Most people are familiar with the Biblical “Garden of Eden” story from the Book of Genesis. The newly created Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge—which was likely a fig and not an apple—after which they realize they were naked, cover themselves and are exiled from the Garden. This chapter is the basis of the Christian concept of “Original Sin” and many other religious interpretations of the nature of sin.
Having said that, imagine that, instead of it being “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,” the label had been “The Tree of Knowledge of Hot and Cold” or “Big and Small” or “Happy and Sad.” In other words, as opposed to the knowledge gained being of some moral or sexual nature, suppose the knowledge was about dualities and the ability to distinguish between “this” and “that.” As simple as that may sound, this ability to compare is the essence of the ability to choose. After all, we cannot “choose” if we cannot see a “difference.” Therefore, the ability to choose is the essence of free will. Furthermore, this ability to choose is the essence of identity—someone who is doing the choosing is choosing on the basis of personal reasons. In this context, then, the ability to distinguish between “this” and “that” allows for the self awareness and freedom that is basic to what it means to be a human being.
Note that animals and other life forms do not have this ability. In the wild, the cheetah does not choose to attack the gazelle; nor does the gazelle choose to flee from the cheetah. Both operate on instinct—which means that, in moral terms, the cheetah is not “evil” and the gazelle is not an “innocent victim.” To use the language of Zen Buddhism, both the cheetah and the gazelle are acting in accordance with their nature. As a result, the cheetah will not feel any “guilt” and the gazelle will not experience “anxiety”–immediate ”terror,” yes, but not “anxiety.” Such emotions are uniquely human. Again, in the language of Zen, humans have the ability to choose whether or not to behave in accordance with their nature—with the very negative consequences of not doing so of stress, alienation, shame and doubt. The refrain to “become One with the universe” is popular in the media, but that same media seldom explores the implications of that goal. Put another way, it is true that “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” On the other hand, maybe the ability to suffer is essential to being truly human.
But if the message of The Tree of Knowledge is not sexual, then why did Adam and Eve cover themselves afterwards? The text makes the point earlier that they “were naked and felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:25) Their “eyes were opened” only afterwards and they “realized they were naked.” (Genesis 3:7) Yes, nakedness can have sexual connotations, but the term can also refer to simplicity and innocence. It is significant that a naked baby is considered cute because “it does not know better.” The assumption, however, is that as the baby grows, it will indeed “know better” and understand about modesty and immodesty; what is appropriate and inappropriate—and lose that simplicity and innocence. So, when Adam and Eve “cover themselves,” they are establishing a boundary between themselves and everything else. Put another way, to be “mature” is not to be “one with the universe.”
Clearly people who argue about the historical accuracy of the Garden of Eden story are missing its real “truth.” The issue is not about “Where was the Garden of Eden” or “Who did the children of Adam and Eve marry?” or “Did Adam have a belly button?” The lesson is about the consequences of maturation and, in religious terms, the nature of “sin” as “separation from God—and everything else.” It is easy to understand Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden as “punishment” for going against God’s will. However, the account can be seen altogether differently after, well, our eyes are opened.
With all due respects to Thomas Wolfe, it is not that we can’t go home again. The much more important question is whether we want to. But before we decide, we might want to consider one more possibility: the mysterious Hindu formulation of this notion of “one with the Universe.” Instead of that terminology, in Advaita Hinduism, the term is the intriguingly brief “not two.” Does that imply there may be a way of experiencing all of reality without getting lost in the “Oneness”? When approached with the question, the typical Yogi will only smile—perhaps an all knowing smile that has learned something rather different than that of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.