Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Wrong Tree

Having watched and listened to the dear departed Carl Sagan talking about our tiny, fragile world recently, I found myself watching the next video that spooled up on that particular YouTube playlist.  I love listening to Carl, who in his gentle warmth and wonder is...to my soul, at least...so much more inviting than Mr. Degrasse-Tyson, the celebrity scientist du jour.  Or maybe I'm just cheesed at Degrasse-Tyson for his one great scientific achievement, which was leading the charge for the demoting of Pluto from its status as a planet.  Grrr.

Sagan was not a theist, not at all.  A "strong agnostic," perhaps, with the weight heavily on the doubt. Most specifically, he had beef with two things:  

First, that human beings should have the arrogance to imagine that God--should such a being exist--is like us.  For that, he relies on that passage of Genesis where the Creator of the Universe makes us "in his image."

God, a bipedal hominid?  How preposterous!  Against this idea, he recounted the writings of the ancient philosopher Xenophanes, who mocked the human propensity to create deities that resembled themselves.  If cows made gods, they'd look like cows.  When cultures make gods, they look like themselves.  How silly!  How arrogant.

Which would be fine, if that had been meant as a critique of theism itself.  Given that Xenophanes was one of the first Greek monotheists?   It's not.  

The core of Xenophanes' argument was not a critique of the idea of God, but of the absurdity of anthropomorphizing such a being.    It's the difference between Zeus and the I AM THAT I AM, between Storm from the X-Men and the One who Speaks from the Whirlwind.

So, sure, yeah, God's ways are not our ways.  We do get that, my friend.  Point taken. 

Second?  The second and more substantial thing that struck me was Carl Sagan's recounting of the story of the garden in Genesis.  In Sagan's telling, what happens in Eden is simple.  We are forbidden to eat of the Tree of Knowledge.  We are kept from truth, kept from exploration, kept from the joys of discovery.  Humankind in Eden exists in ignorance, willfully suppressed by an oppressive, controlling Deity.

In this line of thinking, the Eden of Torah may be perfect, but it is a dark perfection, in which we are denied the right to know and wonder and explore, trapped forever in a stunted, childish state.  This is recounted as an indictment against all of the faith traditions that arise from that story.  Even in our most primal story, we are oppressive, and the enemy of science. 

It's a familiar spin, casting out the second of the two Genesis stories as a functional variant of the Prometheus myth, with the serpent in the role of Prometheus, the giver of fire and knowledge.  In that telling, God is the dark demiurge, the one who would keep humanity eternally subjugated.  That's the take of the ancient Gnostics, who saw only malignance and oppression in the story of the Garden, and for whom the serpent is Christ.  Interesting folks, the Gnostics.

It'd be a fair critique, if the Tree that shows up in that story from Torah was the Tree of Knowledge.

But it isn't.   

In that story, the tree is מֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָ.  
It is me-esh haddat towb warah, the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil."  
What the adam, which means "creature of dirt" is warned against is not knowledge itself.  Everything already exists in the garden, in a state of primal, archetypal goodness.  All that--every creature, every plant, everything--can be known, explored, named, and wondered at.  That is, in fact, stated as humanity's purpose.  It is a place of learning and delight, in which every choice is good.
The warning is against being able to know and choose evil. God knows what is evil, what is broken, what will bring woe and hatred and oppression, and chose not to place it in the garden.

Which is why the story of Eden does not involve God being really cheesed off at the ish and the isshah for drawing up the specs for an unauthorized large Hadron Collider.  
The knowledge they get from that tree is social shame.  What they have learned is not the capacity to help and support one another--their created purpose--but the ability to pass blame and recrimination.

And there, from context and purpose, I must demur from the gnostic/atheist spin on that story.   It's just not what it says, or the reason for its telling.