The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is one of the best known religious allegories about the origins of humanity.
Yet our traditional way of reading this allegory is disturbingly negative. What ought to be a celebration of the origins of humanity is construed as a sorrowful tale of disobedience, punishment and fall from grace.
Worse still, Christian theologians have drawn from the allegory a misguided doctrine of “original sin” whereby all humanity inherits the sinfulness of Adam, and women have suffered from the image of Eve the Temptress.
Now, it’s understandable why theologians like Augustine formulated the doctrine. They believed that Adam and Eve were actual historical persons. We know better. Eden is an allegory. Yet we persist in drawing doctrinal conclusions from a fictitious event instead of reinterpreting the allegory in the light of modern scientific knowledge.
How might we do so?
If we look at the story in the light of evolution, we can see the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory of the emergence of consciousness in human beings. It is consciousness that makes humans a unique species. It separates us radically from other animals by estranging us from a purely instinctive way of life, and allows us to reason and reflect on our situation. This is both blessing and curse.
On the negative side, it makes us only too aware we and our loved ones will die; it haunts us with the knowledge that we will do bad things and bad things will happen to us; and it confronts us constantly with hard ethical choices.
On the positive side, without consciousness there is no laughter, no love, no arts, no human flourishing. Indeed, no possibility of a relationship with God.
For it’s consciousness alone that allows us to grow freely towards God. Or as Augustine poetically put it: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”
So logically we must believe God intended humans to flourish, and therefore to acquire consciousness. No doubt God, like any parent, was conflicted. On the one hand, if Adam and Eve stayed in Eden they would remain safe and free from harm, though not growing in wisdom. On the other hand, if they left the Edenic state of blissful ignorance, not only could they do bad things, but bad things could happen to them.
Every parental instinct must have urged God to create a programmed universe in which all creatures would instinctively obey his every command.
But love triumphed.
God decided to restrain his power and take a risk (all acts of love involve risk) on what would happen (God, after all, although outside of time, can’t see into the future any more than we can since the future doesn’t exist: it’s purely a concept).
So God offered a gift of pure love: freedom. However, freedom entails evil. Not only will we humans make bad choices, but the only way God could create life in this universe was through evolution, which entails a messy randomness as matter/energy evolves slowly, painfully through a process of emerging complexity towards a cosmic consciousness.
So we have to imagine God, in the Eden allegory, as reluctantly but clearly offering a choice to Adam and Eve. If not, why put the tree conspicuously in the middle of the garden? Eve chose wisely and courageously. Adam the wimp blamed Eve and, implicitly, God. Ah . . . we men!
So can the doctrine of original sin be rescued?
Let’s give the last word to one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, the French Jesuit and scientist Teilhard de Chardin, who maintained that “original sin” simply symbolizes the inevitable chance of evil, which accompanies the existence of all created beings.
The church might well follow the example of Teilhard and start reconciling all Christian doctrine with modern science. Faith can either gain from science or become increasingly irrelevant.
• Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and commentator on social issues. Email [email protected]