This is one of my shots of a Snowfall, which so damaged some of our high country farmers. Snow is neither good or bad, except in the eyes of those who perceive it to be so.Your body and mine are made from atoms that are so heavy that in all the universe there is only one place where they could have been formed: the interior of a star is the only place with sufficiently high temperature and pressure to construct an atom heavier than helium. The fact that we are here at all testifies to the life and then extinction of a star (or stars) somewhere, someplace, some unimaginably vast time ago. The universe is a terrifyingly violent place. It proceeds by the operation of vast forces manifesting in the gathering of matter and explosions and collisions and births and deaths. Things, and I mean all things without exception, in our universe come into existence, have a presence for a while and die. The matter from which they are constructed is redistributed and reused by other parts of the universe time and time and time again. This eternal dance of being and non-being is beautiful and powerful, and it is neither good nor evil: it just is.
As the universe has evolved it has produced ever more complex arrangements of some of its matter, and some of those arrangements are living. Plants and animals have evolved on at least one of the universe's planets and the processes which operate over all the universe (well, as far as we can tell) also seem to operate with living things. They come into existence, they are here for a while and then they die, each and every one of them. In death, and also in life, the matter of which they are comprised is taken from them and reused by other parts of the universe, living and dead, time and time and time again. Plants eat each other and are eaten by animals who are in turn eaten by other animals and all, for as long as they are here, are a living larder for a billion microbes. And again, none of this is good or evil, it just is.
Some spiders eat their partners after mating, as do praying mantises. This is not murder, it is the animal manifesting patterns of behaviour hardwired into its tiny brain and over which it has no control whatsoever. So, even as Mrs Mantis happily chows down on her bridegroom's head, she is an innocent; blameless; an unfallen creature. Further up the evolutionary tree, creatures with much larger brains and more complex behaviours also do things which, to us, seem unsavoury. Packs of young male dolphins will herd a single female and take turns copulating with her. Chimpanzees will turn on one of their own and beat them for reasons opaque to us, and gangs of them will wage war on neighbouring troops, systematically killing off the males and abducting the females. But intelligent as these creatures are, I don't think they can be accused of rape, or bullying or murder or genocide. Again, even as they are performing what seem to us to be atrocities they are innocents; they are acting on impulses with no knowledge of the moral impact of their actions; they are blameless, unfallen creatures. I have expanded on this a little elsewhere.
Somewhere, millennia ago, chimpanzees shared a long forgotten ancestor with us. At some unknown time between the life of that ancient tupuna and the present day a profound change happened: in our branch of the family tree, but not, as far as I can tell, that of the chimps, the sense of self attained sufficient sophistication that the animals were conscious of two things:
1. Their own mortality. Many animals grieve the deaths of loved ones. Elephants seem fascinated with corpses and bones of their own kind as do some birds. Chimpanzees have been known to pine to death after the loss of a close friend or relative. But with us there is a development which I suspect to be unique, and that is that we individually understand that we are finite and that we will personally die.
2. Knowledge of good and evil. We have an ability which I suspect is unique to us, of being able to think abstractly, and part of this ability is being able to form abstract concepts of good or evil. We are able not just to respond to the instincts which motivate our nearest animal relatives, but to compare our own behaviour to some abstract notion or other of what that behaviour should be. Unavoidable baggage comes with this knowledge of life and of morality, namely, the crushing existential anxiety which accompanies our senses of finitude and of moral failure. And with that anxious burden we are no longer innocents. We are fallen creatures.
The genius of the book of Genesis is that it describes this process with exquisite metaphorical precision. In chapter 3 the old poem locates our ancestors in a garden sited at the place where the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Pishon and the Gihon all originate - in other words, a place which doesn't exist in the world as we know it. The garden is a place of innocence, and has in its centre the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil. Desiring to know as God knows, From the Earth (אָדָם) and his consort Source of Life (חַוָּה) eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all changes. They get what they want, that is they know, but they can avoid neither the unexpected consequences of their knowing nor the responsibility which the knowledge brings with it.
To develop the level of consciousness which we are blessed (or cursed ?) with, which to my mind seems precisely what the universe was set up to produce, means we are also fated to live with the consequent and inevitable awareness of death and guilt upon the avoidance of which so much of our human endeavour and achievement is built.
Of course, the Christian Gospel tells us that this is not the end of the story, but that's a post for another day.