–– Sito di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA –– Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa A missionary look on the life of the world and the church –– VIDA y MISIÓN – VIE et MISSION – VIDA e MISSÃO ––
“The jasmine bush of the house has been completely worn by rain and storms in recent days, its white flowers are floating here and there on the dark and muddy puddles and on the low roof of the garage. However, inside of me somewhere, it continues to flourish undisturbed, exuberant and tender as ever.” (Etty Hillesum)
The symphony of life, centred on the human being and the relationships of reciprocity, breaks off abruptly with the arrival of pain and then death. This is what happens in the third chapter of Genesis – and in the chapters of our lives.
The symbolic codes of the narrative are already abundant, but here they become rich and powerful, some of them borrowed and intertwined with the even more ancient myths of the Middle East. We have lost many symbolic meanings forever because they were too “far away“, and we have added others over the centuries, often covering out the clear features and colours of the original fresco with ideological “stuccos“. These great texts still speak to us “in the cool of the day” if, like their protagonists, we get “naked” in front of their essentiality and let ourselves be asked the question: “Adam, where are you?“.
The first turn of events on the scene is the arrival of the snake that speaks to the woman. The words of the serpent speak of the fruits of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” those that Elohim had banned from Adam: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (2:17). In reality what we are facing is not so much a ban but a warning, a promise: no human can eat those fruits because eating them would cause him die. The snake refutes that first promise, and reformulates it a into something very different: “You will not surely die.” On the contrary! “…God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:4-5). The snake ends his speech here. But his words had an effect: the woman trusts the promise of the serpent, and regards the tree as something different, its fruits start to look good, beautiful and desirable to her, and so she eats of them and offers it to the man. The two do not die, but their eyes open and they start seeing things differently, feeling ashamed of their nakedness. The first outcome in the text seems to contradict the promise of God (“you will die“), and confirm that of the serpent (“your eyes will be opened“).
The snake is introduced as the “most cunning” of all animals created (3,1). The serpent was also part of that creation which was beautiful and good, and the possessor of an intelligence that Adam knew because he had given a name to it. Intelligence is not always used for the benefit of life and the good. We are surrounded by people who use the abundant gifts of intelligence to destroy, to evade taxes, to seduce and exploit the weak, to cheat, to refine slot machines and to improve the efficiency of anti-personnel mines. The earth is full of this wrong type of intelligence. There exists the good type of intelligence, the one of and for life, but next to it there is also the intelligence of the snake. This different type of intelligence is manifested as a discourse, a logos. The serpent seduces and convinces by way of talking, using the word that created the world, the man, the woman and the snake in a different way. This is also the power of the word, which is able to create and knows how to destroy, too, even though the Word that creates is stronger and deeper than the word that destroys.
The story is full of words that create, but also with words that through their naked force have destroyed lives, reputations, businesses, weddings and induced suicides. Being able to distinguish the types of intelligence that belong to the serpent from the good types that belong to life is a fundamental and difficult art of living, but the tree of our life will only flourish if we are in the social, ethical and spiritual conditions of learning and perfecting this art. The history of the people and institutions is marked by decisive encounters with these different types of intelligence. We have all known “very good and very nice people” who lost the golden thread of life, just because they did not (or could not) recognize the intelligence of the snake. I have seen entrepreneurs getting lost not due to the lack of orders or profits, but because of having trusted a logic that was different from that of life, because they had not discovered the snake behind the promises of big earnings and easy loans, or because they followed the logic and suggestions that ended up destroying the good faith they had laid in their businesses and their lives.
From the “day” of the encounter with the snake, the good type of intelligence of life and that of the serpent have been coexisting, they are intertwined with each other in the heart of every person, even the best ones. One can learn the craft of living by learning to recognize the presence of this other intelligence primarily in our reasoning (it is always a dark light which does not generate life but death), and only later in those of others. And then one has to be very careful not to make the mistake that is very common in the community leaders or business of considering some employees as permanent holders of the intelligence of the snake (and, therefore, not to be listened to and to be excluded) and others as permanent carriers of the good and wise type of intelligence. Instead, the intertwining of the two types of intelligence is always present in everyone and everything, but – let us never forget – the intelligence of life is stronger, more real and tougher, and in the end it is the winner.
But there is a further turn of events that could even give reason to some words of the serpent: “Behold, the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” (3:22). The man and woman lost the innocence of Eden and the magic of the first creation forever; but the text suggests that, paradoxically, they also gained something important, because they entered the age of ethics (the knowledge of good and evil) and responsibility: they now have to begin to answer for their choices (“Adam, where are you?“, 3,9).
But then it is also possible to deduce something important, perhaps even surprising, from this story of Genesis. Once out of Eden, we can find the wholeness, harmony, unity of paradise lost, by inhabiting the fundamental places of the human realm with love-and-pain: “the pain in childbearing“, “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (3:16), “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken” (3:17-19). From the first Eden we are “out” forever, but Adam is not dead; Elohim gave him a second chance: history. And so the vocation of humanity can no longer consist of a return to that first Eden that no longer exists, by perhaps seeking some sort of purity and innocence while fleeing from the places of human suffering – the begetting of children, relations between equals, work and death. We can try and find again the harmonies of the first garden by loving, and with the good types of intelligence of life, we may find gorgeous and painful locations and the ones belonging to the realm of the human. If it weren’t so, history would be but a deception and the world would be but a condemnation. But history is actually the way home, where everyone brings along their “dowry“: the heritage of all the pain-and-love built up along the way. This is the first great dignity of human love, family, work, and even of the return of Adam to adamah. It follows from this that it is a moral duty of every person – and humanity as a whole – to try to reduce the pain in the world.
We can save ourselves by generating children (and making them grow into great people), by falling in love, by respecting each other reciprocally, by working and by relearning to die in every generation – ours has yet to do this. We have saved ourselves every day with the struggle-and-love of many labours: those of having children, that of work, and the last great labour. These are the ways that we have at our disposal to be able to glimpse a new earth-garden: new Eves and new Adams, in the cool of every single day.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on March 9, 2014
Translated by Eszter Kató