I don’t come to the scriptures as a sophisticate.
I’m a layman. An interested, believing, and educated layman, yet I know that those learned in the scriptures might often smile as I recount my reactions to the words there on the page. There is much to be learned about the contexts in which the words were spoken and written, and lots of that I just have no idea about.
Nonetheless, and knowing that my impulses and initial reactions are unlearned and might be corrected rather quickly by wiser heads than my own, I offer this about my reactions to the story of Eve and the serpent – the temptation and fall of man.
It’s as clear as can be that the fruit was forbidden and that Eve – knowingly and willfully, as we say in the criminal law – transgressed the command of God and the rest, as they say, is history. We might just leave the matter there and consider the lesson learned. But I always wondered this: what is wrong with “the knowledge of good and evil?” I mean, isn’t that kind of what religion is all about, anyway? Is it not the case that we read the Bible to gain moral acuity and perspective? That is, that we hope thereby to gain a knowledge of good and evil. And in the New Testament, when the Apostles are taking about the Spirit-bestowed gift of “discernment,” are they not talking about the ability to distinguish good from evil? Isn’t that kind of the point?
If so, then it seemed odd to me that the tree from which humanity was forbidden to eat was this one having to do with “the knowledge of good and evil.” It seemed to me like that would have been – would be, actually – one of the first things God would want humanity to have.
It was somewhere in a book by Andy Crouch – Playing God, in fact – that I think I got a satisfactory answer to my long-pending question on this point. I that book (I think it was that one) Crouch suggests or posits that the tree imparted not moral perspective or acuity, but rather filled the eater with the infecting idea that he or she was, in him or herself, an arbiter of good and evil. That is, that man could decide the question of what is good and what is evil by himself, without reference to God.
I’m attracted to that very explanation, not only because it makes the story a little less contradictory-looking, but because the story, understood this way, certainly seems to jive with the world I have lived in all my life.
That world is the world of the Twentieth Century, which is to say the century of revolution, pogrom, and war; the century of the holocaust and the Great Purge.
Right now I am reading a book that might fairly be considered a seminal commentary on the Twentieth Century and all of the unprecedented murder and oppression it contained. The book is entitled Witness, and it is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers who in the 1930s operated as a spy for the Soviet Union in the United States. Chambers was a part of what the Soviets called an “apparatus.” This one worked to obtain information and documents from government agencies, photocopy them and transmit them to Soviet operatives in New York City for future use in the revolution to come, whereby the democratic institutions of the Republic would be undermined and control of the nation would be vested in the Central Committee.
In 1938, after learning of Stalin’s “Great Purge” wherein thousands of Communists were slaughtered to make way for the coming utopia, Chambers rethought his allegiance and decided, at great risk to himself and his family, to desert the party. At play in his decision to desert was the conviction that Stalin’s Great Purge was not an aberration, but was perfectly consistent with the logic of Communism. Given that the Communist ideology allowed anything that would further the revolution and the march toward utopia, there would be no end to carnage and no end to oppression there.
What bound these Communists together, “in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, and honor,” wrote Chambers, is their own sort of faith:
It [Communism] is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.
It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in his image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.
Thus, Chambers’ decision to desert the Communist party was a conversion from the second-oldest faith known to humanity to the first. That is, to faith in God.
The problem with blogging about this book is not that there is too little to consider and comment on, but rather that there is too much. His life is a microcosm of the past century and his life was a turning point in the great struggle of that age between these two faiths.
What his book has to say to us here in this 21st century is simply overwhelming.
And so today I want to end with the notion that, although in many ways official Communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, the second-oldest faith of which Chambers writes – that is, man’s arrogant trust in his own resources, his conviction that he can make the world a better place if only he can get God out of his way – is very much alive and kicking.
It is alive in the hallways of our colleges and universities where students block the hallways to prevent the presentation and discussion of ideas they hold to be wrong. No matter to them that these ideas have their roots in Christianity. They are wrong, so the “righteous marchers” hold, and any means available to stop them from being given a fair hearing are justified in the name of progress. History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In these new social justice warriors, we have the next generation of those who have bitten deeply into the apple of arrogance.