Lessons from the Garden of Eden: Utopian Oasis of Peace, Equality and Unity or Utopian Prison of Division and Inequalities?
In Terra Two, what kind of cultures need to be created to diminish our human ability to hurt and destroy one another? Will religions continue to exist and in what form? If religions continue to be part of the multi-faceted cultures of Terra Two, then what can be taken from the religious notions of humankind progressing towards a better state of being? The ‘peaceable garden culture’, rooted in the idea of mystic harmony and oneness of all humanity, and often pacifist in nature, can be a beneficial tool in overcoming barriers and divisions between people that can lead to conflict. But concerns exist over some models of ‘peaceable garden culture’, especially if promoted by one religion particularly in isolation from other religions and secular systems. On these grounds, this model can be yet another obstacle to unity, equality and respect because in reality it can create an island utopia where those of a like-mind exist in happiness, but those who do not fully adhere or agree to a specific religious interpretation of the oneness of humanity are likely to suffer inequality and injustice.
The Peaceable Garden Model in Religious Contexts
The majority of religions have a vision of heavenly and earthly peaceable kingdoms, often symbolised through spaces and places, often gardens, where there is an abundance of food and water resources, physical environments that are conducive to human physical and spiritual well-being, a sense of the oneness of humankind and a relationship with a divine being that provides the opportunity for each person to nurture their earthly and heavenly natures and thereby have a sense of completeness. In such places the presence of hatred, fear, and thoughts of harming others through words and deeds will be non-existent. Instead:
They will love each other in the compassion that will be shed around. In their hearts only reciprocal love will burn. There no one loves his neighbour with excessive fear, but loves each and every one with enthusiasm in the same way (Aphraates cited in Bettiolo, 2002:65).
The physical, emotional and spiritual qualities and values which are presented as constituted in the very fabric of such places are usually linked with a divine being or divine energy or force. It is a divine being that has created this perfect oasis of abundance. This Garden is seen as a cross-roads between heaven and earth. The river is considered to have the purpose of both irrigating the Garden and as the river exits it splits into four rivers for yet another purpose, to also irrigate the world’s regions and be ‘the link between Eden and the earth which will be populated by the generations of human beings’ (Della Torre, 2002: 12).
In the Book of Genesis this garden is said to have been planted by God for Adam and Eve to care for and guard for future use. In it there were trees which bore fruit and one river ran from Eden into the garden, ‘symbolizing the river of divine plenty that unceasingly flows from the depths of divinity into the garden of reality’ (Hellner-Esherd, 2009: 239). But in what appears to be the perfect sanctuary for Adam and Eve to live, and although they are in the presence of God, there lurks the danger of the Tree of Good and Evil which God has also planted and instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of its fruit. As the story shows when Adam and Eve disobeyed and ate fruit from this Tree then God first punished them by saying that hence forth:
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground (Genesis 3: 17-19).
Immediately after this God first made garments for them to wear and then decided to expel them from the garden because:
Thus, lest they stretch out a hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever, the Lord God expelled them from the garden of Eden. So, He placed the flaming, ever-turning sword along with the cherubim to prevent their return to the tree of life. (Genesis 3: 22-24).
The creation of such a sanctuary presents God as a benevolent being who aims to care for humankind, but this benevolence is dependent on obedience to God’s absolute authority. The Garden consists of a hierarchy of order: God, man and woman. The nature of God as being benevolent, caring and loving but at the same time as the strong and transcendent Creator is demonstrated in the Garden of Eden story. Concern about these elements are found in the Gnostic teaching of the 2nd century, which not only portrays Eden ‘as a prison for Adam and for God’, but is equated with the Gnostic aim in relation to traditional Christianity, ‘Thus the exit from Eden is identifiable with the Gnostics’ movement of liberation from the Ruler’s prison’ (Lettieri, 2002: 41). It is possible then to view some models of the perfect peaceable garden as both an oasis and a prison.
Message for Future Off-World Survival
So, the message for those who voyage to Terra Two: Take care not to build a culture in your new apocalyptic utopia that becomes exclusive to the point that for those who even mildly disagree become outsiders and as a result their experience of life becomes dystopic. In this case, Terra Two will have only recreated and fuelled the human capacity to divide, rule and not care for each other which has been a dominant part of human existence on earth. Instead, the peaceable garden culture needs to: (i) promote appreciation and not fear of diversity and difference; (ii) to educate to nurture empathetic understanding, not just tolerance, through dialogue and encounter; (iii) and influence the building of sustainable social structures that ensure that rights and dignity are afforded to all irrespective of race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity or disability. In other words, ideally Terra Two’s vision will be anti-utopian in that it will prevail against the creation of a perfect model of society, which would seek to embrace a monolithic paradigm.
Bettiolo, Paolo (2002) ‘Adam in Eden: The Difficult Discernment of the Perfect Life,’ in F. Regina Psaki (ed) The Garden of Eden from Antiquity to Modernity, Binghamton, NY: Global Publications, pp. 55-74.
Della Torre, Stefano Levi (2002) ‘The Anxiety of Eden,’ in F. Regina Psaki (ed) The Garden of Eden from Antiquity to Modernity, Binghamton, NY: Global Publications, pp. 5-14.
Hellner-Eshed, Melila (2009) A River Flows from Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar,’ Standford: Stanford University Press.
Lettieri, Gaetario, (2002) ‘The Ambiguity of Eden and the Enigma of Adam,’ in F. Regina Psaki (ed) The Garden of Eden from Antiquity to Modernity, Binghamton, NY: Global Publications, pp. 23-54.
Pauline Kollontai is Professor of Higher Education in Theology and Religious Studies at York St John University (YSJU). Her academic qualifications are in the disciplines of Peace Studies and Theology and Religious Studies. She is the Director for the Centre for Religion in Society (CRiS) and the co-organiser of the International Conference Series on Peace and Reconciliation. Pauline is the author of several peer-reviewed articles and chapters on various aspects of religion, peace and reconciliation and is co-editor of a number of books.