Friday, June 5, 2015

Paradise Reclaimed

- At the Desert Retreat House -

It is amazing to me how influential the stories found in the Bible have been in forming and fashioning the worldview of Western culture.

I think, for example, of the ancient creation poem found in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew scripture: The poem celebrates how everything came into being and makes a clear pronouncement about the very nature of everything that “is.” The story tells a tale of how in the beginning everything was a beautiful harmony, a perfect paradise. Ever since the beginning, everything and everyone reflected a Holy Presence - it was filled and energized by the force of universal love. 

But later in the story we hear about Adam and Eve who ate the forbidden apple, and from that point on everything went downhill –paradise was lost, and from then on human beings would be required to do their best to regain a paradise that was lost as a result of Adam and Eve’s “original sin.”

To this very day the worldview of much of our Western culture continues to be influenced by this story of original sin. Many if not most people imagine that their lives on this earth are all about regaining a lost paradise. At some deep level many people see everything and everyone as being basically flawed and misshapen, and the task of life is to labor and toil to regain something of what was initially lost, some measure of peace, some degree of happiness.

But what if the whole interpretation of that creation story that so influences our worldview is just plain wrong and misdirected?

In fact, when I revisit that ancient creation myth, that core story that has been so influential in how a western worldview has been formed, I  discover it is actually a story about how good everything is rather than a story about how bad and how flawed everything is.

Throughout the entire narrative of the creation story we are told that,  after each act of creation, God looks at what has been wrought and pronounces, “it is good, it is very good.”  God creates the skies and the seas, looks at it in wonder and says, “it is good.” God creates the creatures of the earth, the birds of the air, the animals that walk in the earth, gazes at it all with the eyes of love and says, “it is good.” God creates humankind and rejoices in wonder at what has been wrought, pronouncing that it is all so very good.

Hundreds if not thousands of years after this story was first told, theologians like Augustine (and later, Luther) essentially reinterpreted it to emphasize the original sin of Adam and Eve and how everything and everyone is flawed and essentially dirty and sinful. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that medieval Western theologians emphasized how our time on earth is a time of work and toil, a time to be spent in repentance, a time to make up for the condition of sinfulness inherent in our humanity so that hopefully we might find some degree of peace in this life and one day get back into paradise again when we get to heaven. 

In his later years of life the renowned 20th century monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, came to realize how misguided our Western version of “Paradise Lost” has been. Life on this earth has nothing to do with toiling and sweating to regain paradise. Our days on earth are in fact a time to reclaim a paradise that is already here:

Everything is in fact paradise, because it is filled with the glory
and the presence of God,
and nothing is any more separated from God.

Out here in the desert,  every day I reaffirm this wisdom.

I live most of my life outdoors in the world of nature- it is a great teacher about the nature of life in general.

The world of nature brims with a stunning beauty, it is filled with the glory of Holy Presence even as it is flawed and imperfect, but even the imperfections add to the beauty of it all. Thorny cacti give way to breathtaking blooms, streams of refreshing water spring up from bone-dry, rocky soil, the scorching heat of hot summer days are brilliant in their stunning brightness, the skies of night blaze with stars and moon - and I belong to it all and it all belongs to me.

Everything and everyone –a wonderfully chaotic, imperfectly stunning beautiful web of being.

“It is good-it is all so very good.”


  1. " Life on this earth has nothing to do with toiling and sweating to regain paradise. Our days on earth are in fact a time to reclaim a paradise that is already here:"

    That is a good way to look at it. It opens up the idea of a 'redemptive ecology theology' to me.

    We have a living breathing eco-sphere that is capable of being healed and restored if it is not continually being injured. What better way for mankind to show it's love for God than by respectfully and thoughtfully nursing the earth back to health.

    Today the earth is not 'good'. One in eight deaths on the planted are linked to air pollution. Today species are vanishing in huge amounts as the direct result of not respecting God's good earth.

    Repentance, changing ones mind, about how to conduct ourselves on the planet could be a way to re-claim restore and tend to the earth and respect God's gift of goodness to us.I would suggest this would be a more sincere form of worship than that which preceded it.