The Hungry Heart of Eden
Perhaps one of the most overlooked passages in Scripture for Christian formation is the story of Creation. We are shaped so much and so obviously by the Fall, and the matrix of serpent-apple-temptation-nakedness resonates with our imaginations in such visceral ways, that it nearly seems genetic.
As we consider, however, God’s first acts of creative goodness in Eden, we are invited to look upon a lost world, a world that will never return. That prelude of time and space between the commencement of God’s good and lovely world and that evil morning when it all shattered offers a sort of illustrated map of our proposed journey and destiny.
We all live east of Eden today, but at one time in our epic past, it was not so. What was Eden like? What was life in Eden like? What would have it been like to walk with God in the cool of the evening? What would it have been like to feel no shame? Was it pure bliss? Unadulterated joy and satisfaction? Complete abundance, complete freedom, complete security? Is this what we call today “human flourishing”? There, in two chapters, we have a glimpse of what we think of as Paradise, but when we think of it as fixed, calcified in a stasis of perfection, it becomes increasingly inaccessible to our understanding. Rather, the scene is dynamic, full of movement and ripe with opportunity.
We need not impose perfection on the scene. No where does it say that creation was perfect. It was good. Even very good. Perfection implies a conclusion to creation that the rest of scripture seems to deny. Our God never ceases to be Creator. God’s desire to sustain, to recreate, to renew the face of the earth implies his ever-creative involvement in the cosmos. Adam and Eve were like children meant to grow in the love and knowledge of God, journeying into the perfection of “participation in the divine nature.” Their intrinsic goodness was rich in potent possibilities, possibilities that were lost in the Fall. Human flourishing was intentionally incipient rather than completed.
It’s the pharmaceutical television ads that, perhaps, best shape our concepts these days of “human flourishing.” No matter the disease being treated, we are given images of people of all ages doing what we can only assume is life at its best: fishing, painting, playing with children, hiking, cooking, flying kites, going on a cruise, gardening, playing golf. We ward off disease, old age, and other debilitating realities so that we can flourish, from infancy to old age. Yet human flourishing, if we measure it by pre-Fall Eden, seems considerably more complex than that.
Through the goodness of God’s beautiful world, amidst his generosity and abundant providence, runs a seemingly discordant theme like a rough thread of burlap woven into the living lamé of the Garden. Even as Adam and Eve face a world rich in verdure, bubbling streams and wide rivers, abounding in good work to do, sharing intimacy with a heart-companion, they are confronted with a singular obstruction. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” A “must not” right there, in the midst of bliss. A wall, a barrier, an oppositional presence.
Scripture makes it sound like the Tree of Life was near at hand, there in the middle of the garden with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Life and Knowledge. Apparently, the Tree of Life didn’t have the gut appeal of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for the couple hadn’t yet reached for it. Yet considering the Tree of Knowledge, they felt a forbidden desire. Despite the abundance that surrounded them, there deep in the midst of all goodness, was an embedded hunger at the core of human existence.
We imagine that Eden’s perfect freedom, perfect holiness, perfect goodness was without limits; that were it not for our despicable pride, all things would be freely given; that the abundant life is a life without a sense of loss or deprivation or hunger or restraint. So we imagine, but it actually seems more complex than that. There, at the heart of God’s revealed goodness, is a “must not.” The commandment not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is not part of the Fall, not a consequence of our hard hearts, not a leash on our craven flesh. It’s not a way for God to restrain our evil tendencies, for we had none at that point. We were innocent. Somehow the “must not” falls within the goodness of the unsullied creation. The deprivation is part of the goodness.
How can this be? How can some form of denial be a part of the Edenic world? What does this suggest when we think of Adam’s and Eve’s lives prior to the Fall? Here are some suggestions that may deserve further reflection:
First, we were clearly created to live with some kind of hunger, with some unsatisfied desires. God understood the beauty of the fruit and the appeal of the tree and its power, yet he asked us to deny ourselves. That willingness to forego an apparent good, a natural longing, could make possible the truly human destiny of finding “food” by doing God’s will. We remember Jesus’ words to his disciples who urge him to eat after his long journey into Samaria—“I have food to eat that you know nothing about. … My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (Jn 4.32, 34). In seeking out God’s will and doing it, Jesus found sustenance. It’s easy to gloss over this as a moral and metaphorical commendation to obey, but perhaps indeed there is kind of hunger that humans were meant to feel in the presence of God, a hunger that can only be satisfied by the will of God.
Second, as we were made in the likeness of God, Eve’s thought process around this—wanting to be more of what God made her to be, i,e., more like him—was not completely wrong. What she failed to understand was that the proscription was itself the means by which she would become more like God, a self-sacrificing Three-in-One. As Athanasius reflected on the Three perpetually giving to one another, pouring love out in a divine perichoresis, he insisted that “a divine self-abasement is integral to the biblical character of God.”[i] If that is true, then, in sacrificing our own desires for the will of God, we practice the divine life, we enter into the drama of the divine love, we grow in the likeness of God. We too become givers, and even when we had literally nothing to give, we could give ourselves, our love and trust. The option to deprive herself of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was in fact pure opportunity for Eve to enter into that sacred movement of self-denying love. It was an invitation to be like God.
Third, the encounter with the serpent was preceded by an unknown period of time when Adam and Eve were given the opportunity to learn trust in God even when he had a “face” of rejection. It’s always hard to hear “no.” Two-year-olds regularly display the full range of feelings around that word. When a loving adult says “no,” it’s natural for them to feel deprived, to feel that the adult is being hard or unloving. Our God too says “no,” and these refusals easily trigger inner frustration and despair, particularly when those refusals deal with matters intimately connected with our sense of self and well-being. And yet, like a good parent with her children, God wishes that we would trust him, that we would accept the “no” with a spirit of peace in light of his wisdom. There God invites us to let him define us, instruct us, limit us, fulfill us; while the knowledge of good and evil seemed necessary to complete us in some intrinsic way, God was asking us to forego that. There in the heart of perfect Eden, we were still required to trust God with apparent disappointment, misunderstanding, and the unknowingness of divine purpose.
Fourth, in Eden, we were created with the posture of receivers, called to receive what we’re able to receive and be made able to receive only what God wished to give us. Only by self-denial could we actually make ourselves open enough to receive. If God wished us to have the knowledge of good and evil, we could be sure he would give it to us. All good things come down from the Father of Lights, and thus we don’t conjure them, manufacture them, or coerce them. They are given. God is the Giver of all, and we are created to receive. What better way to learn this than to accept what is given, and reject what is not given.
John Byam Liston Shaw’s painting suggests the essential receptivity embedded in Edenic life. There they receive from the angel what God provided. As they extend their hands in humble adoration of the God who gives generously, the scene becomes eucharistic, a foretaste of the Great Thanksgiving that will define God’s people as they reenter the path of of self-sacrifice, this time by the second Adam.
John Byam Liston Shaw (1872-1919)
The refusal to embrace self-denial as a way of life, a way of entering into Trinitarian love and mutual joy, choosing instead to take what seemed natural, what seemed good, what seemed necessary for our own full and abundant human existence and to justify our actions based on our own desires and appetites led to the suspension of the invitation. The serpent’s message has been splintered and refracted in so many directions that it would be impossible to trace the fingers of its allure.
As Thomas Traherne once wrote, “There is no Calamity but Sin.” Why? Because it “offends” God? Because it breaks some moral code? Perhaps there is truth to all those, but primarily, I believe, it severs us from the life of the Trinity that ever moves in self-giving, self-sacrificing love, within the Three, and, quite clearly in the life of Jesus, from the Three to his lost and broken world. Come, God says, live in my likeness, for as you deny your “natural” rights to something that seems good, desirable for your fulfillment, and necessary for human flourishing, you open yourself to my life being poured into you. You open yourself up to “participation in the divine nature” (2 Pt 1.4), a nature that in its giving and receiving finds perfect joy.
Kathleen Mulhern is an associate professor of Christian Formation and Soul Care at Denver Seminary. Raised in the Evangelical Free Church, she is now an Episcopalian. She holds a Ph.D. in European History, an M.A. in French Literature, an M.A. in Church History, and a book in each hand.Show Sources
[i] Kahled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 119.