Back in 2011, a little more than a year before he died, my dear friend and master Lawrence wrote to me privily, and I responded likewise. Looking for something else altogether in my Journal of that year, I came across our exchange. I now share it with you, confident of his evangelical approval thereof, as an apologetic exercise of potential benefit to readers who might have known us, both – or, who have never heard of either of us. Lawrence wrote:
I was just lying in bed at one a.m. reading Genesis chapter one, and tears came into my eyes at the beauty of God’s creation of the world. Then my mind jumped ahead to Genesis 2 and 3, and the fall of man. Of course that story has probably had more interpretations than any other text in history. But what is the true meaning? And then this came to me. Most liberals and secularists think that when God prohibits the man and woman from eating of the tree of knowledge, that he wants humanity to be ignorant and under his thumb. In fact, God is not prohibiting knowledge as such. He is not telling man that he doesn’t want them to know about science; he’s not telling them that he doesn’t want them to know the laws of motion, or how to cultivate plants and animals. What he doesn’t want them to know is good and evil. (Or, in the Jewish Publications Society translation which I was reading tonight, good and bad.) What does God mean by good and evil? He doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t know when something is good, or something is wrong. He doesn’t want man to be a moral idiot, that would be ridiculous. What then does he mean? He means that he doesn’t want man to be internally divided (as ordinary, fallen man constantly is) between the things we like and the things we don’t like; between the things that make us feel good and the things that make us anxious; between liking another person and being irritated at another person; between feeling ok about ourselves and feeling divided within ourselves. (Consider how divided Cain is within himself after God approves Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s: Cain is so bent out of shape that the only way he can release his feelings is by committing murder. Is there any book so psychologically penetrating as the Jewish Bible?) If God doesn’t want us to be constantly divided within ourselves (a state we understand very well, as it is the condition of actual fallen man such as we), what does he want? He wants us to be in a state of conscious harmony, of unity within ourselves (rather than self-division), and of harmony with other people and the environment around us, rather than a constant, subtle sense of conflict with other people and the environment, which, again, is the ordinary human state even when people are having a good time. This doesn’t mean that we stop judging, that we stop seeing good and bad in the normal sense. It means that we are in a state of conscious harmony which is not disturbed, not turned into self-division, by our necessary perceptions of good and bad, of true and false, and of other forms of difference.
Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and, as Milton says, they acquired, to their instant and lasting misery, the knowledge of good and evil–of good lost and evil gained. They became self-divided beings, never truly comfortable with themselves and the world. That is the state of fallen man.
But what is the state of unfallen man that God wanted us to have, and still wants us to have? God appeared to Abram and said, “I am the Almighty. Walk before me, and be perfect.” The state of true being to which God calls man comes from “walking before God,” living our lives and actions in relation to God, as if he were present with us. By our making him present with us, he actually becomes present with us.
But how can God be actually present with us? That’s what the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, are about. Jesus Christ makes God fully manifest and accessible to man, in human form, as an eternally existing human and divine person, whom man can understand and relate to. In 1st John (chapter four or five) it says, “In this God showed his love to us, that he sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.” By living through Jesus, making him our companion, making him present in our own experience of the world, we are brought from our inadequate and divided human self into the perfect self that is Jesus Christ. His consciousness becomes our consciousness, his self becomes our self. This doesn’t mean that we lose our normal human individuality and personality; to the contrary, our personality is completed and harmonized by being brought into relation with the consciousness and personality of Jesus. Its false activities–distraction, irritation, egotism, anger, worry, dislike of others, fear of others, fear of what others think of us, etc.–fall away, and are replaced by true activity which is still expressive of our unique human individuality but is in harmony with God and neighbor and is truly good and creative in a way that our ordinary divided personality cannot be.
Yes. Thank you for sharing this experience with me, and these insights. You could not do me a greater honor, and I count it as a token of our true friendship that you have done so.
I have thought a lot about the forbidden fruit. It seems to me, after many years of reflection (and not nearly enough study and research), that in proscribing the apple God is, not imposing a silly and whimsical ukase, but informing Adam about the ontological structure of reality, and warning him. It is not that God has a desire that Adam be ignorant, but that he wants Adam to know that if he does learn about evil he will regret it. And while God desires that Adam should not suffer in that way, he also cannot prevent Adam from taking the apple without unmaking him – for, as Aristotle pointed out, to the extent that a thing has power, it exists – a thing that has no effect on other things has no existence. To be at all is to be powerful, and thus free; is to be oneself an occasion of creative agency. So while God wills that Adam should never suffer, he knows that all he can do to prevent that suffering is tell Adam how the world works. And, as any parent knows, you can give even a good, moral, upstanding kid all the wise advice in the world, and he will still go off and disregard it and get into all sorts of foolish trouble.
Why? Why would that ever happen? Why would my son disregard my advice about getting enough sleep or wearing his bike helmet, why would Adam take the apple despite what God said? Because warnings about an abstract or distant evil are given less weight in our moral calculus than immediate, concretely understood pleasures.
Every time I sojourn in the wilderness, I come at some particularly miserable moment to think, “What idiocy led me to think that this trip, with all the agonies thereof that I must now endure, was a good idea? Why didn’t I stay in Berkeley with coffee, books, beer, and showers?” When I made the decision to go on the trip, I was forgetting the price I would have to pay for the vistas, the good clean feeling inside, the camaraderie, the deep silence, the refreshment of body and spirit. There is no free lunch, and we always forget this fact.
I remember the first time I cut myself with a knife, and the pain began, and the blood welled out of my finger. I was about 4, I guess. It was absolutely terrifying, unbelievably painful. I had never experienced anything like it. I had never really bled before in that copious way, with a flow coming out of me; all I had endured up till then was skinned knees and palms, which hurt like crazy and ooze, but don’t seem to portend death. This was different. My body was visibly ripped open, its integrity compromised. Never having bled like that, my first thought was that the bleeding would never stop, and that I would bleed out and die. I was fine in a few moments, of course: band-aids and mothers are great salves. From then on, I was a lot more careful with knives (and, I suppose, my mother was a lot more careful to park her kitchen knives well away from the edge of the counter).
We can’t know what an evil really is until we willingly undertake and suffer its wages. Until we actually feel those consequences, the evil of an act is an abstract idea. And so we discount it. And this is not improper; if we didn’t work this way, we’d never be able to take risks, and that would be tantamount to being unable to act in any way at all: for action entails risk. There is no free lunch. There is no decision that imposes no cost. So if we are going to do anything, we have to presume that what we decide to undertake will deliver us into circumstances in which our resources will then suffice to surmount the difficulties our present decision may produce.
Before he took the apple, Adam didn’t even know what a difficulty was. He was completely innocent of any notion of what eating the apple would mean for him, in terms of his concrete experience. Not knowing what evil was, he didn’t know that it was wrong to disobey God, or to contravene his will. He didn’t know that it is bad to die. He didn’t know what “wrong” or “bad” meant. All evils were to him complete abstractions: empty words that signified nothing in his experience. So there was in him nothing, literally nothing, to cause him to wonder whether he should perhaps refrain from eating. It was not as though he weighed the pros and cons of the two alternatives in coming to his decision. He had no cons to work with. He was a complete moral infant, who had never even experienced the pain of birth.
Adam could however see quite well before he ate that the apple would be good to eat. He’d had lots of experience with the pleasures of eating fruit, and such pleasures were concrete data for him, in a way that God’s incomprehensible statements about evil were not. So he had lots of motivation to eat, and nothing to motivate him not to. Thus his innocence was extremely delicate, and an eventual Fall so likely as to be a virtual certainty. Until Adam ate, and suffered, there was nothing operating in him to prevent it.
God did not banish Adam and Eve from Eden because he was being petulant or tyrannical. The banishment followed upon their disobedience with inexorable ontological logic. Because God is the source of all being and goodness, it is not possible to contravene his will without turning from that source; and one cannot turn from being as such and goodness as such without suffering, or without reducing one’s being – without dying.
God wants us to be perfect, and free from suffering – these are two ways of saying the same thing. But he knows that innocent perfection is virtually impossible for creatures to sustain unaided in the midst of creaturely existence, where the maintenance of a natural order, and thus of a world, requires that every pleasure bear a cost, and where therefore creatures must repeatedly decide among competing, incompossible goods in order to live. He knew that Adam and Eve would Fall. This is why he provided for Jesus, the second Adam, from before all worlds. At the eschaton – described in the Book at the other end of the Bible – we will (with God’s help) refrain from sin forevermore and everlastingly, knowing full well that that is what we are doing, and knowing full well the consequences of sin, having suffered them. Our moral perfection then, because informed by our concrete experience of something less, will be far more robust and durable than Adam’s. And, after all, we will enjoy Paradise a lot more than Adam did before the Fall; for he had no idea then how good he had it. When we return to the Garden, it will be like coming out of a battle in the wilderness, strengthened and ennobled by our adventures, alive to the beauty of the world, and taking that first wonderfully hot shower, drinking deeply of that first deliciously icy beer; it will be like finding all our wounds bound up, and salved, the tears all wiped away from our eyes, and our poor feeble frames enfolded again in utter comfort and safety on our Father’s lap.
Adam was at first free and unwise. Then he Fell, and while wiser, he was enslaved by sin, and so by death. In Christ, the second Adam, and (by the same token) in Paradise, we are both free and wise.
Please God make me wiser, and liberate me from my body of death, that I may turn to you, and live.
I post this now for what it is worth – and so that this conversation shall not perish altogether with the eventual inevitable deletion of the files on my machine, and on Larry’s. It is remarkable to me now, all these years later, how persistent and lively the apologetical and theological problems remain. It is remarkable also to me, how brilliant was my old friend, of all too few years. How much more might I have learned from him, had he lived a decade or two longer!
May God bless and keep him, and make his countenance to rise and shine upon him.
Lawrence, my love, how I miss you! How we all do, indeed. And, how grateful am I, that you have been spared what has happened to the West since your death. Look upon us now with mercy and with love, and pray for our deliverance – as I do, now, for yours. Amen, amen.