Uncentered: How Adam and Eve Reveal the Truth about You, Me and the Middle Tree

I feel as if I’ve read the first three chapters of Genesis a zillion times.

As a young adult I read the Bible through each year, starting with Genesis. Then I began following the lectionary, which leads us through the Scriptures every three years. That’s a much more meditative pace, but Genesis 1-3 is so central to understanding ourselves that it’s one of those scriptures with a place every year in the cycle many Christians contemplate together.

During my decade as an English instructor at a little state college in Colorado, I also read and discussed Genesis 1-3 each year with college freshmen.

That college is now a university and the textbook we read has gone out of print, but I still return to my copy from time to time. Reading, Writing and the Humanities allowed us to wrestle with the same questions that have absorbed great minds throughout the centuries.

Where Do We Come From? was the first of those ponderous questions. Selections from the Bible, literature, anthropology and astrophysics were presented for our reflection.

The story of Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden is easily mocked when we mislabel its genre and skim its surface.

Recognizing its poetic changes everything. “The story of mankind’s fall from innocence to sin…is a true story told in symbolic language,” writes Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft.

Deep disclosures about human nature are layered in the wisdom of Genesis, and that’s what rose to the surface when we discussed the Fall in class.

Adam and Eve expose our wandering hearts. They cause us to confront the consequences of over-reaching curiosity and our desire to share the blame when we push past conscience and the truth it speaks within us.

“You can’t blame Adam,” one young man in my class protested, “Eve was the only woman on earth! What was he supposed to do?” We all laughed over that one, yet we saw the truth it revealed about every one of us. We really want to slither out from beneath responsibility for things we know are right.

Nobody wants to be told “no.”

Acknowledging this is actually freeing. It enables us to embrace a larger and more fulfilling truth. Consequences are part of the structure of reality, but a remedy, a path to recovery, is built in as well. Genesis reveals that God is not a miserable crank, but a freedom-giving Father, a Lover and a Guide. Something much better lies ahead.

On the first Sunday of Lent this year as I once again read Genesis 3, it struck me with new force that God had placed Eden’s one forbidden tree in the middle of the garden, its center.

Every other tree offered our first parents the freedom of exploration, the delight of discovery, the feeding and the flourishing of their bodies.

And one thing was to be kept central: trust in their Maker, who delighted in communing with them after each day’s new discovery. 

Like naming the animals, exploring the trees was increasing human understanding of the goodness of the created order. The one tree they were not to explore held knowledge not only of the good, but of good and evil. It’s central to our flourishing that we align ourselves with the Garden’s good order.

Peter Kreeft reminds us:

There are two ways to know any evil–for instance, drug addiction. You can know it as a scientist or psychologist from without, from a mind that’s sober and not addicted, or you can know it from within, by experience.”

Everyone knows the regret of gaining knowledge of sin by first-hand action. Everyone knows that sin causes pain. If you dislike the religious connotation of the word, you don’t even have to call it sin. Call it selfishness, stupidity or disfunction. Whatever the label, we all know that pandemonium results from our pushback.

As my ornery grandpa said once acknowledged about the mess he’d made of his circumstances, “I get blamed for everything I do.”

Reality is what it is, and that’s one of the reasons I believe that the account of the Fall, though symbolic, is absolutely true.

Opportunity to gain knowledge of evil by trying it out had to exist if exploration of Eden was to be one of true freedom. God won’t deny us the dignity of the choice. And the even greater dignity of intimate knowledge of Himself in the mystery of Christ was already part of the plan. Christ already was and would be Adam and Eve’s inheritance. And yours and mine as well.

In The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path, Bishop Robert Barron names “finding the center” as the way to spiritual freedom. Along that path, “knowing you’re a sinner” and “realizing your life is not about you” get us closer and closer to true freedom and the joy that is not dependent on circumstances.

We still tend to prefer first-hand knowledge of evil to trust in the good, and in this uncentering, we continue releasing ever more chaos into the world. We want to think the problem is other people without owning our own contribution to the harm that’s ripping the world apart.

But admitting the truth is the only place to start. “If you love peace, then hate injustice, but hate these things in yourself first, not in another,” Thomas Merton advises.

We’ve all disrespected our Creator by heading straight for that middle tree. Admitting it helps us grow in the virtue of mercy, as we attempt to re-center our disordered lives. But it’s not hopeless in this garden we’ve all turned into a desert.

There is another tree.

The Cross is the tree where all the intimate knowledge of evil was absorbed and turned back into good, and we re-center our lives each time we return to to it. The season of Lent helps us journey there as we embrace the good disciplines that help us remember who we are and how much we are loved.

Then, on Good Friday, we venerate the Tree where all the unhappy knowledge we’ve gained by rejecting God’s order is righted by the One who defeated death and whose wounds still bear healing for every uncentered soul.

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You might also like Peter Rabbit, Bluebeard, and Adam and Eve: A Theological Meandering and Christ’s Naked Humility vs. All our Cloaks and Crowns.

When meditating on the story of the Fall this year, I was inspired by Peter Kreeft’s commentary on the readings and Bishop Robert Barron’s Sunday Sermon. Barron’s book The Strangest Way is also explored in the film/audio series Untold Blessing.

I still regret that Reading, Writing and the Humanities is no longer in print, but if I were teaching English 101 today, I’d choose Learning the Good Life: Wisdom from the Great Hearts and Minds That Came Before, edited by Jessica Hooten Wilson and Jacob Stratman, as a springboard for discussion and writing. Hooten Wilson’s substack The Scandal of Reading: Uncovering Holy Wisdom, is one of my favorite sources of inspiration, my pre-order of her Reading for the Love of God: Reading as a Spiritual Practice should be arriving soon!

Images by Алексей Громов on Pixabay, Priscilla Du Preez and Jenny Smith on Unsplash, and falco on Pixabay.

2 thoughts on “Uncentered: How Adam and Eve Reveal the Truth about You, Me and the Middle Tree

  1. Great article, Peggy. The diversity of sources you draw on is enriching and interesting. Its also a very good reminder about the creation story being a poem and not a documentary and from that perspective, the stories may not be real but they are true! your work is always refreshing, inspiring and grounded in faith…thank you!

    1. Thank you so much Tim! It really means a lot to hear from readers like you. I appreciate it more than I can say. May your Holy Week be a blessed time of faith. Happy Easter to you!

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