Richard Rohr’s interesting (though I don’t agree) take on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

Richard Rohr’s interesting (though I don’t agree) take on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil September 13, 2014

RohrIt seems that God is asking humanity to live inside of a cosmic humility, as God also does. In that holding pattern, we bear the ambiguity, the inconsistencies, and the brokenness of all things (which might be called love), instead of insisting on dividing reality into the supposed good guys and the certain bad guys as our dualistic mind loves to imagine.

Such non-dual consciousness is our ultimate act of solidarity with humanity and even the doorway to wisdom. With this mind we realize, as Martin Luther wisely put it, we are simul justus et peccator, simultaneously both sinner and saint. Only the mind of God can hold these two together.

We read the story of humanity’s original sin in Genesis. There Yahweh says, “Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). Now why would that be a sin? It sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? We were actually trained to think that way.

In the seminary we took serious courses on “moral theology” to help us rightly discern who was good and who was bad. Unfortunately, this usually only emboldened the very judgmental mind that Jesus warned us against (see Matthew 7:1-2). Some then thought that this was the whole meaning of Christianity—religion’s purpose was to monitor and police society in regard to its morals.

Religion became all about morality instead of being a result and corollary of Divine Encounter. As such, this was much more a search for control or righteousness than it was a search for truth, love, or God. It had to do with the ego’s need for certitude, superiority, and order.

Is that what Jesus came for? Jesus never said, “You must be right,” or much less, “You must be sure you are good and right.” Instead he said, “You must love one another.” His agenda is about growing in faith, hope, and love while always knowing that “God alone is good.”

I guess God knew that dualistic thinking would be the direction religion would take. So the Bible says right at the beginning, “Don’t do it!” The word of God is trying to keep us from religion’s constant temptation and failure—a demand for certitude, an undue need for perfect explanation, resolution, and answers, which is, by the way, the exact opposite of faith. Such dualistic thinking (preferring a false either/or to an always complex reality) tends to create arrogant and smug people instead of humble and loving people.

Too much “eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” might just be the major sin of all religion—especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Bible’s first warning has consistently been ignored.

Richard Rohr

From Daily Meditation, August 31, 2014 [I reformatted the paragraphs]

Adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 37-39

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  • peteenns

    Since I’ve been asked a few times already, let me explain how I disagree with Rohr here. The idea of dualistic thinking is an important one. It explains well some of my own inner disquiet not to mention all sorts of theological hostilities among otherwise like-minded people.

    I only disagree in that I don’t read the garden story as a warning against dualistic thinking. 2 reasons. (1) I don’t think that is an ancient Near Eastern way of thinking and so would have not made sense to the writer or readers. (2) The vital importance of knowing the difference between good and evil is the substance of much/most of the OT–in law and wisdom. Failing to know and to act on that knowledge, in fact, cost the Israelites the homeland.

    For me, though, this doesn’t take away from the overall importance of Rohr’s point. I just don’t think it can be rooted in this story.

    • Stephen W

      OK, I’ll bite.

      So Pete – what is your take on the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

      • peteenns

        You have to read it in The Evolution of Adam 🙂 K of G&E is a GOOD thing, God’s goal take a people holy, but it has be gained in God’s time. A&E grasped a good thing in their immaturity and weren’t ready for it. Israel’s entire story follows: they never get the whole obedience thing down very well.

        • As a Bib Studs Grad (Sheffield Uni, UK) I hold you in the highest poss regard, Prof Enns!

          So could you not argue (from some of your existing published perspectives and approaches to scripture) that part of an understanding the incarnational text, as a dynamic demonstration of humanity’s relationship to God through the ages (starting with its original context, authorship, audience and meaning) is that new layers of meaning can emerge that were not part of its original focus, as a new generation interacts with the incarnational text in a different context?

          Thus an important aspect of midrash/dialogue, as seen within scripture itself from different sources, but also in every new generation of readers and interpreters, is that Rohr can see a layer of meaning now that compliments what you detect from its early ANE setting?

          i.e. I’m being a bridge builder/people pleaser and allowing you both to be right!

          • peteenns

            I’m off to a wedding, but short answer….yes.

          • Chris

            I don’t think it has all that much with some mystical quality of the book as much as it is the task of every culture to grapple with its own history, to reinterpret itself to form a new identity.

        • Several years ago, an old pastor made the case that Judas was attempting to speed things up with Jesus, to force him to confront the authorities and therefore get the political messiah show on the road. He made a pretty compelling case, and it matches up with what you say here. It also matches up with something Owen Barfield (fellow Inkling with CS Lewis, BFF with Lewis) said, about it being Lucifer vs. Ahriman. In Unancestral Voice, he contrasts the “let’s stay stuck in tradition” mentality (Lucifer) with “let’s completely break from tradition, try new things, and rewrite history to self-justify” mentality (Ahriman).

          I think Barfield got that idea from Coleridge’s concept of ‘polarity’, that consciousness is composed of two opposing forces: one that attempts to expand infinitely, and another which attempts to comprehend itself. I’m only starting to possibly understand it, but it does hint at the temptation to explode past one’s current bounds, instead of carefully explore with the guidance of God. It also gets at the temptation to stay safe and refuse to explore, which was part of the sin of those at Babel.

          I think your blog post Does Evolution Cancel Out the Fall of Adam? Depends on Whose Adam You Have in Mind really got me thinking along these lines; I really enjoyed John Schneider’s “The Fall of ‘Augustinian Adam’: Original Fragility and Supralapsarian Purpose.”, pointing out how Irenaeus’ view of the fall and Adam & Eve’s original state was very different from Augustine’s.

      • “I’ll bite” …….

        …………………… very good in this context!

    • Is there a common ground, i.e., that the difference between good and evil is important, but that knowing this difference is primarily about being properly oriented to God (rather than autonomous self-knowledge, moral calculus, etc.)? I’m thinking of Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall.

    • Andrew Dowling

      I’m not sure Rohr would claim this was the original authorial intent, but I could be wrong . .

    • Samurai

      Ah, but I’m understanding from your new book that authorial intent isn’t the final key! Even if the author of Genesis didn’t intend Rohr’s take, perhaps there is such a thing as the Spirit’s intent? The same story written for a specific agenda by a human author may have been intended by the Spirit to be understood in a whole different way? Isn’t that what you argue?

  • Scot Miller

    So it’s good theology but bad exegesis? What if Rohr is interpreting the story like the New Testament writers interpret other Old Testament passages. Almost all of the New Testament writers offer bad exegesis of the Old Testament (at least from the perspective of contemporary biblical scholarship).

  • Jon Altman

    I think he’s on to something.

  • Kim Fabricius

    Peter, you may be right that Rohr’s take on the Genesis passage cannot be “rooted in this story” if by that you mean it doesn’t square with authorial/redactorial
    intention, but I hope you’ll
    agree that’s not the only lens we’ll want to deploy in viewing the interpretive enterprise.

    That said, my problem with Rohr’s otherwise excellent take on our primal sin is that it doesn’t go deep enough. A Manichean desire for moral certitude — and not only knowing good and evil but knowing who is good and evil — yep, this is a recipe for smugness and arrogance, and more, callousness and cruelty. But why? Because such self-sufficiency means that God is now surplus to our ethical requirements. I mean, who needs God’s presence when we’ve got God’s principles? You might say that what we have here is a kind of ethical deism: now that we have the knowledge of good and evil, i.e., now that we already know God’s judgment on any moral matter, the Creator may safely withdraw from his creation: “Thanks, Lord — and so long.”

    Hence Barth (and Bonhoeffer): what the serpent had in mind with its temptation was the “the establishment of ethics”, deracinated, autonomous, abstract. Or, in biblicist-fundamentalist terms, just look up the answers in the Book.

    • Episteme

      In essence, the serpent’s temptation to Eve (and thus Adam) in the Garden is no different to his temptation to Jesus (the New Adam) in the Wilderness (the ravaged garden): be like God. The principle of Knowledge of Good and Evil is that of Judgement, that power which is His alone (both individually for souls and in toto for Humanity on Judgement Day). I actually find Fr. Rohr’s piece here a fascinating read. Whether’s it’s complete or not is a different matter, but that’s always the point.

      I’m reminded very strongly of an odd notion I had last night, wherein I went to the Bible (went to in the general sense; I was on my iPad and switched to my Bible Gateway bookmark) and read the sequence of {Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Revelation 22}. It oddly worked as a straight read of “what if Man never fell?,” and got me thinking very directly on Scripture — and our story as Humanity — as Salvation History. If our original parents had not fallen to the temptations of the serpent, would this have been our whole Scripture, with the rest of Jewish and Christian scriptural history as an ellipsis required to get back to the Garden seen against in Rev 22?

  • Darach Conneely

    I see the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil on a number of levels. If we follow the story, Adam and Eve already knew it was wrong to eat from the tree, they knew about good and evil but they did not know good and evil from bitter personal experience.

    On another level I wonder if there is a contrast between knowledge and wisdom here, after all Proverbs describes wisdom as a Tree of Life Prov 3:18. Maybe it wasn’t that A&E could never eat from the Tree of Knowledge, it was just that they weren’t ready yet, they needed to grow in wisdom, but like modern man they have chosen to pursue knowledge before wisdom.

    There is a further level though, which might line up with Rohr. The very next verse in Proverbs sees wisdom being used by God to create the world, a picture which the early church identified with Christ (While the LXX translated Wisdom as sophia, Philo in interpreting the OT in Greek philosophical terms used the close synonym Logos.) The image of a tree keeps cropping up in the NT with Christ being the true vine, Christ bearing our sins on the tree, and of course we see the Tree of Life in Revelation. But is the Tree of Life a separate source of everlasting life to Christ? That sound like very bad theology. Our eternal life is in Christ through his death on the cross. After the resurrection Jesus explained to the disciples how his suffering and death were written in ‘Moses and all the Prophets’ Luke 24:25-46. We can see the picture of Christ’s suffering in the promised seed who would be bitten crushing the serpent’s head. Was the Tree of Life in the garden another allegorical picture of Christ and the Cross?

    If so, then the two trees in Genesis do contrast the promise of eternal life with the first Law and our failure to obey it.

  • Jedidiah Slaboda

    This is essentially the way my father in law reads the story. He insists that the critical mind is in view. So you go out to eat and have a lovely evening. You also think the waiter was too slow in collecting the check. And you say, the food was amazing, but the service was lame. This is the knowledge of good and evil and it is spiritually deadly.

    I’ve always thought this is a terrific interpretation and one I think of often. But I don’t know how it fits with God’s role in the story. God says they have become like him in this knowledge. Also, it doesn’t seem to be what other Hebrew writers mean when thy use the phrase to signify maturity.

  • Caleb G

    I have been reading a book by Luc Ferry entitled The Wisdom of the Myths. He talks about several themes found throughout Greek mythology including hubris and its cosmic consequences. While Genesis was written in a ANE (Ancient Near-East) context, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between some of the Greek myths and the Eden narrative. In Greek mythology, cosmic order is paramount as seen for example in Zeus’ conquest of the Titans. According to Ferry, all throughout Greek mythology chaos threatens the cosmic order which leads the Olympians to punish/interfere in the lives of mortals in order to restore the cosmic order. Hubris is one example of a flaunting of the cosmic order. Could not the Eden narrative be read in this way?

    In the ANE the 2 qualities that separate humans from the Gods are wisdom and immortality. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil could also be thought of as the Wisdom Tree. The tree of life could be thought of as the Immortality Tree. The serpent told the Man that he would be like Elohim if he ate from the Wisdom Tree. Once the Man ate from the Wisdom Tree, the only think separating him from Elohim was Immortality. For the Man to become a God is a breech in the cosmic order. So YHWH-Elohim banished the Man and the Woman from the garden so they would not eat from the Immortality Tree and live forever. Notice that punishment also descends on humanity in Genesis 1-11 when the Sons of Elohim father children with the daughters of men, and Man attempts to build a tower “whose top is in the heavens.” In Genesis 6 the punishment is the Flood. In Genesis 11 the punishment is confusion of languages and a scattering of Man across the face of the earth. In all 3 of these instances the barrier between the human and the divine threatens to be breached and drastic consequences follow. So perhaps the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil can be thought of a breakdown in cosmic order that leads to cosmic consequences.

    We may not hold to this perspective today, but it makes sense given the ancient context, and it does teach us that our actions often have unforeseen, far-reaching consequences.

  • James

    Biblical faith is covenantal, therefore relational. This may be Rohr’s main point. But covenant relations traditionally include stipulations–“Thou shalt…Thou shalt not…” The tree of the knowledge of both good and evil was planted in the garden of God. The universe sprang up along moral fault lines. Though created good, men and women were given the capacity to create evil, and this they did through disobedience to their Maker. So divine-human relations must account for moral dualism in God’s good earth. Perhaps I’m restating the obvious.

  • Chris Bishop

    I had always thought that this narrative in Genesis is making the point that knowing good automatically means knowing evil -you cannot know one without the other. Originally God intended that we know neither.- Instead we were meant to live by obedience to his Word. If we know good and evil then we set ourselves up as moral judges – the created thus displaces God from his rightful role, I think C.S,Lewis was trying to explore this idea in his science-fiction trilogy -especially ‘Perelandra’.

  • Christi Masso Byerly

    I think that in Rohr’s tradition (at least from what I understand from having studied with the Jesuits for a couple of years), it’s possible to start with one story and then add understanding to it through the centuries, with many deepening interpretations. So while you are right that dualistic thinking did pervade much of the OT, that doesn’t preclude us from being able to see that kind of thinking as adolescent, if not destructive, and see that God may have been setting the stage thousands of years in advance for a deeper understanding. Just because they wouldn’t have gotten it back then doesn’t keep us from getting it now.

    • peteenns

      An important point to remember, Christi.

  • HA, a monk who loves non-dualism and open-ness but the NT is about as dualistic and unforgiving as you can get. It begins with the most hell-filled Gospel, Matthew, and ends with Rev. where God has people tossed into a lake of fire. That’s how the inspired canon was laid out, marvelously non-dualistic, open and forgiving, no? The Prince of Peace preaches hell galore in the opening and ends by pouring out bowls of curses on the earth. Peace through obliteration of everything Jesus doesn’t like.

    Matthew’s parables often represent two different individuals or two different groups of people. In the words of biblical scholar John Drury, Matthew is a “moral dualist.” In the Sermon on the Mount Matthew divides people into those who follow one of two masters; who take one of two roads; who build two types of houses. The world is divided between sheep and wolves, grapes and thorns, figs and thistles. Good people do good things, bad people do bad things. At the final judgement all of this will be made plain.

    The author of the Gospel of John utilizes dualistic ideas and phrases characteristic of that author, which he injects into his lengthy prologue as well as into the mouth of John the Baptist, as well as into the mouth of Jesus. Such dualisms include:

    “earthly and heavenly things”

    “flesh and spirit”

    “darkness and light”

    “truth and lies”

    “eternal life and death”

    The author continues in chapter 3 in dualistic fashion by teaching that you either

    “believe in the name of God’s one and only Son,” or,

    you are “condemned already,”


    you either “love the light” or,

    you “love the darkness.”

    In fact,

    The Gospel of John consists of “anti-language” say Social Scientists. It is not a Gospel about “loving one’s neighbor/enemies,” but about indoctrination, or in the idiom of cults, “love bombing,” and maintaining in-group thinking, the exact opposite of the open-ness Richard Rohr applauds. See this piece on the topic:

    Amazing how people can read the NT and pick out isolated bits and claim they have finally found “it,” and imagine that they love and serve the “real” Jesus, as if they know who and what the “real” Jesus was, and imagine they would “love” him. But then, people love characters in books and movies all the time.

    • peteenns

      Ed, see Christi’s comment below. Rohr is not an all or nothing biblicist, so the “you can’t pick and choose” retort isn’t something he’d recognize as a valid criticism. By the way, you’re arguing like a fundy 🙂

      • ROB

        I don’t think he’s arguing like a fundy. All my life I’ve heard how loving and kind Jesus is, and yet when I read him in the Gospels my overall impression is one of bitterness and anger. He’s usually threatening people or condemning them. Yes, there are exceptions but for me his bitterness stands out.

        • Richard Goulette


          Have you actually read about the people that Jesus is condemning? He’s condemning the legalistic, self-righteous Pharisees who thought they had all the answers and deserved the undying attention of masses. The exceptions of course, are where he hangs with lepers, prostitutes, and outcasts and lets them know that they actually get a seat at the table.

          And Mr. Ed spends plenty of time living in the Modern world, where Freud, Marx, and Darwin represent the pinnacle of human achievement in understanding Psychology, Economics, and Teleology.

          • ROB

            Actually, Jesus said whoever doesn’t accept him as Messiah will be condemned. Whether they are legalistic, self-righteous or whatever. He condemned whole cities to hell.

            Sorry, I just don’t see the appeal.

          • FallanFrank

            Now some Christians might disagree with me but Jesus came into the world to SAVE sinners He was brutally tortured and suffered death on the barbaric Roman cross.He has done everything to save mankind from eternal damnation whether you believe in such a thing or not.He is after all coming back to judge the world and that is those who have rejected Him as the saviour of the world.If you dont believe He is who He says He is then He can do no more..There are millions who believe He is the Saviour of the world and millions dont its what free will and choice is all about

          • Andrew Dowling

            “Actually, Jesus said whoever doesn’t accept him as Messiah will be condemned.”

            Sorry, this isn’t true. Jesus actually never declares Himself the Messiah publicly in the Synoptics . . .Google “Messianic Secret.” Your interpretation of the Gospels is sadly resting on the horrible hermeneutics of fundamentalism (and unfortunately even more moderate churches), which reads back tons of later concepts back into the Gospel texts. Just like “hell” . . hell in the traditional Christian sense did not exist among 1st Century Jews.

    • Ed, how do you account for the parable of the wheat and tares?

      He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Mt 13:24–30)

      Emphasis on the “don’t gather the weeds; you might screw up”. There seems to be a split between ontology and epistemology that you aren’t allowing. Let’s add the parable of the two brothers:

      “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. (Mt 21:28–32)

      So, who is who? Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy? Another example would be the allegedly righteous and obedient son vs. prodigal son in the story that should really be called the prodigal father. Yet another is the parable of the sheep and goats, with surprises therein.

      The fact claim that reality is ultimately divided is very, very different from whether we have epistemic access to said dividing. Jesus’ routine message, again and again, is that our ideas of who is good and who is evil is upside down. People can seem to start out good and go bad, as well as start out bad and go good. Ezek 18 made this clear. Even from Matthew alone, I see absolute support for Richard Rohr’s “ambiguity” and “inconsistencies”.

      The real message seems to be that in the final equation, you can view someone as ultimately heaven-bound or ultimately hell-bound. In the end, all the masks will be off, the true motives will be displayed, and there will be a total unity visible of the person: either he/she was experiencing increasingly deep relationships which bring out the imago dei in everyone, or the opposite. C.S. Lewis famously said that he would “rather be one step from hell, headed toward heaven, than one step toward heaven, headed toward hell”.

      What you’ve picked out in the NT is really just the fact that there is good, and there is evil. The two poles really exist. Ontically, it’s not just fuzzy, socially constructed facts. There is an underlying spiritual reality to things: ultimately it is either one of life, or death. Passages like Deut 30:11–20 are God urging humans to pick the ‘life’ option, noting that what appears to be life may not actually be life when all the logical consequences are followed.

      Ed, do you want to admit of the possibility of true evil? It is a guess, but I get the sense, from your comment here, that you want to deny anyone from actually being well-described by the negative pole of the dualisms you list. Is that the case? Again, I would emphasize that while someone is alive the process of becoming more Christlike or more Antichristlike has not yet been completed; Ralph C. Wood includes a great quotation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the end of his essay, which has every [live] human being having ≥ “one small bridgehead of good” and ≥ “an unuprooted small corner of evil”.

      • I’m replying to both your comment, Luke, and Ed’s. As a “good”(?) non-dualist I think I see validity in both your points. Certainly the Gospels ARE quite dualistic… I’ve long wondered how “John” could seemingly be so genuine about a message of love and so confused (and/or unclear) about the extent and application of it. It does sound mostly to me (as read by many scholars) like an us-vs-them conflict, with Jesus being used as the supposed dividing point. A sort of “God loves everyone (Jew and Gentile)” but you have to believe the right things and join with the right group to be recipient of that. “The Jews” definitely got it wrong in not recognizing the divinity of Jesus (and were to be roundly condemned for doing so).

        So it appears Jesus’ teaching had been partially retained, his high character recognized, but the man and the message had already (as also in the Synoptics) been seriously distorted and made much more condemnatory than was Jesus… who probably DID show anger at abuse of power and such.

        • I like what Jacques Ellul said at the end of The Subversion of Christianity:

              We should also mention the constant readiness to negotiate, that is, to keep up dialogue, not to regard the police or the communist party as an enemy to be struck down but as an adversary with whom dialogue is always possible, and to do everything to make it possible. (204)

          That being said, I actually do believe there is true evil out there. I don’t identify people as being 100% evil; I hold to my agreement with Solzhenitsyn on that one. That being the case, people can get stuck in modes of evil, and then it really is Jesus vs. them. It is life vs. death, with each attempting to conquer the other, each in its different way. I referenced Deut 30:11–20 partly because it clearly talks about life vs. death.

          So, I’m curious about whether you think there is any true evil in existence, which would require a true “us vs. them”, except modified by the ≥ “one small bridgehead of good” and ≥ “an unuprooted small corner of evil”. This brings life to Paul’s “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” There is a true war going on; we cannot pretend it away with niceness and flowers. But we can properly identify the combatants, which is often not done.

          • The best I can understand what you’re saying (and you’re being about as clear as one can re. this), I’d agree. But I’m not sure how productive or useful it is to focus on “true evil” over against (supposed evil, or ??). Maybe “life (force)” vs. “death (force)” or “death wish” (Freud) expresses the same basic thing.

            I also believe “spiritual cosmology” is as tricky to pin down as is “physical cosmology” (or cosmology in the scientific sense). I think one might describe “good vs. evil” around a sort of “fuzzy” dialectic: pro-community or anti-community.

            I DO believe there are largely or perhaps entirely malevolent spiritual entities often labeled “demons”, but probably not organized in a hierarchy under a personal “devil” or Satan. Satan I see as a symbolic construct, not a rebel angel. Yet “symbols” and the power behind them can be quite “real”.

            Such “evil spirits” are totally self-consumed and interact with humans in a mysterious way (at least to us “in the flesh), on a mostly “spiritual” level that does interact with the body and matter in limited ways, but sometimes powerfully. As self-consumed and parasitic of energy (? or life-force?) they are anti-community. The most “possessed” or evil of people become very (but probably not 100%) anti-community as well (not just “anti-social”, but against all genuine mutuality and cooperation).

            To return to Jesus and the Gospels, perhaps it is valid… just perhaps, I’m not declaring… to say that the Gospel writers WERE pro-community, but had already restricted down the communities of their support way beyond what Jesus was expressing and trying to lead people into… In so doing, Jesus DID expose or confront (but perhaps not actually condemn, in the literal sense) those who were acting anti-community and leading others away from encountering God in the process. We encounter God both directly AND through community, and both are important. (BTW, not all Pharisees could be thrown into this camp, by any means, as even Acts makes pretty clear.)

          • Let me give you a real-world example. A friend of mine was a middle school teacher and was very likely falsely accused of misconduct toward students. However, the school district blatantly violated due process—justified as “for the children”—filling his life and other teachers’ lives with fear and uncertainty. The justification is that we can force some adults to suffer so that the children are protected. Of course, what actually is going on is that this protects the higher-ups from responsibility. I believe this is unadulterated evil. It is not that anyone involved is pure evil, but the institutional result is true evil. One can make the same argument re: the Holocaust: I hold every participant in it as redeemable just like the thief crucified next to Jesus, but that doesn’t prevent them from having contributed to true evil.

            I claim that it is precisely fuzzification that is very bad, here. Lose your absolutes and you can slowly shift toward evil, over such long timescales that not enough people notice to stop the change. Let’s take an example: Mt 5:23–24 and 18:15–17. I frequently see those violated, and I remain convinced that violating them contributes to evil. I hold that it is true that these are absolutely required for true community of people not like each other (as Jesus urges at the end of Mt 5), and that it really is just sin and evil to disbelieve this truth. There is no fuzziness: disobey these principles and evil results. It builds over time, with terrible, terrible results.

            Can you see how it’s tempting to deny that anything is truly evil? It frees us from thinking about the ultimate consequences of our actions, with Jesus’ commandments as guides for when we don’t know enough to [noisily] see those ultimate consequences ourselves. We can set the planning horizon out so far, declare “Peace, peace!”, and march forward feeling good about ourselves while having nary a true thought about heaven and whether we are actually becoming more like the kind of citizens who can possibly populate heaven.

            The more I think about it, the more the problem really seems to be a mixing up of epistemology and ontology, thinking that if our epistemology forces us to “see through a glass dimly”, then the actual ontology (what is evil) is fuzzy and we ought just steer clear of saying anything too strongly, taking actions which are too extreme (like crafting a whip to drive out animals and people), etc. It is no wonder that the Bible promotes humility and despises arrogance throughout.

            I close with this: our actions really do promote life or promote death, in the final equation. There is lots of noise and uncertainty, but this merely obscures our ability to precisely identify what promotes life and what promotes death, with absolute certainty. (A person probably shouldn’t go alone to confront someone who attempted to rape him/her.) The errors are dual: pretending we have 100% certainty, and pretending that God has given us insufficient discernment to make really good guesses. I see Richard Rohr as arguing against the former error; I worry that you’re headed toward the latter error.

          • I read your last comment 3 times, each carefully. Also my and your prior ones. All in all, I have to confess mostly losing track of what we are discussing, specifically. I take at least half the responsibility for that, as my last comment was long and rambled off the “true evil” focus.

            Anyway, after reading it all again, I really can’t tell if I think we are disagreeing on much or not. I did, frankly, have trouble following your argument and exactly what you were arguing for. If mainly the existence of “true evil”, I didn’t intend to argue against that, although I warned about too much focus on the concept. And like me, you don’t seem to want to locate that in any one person or label anyone AS that.

            What you cited from Matt. 5 and 18 seems to sync well with my very point about “pro-community” (or “pro-relationship”). I agree that those principles are vital and ignoring or rejecting them DOES often lead to evil, if it isn’t evil in itself. I don’t know that adding “true” to “evil” necessarily makes a difference.

            It wasn’t clear to me how you meant that this was an example of “absolutes” in a way different than saying heeding such principles is vital and must be done. Maybe that’s your sense of it.

            I get that you don’t like introducing a term like “fuzzy” or “fuzziness”. Yet your explanations, to me, are in line with what I was trying to say. Maybe I don’t rightly understand your “epistemology” and “ontology” explanation, but in what I took it to be, I wouldn’t disagree. I’m not against calling anything evil (or true evil) or taking strong action against it.

          • Does it make sense to say that the us vs. them is between true good and true evil, with the only two people wholly on one side of the us vs. them being Jesus and Satan? Everyone else has split loyalties, although I’d adapt the medieval proverb that “love is always increasing or decreasing” to say that one is always becoming more Christlike or less Christlike—there is no [neutral] stasis.

            What I worry about is the idea of true evil getting blunted because it can be used to hurt people, just like sharp knives can. I reject this: evil still causes death and destruction, just like it always has. It is simply an error to think that you can fight death and destruction of living human beings by bringing death and destruction to living human beings: if you fight evil with evil, evil wins. Instead, we must always hold out the option for a change of heart, as I believe God does.

            I say “true evil” as an attempt to bring gravity to the term “evil”. One of my friends saw his mother blow her brains out when he was five, and not die immediately. She was likely taken advantage of, such that it wasn’t her fault. (An example: personality destruction through programs like Project MKUltra.) This would be an example of evil of a magnitude I think most people cannot really accept. I was at a Veritas Forum talk where Os Guinness mentioned that many people don’t really have a category for absolute evil, and that this enables them to adopt a kind of relativism or emotivism. He described an atheist and perhaps a philosopher who attended a movie about WWII where there were Germans in the theater cheering for the Nazis; at this point he had a personal crisis, because his philosophy couldn’t support the notion of true, absolute evil, even though everything in him just said that he had witnessed absolute evil—not a mere dislike, but true evil.

  • Norman

    I think Paul may be summarizing the tree of Good and Evil in his discussion from Romans chp 7.

    Romans 7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

    He brings this to bear in his discussion of the failure of the commandment to bring life and brought death (separation instead). It seems to be all wrapped up in Israels failure revolving around their mishandling of the Law and its form of slavery that accompanied it. That’s the whole argument from Rom 5-8 that Paul is making it seems to me.

    Romans 7:24-25 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

  • I would take a similar perspective, largely aided by Greg Boyd’s “Repenting of Religion.” The difference would be that I think it is specifically about Knowledge of Good and Evil people. It isn’t, in my opinion, about conscience or knowing what is good or bad for you to do, although it definitely helps to have some humility there, acknowledging you probably will do things evil in your life when thinking you were doing good.

    Instead, it is a check against the impulse to elevate some people as worth more than others, detracting from the God image in every single person. That is the root of “religion” in the negative sense as Boyd uses it: judging who is in and who is out, always trying to earn God’s love and the Church’s acceptance, setting up systems for how to accomplish that earning, etc. It is all based on assuming some gap between God and us when prior to this eating God is happily hanging out in the Garden with them and even after the eating God is still pursuing them; they are just too afraid because they are now judging themselves to be not good enough for God.

  • Benjamin Martin

    The tree of life is understood to be the amanita mushroom in this 13th century French fresco.

  • Jake P. S.

    Reading it I can’t help but notice that the premise the author is
    working on is on loving one another. However that charge is also connected to
    loving God as well as our neighbors. So to love God we do in a sense need to seek Him
    for ourselves and have a dualistic mind with the intention to determine which path or
    direction we must go to follow Christ’s example and ultimately God’s will.
    Though I think what the author could point out is how we think about ourselves
    in the light of our own goodness and evil compared to how we think about others
    good an evil will be different. The primary reason is for us it is our own
    choice, and the other person it must be their choice as well. The important
    thing about loving others as our self is understanding we are going through a process
    of change, if we are honest to ourselves, and we must show grace, love, and
    gentleness to others for they must go through the same gradual process of
    change. With this we must acknowledge in humility that we may be wrong, so the
    discussion between neighbors should remain discussions and never condemnation.
    Lastly I would add this all is important to remember also that God is the one
    who judges, the spirit is what convicts, and we are to proclaim the glory of
    God. But seeking God for what is good and what is evil is paramount to our own
    individual soul for we are each responsible to God for what we do.

  • I would love to hear an exegesis of καλοῦ τε καὶ κακοῦ from Hebrews 5:14, usually translated “good from/and evil”. If we examine kakos, it seems that there are two fundamentally different ways to interpret it:

         (1) irredeemably evil
         (2) redeemably evil

    One lets evil be perversion, something which is “not as it ought to be”, which could be made “as it ought to be” via grace, while the other merely invites utter destruction. This verse has been on my mind for a while, since the whole arc of Heb 5:11–6:3 seems to invite deep discernment, while merely separating whole objects/people into “good” and “evil” buckets is the opposite of deep discernment. If, on the other hand, the idea is to see precisely how a thing/person is “not as it/he/she ought to be”, I could see that requiring spiritual maturity.

    Does God perhaps agapē from kakoskalos? Perhaps we ought to as well, in our imitation of Christ?