Back to the Garden

After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Genesis 3:24 NIV

As I have mentioned previously, I grew up during the 1960’s. It was a turbulent and often violent time. The war in Vietnam intensified throughout the decade, as did the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies. Peaceful protesters of the Civil Rights Movement were often attacked and sometimes killed. At Kent State University, protesters against the Vietnam War were shot at by the Ohio National Guard and four were killed. Accusations of police brutality, and the frustrations of years of Jim Crow, poverty, and second class citizenship for African-Americans led to race riots in virtually every major city in the country.

But the violence of the times helped to fuel various movements to counteract it. The peace movement sought to bring an end to the Vietnam War, and to all war. Related movements tried to bring about an end to nuclear proliferation. Coalitions of people of all races formed to oppose segregation and discrimination of all kinds. Some groups sought to spread the “sexual revolution” with slogans like “Make Love not War.”

One of the groups that comprised what became known at that time as “the counter-culture” was the hippie movement. The hippie movement was very popular and very influential within the youth community, despite the fact that the actual number of “full time” hippies was relatively small.

The reason for this popularity and appeal to the youth was simple. It offered a lifestyle that seemed to be liberating and free of responsibility. Drugs, particularly marijuana and LSD, were consumed in copious amounts. Sexual liberation and communal living were other hallmarks of the movement. Rejecting straight society, with its rules and “hangups” was de rigueur. A saying to come out of the movement, popularized by LSD advocate and guru Timothy Leary, was “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

As mentioned above, communal living was a big part of the hippie philosophy. The idea behind communes was to create a perfect society within, but sealed off from the corrupted prevailing society, where individuals could pursue, unhindered by that corruption, their own course to enlightenment and perfection. In essence, create paradise and allow man’s better nature to prevail within it. The famous, or infamous (depending on your perspective) movie Easy Rider has a scene where the protagonists, two biker buddies played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, visit a hippie commune where the lifestyle described above is portrayed.

The idea, though, of transforming individuals by transforming society, was not just limited to the hippie movement, but gained widespread acceptance in society in general. Many people began dedicating themselves, through political activism mainly, but also other means, to transforming society to some idyllic, pre-fall Eden. This was, and still is, believed by many to be an achievable goal. A popular song at the time, Woodstock, captures this idea:

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song and a celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes
Riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust, we are golden
We are caught in the devils bargain
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

For the complete song, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: C, S, N, & Y Woodstock

Or from the composer, Joni Mitchell: JM Woodstock

These attempts at regaining paradise have a long history in America and the world. They usually involve some form of socialism, and they have ultimately ended in failure. Why? I believe it is because they end up encouraging the worst aspects of human nature; selfishness, laziness, theft, envy, and more. A prominent example of this is Plymouth Colony.

The Pilgrims, like the Jamestown Colony before them, had agreed together to a communal, even socialist, style of living. Everything was held in common and food was kept in a common storehouse. The result? Some people worked, others did not, and there was theft of food, often from the crops in the field, even before it was fully ripe. Those who produced resented those who did not, food production was inadequate, and they almost starved to death, until they abandoned their “communal” lifestyle for one which allowed every man and woman to keep the fruits of their labor.  For a first hand account, see the first Governor’s, William Bradford’s diary.  William Bradford’s Diary (See pages 234-236 in the linked edition)

There are other examples in American history of attempts to create some sort of paradise on earth, to go “back to the Garden,” so to speak; but of course these efforts did not start here. In a previous post, The Era of Big Government, I wrote about man’s attempts from the beginning of history to nullify the consequences of our first parents’ decision so many years ago by banding together in large numbers and unifying around certain principles and projects. The Tower of Babel being the first recorded effort.

These efforts continued throughout history, right up through the terrible Marxist and fascist movements of the twentieth century, to today’s efforts by many to enforce their political and religious views on the rest of us through violence, coercion, and conquest.

All of these efforts at regaining paradise, to this day, have one thing in common, and that is they have ended in abysmal , and often tragic, failure. Throughout the centuries, empires, and their associated dreams and visions, have risen and fallen. From Alexander to the Caesars, to Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, they have all ended badly, with the blood of hundreds of millions on their hands.

Why are these experiments doomed to failure? William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony, determined that it was at least in part due to man’s fallen nature. Not a surprise, given that he was a Christian, but maybe he had, and has, a point.

What is man’s “fallen” nature? What does it mean to have a fallen nature? We see from the story of Adam and Eve, that after they disobeyed G-d by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were banned from the garden for fear that they would partake of The Tree of Life, and thereby gain eternal life.

What is interesting about the story is that prior to their rebellion, they could have eaten of The Tree of Life at any time. It was only afterward that they were barred. The implication of this is that something about them had changed, and because of this, they were barred from eternal life. It is good here to remember that G-d had told them that the consequence of their eating of the forbidden fruit would be death.

There is a relevant story in Acts 5 that tells of the early church in Jerusalem. Out of their love for one another, in G-d’s Spirit, they willingly shared their material wealth, and often donated the proceeds of sales of their property to the church leader’s, who would then distribute them to the needy.

One couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some property, and donated the proceeds to the church, but they held some back while claiming to have donated all. When confronted with their lie and hypocrisy, they both died on the spot. For more information on this, see Story of Ananias and Sapphira .

Now some have tried to use this story to justify socialism, the argument being that if a form of socialism was good for the early church, it should be good for us. The problem with this argument is that the early Jerusalem church was a relatively small group who voluntarily shared their wealth. This idea has carried on to this day by various religious orders in which members take a vow of poverty and live a communal lifestyle. Modern socialist movements, on the other hand, are extremely coercive, and as has been noted, have been responsible for more death and destruction than any other movement in the history of the planet.

The story, though, would also seem to support Bradford’s contention that man’s fallen nature is the heart of the problem. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to participate in the communal giving and sharing, but not willing to give all. This would have been fine, as nothing in the story suggests that they had to give all, so it would seem that they were concerned with appearances. They wanted everyone to think that they had given all, so they held back some, and lied.

It shows that even in small, voluntary associations, problems arise when people feel, even if only from their own inner desire to be recognized, compelled to share what they have worked for. This is just as true in religious orders, where members who break the rules will eventually be expelled if they continue to refuse to conform.

So what is man’s fallen nature? Years ago, a well-known secular psychiatrist and author, Dr. Karl Menninger, stirred up some controversy when he published a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? The controversy over the book at the time – this was 1973 – demonstrates how unpopular the concept of personal responsibility had become, and the idea that there is an immutable moral law that man has violated and continues violate. That in fact, there is something wrong with man that has put him at odds with G-d and his fellow man, and that compels him toward rebellion.

Keep in mind that this is a secular book, and it is not written from a religious viewpoint, but a clinical one. Therefore, there is much for a Christian believer, for example, to disagree with in the book; but the idea that any kind of healing or redemption for an individual is only possible when that individual accepts personal responsibility for themselves and their actions, is completely consistent with Judeo-Christian scripture, and is in fact foundational to religions based upon that scripture.

This idea that man exists in a state of sin that inclines him away from G-d and His laws, and toward disobedience, is still very unpopular today. Society, ones parents, bad teachers, the church, even G-d Himself, are all blamed. But the evidence is all around us, even in young children who, arguably, have not yet been “corrupted” by any of these things. Don’t believe this? Then ask yourself the question as to why “reverse psychology” works so consistently well.

How often have we experienced telling a child not to do something, only to have them immediately do it? “Don’t touch that dial” (on the television set, yes TV’s used to have dials), you admonish , and of course he touches the dial. “Don’t pick up that candy from the ground”, and then what happens? Not only does he pick it up, but he will put it in his mouth. When my daughter was young and had a miserable face, we would say to her “don’t you smile,” and of course she would inevitably smile.

OK, well this is all innocent enough when you are dealing with young children. But what happens with adults? No need to answer this, just look around you and at thousands of years of history. Now, you might say, well, yes, but not everyone is like that, and if you mean that not everyone commits horrible acts and heinous crimes, you would be correct. Most people do not do these things because we have been conditioned by parents and society to believe that they are awful things, and for us to do them would make us awful people, so most of us refrain from these  reprehensible acts.

There are, though, lesser “evils,” which all of us, at some time or another, do commit. Lying, unfaithfulness, gossip, unjust anger and hurtful words, and many others. The list is actually quite long. In addition, we all seem to have at least one “sin” that we just can’t seem to control, whether it is one of the above, or maybe an addiction, such as to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, money, power; again, I could go on.

So what are we to do? As has been indicated above, some analyze the problem and propose that its source lies outside the individual, for example in society. There is inequality and injustice in society, the story goes, and so people have the above mentioned problems because of this. The solution, then, is to remake society and rid it of its injustices. Once this is done, man will be free to do the right thing and will become perfect.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? We are not responsible for our actions, society is! “Remake society the way I want it to be, and I’ll be good. Just you wait and see.” Hmm, what is wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, the biblical paradigm, as proposed by William Bradford. If it is true, then this “solution” cannot work and could lead to much trouble – and it has!

Just take a look at the carnage that has been left behind from attempts to regain paradise! In the twentieth century alone, there was death, destruction, and suffering on a previously unimaginable scale. Just maybe the prophets, Jesus, William Bradford, and even Karl Menninger were on to something, when they claimed that the problem lay within the individual human heart.

So, if that is true, and it does seem that the problem does not originate from outside of man, then what are we to do? Of course, scripture has an answer! I’ll leave you with the following quote from Isaiah, 45:22:

Turn to me and be saved,

all you ends of the earth;

for I am God, and there is no other” (NIV)

Too simple, you might say? Well, sometimes the simple is sublime, but most importantly, true.

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What Does It Profit?

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36 KJV

I am a child of the sixties.  I was born in the early fifties, grew up in the sixties, and came of age in the seventies.  The fifties were a time of innocence for us baby boomers.   World War II was receding into the past and the Korean Conflict settled into an uneasy truce.  America was ascendant, and all was good.

Well, maybe not, but it certainly seemed that way. Televisions were becoming ubiquitous, and my neighbor even had color!  We had the Friday Night Fights, on Friday night of course, and Howdy Doody on Saturday morning.  The Honeymooners never failed to draw a laugh and a tear, and of course there was Ed Sullivan, Topo Gigo, and Elvis.

Sure, there were many things wrong.  There was the  Soviet Union and the air raid drills in case of nuclear attack.  There was Jim Crow and the backlash against the nascent civil rights movement.  President Eisenhower warned us of something called the military-industrial complex. But we were too young to really know or care about these things.  Things that in the end would define so much of our lives.

We started the Sixties with a young, vibrant, and idealistic president who asked us to give of ourselves: to our own, through Ameri-Corp, and to others through the Peace Corp.  He said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  He told us we were going to the moon, he promised us Camelot, and he delivered.  His idealism was infectious, and we were certainly infected by it.   Then, reality came crashing down on us all one day in November, 1963.

John Kennedy’s assassination could have destroyed our idealism. We were in shock.  We wondered why, we cried, and we mourned; and though we may have lost our innocence, the one thing we did not lose was the idealism he had imparted to us.  This lived on, and if anything, it became stronger and more real then ever.  But why?

A big part of the answer to that question, I believe, is that something else happened right around that same time that would also have a tremendous impact on my generation.  That something was called The Beatles.

The Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964.  They sang to us, and we loved them for it.  Their music and antics didn’t just entertain us though; they helped us to refocus our minds on what was important.  And what was important to us young boys and girls?  Why, young boys and girls, of course.

A simple song about holding hands, or asking someone to dance, reminded us that the important things in life were still there and could be had simply by choosing to have them.  But they didn’t stop there.  As we grew, they did too, and their music grew with them and us.  In their music they wove together, as if by some magic, the events of the day – the most fundamental experiences in life, and a spiritual journey.

Later, when the Beatles broke up, we were saddened by it, but we also soon realized that there were benefits to the break-up, as each Beatle was now free to pursue his own path.

John took a political one, certainly with a spiritual side, but distinctly political none the less.  Paul remained most true to the Beatles origins with his ballads and love songs.   And Ringo, well, despite his tremendous musical success, he was and is just Ringo, the “every-man,” and that is all he had to be.

But it was George, the spiritual one, seeking truth in meditation, music, and in the religious traditions of east and west, who may have had the most influence on me.  This may be because as I grew older, the world around me was changing drastically.  Our society was creating wealth at an unprecedented rate, and with it came materialism and the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Traditional, community-based religion was being abandoned and was being replaced either by a personal spirituality, accountable to no-one, not even G-d, or by a social-club religion which left the Judaeo-Christian G-d completely behind.  In either case,  for many, G-d, if He was even deemed to exist at all, became an impersonal force that required nothing from us – a Cosmic Sugar Daddy who could be tapped just by saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.

Politics grew uglier every day, where in the West, defeating your opponent turned into destroying your opponent.  We were more civilized about it in the West than in the East, of course, where in places like the Soviet Union or Red China, political defeat often meant execution or lifelong imprisonment.  No, we destroyed lives by destroying reputations and demonizing our opponents.  This practice continues to this day.  Our political opponents are not just wrong, they are evil.

And what about traditional love and marriage?  There are still many that believe in these things, but they are certainly not the ones who predominate in our culture and society.  The hedonists of the sixties became the Me Generation of the seventies, who became the jaded post-modern cynics of today.

And then there was George:

“We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world and lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?”
from Within You Without You by George Harrison

Even if he didn’t have the ultimate answers, he was asking the right questions, echoing the words of Jesus, spoken so many years ago.

I’ve been thinking more about George lately, and his spiritual quest.  A quest that so many of us took up.  What happened to it?  For me, it slowly transformed back into the Christian faith I was raised in.  But it is a more stable faith, a more informed faith, and a scripture based faith.

As mentioned previously, George drew on many faith traditions to inspire him and his music.  In my own journey, I have also traveled many paths.  This has led me to believe that there is no one, true religion, the practice of which will gain you salvation.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying that some religions do not bring you closer to the truth than others, and in this sense, all religions are definitely not equal.  Also, I am not saying that religion has no value; the right religion has tremendous value in that it does bring you closer to the truth.  Now, if we must have a one, true religion, that is it.

It has also helped me to understand that “The Church” is not a particular group or religion or faith tradition; it is the living body of the Word, composed of all who believe in that Word and have put their faith in Him, regardless of the religion, if any, that they may practice.

I personify the Word here because scripture itself does.  The idea of the living Word goes back to the very beginnings of time.  Didn’t G-d, with his Word, bring all things into existence?  In Genesis 15:1 Abram has a vision of the Word and the Word speaks to him saying, “Do not be afraid Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  Abraham believed in the Word and became the progenitor of nations and kings.

In fact, there are numerous places in scripture where the Word is seen as a person, speaking, and coming and going.  This idea of the living Word is one of the subjects that Michael S. Heiser documents in great detail in his book, The Unseen Realm, for those who would like to know more.

So if the simple practice of religion can’t “get you into heaven,” what can?  According to Judeo-Christian scripture itself, salvation comes by the grace of G-d, through faith in G-d and in His Word.  This is what I mean, then, when I say that there is no “true” religion.  Religion has been defined as man attempting to gain G-d’s good graces through works and the observance of rites and rituals and traditions.  The way of faith, on the other hand, is about what G-d did and does for us, not what we do for Him.

Well, what about my idealism?  I started off talking about how I thought the Beatles helped to restore the idealism of my generation.  If you look around at the current state of affairs in the world, one might think that the baby boomers have completely lost it.

I can’t speak for my entire generation, but only for me.  That idealism is still there and is as strong as ever, but it is different than the idealism of my youth.  It has been tempered by my faith and my experience.  By my faith because I understand that G-d is sovereign, and as scripture says, if G-d does not build a house, then the builders labor in vain.  To put it differently, if what we do is not in accordance with G-d’s will and plan, and is simply our own undertaking, it will in the end come to nothing good.

It has been tempered by my experience because  I have learned that if you want to change the world, it has to start with your own heart and head, and this is only something G-d can do.  It then continues to your family, your home, and your own backyard; to your friends, your community and your job.  My point, I’m sure, is obvious: If you want to change the world, you have the best chance of doing that in the world immediately around you.

This reminds me of the lyrics to another Beatles song, Revolution:

“You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead.”