“Therefore the end of all legislation is that man love God.” St. Thomas Aquinas

What becomes of Eden when Adam becomes Afraid

What becomes of Eden when Adam becomes Afraid

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Locke and Malthus, seamstresses of the tapestry of liberalism into which we are all sewn, ripped up centuries of orthodox biblical exegesis by arguing that Adam was not created for abundance, but to strive against the threat of scarcity. In this, they picked up the blood-red thread laid down by Hobbes and his famous assertion that all men in the state of nature are steeped in war; that peace is only won by submission to a sovereign power. Hobbes takes God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge as evidence of God’s possession of this power:

And thereupon God saith, “Hast thou eaten,” etc., as if He should say, doest thou that owest me obedience take upon thee to judge of my commandments? Whereby it is clearly, though allegorically, signified that the commands of them that have the right to command are not by their subjects to be censured nor disputed. [1]  

For Hobbes, God’s commandment was arbitrary, “for the fruit of the tree, if the Command be wanting, hath nothing in its own nature, whereby the eating of it could be morally evill”. [2] God thus becomes the ultimate exemplar for the human sovereign: “what the Legislator commands, must be held for good, and what he forbids for evill”. [3]

This legal positivism seems to guide the general “take” contemporary Christians give to the garden of Eden: God wanted to test Adam’s obedience, and so he took what is not itself sinful, and declared it sinful. But there is another tradition, scarcely comprehensible to those who assume that Adam was created into a pressure-cooker of scarcity, which does not reduce God’s commandment into an arbitrary, positive law.  

I. That Adam Was Tried in His Capacity to Maintain a Presumption of Abundance

God gives Adam “every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16) but commands him not to eat from “the tree”. The early Christian Church emphasized this in the tradition of lamenting over Adam’s foolishness. “The commandment was an easy one,” Ephrem the Syrian says, “for God gave to Adam all of Paradise and withheld from him only one tree.” [4]  Theodoret of Cyrus argues that for Adam “[w]hile he regaled with an abundance of fruits of all kinds, the eating of one alone was forbidden.” [5] John Chrysostom (using a translation which renders הָעֵ֔ץ, “from the tree,” as “from the only tree”) considers this as evidence of God’s abundant provision: “Even the phrase ‘that one tree’ bears a slight nuance: Surely I didn’t inhibit your enjoyment? it is saying. Did I not relieve you of every need?” [6]

For these Church Fathers, the commandment forbidding “one tree” was a trial, not of Adam’s ability to blindly obey an arbitrary will, but of his ability to trust that God provides. Adam was tried in his capacity to retain a presumption of abundance; to rest in the many instead of fretting over the meagre; to rejoice in the gifts of God rather than tremble for fear in the dark light of some perceived lack.

This helps explain the demythologizing trend in the early Church concerning the fruit of the tree. The Fathers deliberately downplayed the impulse to think of the fruit as something that could fulfil a desperate lack in Adam and Eve’s hearts. The forbidden fruit was nothing special: “It wasn’t because [the tree of knowledge] supplied knowledge it is called that,” says Chrysostom, “but because the transgression of the command happened to concern the tree, and from that event knowledge of sin entered the scene.” [7]

It is the lying serpent, not God, who presents the tree and its fruit as containing special powers which Eve needs to obtain. God merely says, “in the day you eat of it you will die” (2:17). The serpent argues that “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (3:5). The snake presents, for the first time, the idea of a lack sucking away at the human condition — a lack of sight and of divinity. Says St. Ambrose: “What other cause of enmity is there except envy? As Solomon says: ‘By the envy of the devil, death came into this world.’” [8] But, as Aquinas notes, man can only replicate the devil’s envy by viewing human nature as lacking in relation to the divine nature. [9]

The newness of the serpent-bitten gaze is signified by a textual addition. Only two things are predicated of the trees of the garden: “God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:9) When Eve reaches out to take the fruit, she does so because “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (3:6). Thus far, she is drawn by the good of the tree as it is given by God. But the Genesis account adds that Eve also saw “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” This quality was not given through God’s creation of the tree. It comes from the presumption of lack — of man’s being “not-wise.”

“This, therefore” says St. Ambrose in the voice of the serpent, “is my first approach, namely to deceive him while he is desirous of improving his condition.” [10] The disobedience of Adam and Eve does not, by itself, summarize their failure of the great trial. Rather, their disobedience is predicated on a first failure — they looked upon themselves as the proper objects of self-help. They presumed themselves scarce.

II. That Technology is a consequence of the presumption of scarcity

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (3:7). Adam and Eve view themselves as lacking over and against the commandment from God to rest in the abundance of his grace. The result is that they appear to be naked. The relation of nakedness to sexual shame has been well drawn out, but throughout the Hebrew scripture, being “naked,” עֵירֹם, refers as often to want and scarcity as it does to sexual shame (i.e., Deuteronomy 28:48, Job 1:21, Ecclesiastes 5:15). Augustine argues that man “saw his nakedness and was displeasing to himself because he did not have anything of his own.” [11] Chrysostom describes the fall, saying Adam and Eve were “reduced to the utmost indigence after the great abundance of their wealth.” [12] The “nakedness” which Eve posits in regards to her wisdom and divine-status spreads out until it garbs and smothers her whole body. The fear of our first parents was a self-fulfilling prophecy. They knew that they were naked because they acted as if they were naked.

For Hobbes, the shame Adam and Eve feel over their naked bodies is a critique of God’s absolute power to create them as He willed: “the meaning is plain that it was then they first judged their nakedness (wherein it was God’s will to create them) to be uncomely; and by being ashamed did tacitly censure God Himself.” [13] But if we could unsmear the grease of liberalism from our glasses long enough to gaze on Adam and Eve as they flutter and fret about for fig leaves; if we could see them as the first beings to presume of scarcity in the face of God-given abundance; we would not simply see rebels against the absolutist deity, but the inventors of technology.  

This is difficult to describe, as we are accustomed to thinking of “technology” as the sum total of technological devices. But as Heidegger describes it, technology is the mode of being which allows us to produce technological devices, a gaze which sees the world as order-able to the fulfilment of our needs. In his language, we “set-upon the real” in order to reveal it as “standing-reserve,” wherein “everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand” [14]. Forests become reserves of wood, rivers become energy resources, and human beings become human capital, all of it ordered to the fulfilment of need, the staving off of scarcity, the reduction of lack. In order to think technologically, it is necessary to view man as lacking.

After the Fall, this hardly requires an effort. Sinful man is lacking, and so Creation appears to us as eminently order-able to the fulfilment of his lack, the cure of his disease, the remedy for his innumerable inadequacies. But before the Fall, when Man did not actually lack anything, this newfound technological gaze was absurd, poisonous, destroying the Edenic gaze. In the Edenic gaze, man tills and keeps Creation because he is its priest, ordained to foster the garden of the world into perfection. In the technological gaze, man toils because his “penury forces him to” (Locke). He cares not one whit for the perfection of the natures of the creatures that he orders into his technological systems -- he cares about his survival, his benefit. When Adam and Eve viewed themselves as lacking, they fulfilled the necessary condition for viewing themselves, and all of creation, technologically — they viewed Creation as ordered towards the fulfilment of their lack.    

III. That toil is a consequence of technology

When God condemns Adam to “toil,” it is not a divine hand-slap, extrinsic to Adam’s presumption of scarcity beneath the Tree of Knowledge. Toil flows from the technological gaze as blood flows from a wound. Edenic “tilling and keeping” is restful, because it views man and Creation as ordained to each other’s mutual perfection. Adam’s use of Creation could not have involved violence or striving, for, as Aquinas argues, God created man to “dress and keep paradise, which dressing would not have involved labor, as it did after sin, but would have been pleasant on account of man’s practical knowledge of the powers of nature.” But Adam and Eve wilfully ceased to participate in this practical knowledge of the nature of things, by seeing things, not as they are given by God, but only insofar as they satiate man’s lack; seeing the tree, not as “one only” but as “desirable for making one wise.”

This is why the first act after the Fall of Man is also man’s first act of technological creation: Adam and Eve sew fig-leaves into aprons. They agree with the Serpent, believe themselves to be lacking, see themselves as naked, and so begin to strive against scarcity — to order creation to the covering of their nakedness and the fulfilment of their lack, through a work which is not restful, but toilsome. There is a Rabbinic tradition linking toil, not simply to man’s punishment, but directly to this sin: “R. Isaac said: Thou hast acted sinfully: then take thread and sew!” and a translator’s note explains, “i.e. because of your sin you must henceforth toil, – Thus the immediate consequence of their sin was that they had to begin sewing.” [15]

IV. That Merleau-Ponty may well help us understand all this

Our actions form our habits (our “second nature” and our stable “dispositions”) in a process the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty described “as a rearrangement and renewal of the corporeal schema.” For Merleau-Ponty, these habits are not purely psychological realities, ingrained patterns “inside our brains.” Rather, habit “has its abode neither in thought nor in the objective body, but in the body as mediator of a world.” This is the phenomenological addition Merleau-Ponty strove to bring to the Aristotelian and Thomistic doctrine of the habits. The world, which is always given to and appearing to us, changes as we acquire new habits.

Thus the space of the football player is not the same space of the man who mows the field: “For the player in action the football field is not an “object”…the player becomes one with it and feels the direction of the “goal,” for example, just as immediately as the vertical and horizontal planes of his own body.” The kind of world we have depends on our habits. “The body is our general medium for having a world. Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around itself a biological world...Habit is merely a form of this fundamental power.” [16]

What is often described as an Edenic harmony between man and nature is a description of precisely this insight -- that the world appears to man according to his habits. Insofar as Adam is perfected, by God’s grace, in the capacities of his soul, he remains in Eden, that state in which creation appears as perfect. Indeed, it is an interpretation of the fathers that the nakedness of Adam was revealed in accordance with his loss of good habits, or virtues: “They were naked, it is true, before this time” says Ambrose, “but they were not devoid of the garments of virtue.” Through disobedience, Adam rejected those abundantly-given “infused theological virtues” of faith, hope and charity, which God freely gave Adam in order to lift him beyond his nature into friendship with Himself. Through this rejection of love, he lost even the “natural virtues,” habits by which every one of his acts was perfectly in accord with his own nature and the nature of the objects upon which he acted -- by which all his acts were without violence or toil.

Man, perfected in wisdom, acted as one who lacks wisdom. This sin rearranges the world: instead of orientating things to their proper perfection, Adam orientates things towards himself. The tree of knowledge is not used according to its nature for the mutual fulfilment of the tree and its keeper; the tree is used against its nature for the fulfilment of a (falsely) presumed lack within the human condition. This destroys the possibility that Adam’s labor can remain a “labor of love,” orientated towards the perfection of the beloved. Acting against the nature of a thing is not an act of love, but an act of violence. And so the fig-leaves which Adam and Eve orientate into covering their poverty, stripped from the tree, will die; just as the “garments of skin” with which God clothes them come from animals who die, as “a sign of [man’s] mortality” (II-II Q. 164 a. 2). God and all of creation regard Adam warily, as the anti-shepherd who violently “puts forth his hand and takes” to cover his own nakedness, a violent man against whom there is no remedy but restraint, coercion, “a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” (3:24)

The fact that the world changes as a result of a change in Adam’s action is not an arbitrary punishment of God. Rather, actions are the source of habits, and habits are a form of this fundamental power of the body for positing a world, and thus the world appears according to the habits which form it. Insofar as man remained obedient, perfected, by grace, in the habits of his soul, all of the Earth would continue to appear to him as a Paradise. But man who deforms himself in sin can only be the recipient of a deformed world.

V. That Aquinas Supports this view in his position on thistles and thorns

When Adam eats of the fruit, nature turns against him, not by the sudden insertion of new and malicious plants and animals, but because man gives up the perfection of his nature which knows the animals and plants by name and stands as their principle of perfection. There were always thorns and thistles. Thistles are only a problem to a man who no longer understands them according to their nature. Thorns are a problem to the man who takes up a new view -- one in which nature exists to fill a lack. Then the appearance of a thorn becomes a privation -- for how can a thorn serve man’s needs? How can a thistle be used against the threat of privation?

Aquinas argues for this view when he says that “If man had not sinned, the earth would have brought forth thorns and thistles” but that these would have been understood, not as primarily in relation to man, rather, as being created “to be the food of animals...not to punish man, because their growth would bring no labor or punishment for the tiller of the soil”. (II-II, Q. 164, a. 2) As we have already seen, Aquinas believes that the reason the tiller of the soil does not labor in Paradise is that tilling “would have been pleasant on account of man’s practical knowledge of the powers of nature,” and so we can conclude that an infused, practical knowledge of the nature of the thorn and the thistle, their properties, potencies and perfections, would have enabled Adam to till and keep in such a way that that man, thorn, thistle, field, goat and pig were all perfected without violence. The appearance of the thorn and the thistle in the field of man’s labor, then, are not images of an arbitrary punishment of a God riled over an insult to his absolute sovereignty. They are images of the manner in which the world appears to one who presumes that creation is scarce and that he is lacking.  

Merleau-Ponty describes the new world that emanates out of a new habit with a description of an organist, a man who has “organ-playing” as an interior disposition and “muscle-memory”. “It is not in objective space that the organist in fact is playing. In reality, his movements are consecratory gestures...They...create a space of expressiveness as the movements of the augur delimit the templum [temple].” Likewise, it is not in some objective, Newtonian space that Adam lives and moves. His movements are consecrating gestures, which cause the world to appear in relation to his habits. Adam’s thirsty, riven, grasping to fulfil a lack reveals the world as thirsty, riven, and graspable. His disobedience takes things, not as God creates them, nor (what is the same) according to its nature and his vocation as a shepherd to the nature of things -- but as fearful man would have it. Adam is the priest who is to consecrate the world into a temple by remaining perfect and thus serving as the principle of perfection for all things. By this same token, he is the one who may, by his nature as free, embodied intelligence, break the world and take up a gaze which sees the temple and the garden as a field ordered to man, a field in which thorns and thistles can only appear as adversaries, as they no longer fit into the space of Adam, who posits about himself a world ordered towards survival, competition, and the fulfilment of lack.  

In many ways, the heresy of liberalism is a tiny one, mistaken by a matter of minutes. It takes as a part of the order of Creation what is, in fact, of the order of the Fall, arguing that man strove against scarcity “in the state of nature” (by which our liberal fathers do not mean fallen nature, but original nature — man as he was created to be). This crowns the presumption of scarcity, not as a temptation of the fallen world, but as the goal of every Christian who longs for the redemption of the world in Christ. This crowns technology, not as a response to man’s fallenness which will pass away in the Redemption, but as man’s very reason for being. While it is beyond the goal of this essay to show how this theology of scarcity justified and girded the Western expansion of the technocratic state, it does not take a particularly incisive intelligence to connect the dots. Suffice to say that the degree to which we believe and live out the liberal thesis, that Adam is a rational, self-interested actor competing for happiness and survival in a world of scarce goods, is the degree to which world will really appear in this manner, as it appeared to Adam and Eve that dark day under the tree.

This is part two of a series plucking at a “postliberal” thread running the length of the Scriptures. Read part one, and donate or subscribe to Postliberal Thought, that the series may continue.


[1] Hobbes, Leviathan, pg. 128, accessed online: https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/hobbes/Leviathan.pdf

[2] Hobbes, De Cive, pg. 81, accessed online: http://www.public-library.uk/ebooks/27/57.pdf

[3] Ibid., pg. 56

[4] Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, CUA Press, 1994, pg. 102

[5] Theodoret of Cyrus, The Questions on the Octateuch, CUA Press, 2007, pg. 63

[6] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, Homily 17, CUA Press, pg. 229

[7] Ibid., Homily 16, pg. 219

[8] Ambrose, On Creation, CUA Press, pg. 332

[9]  See Aquinas’ affirmative answer to question 193 of the Summa Theologiae, II-II, article 2: Whether the first man's pride consisted in his coveting God's likeness?

[10] Ambrose, On Creation, CUA Press, pg. 332

[11]  Augustine, Against the Manichees Book II, chap. 16. His point seems to be that in loving their own power to excess, Adam and Eve sought to act like God -- that is, as “first movers” acting out of their own self-sufficiency -- but because everything, including their own power, comes from God, this act could only reveal their total inadequacy.

[12] Chrysostom, Homily 16, pg. 207

[13] Leviathan, pg. 128

[14] Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.

[15] Rabba Genesis, Midrash Rabah, Vol. 1, Socino Press, pg. 198, also available online here: https://archive.org/stream/RabbaGenesis/midrashrabbahgen027557mbp_djvu.txt

[16] All Merleau-Pont quotations from The Phenomenology of Perception, Psychology Press, 2002




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