The first thing to realize about the biblical Creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis — the mythology and its earlier roots in Sumeria have shaped the fundamental thinking of Western cultures — is that a beginning also implies an ending.
This may explain our ability as a culture to be relatively unconcerned about the threat of an environmental apocalypse. The expectation of an ending is built into the way the Western mind thinks, made inevitable by the beginning that inhabits the other pole of its mythology. This is one of many ideas thoughtfully explored by Susan Murphy in her fascinating book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis.
The original Eden, Murphy explains, was an idyllic place, existing in a suspended state of perfection where birth and death did not occur, where pain and suffering were absent, where predator and prey mingled in peace, and where the undivided wholeness of Divine Grace had not yet been broken into confusing components by Adam’s and Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
All this is lost when Adam and Eve succumb to temptation. Not only are the two sinners evicted from the Garden, but the innocence of Eden is also lost. The Fall is total. Nature’s state of suspended perfection is shattered. The thoughtless harmony of the unsullied beginning collapses. Predators now kill prey. Change and impermanence are unleashed. Pain and suffering must be endured as a punishment.
In this fallen world, the sexual urge — not that different from the temptation that lured Adam and Eve to the forbidden fruit — becomes the source of birth and then the haunting shadow of promised death. Having been cast out of Paradise, humanity must now live its numbered days in a homeless state of conscious remorse and guilt, adrift in a hostile and ruined place where its only power is to name and subdue nature while surviving as best we can. This is the situation at the end of the Old Testament.
No reprieve for Eden
The New Testament provides salvation for the fallen. God manifests in the wreckage of Eden in the form of Jesus, who promises salvation by dying for humanity’s original sin. All is forgiven in his death, resurrection and ascension. So the descendants of Adam and Eve can escape their guilt and humiliation through belief. The curse from disobedience is lifted, an eternal reprieve from death and suffering is granted, and a return to the paradise of Heaven once more guarantees the company and order of the Divine Presence.
Except this forgiveness is not granted to nature. No reprieve is offered to Eden. The birds of the air and the fishes of the sea, the beasts of the fields and the predators that devour them are not returned to their original, uncorrupted state. They remain in their fallen condition with no promise of salvation. The natural world in which humanity must live is not restored to its initial perfection but continues in its debased and spoiled form.
Saved Humanity, unredeemed world
This creates an inherent and profound dichotomy between a saved humanity and an unredeemed world. Although humanity is on Earth, it is no longer of Earth. The original oneness in Eden is not mended. Humanity’s sense of accord with nature has been expunged, first by disobedience and then by the promise of salvation. Each event has increased the disconnection, while distancing humanity from its obligation to care for Creation.
A fallen, ephemeral and chaotic nature of incessant struggle exists only to be used and abandoned on the way to humanity’s eventual salvation. The final Ending that is anticipated by the only Beginning — the inevitable Armageddon, whatever its form — will be the last cleansing of the imperfect before everything is returned to the eternally perfect.
Nature doubly victimized
Nature, therefore, is doubly victimized: first by the Fall — of which it is wholly innocent — and then by the impending apocalypse, of which it is also wholly innocent. In this story, Earth and all the marvels of Creation are only a stage upon which the human drama of sin, redemption and salvation occurs.
In the interim, between the very Beginning and the very Ending, an imperfect nature is merely present to be used by an exceptional humanity that will, by the certainty of belief and the promise of salvation, eventually escape the bonds of its sin. At the final reckoning, whatever remains of a tattered, exploited and abused nature, will be restored by the wisdom of Divine intervention. Despite the devastation, all will be fixed and all will be well.
These are not thoughts that lie close to the surface of human awareness. As with each mythology, its unspoken assumptions are mostly hidden in the secret recesses of its stories, rarely explained in their undisguised form because they are too close to the core of a culture’s identity to be articulated. Although ordinarily unnoticed, they are nonetheless so fundamental that they are responsible for shaping and directing most thought, attitudes and behaviour.
A culture’s mythology only comes to the surface of its own consciousness during times of upheaval and crisis: when circumstances become dire, when questions become profound, when doubt becomes intense, when urgency becomes fear, when the search for new meaning is forced to venture into places never before explored.
This is the situation in which Western culture now finds itself. The old mythology is stressed and failing. It is being examined, exposed and challenged in a rebuilding process that is usually long, arduous and painful. So some thinkers, such as Susan Murphy, are returning to the beginning to understand what is amiss, and how we might find a new way forward.