Never Cast Out of Eden

We were never cast out of Eden. We merely turned from it and shut our eyes.

— Margaret Renkel, A Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year

Many myths, folk tales and religious traditions explore the idea of another, better world somewhere, even if you have to die to get there. The Disney organization has even figured out how to monetize this idea by building theme parks based on a “magic kingdom” where every day begins with a parade and ends with fireworks, and the flowers bloom year-round. Where did this idea of another, better world come from? According to the creation myth in the Book of Genesis, the original magic kingdom was our ancestral home, Eden. The Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, uses the word paradeisos, or paradise, to apply to this place. The term was derived from an ancient Persian word for a walled garden or private preserve of kings. As originally employed in the story of Eden, paradise was not a place where you had to die to get to, because there was no death.

It is clear from the Genesis creation story that paradise was not another, better world that existed elsewhere; it was the world as God created it. Lest we lose sight of this fact, the narrative runs through a comprehensive list of everything God created in a six- day burst of activity. First, the Lord turned the lights on, speaking these words before doing the deed: “Let there be light.” At every step, God’s words gave shape to creation, separating light from darkness, firmament from waters and waters from dry land. Then he brought forth living creatures in the waters and in the sky and then on terra firma; lastly, a creature made in his own image from the dust of the ground. Each day the Lord God would survey his work in progress and judge it to be entirely satisfactory, culminating in a final inspection: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”

So where did things go wrong? On the face of it, there would appear to be little room for error, since God himself made everything, which meant that it had to be perfect. There was, of course, the forbidden fruit, which God also made; a wily serpent, another of God’s creations; and a pair of clueless creatures made in his own image. What could go wrong? We need not dwell on the unfortunate circumstances, except to point to the moment when things first went horribly awry. Yes, the woman succumbed to the serpent’s wiles, disobeying God, and the man went along with it. But there was the small moment when they heard the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of day, and they hid themselves. Even before their formal expulsion from paradise, they had turned away. With that turning, the world that God had made was seemingly turned into something else.

“We were never cast out of Eden,” writes the naturalist Margaret Renkel. “We merely turned from it and shut our eyes.” We shut our eyes because we were afraid, and we hid from God’s presence. But God never went anywhere. Paradise is not lost; we are merely lost in it. And so we set off in search of another, better world, not realizing we are already standing on holy ground.

So how do we find ourselves if we were never actually lost? The Genesis creation story doesn’t stint on the dire consequences of that unfortunate business with the forbidden fruit: suffering, pain, death and, not the least, an angel with a flaming sword guarding the way to the tree of life. But never mind all that; that’s just our fear talking. The truth is there is nothing barring the way to the tree of life.

What do we normally do when we believe ourselves to be lost? We try to retrace our steps — from there, wherever our wandering has taken us, to our starting point here. “Here,” of course, can be almost anywhere, since there is nowhere God is not. We retrace our steps to that fateful moment when we turned away from God’s presence because we were afraid.

Every spiritual tradition has its own methods for undoing the consequences of our turning away. Some of them are pretty elaborate and may require many lifetimes to accomplish. I prefer the more direct approach. The naturalist Margaret Renkel says we turned away and shut our eyes. So we start by opening our eyes and, above all, not looking elsewhere. There is nowhere else we need to go and nothing we need to do. We just need to open our eyes and see. And then we may discover that this other, better world we’ve been looking for since we first lturned away was right here the whole time.

Genesis 1:31

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