Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lent: Consumerism in the Garden of Eden

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve, their fall, and their expulsion from Eden, has, over the course of its existence, become one of the most interpreted and certainly the most influential of all the stories of the Old Testament. Perhaps the most common way to understand it is that the forbidden fruit, hanging from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, is a test of man’s obedience to God. A crude interpretation sees God as a villain, an unfair parent, denying something to his children (knowledge), and then punishing the kids when they are inevitably attracted to the one thing denied. (In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan tempts Eve with just such a gloss; Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, buys it.)
            A more sophisticated understanding is that, in a misbegotten attempt to become gods, Adam and Eve alienate themselves from God’s gift of life and prosperity. So long as Adam and Eve do not eat the fruit, they acknowledge God as the source of their being, but once they disobey and eat, they have made the decision to run their lives on their own terms, or as Father Robert Barron says, “to call their own shots.” As God himself is Being, Adam and Eve’s decision to go contrary to Being in the attempt to grab onto more being is profoundly irrational, and it alienates them from Being itself. The result is they inevitably become less than the humans they were created to be, with less freedom, more fallibility, more selfishness—and their derangement makes itself felt through all of nature.   
            I want to suggest a variation on this interpretation, along the lines suggested by Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World, and suggest that in the Fall, we also have the violation of a spiritual property law. Adam and Eve are the first thieves. This means, I believe, that with the Fall, man’s view of the natural world becomes fundamentally alienated and distorted—that taking the forbidden fruit even results in the murder of an aspect of creation.
            Let’s start with Adam and Eve’s initial situation. They are placed in the Garden of Eden not as passengers on a cruise, to be waited upon, to have their desires attended to by servants, but as gardeners. They have a job to do, albeit a pleasant one. They are to be the stewards of Eden, and then the stewards of the earth, a “steward” being someone who manages someone else’s property, in this case, God’s. In Eden before the Fall, even the animals are stewards; they don’t appropriate each other for food, but vegetarians all, live in peace and harmony. Adam and Eve eat what they need and enjoy it, and the food gives them energy to attend to their minimal tasks and their enjoyment of each other, work, and the world around them
            Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa discussions about property and ethics, starts from the proposition, derived from Genesis, that God is the owner of everything. Whatever man has, he only has in use, for the reasonable benefit of himself and the rest of mankind. We are all stewards, and our use of property rightly acknowledges a duty to the ultimate source and owner. This means don’t waste resources, don’t use them for evil purposes, be generous, don’t take too much, and respect the property of others. Live as closely to the Edenic ideal as possible.
            Now, another aspect of the Forbidden Fruit becomes evident.  It is “a pledge and recognizance” of man’s right relationship to nature.  In order for the ethic of stewardship to have meaning, its opposite must also exist. The opposite of stewardship would be the appropriation of property for one’s sole benefit: consuming the fruit to have it for oneself alone. It is important to see that Adam and Eve don’t need to eat the forbidden fruit—they’ve got plenty. Whatever they have taken before, they have taken as stewards. By refusing to eat “the apple,” Adam and Eve reaffirm their vocation as stewards and the right relation to property—God’s property, the entire cosmos. But taking the forbidden fruit is unnecessary, and therefore only an assertion of the ego, only a decision to consume just for oneself.
            This gratuitous taking symbolizes the negation of Adam and Eve’s stewardship. It reduces creation to something merely material and breaks the harmony of Eden. The animals start to hunt each other. The seasons alter. Food becomes hard to get, and man must work by the sweat of his brow to produce it.  The far-reaching effect of the sin of Adam and Eve is the deadening of the world, our inability to see it as participating in the being of God. In effect, Adam and Eve murder the spiritual dimension of materiality. We are left with a world that we see as a “standing reserve,” something mineable; worse, we see other people that way. By desacralizing the world, Adam and Eve desacralized themselves, making murder possible (the next big sin), and leading to slavery, the industrialization and bureaucratization of slaughter as exemplified in the Holocaust, mass abortion, euthanasia, the modern sense that life is burdensome and meaningless: in short, the entire “culture of death” that the Catholic Church stands against.
            The answer to the Fall, then, is the resacralization of the world, and the most powerful source of this for Catholics is the Eucharist. The bread and wine are a true example of nature made whole, the body and blood of Christ and also the product of wheat and grapes and earth and sunshine—of the entire cosmos. The Eucharist is the incarnation of Christ in the world. We focus on that small bit of the world so we can see Him in the whole world. The Eucharist is cosmic restoration, the road back to Eden. When Jesus says, love your enemies, he is pointing to the most ambitious part of a universal project. If we can do that, we can even be good stewards.

Now, to replace the amateur with the expert. Robert Barron on Creation:

Fr. Barron on the Fall:

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