Of Moral Compasses and Society

In the Garden of Eden, one of the choices which faced the first humans was a choice between what is good for the community and what is good for the individual. Adam and Eve faced a moral choice to either obey God’s community standards or obey the voice of selfishness personified in a snake. We know very little of the thought processes of Adam and Eve in that prehistoric garden, only the vignettes God reveals in the words of Genesis 2, 3, and 4, and we do well to learn what God seeks to teach us through their lives.

Genesis 1 begins with the Creator as a community of persons creating a marvelously interwoven interdependent biosphere.[1] The emphasis is on the blue planet, third from the sun in our solar system, but of course the entire universe is God’s creation and humans are asked to care for it all. The Creator, in his first instructions to humanity, gives them the task of caring for all that has been created.[2] There are a couple of clues that this is a community task and not the individual responsibility of one couple. First, we get an indication that the creation is so large that two would not be able to care for it all. Secondly, Adam and Eve receive the instructions to be fruitful and multiply so that there may be more people to join in the care of the garden, the planet, and all of creation. There is much more that could be said of the plan God has for the care of his creation, but most of it comes down to the fact that humans are created in the image of God and are designed to care for what he cares about. Thus, humans must care for God’s creation, which of course includes other human beings. The task God gives humans is daunting: take care of a whole planet and indeed a whole universe, but the Creator makes the planet (and the universe) remarkably self-sustaining and self-renewing.[3]  

Then, going back to the Garden of Eden, we read of that first choice: to do what is good for the community of humans and for the creation, or to do what enhances personal knowledge and personal power. The temptation that is offered is devious and enticing for any human: trust that what God has said is right for his creation or take control and do things our own individual way. Listen in to the insidious temptation: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’ … You will not certainly die, … when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Confusing words for any listener. “Wait, what did God say? What did the snake say?” Ultimately, a choice is made between following the instructions of the One who knows how the universe works (following the manual – so to speak) or choosing to do what enhances the individual.

Ever since that first inflection point of choice, we have seen humanity come to similar places of decision over and over again. When tribal families in geographic areas face a new group of families with similar or different lifestyles, they must decide whether they will fight against them for the resources of that place or collaborate together in an expanded community. When the great empires and kingdoms of the world rise up, the individual must choose between obeying the community/kingdom laws or choosing what is good for themselves/their small family. When democratic governments rise to the forefront and recognize the tensions and balances
between the individual, the society, the family, and world cultures, the
individual must again make choices between personal pursuits and the pursuits of the society at large. In current vernacular, the individual must ask, “Should I work to ensure there is enough hand-sanitizer to meet the needs of the community or stockpile the product and sell it for a profit?”

Keith Boag, an opinion columnist for CBC News, recently wrote an article which describes the tension in our world today: the right of the individual to pursue happiness and the obligations of those who live together in society. Boag’s examples are taken from recent incidents in the United States of America but are written as a caution to all people and particularly to Canadians. His words are more political than theological, but I would suggest that the roots of the tensions go back to the moral choices of the Garden of Eden.

Boag gets to the heart of the matter when he quotes Christopher Beem, director of the McCourtney School of Democracy in saying that “…Americans need to challenge the idea that everyone is just pursuing their own happiness as individuals…. When we live together in society, we depend on each other. And therefore, we have obligations to each other.”[4] Truly, this is a very old tension: the good of the individual and the good of the society. The article gives several examples of the bad behaviours that can occur when individuals take advantage of the society in which they live and pursue their own happiness as individuals (read the entire article and be prepared to be angry). Of course, the article also exposes our own hearts and our own susceptibility to making the wrong choice in any given circumstance. Both of Boag and Beem challenge us to reconsider the importance of the society or societies within which we live. They are suggesting that the happiness of a society as well as the individual is something to be pursued.  

From the very beginning, God knew that we would face the choices we are facing today. He knows how societies, cultures, and planets work best and has given us his guidance. He knows that we are susceptible to the temptation of individualism, tribalism, and selfishness and yet he allows us to choose our own paths forward. Like Adam and Eve, we get to choose where we will find our moral compass.


[1] Granted, one must look closely for hints that the Creator is a community of persons in Genesis and one needs the larger arc of the entire Bible to understand the nature of a Creator who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (see for example John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-20) but the seeds of this theology are definitely sown in the beginnings of our Bible and the beginnings of creation. [2] Genesis 1:28 says, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue (or steward) it. Rule over (or take care of) the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” [3] There are many examples of how the biosystem works in harmony. A simple example is the earth’s water cycle as explained in the article entitled “Water Cycle” in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_cycle [4] “Coronavirus puts a spotlight on the moral compass of America,”
Keith Boag, CBC News, March 23, 2020, https://bit.ly/3drSMjs


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