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Why are we not taking care of it today? A theologian’s reflections

There was a garden
at the origin of the world

03 September 2022

Today, walking through a beautiful park is a privilege we can all enjoy. There was a time, on the other hand, when only aristocrats could afford to live in castles surrounded by extraordinary gardens, almost always built according to the “Italian garden” model, which has become world-famous. However, if one wants to try to understand the biblical myth of the Garden of Eden, i.e. one of the two creation stories with which the book of Genesis opens (cc. 2-3), one has to appeal to a very different imagination. One must have been in the Near East, where the biblical tales originated, or even in Andalusia, where it is still possible to experience why only a garden is suitable for recounting the origin of all that lives. The water of the fountains that gushes and gurgles, the shade that even abates an implacable sun that has made a desert of its surroundings, the lushness of plants and flowers that show off their beauty. Only those who have been able to experience this mixture of sensations can understand why in the Bible the great mystery of the birth of life is traced back to the work of a God who “planted a garden in Eden, in the east. It was there he put the man whom he had formed” (2:8), a God who is portrayed as a ruler or high official of an oriental court “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (3:8). It is within this garden that the whole great myth of the second creation story unfolds; a mise en scène as rich in chiaroscuro as human life is, in which strength and fragility, harmony and laceration, collide and intertwine.

Eden is more than just a stage backdrop or a film set. It is a place that pulses with life, where a spring of water gushed from the earth and irrigated the soil, so God can mold the dust of the earth. Then, by infusing it with his breath of life, he made it into a living being; and it would be thanks to that living being that the garden was to be cultivated and cared for, and the  animals acquire their identity because they would be given a name too. In Eden, life does not just begin, but bursts forth with all its energy, whether that be positive or negative. Without this polarity, without this tension, life is not life and neither is God. The biblical idea of God only takes shape if it is set in relation to the truth of this life. Real life, not the artificial, therefore precisely for this reason, it is full of contrasts and, above all, with limited sovereignty.

For human beings only, Eden is not only the place where life reproduces itself mechanically and deterministically. Instead, it is the place of life’s intelligence, with all that that entails.

Many centuries later, a wise Israelite, the son of Sirach, grasped the deepest meaning of the Genesis account, which after all does not narrate a creation from nothing of all things, including human beings. Instead, it revealed to him that he had been given the secret of life as a gift. “He made for them[a] tongue and eyes; he gave them ears and a mind for thinking. He filled them with knowledge and understanding, and showed them good and evil” (Sirach 17:6-7). Eden, the garden of life, is the place where one thinks, where questions arise and the deep meaning of things is sought. It is the place where, unlike all other living beings, humans must measure themselves against discernment, and experience that diversity between species; moreover, that diversity between the sexes. This entails us to confront ourselves with the wiles and seductions. In addition, to accept that without death there is no life because to be human entails the desire to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that is, to access the deepest mystery of life, even if this means giving up eating the fruit of the tree of life and attain everlasting life.

The Genesis Eden myth script unfolds between two factors. The first, the interdict with which God wants to protect humans from the burden of the full knowledge of life (2:16: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”.); and, the second, the realisation that the knowledge of good and evil is not without price (3:22: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever”). The garden can only mutely witness, the birth of conscience and the loss of innocence. There is no going back, and what the myth recounts is not only original, it is also originating. Indeed, the polarity between good and evil dominates the human condition. Moreover, not only the relationships between humans, but also the relationship with the earth and everything that lives on it. We cannot pretend that we are unaware of this.

For biblical faith, the knowledge that we are the only living being capable of “cultivating and guarding” the earth is a theological fact. It is no coincidence that what others call the universe or the cosmos or even planet earth, believers call creation. In addition, they feel they share responsibility for it with God himself. Why, then, is the planet on which we live so seriously ill today? Why, despite the scientific evidence and the hammering calls to care for the earth do we allow ourselves to be seduced by the pursuit of immediate interests even when they result in death sentences on everyone’s future?

As the story of Eden goes, these are no rhetorical questions because the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has been plucked. One can make mistakes, of course, but one cannot shirk responsibility for what one is and what one does. This is the profound identity of humans. Therefore, it is for this reason that Pope Francis with his Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ (2015) wished not only to propose a broad and at the same time stringent analysis of what he identifies as “the human root of the ecological crisis” (nos. 101-136), and to trace out the lines of “an integral ecology” (nos. 137-162), but also wished to forcefully recall the political responsibility with which each person is invested in relation to the planet (nos. 163-201).  On several occasions, Francis recalls that this is the responsibility of each and every person. It is for this reason he addresses his Encyclical “to every person who inhabits this planet” (n. 3), as John XXIII did for the first time with his Pacem in terris (1963). When it is a question of peace or an ecological crisis, everyone -beyond the different ideological or religious faiths-, must feel called upon to promote the common good.

However, to these documents an appendix should be added with the names of all those who have spent their lives, sometimes to the point of martyrdom, for peace or for the care of the common home. Men and women, and especially women, who have combatted against wars, rather than at war, in defence of the Earth, which they experience more as a mother than as a sister. Women from all over the world are trying to weave the web of relations between humans and with the planet finally redeemed from the delirium of omnipotence. Perhaps, too, being daughters of Eve this no longer means carrying the burden of guilt but rather taking responsibility for the knowledge of good and evil. All the while knowing that this entails accepting all the painful ambiguity of living.

For my part, I realised this many years ago when I attended a conference of liberation theologians held in São Paulo, Brazil. I entered an immense hall the back of which was dominated by an impressive mural evoking Michelangelo’s fresco of creation. However, it did not extol Adam’s virile power; instead, it was the generativity of Eve that could be seen. From her womb bursts forth the river of water that gives life to all the fruits of the earth, and to what human intelligence is capable of creating. I understood that day why the biblical myth of the Garden of Eden ends with the statement, “The man called his wife’s name Eve,[a] because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20).

by Marinella Perroni
Biblical scholar, Pontifical Athenaeum Saint Anselm