Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Knowledge, Suffering and an Ancient Apple

Do you think you can fight darkness without understanding the ways of darkness?
One of the strangest myths of the bible, which also contains one of the most important secrets, is right at the start in the story of Adam and Eve. By the way, using words like myth and legend is not to make any commentary on their literal truth - it is to categorise the sort of story they are and therefore understand the sort of truth they can contain.

The interesting thing about the old testament is that it's presented as history, whilst also being a metaphor intended or understood to point to spiritual truths. We come as readers approximately three thousand years or so distant from the writing down of these stories, which themselves are much older living as an oral tradition before being codified in the Torah. The Torah was probably compiled by Ezra around the time of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem at the end of the Hebrew exile in Babylon and kick-starting the "second temple era" of Judaism into which Jesus was born. The books of the law would have been a collection of the teachings of prominent Jewish clerics in the preceding centuries, going back from the time the Jews were a nomadic race through their settlement in Israel and Palestine. This explains why the laws seem quite so odd to us. As an aside, the legend is that only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah returned from exile, so when I say that my grandfather is from the tribe of Benjamin, after whom we named my son, it isn't quite as impressive as it might sound.

As modern readers, long removed from the depicted events and culture, the only possible relevance the collection of books contained in the Old Testament can have to us is spiritual truth. What can these stories tell us about humanity and are they actually, as is claimed, able to teach us anything about the deeper mysteries of human existence?  Archaeological, anthropological, cosmological and geological evidence make a literal reading of swathes of the Old Testament a large and ridiculous pill to swallow. But that's irrelevant as the only possible meaning for us is the spiritual truth, not the literal truth. Who cares whether or not there was a literal Adam and Eve, what possible difference can that make to my life? The important question is what can we learn from the story. So arguing about the literal truth of the older portions of the bible is an utterly pointless exercise.

The central part of the legend of Adam and Eve is a fruit tree, never specified as an apple by the way. In fact two fruit trees, the tree of life (the central part of Jewish mysticism the Qaballah and also the central part of most occultism) and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Humanity is warned that eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil leads to death, but humanity does it anyway and evil is unleashed upon the universe in an unfolding saga still playing out today. This, according to Judaism and Christianity, is the root of all suffering. That humanity has eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

In a later myth, one of my favourites, the tower of Babel it is humanity's unfettered lust for knowledge that brings the curse of confusion of communication and with it an inability to really know each other. The power of legend is that they echo through time and therefore have a timeless relevance.

If there is no knowledge of evil then evil is not possible. It is only in the understanding that evil is possible that evil has come. This is what the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents. Instead of a thirst for life we acquired a thirst for knowledge and we reap the reward of that.

Interestingly though in the legend of the fall it is the snake, evil personified, who tempts and tricks the naive humanity into disobedience. So evil, not even nascent evil, was already present in the universe. Creation had already fallen.Perhaps the most vivid rendition of this is right at the end of the bible, in the book of Revelation (chapter 12 verses 7-9):
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Although strictly it's not clear whether that refers to the original fall of Satan or his final defeat. Another, more poetic, depiction of the defeat of Satan is found in Isaiah 14:4-17
How you have fallen from heaven,    morning star, son of the dawn!  
You have been cast down to the earth,    you who once laid low the nations! 
You said in your heart,    “I will ascend to the heavens; 
I will raise my throne    above the stars of God; 
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. 
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;    I will make myself like the Most High.” 
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,    to the depths of the pit.
Many people comment, fairly it would seem, that if God really didn't want humanity to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil then why put it in the damn garden in the first place. To which the Christian will typically murmur something about free will. The senior pastor of my church once commented, in what must be true within the terms of faith but nonetheless is no answer really nor comfort, that sin and suffering must be within the sovereign plans of God. In my theodicy I explore the idea that if evil and suffering is even a possible idea in the realm of all possible ideas then it has to happen sometime. If we live in a universe where anything is possible then evil is possible, and the only way for us to live free of evil is either to never know about it or to know about it and defeat it.

And well. Now we know. Humanity has eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and we can't unknow, we have to deal with it. We can still eat of the fruit of the tree of life but we know about good and evil. The right response individually is to cast evil from us. As far as the East is from the West.

Revalation 20:7-10
When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
So even if the odds seem overwhelming, we have eternal fire on our side.

"The antidote to existential dread is to make existence dread you. Be a thing that happens to life rather than letting life happen to you."

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