After frolicking around The Garden all morning, Adam and Eve were starving. They filled their bellies with the fruit of The Tree, and it gave them such a headache! The knowledge of good and evil throbs in the ever-branching tangle of nerves that is the human brain. And the Tree of Good and Evil produces both kinds of fruit.
There’s no free lunch. We can blindly accept the gifts that fall into our lives as if we were ignorant children, or we can grow up. This is painful. Anguished moments of self-discovery are recorded in the journals of early Friends as spiritual growing pains. See George Fox: “[Then] the spiritual discerning came into me, by which I did discern my own thoughts, groans and sighs, and what it was that did veil me . . .” And Isaac Penington: “[The Light] will show you him whom you have pierced (even so as never yet you sawest him), and open a fresh vein of blood and grief in you, to bleed and mourn over him . . .” And this from John Woolman:
[Once,] going to a neighbor’s house, I saw on the way a robin sitting on her nest; and as I came near she went off, but having young ones, flew about and with many cries expressed her concern for them. I stood and threw stones at her, till one striking her, she fell down dead. At first I was pleased with the exploit, but after a few minutes was seized with horror . . . I beheld her lying dead and thought, those young ones for which she was so careful must now perish for want of their dam to nourish them; and after some painful considerations on the subject, I climbed up the tree, took all the young birds and killed them, supposing that [was] better than to leave them to pine away and die miserably . . .
We, too, are pleased with our exploits as producers and consumers in the largest economy ever to invade the planet. Of course we try to avoid looking too closely at the causes and consequences of our good fortune. But out of the corners of our eyes, we see the wind rustling in the trees. We know that Life is out there in action, that we are part of Life, and that we are destined to act within it. Friends’ reputation as radical do-gooders precedes us.
Actual ignorance, pretended ignorance, felt experience, unconscious experience – all these forces shape our actions. We move through a world of half-truths, stereotypes, and assumptions. The more we can lift the fog of ignorance from our minds, the more surely we’ll be able to follow the path of Life.
The Quaker preference for “knowing experimentally” – for obtaining knowledge through the five senses and through direct spiritual sensation – has shaped us into a homemade, bring-your-own, do-it-yourself ministry. We prefer to act on information gained through experience than to follow untested assumptions. As Elias Hicks put it, our “immortal spirits cannot be satisfied any longer with the old, moldy crumbs of tradition and education.”
Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to discover individually the assumptions we are making. We need others to help us see the hard truths. We need to work together in community to try to figure things out – in the light of all creation and in the Light – to determine whether it’s really time to plant or time to reap, time to tear down or build up, to cast away stones or gather them together. Then we can act in confidence. Then we can say, along with Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing better than that we should rejoice in our work, for that is our lot.”