Richard Rohr is a Catholic theologian who posts a daily blog of spiritual thoughts. I find his thinking a little too pious to suit me, but a friend recently sent me one of his meditations that on first reading I thought was terrific. It’s Rohr’s understanding of the tree of knowledge of good and evil described in the book of Genesis, and the eating of which resulted in Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden of Eden.
Rohr suggests that what Adam and Eve did was to take unto themselves the right to judge good and evil — not only in themselves, but in everybody else as well. This is what destroyed Paradise, and it is the great sin still practiced by some of the great religions of the world. We have been doing it for thousands of years. Christians for centuries throughout Europe stretched heretics on the rack, burned them at the stake or beheaded them if they failed to submit. They even set out in heroic crusades against the infidel, murdering, stealing and raping in religious zeal, Today, Muslims are continuing this righteous slaughter.
It is easy for me to sit here today in horror over these and thousands of other similar events: the settlers in America who engaged in a pogrom of ethnic cleansing for centuries against the American Indians, Spanish explorers throughout the Americas who even wrote to the Pope to determine whether the natives were actually human, slavery which continues in many parts of the world today. It’s easy for us in what we call the “free world” to condemn the absence of religious freedom and the coercion of non-believers on the grounds that those in power are enforcing God’s will.
Unfortunately, it is also easy for us not to see ourselves doing the same thing. Positions on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, extra- and pre-marital sex, assisted suicide and capital punishment, among others, are being fought almost solely on religious grounds in our own countries practicing what we believe is “religious freedom.” It is not only ISIS Muslims beheading anyone who disagrees with them who argue that they have the absolute truth, and therefore the God-given duty to impose that truth on the world. The Roman Catholic Church has declared itself to be infallible, to be not only a true church, but the one and only true church. Many fundamentalists of various persuasions are convinced that anyone who does not accept their doctrines is living with falsehood. It is a stance different not in principle, but only in content, from the absolutism of many Muslim believers. Most Christian churches no longer have the secular authority they once had to carry out beheadings and burning at the stake. But many have not given up the belief that they have a unique unchallengeable insight into God’s Truth.
“The Fall of Man” by Lucas Cranach the Elder
And so this is my problem with Rohr’s interpretation of Genesis: it is incomplete. If we are going to say that we cannot judge others in terms of good and evil, that this is the great sin that destroyed Paradise, then we must face the reality that our own grasp of the Truth, of good and evil, is at best incomplete, and sometimes even positively wrong.
Why do so many of us seem to need this absolute certainty? this conviction that God is on our side? Are we afraid of uncertainty? Is it a search for power? Is it what so often holds our community together, that gives us a personal identity or sense of belonging ?