Genesis: the Story of Why We’re Different

In the summer of 2011 I was fortunate enough to go to the Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of speakers and artists active in the “emergent Christianity” movement, and there Alison and I met up with Carl McColman, who introduced us to Mike Morell. Like most of the awesome people at the Wild Goose, Mike is a Christian who takes a dim view of dogmatic pronouncements and brimstony evangelism, and he grapples vigorously with the tensions between Biblical teachings and 21st-century reality.

For example, in his post “Evolution and the Two Trees in the Garden” he gives his personal interpretation of Genesis’s story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the apple. Mike suggests that the story isn’t really about two actual people, a talking snake, and a magic apple. Instead it’s a metaphor for humanity’s transition from pre-history to history:

But then… something happened. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but “suddenly” in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers.

This isn’t the only way of interpreting Genesis, of course. Micah Redding, a commenter on Mike’s post, suggests instead that it reflects our knowledge of our own mortality. Others have suggested that it represents the consciousness of ourselves-as-individuals, or dualistic thinking, or moral consciousness, etc., etc.

To me it seems very unlikely that humans actually underwent a physiological or neurological (as opposed to cultural) change as recently as a few thousand years ago. 6000 years ago, humans were already spread all over the world, effectively divided into separate gene pools. Any genetic change that started in 4000 BC would not have reached, say, the Aboriginals of Australia or the indigenous peoples of the Americas until a couple of hundred years ago. Did the Aztecs never (metaphorically) eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? No matter what you think the fruit of the tree represents, it would be hard to argue that.

My own take, of course, is that the Genesis story doesn’t have a “meaning” — outside of the meaning we assign it. And it’s interesting to look at the meanings we give it, because that tells us something about ourselves. In the 19th century, lots of people used the Genesis story to explain why women were second-class citizens; and some people still do that today, though thankfully that’s falling from favor. They also used to tell the stories of the exploits and treacheries of Adam’s sons and Noah’s sons to explain why there were different races of people, and why some races were better than others. You almost never hear those parts of Genesis brought up anymore. Instead, people today talk about what exactly God meant by giving us “dominion” over the world, and whether the story is applicable in some way to evolution, and what it says about the differences between people and animals, and so on.

But when you get down to it, the Genesis story is a tale about why we’re exceptional. There’s all sorts of things in there about humanity being made in God’s image, and being given special instructions, and being uniquely disobedient, and eating magical fruit, and so on; and all of these have been used to argue for humanity’s special place in the world — as well as for the male’s special place in the family, and the white man’s special place in society. Is this healthy?

It’s all too easy, all too tempting, to fall into the trap of thinking that humanity (or males, or the white race, or modern civilization, or the Western tradition) is qualitatively exceptional. All of these categories are certainly unique in some ways, but that’s true of all animals, peoples, cultures and subcultures. People (and animals) have always been sometimes brilliant and sometimes stupid, sometimes wise stewards of the earth and sometimes appallingly thoughtless, sometimes dualistic and sometimes mystic, sometimes moral and sometimes wicked, and so on. Even our technological advancement might not be unique: if we all disappeared tomorrow, almost all evidence of us would be gone in a few thousand years. What sets us apart, if anything, is scale. There are a whole hell of a lot of us being brilliant, stupid, wise, wicked, etc., all at once. But that’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.

Now, I’m all for sacred texts, and for studying them carefully, and trying to draw meaning from them, no matter how crazy they are. But Genesis should be handled carefully. History shows that it’s all too easily read as a grab-bag of excuses for powerful people to believe they’re exceptional, to believe they have a sacred mission, to believe that they can do whatever they want. So meditate on it, contemplate it, even believe it if you want; but do so with care and awareness. If I were going to recommend a creation story to believe, I’d pick one with less violence and misogyny. Personally I’m partial to the Taoist:

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and Earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten
thousand things.
I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

(Trans. Jane English)

Gaus: Freedom, Morality, and the State

Ok, here’s another book I desperately want to have (and while I’m wishing, it sure would be great to have the time to read it as well): The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus. It’s about large-scale human societies — how they arose, how they work (to the extent that they do), and how they ought to work.

Now, everybody and her brother has their own ideas about what’s wrong with the government, and what should be done to fix it. For a while, it was thought that that emperors and kings were either gods, or representatives of God on Earth. This idea became less popular as it became more and more clear that emperors and kings were, by and large, greedy psychopathic killers. Then it was thought that government was a sort of “social contract” that existed because, in the deeps of time, Man was in a State of Nature and everyone was a greedy psychopathic killer, and eventually it was decided that someone should be made a policeman and thereby keep the peace. This idea fell out of favor as anthropologists discovered that non-state societies (such as indigenous tribes) were, by and large, peaceful, content, and sane; and as archaeologists found that the first city-states actually arose because some minority group (such as a priesthood) gained monopolistic control of some essential resource (such as an irrigation system) and starting lording it over everyone else. And once you have a state in one place, then the neighboring villages and tribes start gathering into states of their own, if only for mutual defense. So it would seem that a government is an evil that’s only necessary if there are other governments around.

Photo © Alison Lilly 2012

And yet the modern large-scale state has some definite advantages. Of course, it defends its citizens against other states. But beyond that, it provides a free-trade zone, and an area of consistent laws about education, taxation, health care, and so on, which serves to both enrich its citizens and provide for jurisprudence and the rule of law. So how did the (relatively) moral, just modern nation-state arise out of the barbarity of its ancestry? And is it possible to make it even better?

This is what Gaus’s book is about. He has apparently drawn together many of the most recent strands of philosophy, game theory, and social science into a coherent whole — a theory of how a society can be free, moral, and just — and he’s gotten some rave reviews. I’m an optimistic fellow (or at least, I’d like to be) and it would be great to think that something that started out as common banditry and blackmail would inexorably develop, over time, organically, into something wonderful, even beautiful. We don’t often think of human nature working like that, but human nature is just nature. And changing excrement into flowers is the way nature works, isn’t it?

The Druid and the Wild Goose II: Conversation With Doctrine

In the previous post of this series about the emergent / progressive Christian Wild Goose festival, I talked about the courage of Christians facing moral contradictions between church authority and Biblical doctrine on one hand, and the call of heart and culture on the other. The Wild Goose was a place where they could come together, face the doctrine, and engage with it.

Richard Twiss, a devout Christian of Lakota heritage, showed this spirit when spoke movingly of how the invading Europeans justified the genocide of the Native Americans by comparing themselves to the Israelites invading Canaan, a slaughter carried out with God’s blessing. Does the Good Book really condone genocide? It certainly seems so, on the face of it. Most Christians ignore that part of the book, or assume it is a metaphor for… something or other, or no longer applies, or whatever. But Twiss said no, no: we need to face this.

Twiss also joined up with Lakota dancers to perform and lead ceremonies and dances at the festival. He said, “These may seem pagan or un-Christian to you. But they are the dances that God gave my people; and I do not apologize for them.” Twiss is still working on how to reconcile the ways of his people with the Bible, which he still believes in, and which says it is the only way to God.

Phyllis Tickle, I think, summarized the problem most succinctly. Christians, she said, must answer three questions today.

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The Druid and the Wild Goose I: Christians Courageous

At the emergent/progressive Christian Wild Goose festival this year, I was extremely fortunate to meet a new kind of Christian.

I was raised with a sort of American Zen / New Age philosophy. But growing up in the American Southeast, I met a lot of Christians. Christians I’ve known well mostly fall into a few well-defined categories:

  1. Christians who are devout, and concerned about the fate of my soul, and actively trying to convert me. For the most part, these are family members. There are, of course, devout Christians outside my family who try to convert me, but I never get to know them well, thank the gods.
  2. Christians who are devout, and probably concerned about the fate of my soul, but are more interested in me as a human being they can relate to. These folks generally avoid discussing religion with me, because that might be awkward, and imperil our friendship.
  3. Christians who are not particularly devout, or religious at all; or perhaps they’re spiritual-but-not-religious. Again, these folks are more interested in our friendship than the fate of my eternal soul (or theirs).
  4. The rarest type: Christians who are devout, but cognizant of the place of Christianity as one faith among many, and comfortable enough with their spirituality to openly and easily discuss theology with me without trying to convince me. When we discuss religion, which is awesome, we mostly tell about our personal experiences, listen without judgement, and walk rather gingerly on our common ground.

But at the Wild Goose I met devout Christians who not only discussed theology openly, and were conscious of Christianity’s changing status in western culture, but dove deep into areas where they were uncertain. That takes courage.

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The Cat Cure: Animal Husbandry and Human Civilization

I do love my cat. Gods, do I love my cat. Cu Gwyn is his name, meaning “White Dog” in Welsh; we chose it for him because he’s a black cat, and that’s the kind of sense of humor we have.

Cu wanders the house at random, mostly sleeping or looking out the window or playing with his toys. Sometimes he comes over to us for pets. Sometimes he stalks us and attacks us. And sometimes he does things we just don’t understand. For example, he watches the birds intently, and makes odd little chirping noises, as if he were trying to sing with them. He brings his stuffed tiger to us, mewing plaintively for no reason we can see.

Cu Gwyn, Best Cat Ever

We feed him in the morning, and he thanks us by purring and rubbing his head against our hands. We pick him up and cuddle him until he gets fed up and wiggles free. We play with him, throwing his ball so that he can chase it up and down the stairs. He sleeps in our bed sometimes. He follows us from room to room — not to get attention, or to watch us, but simply to be near us. He also likes his stuffed tiger toy, although it’s a little confusing whether, in Cu’s universe, Tiger is a sibling, a friend, or maybe… something more. (But Cu doesn’t get too “involved” with Tiger, because Cu has been to the vet.)

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Ruminations Under an Oak

On Wednesday we visited the Angel Oak near Charleston, South Carolina. It is a vast thing, probably over a thousand years old, twisted and hoary and huge, like a cross between a live oak and an elephant. From a short distance away, it looks like a whole grove of trees; under its boughs, it is a cathedral of gnarled, bearded wood, floored with waxen golden leaves.

Some random thoughts I had while sitting, meditating, and walking around and under the Oak:

Most trees are a tall trunk, from which spread the branches in a halo. The human body is much the same. Most animals follow a slightly different scheme: a horizontal trunk, supported by multiple limbs. Human architecture tends to follow the animal scheme, a horizontal roof supported by multiple pillars. But there are exceptions, such as the yurt, which is supported by a central pillar, and is extremely sturdy.

The Angel Oak has multiple support points, like an animal; but the overwhelming impression is more like an atom or an amoeba: its trunk is less like a central pillar, and more like a nucleus. Its branches and roots go up, down, sideways, in all directions.

This tree is a god. Literally. Touching its bark, you have same sense of something ancient, nigh-eternal, and very present, aware of you. Tolkien had it right when he described Treebeard’s eyes.

One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years. — Tolkien, The Two Towers

Time. The tree is old, old, but time is measured in changes. For something that changes little… time moves more slowly. The Oak moves slowly compared to humans, so a thousand human years is not a thousand oak years. Still, it loses and regains its leaves each year (in the spring); it is not changeless.

It is a living sculpture carved by gravity, light, air, time, and the forest around it. The branches curve and twist in unexpected ways, echoes of obstacles the tree once faced, now long-gone. For some reason, it hasn’t grown to the east. Maybe there was a building there, or another large tree, now vanished?

The tree has grown to become an axis mundi. An axis mundi, a world tree or central mountain, sits in a central location, and exerts its influence over the whole world; and the whole world is reflected within it. Just so: the Angel Oak influences the land all round it, physically and spiritually, so that the land echoes the oak; and the oak reflects the land all round it, too. Of course, this is true of all things; it is only our human manners of seeing and thinking that make some axes mundi clearer than others.

The Angel Oak and its surrounding forest are threatened by development. Get more information here.


  • Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay. -Shaw
  • And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. -Shakespeare

Moss, Mire

This week we’re in Charleston, South Carolina, visiting the Angel Oak. It’s considerably sunnier and wetter here than it is back in Pittsburgh: the earth is sandier, the blue skies paler, and the waters warmer. In the morning we went out jogging past the stately homes, the gardens lush with semitropical bushes, huge magnolias, and towering pines. In many places the yards showed the ongoing struggle of the suburbanite to grow grass everywhere, everywhere in America, even in places that would much rather be, say, a sandy beach, or a peat bog. As we ran, we ducked under the hanging Spanish moss, one of my favorite plants of the deep South.

Spanish moss is not moss at all, really, but a kind of bromeliad, related to the pineapple, and native only to the Americas. Like many bromeliads, it grows in the air, attached to other plants (or poles or telephone wires), and thrives in areas of high humidity. The island of Barbados (from Portuguese “bearded”) was named after the Spanish moss growing there.

The Proto Indo European root meu meant both “moist” and “marsh”; it is the ancestor of Latin mucus (eww) and Proto Germanic musan, meaning “marsh,” “bog,” “mire,” and a plant that often grows there: “moss.” Musan became meos in Old English and moss in modern English. Meanwhile, musan became myrr in Old Norse, which was borrowed into English as mire. These words both carry the spiritual notion if manifestation, creation, in recognition of the tremendous life-fostering power of those areas where land and water mix in equal parts. Moss also has earthiness and growth, increase; while mire has strong motion, power, movement, and suggests an almost malevolent agency of entrapment.


  • We procrastinate all our lives. Perhaps we know deep down we are immortal, and that eventually all men will do and know all things. – Borges
  • When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze. -Carlyle