When people talk about the fall of humanity in the Jewish Genesis story, we never talk much about the Tree of Life. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil gets all the headlines and sermons because that’s the one that’s supposed to define us. That’s what we see, when we look around at humanity: The Fall, and a lot of evil triumphing over good.
Martin Luther, the father of Protestant churches, “was once asked what God was doing before the creation of the world,” according to German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “His answer was that he was cutting canes for people who ask such useless questions.”
Who says you can’t offer a doctrine of abundant grace with a bit of sarcastic wit? For Bonhoeffer, this was really a question of why. Why did God create? What was going on, such that God decided to make a world? As Bonhoeffer saw it, this is a question rooted in guilt, shame, and fear. It’s really asking: What did God want of the world? What did God make me for? Am I living up to it? Am I accepted? It’s a question falling from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, not the Tree of Life.
“The beginning can only be spoken of by those who are the middle and are anxious about the beginning and the end, by those who are tearing at their chains, by those — who only in their sin know they are created by God,” Bonhoeffer explained. “Where God is not recognized as the merciful Creator, he must needs be known only as the wrathful judge.”
This is powerful stuff to be writing amid the rise of German Fascism, one of many cases throughout history when humans thought they were up to God’s task of raising up the good and exterminating evil, and, in fact, they did just the opposite. Bonhoeffer ended up a martyr for his plot to assassinate Hitler. But we don’t need the Nazis to help us imagine an angry god. We’ve got Zeus and his lightning bolts, Dante’s Inferno, hurricanes as divine punishment, per Pat Robertson. We can see this in the presidential debates on the economy: One side operates on a Good-and-Evil “Fall” politics of scarcity and self-preservation, the other on a Tree-of-Life “Creation” politics of abundance and sharing. It’s “he that won’t work, don’t let him eat” versus “sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” It’s God as Judge versus God as Creator. (Ultimately, the Tree-of-Life politics seem to end at our borders, as both sides are willing to use violence to protect our national economic interests, but I suppose a little tree-of-life is better than none).
It’s easier to believe, as in Nietzsche and Darwin, that violence rules the universe. At least that way you know self-interest is the only way to survive; even if self-interest looks like altruism or piety, you know it’s all about saving your own skin. It’s much harder to believe in a merciful Creator. It’s much harder to believe we’re part of something that’s ultimately good. It’s much harder to believe in the garden of Eden, utopia, where you could take the Tree of Life for granted, until you ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
“Before this, life was not problematic, nor was it something to be pursued or seized,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “It was there, given, life in the presence of God. … It was in the middle – that is all that is said about it. The life that comes forth from God is in the middle. This means that God, who gives life, is in the middle. In the middle of the world that is at Adam’s disposal and over which he has been given dominion is not Adam himself but the tree of divine life. Adam’s life comes from the middle which is not Adam himself but God. It constantly revolves around this middle of existence without ever making the attempt to make this middle of existence its own possession. It is characteristic of man that his life is a constant circling around its middle, but that it never takes possession of it. And this life from the middle, which only God possesses, is undisturbed as long as man does not allow himself to be flung out of his groove.”
Life is like a vinyl record. I like that. We’re all symphonies on 78s. Masterpieces. But if we don’t spin around the center, the music turns ugly. God’s not the critic, clicking his tongue at the ugliness. It’s just that, off-centered, we can’t enjoy our connection to the Tree of Life, the source of abundant Creation. If we try to go our own way, there’s nothing to do but look after ourselves.
Tree image, Rudy Bagozzi / Shutterstock.com