July 7, 2005
The Way of Nature
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God created all the plants. God created the fishes of the sea, the birds of the sky, and the creatures of the earth. On the sixth day God created man in his own image. God saw that everything he created was good. The earth was a paradise and man had only one rule—do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Rules are made to be broken… man ate the fruit. So began the fall of man.
What do we make of this story? Some take it to be the actual history of man and the earth. This literal interpretation has led to growing conflicts between Christian and scientist, church and state, as well as man and earth. Instead of taking the literal interpretation of this ancient story I propose we try to find a moral to the myth.
Here are a few headlines from the Google News homepage on July 7, 2005 at 12:03 AM: “Authorities think sex offender responsible for 3 Idaho deaths”; “Thousands are Arrested in India in Unrest Over Temple Site”; “Al-Qaida threatens to kill captured Egyptian diplomat”; “Israeli troops kill Palestinian militant in West Bank”; “Federal spy probe begins into California National Guard unit”; “Afghanistan condemns US raid”; “Florida Prosecutors Receive Limbaugh's Medical Records”. My oh my! The fall of man has been great. Before the fall we had paradise. Now we have war for peace. Our world is entrenched in a battle of good versus evil. One person may look at an action and call it good. Another may look at the same action and call it evil. If we interpret the creation story literally then we’ve had the knowledge of good and evil at our disposal for 6,000-10,000 years. In light of this knowledge shouldn’t we have agreed on some objective moral principles by now?
It has been assumed that the knowledge of good and evil must exist independently of humans. After all, God says in Genesis 3:22, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil” (New King James Bible). But what if we assume that this knowledge does not exist independently of humans? What if Adam and Eve thought they had knowledge of good and evil when they didn’t? Could the actual fall of man be the result of an error on the part of man to try and form a knowledge of good and evil in a world where good and evil do not exist?
Immediately after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” (New King James Bible Genesis 3:7). The first knowledge that Adam and Eve received after eating the fruit was that they were naked. Immediately after realizing they were naked they put on clothing—so obviously they must have believed that it was wrong to be naked. But what is so wrong with being naked? God created man in his own image… naked! We are born naked. We make love naked. I cannot find anything wrong with being naked; however, immediately after Adam and Eve received the knowledge of good and evil they put clothes on. Adam and Eve had no reason to be ashamed of their nakedness, but they believed they did.
What separates man from animal? Many have said it is our intellect, and I would not disagree; but what Darwinian evolution has taught us, to the indignation of those who hold a literal interpretation of Genesis, is that our similarities to animals far outweigh the differences. We like every other life form that has ever walked this planet were created from the earth. In theory we are the most highly evolved animals. There is no great divide between man and animal. But today much of humanity considers humans to be distinguished from animals; some find the idea that our ancestors are apes to be repulsive. What first separated man from animal?—the human belief that man is separate from animal. I do not know how this belief evolved, but the period when humans began to wear clothing must have been a crucial one to the development of this idea. Adam and Eve had no justification for their belief that they should be clothed. By imparting a knowledge onto the world that didn’t really exist man began to separate himself from nature. Many people believe that humans have a special status above other animals and above the world. The putting on of clothes by Adam and Eve symbolizes man’s divorce from nature as a result of man’s false knowledge.
The Old Testament creation myth is not the only story of its kind. Taoism also has similar tales. Martin Palmer, translator of The Book of Chuang Tzu, writes, “Taoism is the search for the Tao, the Way of Nature which, if you could become a part of it, would take you to the edge of reality and beyond” (Palmer xiii). Chuang Tzu, considered to be an important thinker in the Taoist tradition, writes of “men of old” who “did not know that anything existed […] Later, they knew that some things existed but they did not distinguish between them. Next came those who distinguished between things, but did not judge things […] It was when judgments were made that the Tao was damaged” (Palmer 14). One of the main tenets of eastern thought is the belief in the unity of all things. Everything is the same and divisions between things are illusions. By inventing a division such as the distinction between things that are good and evil we are deluding ourselves. The unity of all is lost when we invent divisions such as these. A Taoist sage lives in such a way that he is immersed in the Tao and knows he, as everything else is a part of the Tao.
As we know, the western tradition holds that humans can obtain knowledge of good and evil; but Taoism claims that there is no such knowledge. Westerners create moral laws designed to help people become good. All of these rules are based on what we believe to be our knowledge of good and evil—many, believe that if we didn’t have these laws man would live a reckless life. People fear that without guidance and moral laws humanity will have no knowledge of what is good and will consequently become base and animalistic. Taoism teaches that humans are fundamentally good because they are part of nature, and that the way of nature is good. Raymond M. Smullyan, author of The Tao is Silent, expresses this as he writes:
“A person who is truly free from morality has no need to reject it; he is free and simply leads a good life. Some may be afraid that he will then simply lead a bad life; this is one of the key differences between Taoistic thought and the thought of some Westerners, as well as some Easterners like the Chinese Legalists or Realists who regarded human nature as fundamentally evil and therefore believed that humans would act evilly unless checked by extremely rigid laws. Now, the Taoist ideal is not so much to feel that we shouldn’t be moral, but rather to be independent, free, unentangled with moral ‘principles’—to return, so to speak, to the Garden of Eden days before we ate of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil” (113).
Before Adam ate the fruit he lived in harmony with himself, with God, with the animals, and with the earth. Before the old men started making divisions and judgments of nature things were perfect. The state of the world today, does not seem to be in harmony with nature. We kill our fellow man for the sake of our principles everyday. Knowledge of good and evil, in a world that was purely good before this knowledge arose, needs to be eliminated from the human mind if we wish to live in peace with each other and with the world.
In nature there is no right or wrong. We invent these categories, become convinced of them and try to change others. If we just act, and do what we want, and abstain from what causes suffering to ourselves and others then we can be happy. We should not tell other people what to do. By what authority can we tell others how to act if we have no knowledge of good or evil? By natural evolution selfishness and ill-will could cease to exist if we let people do what they want. Smullyan writes that the Taoists felt that:
“morality itself—‘principles of morality’, that is—was a major cause of suffering, since it only weakened that natural goodness in us which would spontaneously manifest itself if not interfered with or commanded by moral principles or moral law. Indeed, one day Laotse chided Confucius for ‘bringing great confusion’ to the human race by his moralistic teachings. He said ‘Stop going around advertising goodness and duty, and people will regain love of their fellows’ (112).
The difference between the Western notion of good and the Taoist notion of good is that Westerners believe we must have knowledge of good in order to live well, but Taoists simply live well without knowledge. As we can see by simply looking at the headlines of a newspaper, moral rules are not conducive to the moral development of man. The only way man will become good is if individuals who have learned to live well show others how to live by example. Smullyan creates a dialogue between a moralist and a Taoist in which the Taoist says, “What you are trying to do is to command love. And love, like a precious flower, will only wither at any attempt to force it. My whole criticism of you is to the effect that you are trying to force that which can thrive only if it is not forced” (79). For centuries we have been trying to force man to be good by telling him that he must obey rules and laws. We must abandon this method of morality. People will not become good by being told how to live. People need to learn by experience. Everyone has the right to do whatever he or she wants, but they may be happier if they want good things rather than bad. The only way that people will begin to live good moral lives is if people live by example without pushing their beliefs on others but instead allow others to learn how to live themselves.
Can we again live in the peace of the natural world—a world from which we are now separated? We must abandon our notions of duty based on moral principles. Our moral principles are strictly human constructions and will not help lead humanity to morality. We should do things because they make our lives and the lives of others better, not because we have a duty or moral obligation. The creation myth tells us that man’s wish to obtain knowledge of good and evil will only cause isolation from nature and will never lead to the goodness of man. We have tried to logically deduce the laws of morality. We have failed. We must begin anew. It may be of use to us in our new beginning to remember Adam, Eve, the Taoists, and the beautiful way of nature.
Google News. July 7, 2005.
Palmer, Martin. The Book of Chuang Tzu.
Smullyan, Raymond M.. The Tao Is Silent. New York. Harper & Row, 1977.
The New King James Bible. Thomas Nelson Inc., 1995.