For now, I’m interested in this metaphor. Why would God not want us to know about good and evil? It seems like God wants us to be ignorant, what’s the deal here?
When I read this book as a believer, untangling the vast number of theological interpretations of this text could get pretty ugly. Even after accepting that this is not a literal tree or even a literal event in any sense what is this metaphor supposed to be saying? Is it saying that God doesn’t want us to be able to distinguish between good and evil? Is it saying that the pursuit of knowledge is sinful?
The best interpretation I’ve heard, is that to have an awareness of good and evil puts you on par with God. Then the problem with the forbidden fruit was that to eat this fruit is to pursue godliness. In my opinion, this seems most likely. After doing a little research, apparently ancient people would not have read the words “good and evil” in the same way that we do. This was actually a literary device known as a merism, in which the writer would pair two opposites in order to indicate an entirety. For example, if I said, “I’ve looked high and low for my keys but I can’t find them!” I wouldn’t necessarily be saying anything about the relative altitudes of where I searched but I would be making reference to the fact that I looked everywhere. This was commonly done with the words “good and evil”. And so, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would probably have been read by ancient people as the Tree of the Knowledge of Everything.
So great, we’ve established what the metaphor was probably saying but it still doesn’t tell us why ancient people might have had this sense that knowledge was somehow sinful. Many have indicated that this whole debacle would be seen as more of a pursuit of godliness. So by trying to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Everything, they were trying to put themselves on par with God. By wanting to know everything, Adam and Eve were trying to exalt themselves and become Gods. But isn’t there a false equivalency here?
According to Merriam-Webster, God is defined as “the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.” So, let’s do a quick thought experiment. Suppose I finally did it, I learned everything. Would that make me “perfect in power, wisdom and goodness?” I would say that it would make me perfect in wisdom, since I would know everything, and it would probably make me perfect in power as well since my understanding about the world around me would give me a good deal of power over everyone else around me. But would it make me perfect in goodness? Probably not. Take, for example, Immanuel Kant, one of the most intelligent thinkers who ever lived but also a massive racist. Or take Isaac Newton, probably the most important scientist ever, but also a complete and total asshole. So, the trend between knowledge and goodness is clearly not present but you could argue that was because those people didn’t know everything. Immanuel Kant didn’t know that black people were people, Isaac Newton didn’t understand the complexity of his own emotions and so couldn’t control his anger etc. And that may be true but it brings me to my next point: even if perfect knowledge made you a perfect being, it still wouldn’t make you God.
According to the Merriam-Webster definition, God is not just perfect, God is also the “creator and ruler of the universe.” So simply by knowing everything about the universe doesn’t make me the creator of the universe and it definitely doesn’t make me the ruler. For example, if I learned everything about the way gravity works, it wouldn’t change the fact that if I jumped, I would fall back to Earth. Learning the laws and rules of nature doesn’t give me any control over them it just helps me to live as best I can within my given constraints. So there’s a huge difference between an all knowing being and an all powerful being but even if they were the same thing, why would God choose to build this sort of risk into their world? Why not make it impossible for humans to achieve godliness? Why plant the tree in the first place? This is a question I still haven’t heard a good answer to yet.
Putting aside the philosophical problems with this whole situation, I’m also concerned about the impact this concept may have had. Take, for example, this bizarre article arguing that God doesn’t want us to do scientific research. You can argue that this person misinterpreted the text but you really can’t blame them for seeing it this way, the text does seem to be telling us that pursuit of knowledge is sinful and ultimately will lead to the downfall of humanity. If we eat from the Tree of Knowledge, we will surely die, the Bible says. Personally, I’m not entirely sure why Moses included this detail, I’m not sure if there was a part of the ancient psyche that feared knowledge the way many do today, but I do have some ideas which I’ll be exploring later on in Genesis.
There’s more that I want to talk about in Genesis 2 but this post is already fairly long so I think I’m going to break this up into two separate posts, the second of which I’ll be posting later on in the week.