Pilgrims from Paradise:
When we ended our last discussion, we were addressing that verse in Genesis 3, in which we’re told that after Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked.”
I pointed out then in the chapter before that, Genesis 2, we are told specifically that Adam and Eve were both naked and yet were not ashamed. Why the change? Well I suggested last time that this experience teaches us something about the nature of the Fall, about the nature of what is truly lost, in the sin of Adam and Eve.
Something more than just the loss of right, legal standing before God. Let’s investigate that. The world, in which Adam and Eve walked, was pervaded by the uninhibited presence of the unified Trinity. We have very little in our experience, of course, to help us imagine what that must have been like.
But somehow, I’m sure, that the oneness of all things, their single source of life in existence in the loving Trinity, was tangibly manifested. Rocks, seas, trees, animals, the starry heavens, somehow everything must have glowed with an aura of goodness and love and interconnectedness.
The interpenetration of all life in the vivid sense that God, as the prayers of the ancient Church say, “fills all things,” must have been sweetly seen, heard, smelled, and touched. Now, this seems borne out by the fact that Adam and Eve actually perceived one another differently, before and after the Fall.
As we read prior to their succumbing to temptation, they felt no shame being naked before each other. In fact, it sounds as if they had no perception of nakedness. They possessed no recognition of the concept of what it is or what it means.
For as we heard in Genesis 3:7, it was not until after they sinned that they knew they were naked. Why is this? Surely, it must be because the light of oneness enveloped all things in the newly formed world. Adam and Eve did not know they were naked because they, not only, knew themselves, but saw themselves as one, joined to one another so intimately as to be nearly indistinguishable.
After all, Eve had been formed from Adam’s body. And the promise of their joining was that they shall become one flesh, Genesis 2:21-24. Together, and only together, they truly expressed the image of the Trinity—multiple persons joined in one, undivided life.
In light of this, the first sign that the serpent is going to be trouble is that it comes to Eve when she is alone. Somehow, Satan manages to isolate her; catching her in a situation, which, as we understand the relationship of Adam and Eve, was not quite natural for her.
Who knows? Perhaps this is the first time that Eve becomes aware of her unique mind and her unique will. She faces the tempter without the tempering strength of her husband with whom she enjoys a depth of union that is beyond our kin.
Surely, Adam experiences his own sense of isolation when Eve comes to him with the serpent’s arguments. She has always been one with him in heart, mind, and experience. But now she stands strangely apart from him, wielding a conclusion that she has reached all by herself. She presents to him the case for joining her in God’s expressed command.
The story of Adam and Eve’s temptation contains several examples of Satan’s most evil and effective device—his ability to craftily manipulate that which is good and holy in order to separate us from God.
The most obvious is the way he plays on the fundamental longing of the human heart. The Creator instilled desire to be God, not in the sense of stealing His divinity for ourselves or exalting ourselves above His Creatorship, taking His place as the Ruler of the universe, but in the sense of being so deeply joined to Him in love that our created lives become mystically and entirely inseparable from His.
In tempting her, Satan shrewdly offers Eve a shortcut to this good end. The problem is, the path he proposes intrinsically violates every necessary element of true oneness with God or with anyone, and for that matter, trust, self-denial, and humble obedience; to destroy any possibility of achieving our holy desires, by the way we go about attaining them. This is the trap in which Satan so frequently lures us.
When Eve comes to Adam with her illicit invitation, he faces the same struggle, though, with an additional heart-disturbing element. For as Adam listens to his wife, fully aware that she is inviting him into disobedience, I wonder, which is the greater force at work in his heart. The good desire to attain union with God? Or the good desire to remain one with his wife? Or perhaps it is that fear of losing that oneness, and of finding himself alone.
Whatever the relative weight of these, in and of themselves, virtuous aspirations, I’m sure the latter plays a significant role in moving Adam to cast his unfortunate lot with Eve. Their downfall, of course, is the life-sustaining God, who created them for oneness with Him and with each other and whose presence bathed them in that unity, is completely shut out from Adam and Eve’s decision.
They determined to fulfill their desire for deification, in the sense that we have explained it, and oneness by turning away from the One who is the reality and source of what they want. So often in the writings and hymnography of the Eastern Church, we hear sin described as irrational. Certainly, that’s obvious here, where sin first raises its ugly head.
In the moment that Adam and Eve taste the fruit, the whole world changes. By their eating, our first parents say to God, “We don’t need you.” And the Creator, in His perfectly humble respect for the free-willed choices of His most exalted creatures, draws back.
As I have said, we have no way to accurately envision this moment. But as I seek to comprehend Adam and Eve’s experience, I imagine that it was if the aura of oneness that enveloped and penetrated the whole creation suddenly drew back like a veil and faded away.
In an instant, the unified creation became a vista of stark, separate, lonely things. The world, in a moment, became cold and divided, not warm and joined. In this terrifying and brutal new light, Adam looks at Eve, and for the first time, he sees her as a lonely, disconnected, isolated individual.
He instantly comes to the shame shocking realization about himself. As she gazes upon him, the fear in Eve’s eyes tells him that she too has been overwhelmed by these horrifying revelations. Thus we see that the tragedy of the fall is that it is a catastrophic descent into individualism. In this light, we clearly discern the true condemnation of our modern love affair with individuality.
It is no wonder that in the midst of our cultic devotion to exalting our individual desires and individual rights; in the midst of our relentless search for individual fulfillment and individual meaning that so many of us feel hopeless and empty. By willingly, even dutifully, embracing this preoccupation with ourselves, we, like our first parents, sway and fall helplessly to the serpent’s siren call. We run as fast and as far as we can from Eden and from the God who dwells there.
Certainly, the western tradition has its story of salvation, an understanding of how God restores humanity from its fall into lifelessness. But as I’ve observed, it is unfortunate that the Christian West has ironically come to understand this restoration in purely individual terms.
For most western believers, life with God is a personal search for meaning. Salvation is just about me and God. It is necessarily, and by definition, a lonely journey. It is a goal I must achieve for myself, and ultimately by myself.
The transcendent beauty of Eastern Christianity is that it understands the falseness of this vision. The goal of salvation is union, an intimate rejoining with God, and an intimate rejoining with one another and all creation. This is what drives the process from start to finish.
For instance, the Christian East has a much broader vision of the purpose of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To the Western Christian mind, the tree serves no other purpose than a test of obedience. Indeed, from a viewpoint that sees God as a God of order, whose essential virtue is justice and whose ultimate desire for humanity is that it comply with and conform to the dictates of His will, the tree need serve no other function.
Eastern Christians, on the other hand, recognize that everything God does with us revolves around His pre-eternal desire that we intimately share in His life. Thus, they see the purpose of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil much differently.
God did not put it in the Garden just to test Adam and Eve’s obedience. No, the Creator intended that the tree, just like everything else in the Kingdom of God, would be an instrument of spiritual growth for our first parents.
Fr. Seraphim Rose offers a fine explanation of this in his book, Genesis, Creation, and Early Man, a book which is currently out of print, but which I hope the publishers will soon be reissuing. It is a tremendous book. I loaned my copy to someone a couple of years ago and never got it back.
But in this wonderful book, Fr. Seraphim gives this explanation of the tree:
The Holy Fathers say that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is something which is only for mature people. Because we have freedom, it cannot be that we will not have knowledge of evil. The only choice is whether we will have knowledge of evil through the mistakes of others or through ourselves, overcoming evil.
Everyone, in order to become a mature Christian and to be established in the way of doing good, has to know about evil. He has to know what it is that he has chosen not to do, and this knowledge can be without falling into great sins, if you are willing to take the example of others.
If you are able to see, almost as if it is your own experience, when someone else makes a tremendous sin. And if you are able to see the result of that sin, then you can make that part of your experience without falling into sin.
Evidently, that is what Adam could have done. If he had resisted this temptation, he would have seen that there was a temptation, that is, that everything is not perfect, and that there was someone out to get him.
Then, if a second temptation had come, he would have seen that the serpent, or whatever else was used by the devil, was out to make him fall. He would have begun to realize that there was such a thing as evil, an evil will that makes him want to lose his Paradise. Through this, he could have attained that knowledge of evil and eventually tasted of the tree.
That’s pages 174 and 175 of Fr. Seraphim’s book. Ask most Christians about the great lie with which Satan deceived our first parents, and they will tell you it is his suggestion that Adam and Eve could become gods by taking matters into their own hands; by disobeying God and eating of the fruit.
But as I contemplate Fr. Seraphim’s words and the context of God’s ultimate desire for us, it occurs to me that the devil founds this lie upon deeper, more essential falsehoods. We’ll talk about those in our next podcast.