I believe in knowledge.
Let me expound: I believe in knowledge, education, experience, broadening your horizons, challenging established thought patterns, engaging with everything the world has to offer with an open mind. I value these things for their own sake, but also because I believe that they are how we move forward and progress as a society.
I don’t know that I know anyone who would openly say they do not believe in or value these things, and yet a dominant line of thinking in our culture and our politics in America espouses the exact opposite, treating these things as superfluous if not downright objectionable. But let me take a step back here.
My favorite book series, growing up, was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, the Subtle Knife, the Amber Spyglass. At the time, most of the deeper levels of meaning went right over my head, which made reading them as an adult a surprise and a delight, because there was so much I hadn’t picked up on.
The entire series calls into question organized religion, the morality of a god figure, and the rules by which so many of us live our lives. Without spoiling too much here, the book makes the case that the biblical Eve eating the apple was not a folly, not a mistake, a miscalculation, the origin of everything that is wrong with this world, but rather the very best thing she could have done for us.
Bear with me, because this metaphor deserves some unpacking here, although for those who have worked with the bible and it’s stories on a symbolic level, it might be familiar.
The fruit that Eve eats is from the Tree of Knowledge. She is told that eating this fruit will allow her to see as god does, to understand the world around her in a way that she cannot even conceive of before she takes the bite. So Eve is given a choice: Ignorance or Knowledge. But it’s not just that. Choosing not to eat the apple means choosing blind obedience even with the awareness that you do not see the world clearly enough to know if god is someone who deserves your obedience. It is choosing to live the remainder of your life understanding the world only in part. It is a call to absolute faith, but to do so requires a certain lack of cynicism–One must be innocent, naive, possibly even childlike, in their worldview.
In many ways, Eve choosing to eat the apple is linked to sexual sinfulness. Gaining knowledge, experience, self-awareness are all associated with sexual maturity. In mainstream Christianity, there is an expectation for sexual purity that is more heavily applied to girls and women, and that is wrapped up this idea of original sin. Eve choosing to eat the apple is a metaphor for a woman choosing to eschew innocence and obedience in favor of experience and self-determination. It’s about sexual liberation, personal autonomy, self-determination, and she is punished accordingly: pain in childbirth.
So underpinning the fabric of Christian dogma and morality is this value of innocence, obedience, modesty, but with it comes blindness and naivete, and an acceptance that your life is not your own. Jesus take the wheel.
I do not mean to be flippant about people’s genuinely held faith; rather, I want to make it clear that although some of these values may not be explicitly preached, they are there in the collective belief system of Christianity which has influenced so very much of our culture. Regardless of what individual Christians may believe themselves, this subtext has has made an impact. As a society, we have accepted as truth the belief that Eve should not have eaten the apple without ever questioning what that choice really meant.
In Pullman’s His Dark Materials, there is a character named Mary Malone. She is a nun who joined a fairly open-minded…convent? Sorry, my knowledge of Catholic terminology is somewhat lacking here, but nevertheless, she was allowed to also pursue her PhD in Physics. She believed that her studies were contributing to our understanding of the glory of god, and so pursued these two life directions with single-minded dedication.
Mary explains at one point that she had reasoned with herself, when deciding to become a nun, that although she understood she was making a sacrifice, she had reasoned that it was not an unbearable one. Romantic love, sex, the kind of freedom that comes from living outside of the bounds of the church and pursuing your own path–it was nice, surely, but not essential. Love was like China, she thought–some people went there and loved it, but even if she never went to China herself, she could live her life, explore the rest of the world, the entire other range of human experience, instead. Not everyone went to China, that was just the way the world worked.
As a nun, she goes to Portugal to an academic conference, goes to dinner with some people from the conference, and meets a man. In a setting much like a garden, she and this man eat marzipan, and she is brought back to a very similar moment when she was an adolescent and a boy had fed her marzipan and then kissed her. Mary realizes that she’s been fooling herself all along, and that she does want to go to China–she doesn’t want to give up that entire piece of human experience.
This is bigger than sex, although I don’t pretend that romantic love isn’t a part of it. But in much the same way that Eve eating the apple is both about sex and about so much more than sex, Mary’s revelation comes both from her desire to pursue a romantic relationship and her larger desire to be able to experience life fully, unencumbered, regardless of which specific element of human experience is on the table in a given moment.
This is the framework within which I tend to see the world. Experience is valuable. Knowledge is valuable. Self-awareness, autonomy, self-determination are valuable. It is never the right decision to hunker down, to bury one’s head in the sand, to hide from the realities of the world because it is easier or more comfortable. Blind faith in accepting the world as it is, or trusting someone else bigger and stronger than you are to fix the world’s problems, both of these things are paralytic.
The world is ravaged by disease, poverty, oppression, violence, war. In our own country, it is somehow a controversial statement to say that Black Lives Matter, or that one believes women are equal to men (i.e. is a feminist). It is not widely accepted that protest is a legitimate form of political action, or that the atrocities of the past impact the present. It is still acceptable to say that our religion justifies bigotry, and still acceptable to expect that our opinions on things that do not affect us should carry more weight than the opinions of people who are directly affected by them–what people do in their own bedrooms, what people do with their own bodies, etc. We are rapidly approaching cataclysm via climate change, and it’s still radical to argue against drilling for, building infrastructure for, and doubling down on the use of fossil fuels.
But much of this comes from a segment of the population, and the political world, that is hell-bent on anti-intellectualism. It is a mark of honor, a tally mark in one’s favor, to not understand climate change, evolution, constitutional law, the variance in human sexuality, the cultural construction of race and gender, concepts like bodily autonomy and civil disobedience.
We cannot make a difference if we do not fight. Motivation to fight for social change does not come from a place of contentment, of absolute faith that problems with be solved higher up the chain, of naive acceptance of the way things are. The greatest fights for social change, the greatest fighters, are hungry. They have skin in the game. They are angry and overwhelmed and done with the way things are.
We need fighters, and so we all must be hungry, and invested, done with the status quo. That means being engaged, being educated, being knowledgeable, being experienced, being open to new ideas, being willing to challenge our own patterns of thought and everyone else’s too. In this fight, in this world, in this most dire of circumstances, we all have a choice.
Eat the apple.