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Becoming God

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Imagine a world free from disease and hunger. Cancer is cured. Genetic imperfections are corrected. Transmittable diseases are prevented. You never get the flu or a cold. No one has diabetes and heart disease. Children never die of malnutrition. Imagine a world like that. Then try to imagine the consequences.

The story of Adam and Eve is a creation story. But its purpose was not scientific or historical accuracy, but rather to account for why people are the way they are. It is a story about mortality, the loss of innocence, self-awareness, responsibility and consequences. Let’s take a look.

God, who in this story seems more human to me than godlike, has created a beautiful garden somewhere in the southeast corner of modern-day Iraq. We assume it is an ideal place to live. In the center of the garden are two unique trees: one is the tree of life, the other is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God creates a man (Adam) and asks him to care for the garden. God then warns Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “because,” He says, “on that day you are surely doomed to die.” Notice that God does not say, “On that day I will cause you to die,” only that “you will die.” Was this a command, or friendly advice? Curiously, God does not mention the tree of life. Because Adam appears to be lonely, God creates all the animals and a woman, Eve, as a companion and helper for him.

Sometime later Adam and Eve are out walking in the garden. As they approach the tree of knowledge, a talking serpent appears and tempts them. “Are you allowed to eat the fruit of this tree?” the serpent asks. “Oh, no,” Eve replies, “because God says if we even touch it, we’ll die.”

“Ah, but that’s not true,” says the serpent. “You won’t die, because, if you eat this fruit, your eyes will be opened and you will become like God.” Become like God. This seems too good to be true, so Adam and Eve eat the fruit and learn that they are naked. They are no longer innocent. Later that evening God confronts them. In an all-too-familiar scene, Adam refuses to admit his own culpability and tells God, “It’s not my fault. She made me do it.” Eve passes her responsibility onto the serpent. God then tells them they must toil for their food until they die and return to the dust of the ground.

Next, in a part of the story that isn’t often emphasized, God acknowledges that “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; what if he now reaches out and takes fruit from the tree of life also, and eats it and lives forever.” Apparently Adam and Eve were destined to die unless they ate fruit from the tree of life, so God, fearing, I think, that He might lose control of His own creation, banishes Adam and Eve from the garden.

What can we take away from this story? Traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations of it talk about Adam’s rebellion against God, original sin, our inherently sinful natures, and even that the crucifixion of Jesus was necessary as a sacrifice in order to atone for Adam’s sin. These ideas are reflected in the reading we heard earlier from Paul’s letter to the Romans. But what exactly was the sin?

We evolved into the dominant species on this planet because of our insatiable curiosity, our desire to know where we came from, why we’re here, and how the universe works, and our ability to solve highly complex problems and deal with abstract ideas. In other words, this is the way we were created. Did this curiosity get us into trouble?

The serpent tempted Eve by saying, “Your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God.” We sometimes say that we humans assume the role of God when we deal with issues involving life and death. Is assisted suicide moral? Should we remove life support from someone who is unlikely to recover? How and when, if ever, should we consider terminating a pregnancy? But I believe it goes far beyond that. The late physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking said that if we ever discover what he called the Unified Theory of Everything, “we will know the mind of God.”

Other cultures have considered the issue of acting godlike. Our word hubris – excessive pride or dangerous overconfidence – comes from the Greek. According to Merriam-Webster, “the Greeks considered hubris a dangerous character flaw capable of provoking the wrath of the gods. Typically, overconfidence led the hero to attempt to overstep the boundaries of human limitations and assume a godlike status, and the gods inevitably humbled the offender with a sharp reminder of his or her mortality.”

We say that knowledge is power. When we learn new information, we may feel empowered to act upon that information. More importantly, we may believe we are in control of the outcomes that result from those actions. But are we? Nature doesn’t seem to work that way. One of the fundamental laws of physics is that the universe is becoming more disordered over time. Scientists call this tendency entropy. In order to overcome this tendency we have to provide energy, and the more orderly we want the outcome to be (that is, the more control we want, the more we want to be in charge, the more we want to “become God”), the more energy we have to provide. Invariably, it is never enough. And there are always consequences we don’t foresee.

A few examples. In the 1940’s we developed a new insecticide – dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane, (DDT) – to control mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and typhus. It accomplished its goal, and we gave a Nobel Prize to the scientist who discovered its properties. But then Rachel Carson told us in 1962 that the victory was tainted. Our birds of prey were disappearing because DDT accumulated in the environment, ended up in animals that were food for these birds, causing their eggshells to be so thin that they would break before hatching. We didn’t see that coming, and we banned DDT.

One of the more controversial areas we have explored is genetic modification, essentially creating new life forms in the laboratory. The most publicized use of genetic modification is in agriculture, where an on-going revolution began in the middle of the last century with the use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and large monoculture plantings in order to boost yields. But Nature resisted. Over time, insects and weeds that initially were easy targets became increasingly resistant to attempts to kill them. Agrichemical companies responded by developing new herbicides and pesticides, and finally created new crops containing genes that made the plants resistant to the herbicides.

But a recent article in Chemical and Engineering News discusses a controversy over the use of dicamba, an herbicide sold by agrichemical companies to kill a weed called Palmer’s amaranth found in genetically-modified soybean fields. One of the reasons dicamba must be used is because Palmer’s amaranth has become resistant to glyphosate, also known as Roundup.

The problem, which is not unique to dicamba, is called drift – that is, when dicamba is sprayed onto a field, some of it finds its way into neighboring areas where it damages either non-resistant soybeans or other sensitive plants and crops. This can happen either by direct action of the wind during application or through volatilization after application. The chemical companies claim neither should occur if it is applied properly. “Not our fault. It’s the farmers’.” More unintended consequences.

We now realize that we’ve made a mess of the climate – still more unintended consequences. We’re trying to reverse the damage by generating renewable energy, and the apparently barren Mojave Desert would seem like the perfect place for a large solar array. In fact, there are a number of solar farms here. But, as Robert Chianese points out in a recent article in American Scientist entitled “Rearranging the Planet to Save It,” the Mojave Desert contains over 250 animal species. One of these, the desert tortoise, is slightly more than a foot long and can live up to 50 or more years. It may be the most sensitive of all these animals to habitat disturbance. Unfortunately, because of increasing human encroachment into the desert, the desert tortoise population has decreased by 90% over the past 70 years.

Biologists assumed that they could save these animals by collecting and relocating them from areas where they were suffering most to a 38 square-mile area set aside as a preserve. However, “desert tortoises do not relocate well,” and up to 40% of them die during the translocation process. Furthermore, encroachment into natural tortoise areas has gotten so bad that relocating them all is no longer even possible because only a certain number of them can live comfortably within the preserve. As the author points out, “Biologists who facilitate and carry out these translocations later find themselves having second thoughts.” In trying to halt climate change, we threaten a species with potential extinction. Conservationists have voiced similar concerns about the hundreds of thousands of migratory songbirds that are killed each spring and fall by the propellers on wind turbines on the Great Plains. Unintended consequences.

We still haven’t gotten the message. According to the March 20 issue of Chemical and Engineering News, solar geoengineering, the “spraying [of] millions of tons of sulfate particles into the [atmosphere] to reflect the sun’s rays and cool the planet,” is being considered as a possible way to ameliorate the effects of global warming. Thankfully, most atmospheric scientists are skeptical that this would work. Rather than committing to the real solution for global warming by cutting back on our use of fossil fuels; we would rather just try to stave off the symptoms.

Every animal needs some control over its immediate surroundings. But the human species has carried this to a new level. We not only want to control our immediate surroundings, but large segments of the planet as well. The idyllic vision I described at the beginning of this reflection presents a conundrum for us. Few people would argue that eliminating human suffering is laudable from a humanitarian perspective. But at what price would this goal be achieved? Such a world – in which, I would argue, aren’t we really trying to cheat death? – would be a world in which the balance of nature has been severely upset. If more of us continue to live longer and longer, is there room and are there resources enough to sustain us? What consequences would there be?

We tinker with nature at our peril. Our plan for the Earth is not Nature’s plan, because Nature’s plan was at work long before we came along, and it will continue to work long after we humans are gone. The universe does not appear to be orderly and purposeful, and we have difficulty accepting that. Such an idea seems antithetical to what we think of as “God’s plan,” a plan in which we see ourselves as the primary beneficiary. Realistically, our mistakes will not harm the Earth for long; it has survived far worse catastrophes. But during those catastrophes life forms have come and gone, so our mistakes may end up harming us as much as anything else and perhaps threaten our ability to live here. Maybe God was right; we are doomed to die, not because God is punishing us, but rather because we don’t see what we’re doing to ourselves. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking we know it all and start listening more closely to what Nature has to tell us. God asked Adam to take care of the garden, so we’re the caretakers, not the owners. We’re not in charge. We need to remember that.

I saw a couple of quotes recently that aptly summarize what I’ve tried to say today. The first is from Gandhi, who said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every [person’s] need, but not every [person’s] greed.” The second is a Native American saying: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Maybe the sin of Eden is that we never seem to be satisfied with what we have, then we’re willing to usurp the role of God so that we can take what we want.

One of my favorite images of our planet comes from the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan. At the end of the Voyager mission exploring the outer planets, he asked NASA to have the spacecraft take one final set of photos of the inner planets from just beyond Neptune’s orbit. Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter were easy to spot. But the photo of Earth appeared to be blank, until someone noticed a single blue pixel that was nearly invisible in the vastness of the solar system, a speck Sagan called the “pale blue dot”. This, folks, is the garden we live in. It looks insignificant even within our own neighborhood. But this is our home, and it’s all we have.


Reflection offered by Marty Smith on Sunday, April 29, 2018 on Genesis 3: 1-13, 21-24 and Romans 5: 12-19