Wisdom Through Experience

Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.

– David Bentley Hart

The opening chapters of Genesis present two creation stories. The first story asserts that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. We are crowned with royal dignity and authority and are commissioned as viceroys to become channels of blessings for creation over which we rule as God’s representatives (or as God’s high priests whose mission is to mediate those blessings). 

The second and third chapters of Genesis present a somewhat different story. We are made from the dust of the earth (and therefore are earthlings) into which God has breathed Her own Spirit. We are all gardeners appointed by God to serve and nourish the earth. We are placed in a paradise which contains two unusual trees: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. We are told that we may eat from every tree (in both stories of creation humans are originally vegetarians) except one—the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. This prohibition was for the good of these innocents. (It’s interesting that these “primeval” humans were not forbidden to eat from the Tree of Life.) 

Knowledge of good and evil refers to the experience of all things. In the Hebrew culture, the verb “to know” meant “to experience” on a personal and intimate level. The verb could even refer to sexual intercourse as in “And Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain.” 

Of course, the original couple were tempted to eat from the tree believing the promise that in such eating they would become like God. The snake argued that the prohibition was based on God’s fear that humans might become as powerful as the Almighty. The serpent’s lie seduced the couple into doubting the trustworthiness of their Creator. They became convinced that God had ulterior motives behind the divine prohibition. (I assume that all readers of this article realize this is a story which literally and historically is not true but a narrative which contains profound truths regarding God and the human situation. As with all such wisdom, it’s a story about none of us and all of us.)

So much Western Christianity assumes that this incident of eating the forbidden truth constitutes “the Fall” and the curse of “original sin.” It’s telling that elsewhere the Hebrew Scriptures never refer to this passage as an explanation of the origin of sin and evil in our world. As I pointed out in my series on “original sin,” neither the Jewish faith nor Eastern Christianity has any concept of original sin of which we are guilty. We may suffer the consequences of the sins of our ancestors and may become guilty as we join in that sin, but “Adam and Eve’s” sin is not an inherited condition with which we are born and of which we are guilty. We may be born into a world which has sin, but we are not born sinners. We can thank the later Augustine and Reformers like John Calvin for the ludicrous theological argument of inherited guilt. 

Eastern Early Church Fathers, for the most part, argued that humans were (and are) born innocent but without the experience which must occur for them to learn wisdom. Innocence is not the same as maturity or perfection. The maturing and perfecting process takes time and must allow for freedom of choice on our part. In our story, Adam and Eve are innocent (they don’t even have a concept of nakedness!). Like newborns and toddlers, they trust their Parent/God. But when the inevitable temptation comes, they begin to strike out on their own without the knowledge/experience of understanding the consequences of their choices. Without a trust in the goodness and motives of their Creator, they decide to explore all possibilities (good and evil). Once their orientation becomes solely or primarily themselves and not the God who made them and wills for their best, they embrace a way of living which can only lead to disaster. They no longer choose to walk with God in the cool of the day and in intimate communion. Instead, they hide from God in the bushes and, tellingly, they hide from one another (the proverbial fig leaves sewn to cover what they now see as their nakedness). 

Alienation has come to Eden. But what those church fathers realized was that such an outcome was inevitable. We cannot remain innocent and become mature and experienced at the same time. Like children and teenagers, we must have the space to make our choices and freely pursue our identities until we learn through experience that we are restless in our attempts to become human until we find our true identities in God’s image and likeness. 

The story tells us that God exiled Adam and Eve (read “us”) from the Garden and posted cherubim to guard the Tree of Life. Living forever with the choices we make in life would not be an enviable existence, especially when we must live with the choices others make in this world. Immortality without morality, existence without the transcendence which makes life worthy and desirable, and an innocence corrupted by evil, arrogance, mistrust, and greed are not a good foundation upon which to build a life or civilization. The metacrisis we face today in all its ramifications is the result of an innocence that has been poisoned by lethal choices we have made over millennia—choices which threaten to end life as we know it for future generations. The story of the garden of Eden has been and is our story today. We are born innocent but are cursed by the choices of our ancestors and by our own collusion with those choices. (In all our discussion of sin, we must keep in mind how Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity differ in their understanding of sin. In Western Christianity, sin is viewed as a crime which much be punished and, therefore, in need of a judge and a jail. Eastern Christianity, for the most part, saw sin as a disease which needs healing and, therefore, needs a physician and a hospital. When Jesus was asked why he ate with tax-collectors and sinners, he replied, “Those who are healthy have no need of a physician, but rather those who are ill; I have come to call not the upright, but sinners, to a change of heart.” What many Christians are prone to forget is that we humans are as much victims of sin as we are perpetrators.

However, as the depths of our faith (and other faiths) tell us, we can learn from our experiences. We can rediscover the wisdom of living in balance with our Creator and Her sacred creation. We can choose lives which serve the common good of all. “At the end of experience,” we can listen to old and new voices which contain founts of wisdom which can show us the different ways we must embrace if we are to survive at all. And in that rediscovery, we will recover our innocence which will progress in maturity and perfection until we become “partakers of the divine nature.” (II Peter). 

Wisdom does not automatically come with time or age. Some of the most foolish people I have ever known grew to old age and never learned or trusted anything that really mattered. Wisdom is a choice, an openness, a humility which knows that experience without transcendent grounding in the One who made and loves us leads to a premature dying in all its manifestations.

However, ultimately, according to the Easter faith, our destiny and that of this creation doesn’t depend on our choices. The Bible begins with the Tree of Life guarded from humans for their own protection. It ends with the return of the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem whose gates are eternally for all—and I mean all—to enter once they trust their Creator and embrace the path of wisdom which is the way of love. (The “leaves of the Tree are for the healing of the nations.) The journey from innocence through experience to “partaking in the divine nature” (which was the original purpose of our being created in God’s image and likeness) may be long, painful, and frustrating for many, our Maker will seek us until She finds us. The story in the Bible after the Garden of Eden is the unending quest of a God who will not and cannot let us go. Like a parent who remembers her babies in her arms and the toddlers she helped learn to walk, God’s love is unconditional. And as Paul says in I Corinthians 13, such love never gives up because God is the beginning and the end of every story, and that “end” stretches throughout all time and eternity. 

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