Sunday, 6 January 2013

Sunday Sermon: The Garden 3

Hello Everything. Thank you for a new year in which to be and grow. May our own growth and becoming be of service to the single complete wholeness of your own becoming, Everything. Forgive us our faults, and forgive those who may fault us. Thy will be done. Amen.
Hello everyone. I'm not yet ready to talk about the religion of the Garden, which was to be this week's Sermon, so that will have to wait until next week. "Leaving the Garden" will come after that. Today I'm going to talk about what I'm doing with this series a bit, as it's very easy material to misinterpret.

As I am in the territory of a wide variety of academic disciplines, all of which currently have very active coalfaces of enquiry, there is no way I am actually qualified to talk authoritatively on human prehistory. My own formal (and quite humble) training is in Classical (Greek)  History, but I wouldn't call myself authoritative even there. If anything my central urge is to study the whole, which of course makes me a specialist in nothing at all.

I do make a sincere effort to get all my facts straight in my discussions, and to be clear where I venture into my own speculations, whilst keeping the door to criticism and correction wide open. My prayer is that that is enough to do my duty as a teacher of Everything.

That stated, it is not my intention to efface myself here either. Which preacher was ever qualified to preach about the Genesis of humanity? I submit my attempts to modernise the discussion humbly, and not as a new authority on the matters, but as an invitation to freely and sincerely engage these ancient, psychologically and socially poignant themes of prehistory. The text of Genesis has greatly expanded, after all.

I haven't begun at the beginning of the Book of Genesis but have jumped straight to the bit where (modern, as we must now qualify) humans come in. Clearly our current comprehension of the stuff before this, about the creation of the 'heaven and the earth', has expanded enormously as well. But creationists have given this ancient creation myth such a bad name, and skeptics too often speak as if reading the account might itself magically cause people to believe its literalness (no one really bothered to see Genesis 1 as a literal six day account until about the middle of the 20th C), that I am going to offer it a brief defence here.

Years ago I spent some time reading creation accounts. There are many Jewish ones, numerous from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other approximately contemporaneous sources, and then innumerable accounts from all over the world. I guess I only read a tiny portion of those extant, but it was a significant phase of reading and I carefully read quite a few. They are, as a rule, fantastic in the original sense of that word - the stuff of fantasy - at least to modern eyes. There are dragons and all sorts of creatures, and complicated plots. We should not diss any of them I suppose, as none of them had any way of knowing about origins, and the purpose of the texts were far from scientific anyway, but let's say the modern mind may be tempted to call many of them nonsense.

Which is why when I read the opening chapter of Genesis I am genuinely impressed with the soundness of mind displayed. The brevity of the account itself speaks to a lack of pretension of knowledge. In other words the author had no real idea and didn't make up a whole lot of shit to fill the gap. Meanwhile the author's intuitions here and there weren't too bad, at least once you're past the flat earth and domed heaven separated by water. The order of creation - grass first, then herbs, then seeding trees (then light which is a bit of a problem), then creatures from the water, then other creatures, and finally Adam (which means 'mankind' or humanity, as I prefer to term it), would not pass anyone's palaeontology exam, but given what they knew could be a lot worse. I think someone actually gave this serious thought in their own way. And I also think this was one of the attractive things about Jewish mythology to the Greek, Roman (and later Arabic) minds. It made more sense than anything going, as did monotheism to them, which the myth serves.

It also reads beautifully, even today in King James' English, and the rest on the seventh day, reinforcing the Sabbath so critical to Jewish culture, is a nice touch. Arguably the Sabbath is a Jewish contribution to civilisation, and a profound and welcome one.

But there's good reasons why the story really kicks off with the allegory of Adam and Eve, and they may be the same reasons I have so far ignored the earlier mythological eras. That's us. Our ancestors. And the story once again clearly has no scientific intent, but is meant to explain a lost part of the human condition, when humans were still in the environment they had named themselves, highly embedded in it as they initially evolved to be (we now know). Whilst language had developed, the environment itself was our text, our first Logos. Narrative and meaning were not detached from reality - from Everything. (Next week's subject as I keep promising.)

I have said already that I agree with the myth's conclusion that the way back to the Garden is closed to us. But I still feel compelled to elaborate on what I do not mean by the Garden. The Garden is not actually a paradise or a golden age. It is not "heaven on earth". If we could go back to it, most wouldn't really want to. Maybe once, when the full horror of days of backbreaking labour (let alone slavery) had dawned upon a large portion of early societies, but not now.

There was death in the Garden. There was a lot of death by childbirth. There was violent death. Even occasional ritualised warfare with one or two casualties a year on average means a very high chance of a given person perishing by violence, and that doesn't include hunting accidents or indeed being the prey of non-human hunters.

There was disease in the Garden, and when disease came it was utterly frightening and beyond control. The best explanations and attempts to control disease involved evil spirits and sorcery, which probably provided more extra unpleasantness than help. As I suggested in The Garden 1, there was quite likely less disease, and perhaps even a perceived lack of violence from the myth maker's point of view, but they did exist, is what I'm saying.

There was a lot of hard work for no luxuries. Modern society has so many things that we should not be so naive as to think we would not sorely miss, and that require complex social organisation, like running water, flushing toilets and a regular supply of milk, not to mention communication and information. Life was great compared to the two million years of wandering fairly randomly in small bands of Homo habilis. The Garden would have been terribly missed by any refugees from it, if they didn't die a spiritual death outright, and perhaps even was remembered with nostalgia by early post-Garden society, but it wasn't that great.

I'm just trying to provide a basic antidote to romantic idealism here. The Garden is important to understand in my view, and contributing to the understanding is the intent of this series of Sermons, but it has gone. Any possibility of utopia is not behind us but before us. After forty centuries in the wilderness, if we can keep the Commandments (another scripture that certainly needs modernisation but should just as certainly not be discarded) and seek only Everything, we can get there, to a new global harmony, and get to eat of the Tree of bloody Knowledge too! (Plausibly even the Tree of Life: immortality may elude humans forever, but that's no longer certain.) Anyway, that's my narrative, more or less.

The decisive reason we can not return to the Garden, even if we ignore our social development, technology and mentality, is because the Garden provided for a very small population compared to today. It may seem tragic, and is in a sense, but to advocate today for everyone to go back to nature and produce their own food is to imply that about six and a half billion people have to um... disappear somehow. It doesn't work out.

Anyway, my final note is that I am thoroughly enjoying researching this subject, as I have many times before, and as I note as a bookseller that many people do. Armies of amateurs, all connected now, study and theorise about the genesis of humanity, each typically with their own iconoclastic mix of some of palaeontology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, animal behaviour (ethology), sociology, anthropology, linguistics, mythology, comparative religion and any number of other disciplines. Millions of us might be over the Bible, and with some good reasons, but our obsessions haven't changed that much.
Everything, bless the community of the readers of Every. Help us find ourselves in you Everything, that our respective pathways into the new year be clear, leading us to fulfilment, joy and the furtherance of your will. So be it.

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