The early bible stories are impossibly rich. In my view, they don’t belong to Christianity or Judaism exclusively but to ‘world spirituality’ because of their depth and universality. Since these old stories are so deeply embedded in our histories and our psyches, we need to know them; biblical and symbolic illiteracy is one of the woeful aspects of our time. And even if we are reductionist atheists and are dismissive of the great mytho-poetics of the Bible, these stories will still have their influence, through language, literature and culture.
Bible stories are complex and literary as opposed to ideological; they don’t give us ready-made wisdom bites but describe complex symbolic patterns and possibilities. Moreover, it is often the outliers—like William Blake, Søren Kierkegaard, and maybe even Friedrich Nietzsche, to name some well known heretics—who, paradoxically, have something vital to add to the tradition. Today’s most obvious example is Jordan Peterson who is reawakening contemplation of the Bible for the masses without being a churchgoer himself.
Peterson has shown that these stories belong to everyone. He has helped rescue the Bible from sectarianism and religiosity, and brought it back to the public at large, in an age of vapid materialistic atheism. Traditionalists need not be offended by him, as he has also caused a lot of people to go back to church. My own background in spiritual practice is buddhistic as opposed to Christian, but this has never stopped me learning about the Bible from Northrop Frye, Ivan Ilych, Réne Girard, Carl Jung, various Jewish adepts and now Jordan Peterson.
As a non-Christian and non-Jew in a Judeo-Christian but mostly secular culture, perhaps it is presumptuous of me to speak on these texts. However, I don’t pretend to do so with any kind of theological authority—I rather aim to keep a beginners mind. In Zen we are warned not to become experts, and to keep the deep riddles of existence vivid and alive, which I think that the Bible stories can help us to do.
The early Genesis stories especially contains all kinds of zen-like Koans related to essential questions on the nature of consciousness and ethics, good and evil, man and women, nature and culture. The story of Adam and Eve is a poetic information bomb, evidence of wisdom that is so condensed and deep, that it continues to unfold and reveal new truths to us. Since there are outer, inner, and secret—exoteric and esoteric—practical and mystical—meanings to these stories, it is sheer madness to take them on a mere literal level. It is better to think of them as existential riddles, which can lead to fresh surprises and insight.
The story of Adam and Eve is one of betrayal. Betrayal is the catalyst for the proverbial fall from grace—nothing hurts human beings more than being betrayed. In Dante’s inferno the lowest rung of hell is reserved for betrayers, or those who destroy our innocence and good faith. Betrayal can turn the rich garden of our existence into what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called ‘the desert of the real’, which means a disenchanted, painful world. And everyone has an experience of betrayal, and their idyllic dream smashed, only to wake up in the desert of the real.
In other words, the condition for adulthood is to leave Eden and face work, time, and loss—to experience malevolence and disappointment, birth and death. To eat from the tree of good and evil is to open ourselves to the possibility of addiction and depression, to the ennui of meaningless toil, to disharmony in relationship, and to what the buddhists call the first noble truth, the truth of suffering. We suffer shame and would like to hide from God, as Adam did. But in hiding, we become pathetic, envious, weak, cruel — we to work hard to sew the proverbial fig leaf over our privates. Shame gives us clothing, technology, and war.
It is terrible to watch children experience the fall from Eden, when a beloved family dog dies for instance. After such a loss a child’s heart is broken forever and he or she will never recover. The child now has the knowledge that everybody they have ever known, including themselves, will also die. The reaction is to weep, and then become sullen and resentful, then angry; but if the child is educated properly he or she will develop a fighting spirit and try to regain Eden, in some kind of a way. The post edenic state is the state of a permanent broken heart, but it is also the state of evolving into an adult. We have all eaten the poison fruit of time. And wisdom has its cost.
The Serpent, who breaks apart the primal harmony of the man and woman, creates jealousy, envy, and shame — causing Adam, for the first time, to want to hide from God. The union and transparency between Adam and Eve is now broken, from now on the couple are cursed to toil outside the garden and ‘work on ourselves’. On the other hand, the apple is also the cost of self-consciousness or wisdom — of not remaining childishly codependent. So again, it’s not a simple morality tale. We lose paradise at some point, but we must also work to regain it.
We all have Adam and Eve’s experience of falling from a ‘state of grace’ — we all meet the serpent in one form or another. There is a serpent in our own little walled garden, in our imagined perfect world. The serpent represents ‘envy’ — for envy causes us the most hidden shame. It makes us compare ourselves to others for the first time; it introduces hierarchy, distance, ambition to be something other than what we are. Envy is such a subtle emotion we hide it from ourselves — but envy is also the engines of the world. Especially in the internet age.
Jealousy and Intimacy
Even though I have been considering the story of Adam and Eve for awhile, I recently had a bit of a revelation about it, which might seem obvious to some. I realized that Eve had an affair, symbolically speaking, with the serpent—who is depicted with a man’s head in certain artistic representations. How could I have missed this? This is also a story about the tragedy of conjugal betrayal. Adam partakes in the apple because he is jealous of Eve’s relationship with the serpent and her newfound knowledge of good and evil.
Jealousy has always been one of our most compelling literary themes, and the story of Adam and Eve is the precursor to Shakespeare’s Othello or the Jealous lovers in Proust. Jealousy causes us so much pathos and grief—it might be the beginning of ‘resentment for being’ in Peterson’s words. However, jealousy is also a hidden reason for our manic creativity in competing with others and trying to better ourselves.
We can suffer for many reasons, but jealousy can make us homicidal, as crimes of passion the world over attest to—jealousy can give us a glimpse of the numberless hells. And yet it can also be our libidinous force. If we are honest with ourselves we all have a secret envy for possessing ‘the knowledge of good and evil’, or the the skills, money, technologies—or the wife for that matter—of our neighbour. Desire may be entirely based on jealousy, if we consider it for a second.
To walk with God in the garden of Eden is the myth of perfect intimacy. It is the place where we are profoundly accepted for who we are—the opposite of the ‘real world’, where we have to work to prove ourselves to others. In the ‘real world’, we have that layer of armour called clothing but also endless psychological and protective boundaries. And yet what we most desire is to be naked with another—physically and emotionally—a return to real intimacy. After the first inevitable betrayal and loss we want to cover ourselves, and then we develop the nostalgic desire to be naked again and back in the garden. We are torn, in other words, between security and freedom.
Adam and Eve first exist in a kind of perfect responsiveness, in union with creation—the way a child does. There is no mental distance for the ‘children of God’ from bliss and terror—there are no mirrors to make a child doubt or define him or herself. There is no time, no work, no birth in the heavenly world of Eden. The serpent introduces duality, distance, sacrifice, death, the shadow, time, and the potential for evil—but also the potential for wisdom and depth. Is the serpent also God? In a non-dual understanding he would have to be.
Information and Self Consciousness
Besides pointing out that that the story of Adam and Eve is about the burden of self-consciousness, the invention of time and sacrifice, the awakening to the to good and evil, Jordan Peterson’s amazing point is that the apple in the garden of eden represents ‘information’. Information is a form of ‘meta-food’, or subtle nourishment. And the cost of information is self-consciousness and self-reflection, which leads to doubt and paralysis but also wisdom.
If we know too much, if we have too much abstract knowledge but not enough direct experience, we feel alienated. In the post-eden world we require information to survive, whereas in the garden we were protected from information by God. Our job as an adult is not to let the information of good and evil make us bitter and resentful, but to regain again the edenic state, which means to become a fully conscious human adult.
The apple gives us the information that everything that lives must die. In our child-like state of original innocence, we don’t know any death or what lies outside the gates of eden. The journey out of the garden involves some kind of terrible loss of innocence, some sacrifice, some divorce from childish blisses and terrors, some deadening, some loss of integrity—as well as betrayal of all kinds. Everyone experiences this primary suffering, or what the buddha called dukka or dissatisfaction. And dissatisfaction is related to the impermanence of all things.
Of course, we have to ‘get back to the garden’, which is the life’s work of a human being. This means to find a state that is not characterised by meaningless suffering, futility, and nihilism. The fabled enlightenment may be the end of suffering as the primary experience—even if the pains of life remain for that enlightened consciousness (from what I am told by those who who claim to be enlightened). The real garden is the state of pure meaning and not the childish nirvana—it is the place where we have transcended and overcome envy, where we find the real bliss of our life’s work. The heavenly garden is accessible through integration, through a re-awakening of the individual from his consumer dullness.
The tree of good and evil is the branches and fruits of information technology —it is no coincidence that the most popular technology company of all time is called Apple. And we can see how consuming endless information on our iphones pulls us into a state of desire, envy and dullness, and that too much information takes us further from the garden and towards a virtual, dead world. And yet these devices also make us powerful and connect us to others.
If we eat this apple for too long, it no longer has any taste—it turns into a virtual apple. The work then becomes to renew this world that we have practically destroyed through our envy, ambition, and violence, so that the real apples of good and evil can flourish again in the garden of eden, and the new tree and the new snake can be born.
Note: As an experiment in creating a ‘song-book’, I have included my song entitled ‘Adam and Eve’. This is part 3 of a series on biblical stories in Genesis, influenced in part by Jordan Peterson’s biblical commentaries. A painting or a video should accompany it as well, to make it a real Gesamtkunstwerk — Wagners word for a total piece of art — but that is beyond the scope of my talents. Any mixing and mastering, video work, or other collaborators are more than welcome to contact me. Note: this essay (and the song) aims to be an existential and mythopoetic rather than a doctrinal or religious one.
From the Genesis Series:
From the Genesis Series:
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits