Brothers and sisters, our sermon today is going to be about knowledge versus wisdom. For I tell you that our quest for knowledge has too often been like a ship – a great ship plunging ahead through the icy waves on a dark, moonless night without the rudder of wisdom to steer its path. Its great, churning engines drive us forever forward, but whether we are driving that ship, or it is driving us, is a matter of contention. There are some among us who seem to think that the ocean is endless and that we can keep sailing forward forever at full steam ahead. There are others, however, who fear that without a little rudder to steer us that inevitably we will head straight into a proverbial iceberg.
As for the fruit of our knowledge, we need only look around us to see the many technologies that it has spawned. Industry, medicine, agriculture, pyramids, space flight, computers…the list goes on an on. But just as surely as our knowledge has produced these technologies, it has also produced calamitous ecological devastation. It has produced an endless procession of weapons of murder and mass destruction. For many of us it has resulted in an overwhelming sense of personal alienation, disconnectedness and despair. Our thirst for knowledge has led the very Earth itself to the precipice of destruction. Yes, we are daily faced with environmental devastation and nuclear holocaust in a world where we are sailing blind…like a ship without a rudder.
How has this lamentable state of affairs come to be? How can we come to make some sense of our predicament? Well, I think the bible may be able to shed some light on the situation. Let us open our bibles to Genesis 3 and see what we find. There we see that the serpent tempts Eve into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, contrary to God's command, and that she in turn convinces Adam to eat from it as well. For this act they are irrevocably banished from the Garden of Eden. They were separated from God and Adam was sent out to "till the ground from which he was taken."
Well, what are we to make of that? Before I go any further I'd like to make two digressions. The first concerns "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" itself. There are some who are convinced that the correct translation of the Hebrew is not "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil", but rather that it is "the tree of knowledge, both good and evil." In other words, it is the tree of all knowledge. Let me tell you, I think they are absolutely correct in that interpretation. Mankind ate from the tree of all knowledge, but he had not the proper wisdom to guide him in its usage. And like the ship from our earlier example, mankind, without the rudder of wisdom to guide his path, has been sailing blindly forward ever since.
The second digression I'd like to make concerns the very nature of the Genesis account itself. Let us understand that it was written between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE by ancient Israelites who were expressing their own particular understanding of an even more ancient past. A distant and primordial past with which they had no direct experience and only the most tenuous and subconscious connections. And they expressed this understanding in the only way they knew how - through poetry. And that's what the Genesis account is. It's a poetic re-interpretation of events for which they had no other means of describing.
It would be an act of folly to interpret these poetic retellings as factual history. For they are not. The ancient Israelites had no understanding of that primordial history, of mankind's evolutionary past, or of the laws of nature by which the very will of God is transcribed upon the canvas of the universe. To insist upon a literal interpretation of the Genesis account would be to "miss the forest for the trees", as the saying goes. The importance of the story is not as factual history, but as a conveyance of profoundly moral truths which can help us make sense of our current predicament if we pay attention to the message of the story, and not the means by which it is conveyed. Now, you may be asking yourselves, "Well, what are these moral truths?" With my two previous digressions firmly in mind, I will flesh out in detail what the ancient Israelites only had the vaguest, haziest and subconscious recollection of.
At mankind's beginning, he lived in harmony, both with nature and with God. Homo Erectus lived from 1.8 million years ago to 70,000 years ago, in small, egalitarian bands of foraging scavengers that were thoroughly interconnected with the intricate web of life around them. They engaged in some hunting, but mostly they foraged and scavenged carcasses that other animals had killed. This lifestyle did not place undue strain on their environment, nor did they perceive of themselves as being fundamentally different from the rest of creation. Consequently they lived in harmony with the laws of nature that God had laid out and set in motion. Laws that applied equally to all the creatures of his creation, without exception. If a predator species becomes too numerous and overhunts, for example, then its prey will become more scarce, leading in turn to a crash in the predator population. This was a self-regulating relationship between predators and prey in the wild which kept things in a delicate balance. Each species thus lived in overall harmony, not necessarily with each other, but with nature as a whole. Early man, Homo Erectus, operated in accordance with this principle, and at first so did our direct ancestors, Homo Sapiens. Mankind's population was small and the laws of nature regulated its expansion to keep it in harmony with the rest of nature. Adam, in the Genesis account, represents mankind at this stage of his development. And if there ever was a Garden of Eden, then this was it.
But then things began to go awry. Homo Sapiens began crafting tools of ever greater refinement. Around 70,000 years ago we begin to see evidence of big game hunting, the killing of a larger numbers of animals, and the driving of herds over cliff tops in well coordinated, mass slaughter. From between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago we see mass extinctions of megafauna in regions inhabited by mankind. The wooly mammoth. The mastodon. Both hunted to extinction by 10,000 years ago. The European elephant, the wooly rhinoceros, the giant deer, all hunted to extinction. Some twenty genera of large mammals were hunted to extinction during that time frame. It was an ecological catastrophe caused by a species that used its knowledge to exempt itself from the laws of nature, but had not the wisdom to see that he was causing irreparable harm to the delicately interconnected web of life around him.
Indeed, this was a species that had now become radically disconnected from that finely tuned web of life. A species that used his knowledge to control his own food supply at the expense of the natural world and thereby exempt himself from the very laws which regulated the populations of every other species. And without a little wisdom, any species which can control its own food supply will expand to the limits of that food supply. By viewing the rest of God's creation as being nothing more than a mere collection of resources to be exploited, extracted and used up, mankind freed himself from any external population controls. But in doing so, he at last found himself completely alienated from both nature and from God. And thus mankind found himself evicted from the Garden of Eden.
But that was just the beginning. The bible tells us that, "the Lord God sent him (Adam) forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken." Mankind had to find another way to control nature for his exclusive benefit and to ensure a food supply for his now booming population. It was then that mankind invented agriculture. Yes, mankind began to exert his will, not only upon the other species around him, but upon the very earth itself. The bounty of the earth which hitherto had been a common treasury for all, individual men now began dividing up and claiming as their own private property, for their own exclusive use. Mankind was now alienated, not just from the rest of nature and from God, but from the fellow members of his own species. And all the social evils that afflict us today followed directly in the wake of that technological leap forward. Overpopulation, poverty, hierarchy, oppression, alienation, they are all products of a species who had acquired the knowledge to do extraordinary things, but not the wisdom to see that in the end it was all a Faustian bargain and that the price he had paid was far too high.
And he wanders, lost, to this day. Mankind's technologies, his vaunted civilization, his medicine and arts, they will all have come to naught when overpopulation and his pathological thirst for domination drives the world toward an environmental catastrophe of "biblical" proportions. With each passing day we find ourselves sailing directly toward that proverbial iceberg. We can clearly see its immense presence looming before us. Yes, the warning bells have been sounded. But it appears that we lack the wisdom to apply enough rudder to sufficiently change our course. Unless we learn to live sustainably, to quit destroying whole ecosystems, to bring ourselves back into harmony with the natural world as integrated part a greater whole…until we learn to do all of these things, we will surely bring ourselves, and the world around us, to ruin. It may be that that once we have eaten from the tree of knowledge that we can never be allowed back into Eden. But we may yet be able to bring about a sustainable relationship with nature…and perhaps a rapprochement with God. It is not too late for our wisdom to rise to the level of our knowledge and bring the two into a sustainable harmony.