I love having conversations with the kids about our Catholic faith. Their insights and questions astound me and amaze me time and time again, and it’s such an honor and a privilege to engage with them.
Recently, while doing a short follow-up at bedtime to our most recent faith formation lesson, in which our six-year-old son learned about original sin and the fall of man, he asked a simple, yet profound question:
“Why didn’t God just take away the tree?”
The tree, of course, that he’s referring to, is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as described in Genesis. His sweet reasoning was that if God had just taken away the tree, then Adam and Eve would never have sinned, and humanity would have saved ourselves a whole lot of trouble.
I realized very quickly that my son was really asking a much, much bigger question than he even realized at the time.
How do we even read the story of The Fall anyway?
I’ll pause here a moment to share my own journey with the book of Genesis. I was raised Protestant, and was taught to believe the Bible was both historically and literally true in all its components. That sort of thinking made it hard for me to reconcile certain parts of the Bible, like the two seemingly-conflicting accounts of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. As I came into adulthood, it caused me to struggle to see the Bible as something more than a book of children’s stories. And, in the end, that type of firm adherence to literal interpretation across the board, was one of the many reasons I became Catholic.
There’s a great video here by Fr. Mike Schmitz that helps explain how the Bible is meant to be read, emphasizing the fact that the Bible is actually a collection of books by many different authors that are all true- but that are not all meant to be historically and literally true in every instance. The appropriate way to read a Bible would be to see it as a book made of books of different genres and purposes. While the accounts of creation in Genesis are historically true (in the sense that at some point God started time and brought the world into existence), they weren’t intended to be a literal telling of how that happened.
I like to say this when talking with my children about the different parts of the Bible- that some parts, like the gospels, were recorded as historical and literal truths about the life of the person Jesus. Some books, like the Psalms, are songs and poems. And some parts, tell us what happened, but weren’t meant to tell us exactly how.
The story of creation in Genesis and the depiction of the fall fit that what but not the specific how definition. For example, as Catholics, we are not bound to believe in a literal talking snake, but we are to believe the deeper truth of the fall of man and original sin, as taught in the Catechism.
Back to the Tree
Okay, so back to my conversation with my son.
What he was really asking, in the question of “Why didn’t God just take away the tree?” boiled down to what love means and what is required for love to be possible in the first place.
Let’s start with God. God is love, completely and fully. So, when God decided to create, He brought forth nature, he brought forth animals. And then, at some point in the vast spectrum of the process that was creation of the known universe, He did something different. He made an animal, but with something more. He gave that animal the capacity to love, just like Him. Until then, he had nature that followed the laws of science. He had animals that followed the laws of their instincts. But we are made in His image, particularly in His capacity to love. This is what sets us apart from squirrels and bears and donkeys. We can choose to go against our urges and instincts, we can do things that have absolutely no benefit to us or even to our survival, in the name of love.
Why Does that Matter?
Next, let’s imagine an Eden without the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve live in peace and harmony, and all of mankind follows, right? Sure. They would have been perfectly contented little creatures.
But God didn’t make us to be perfectly contented little creatures. He made us for love.
And what is required for love?
Love requires and demands the freedom to choose.
Without choice, then we can’t really love. Without choice, we’re robots. We’re submissive. We do the will of God not because we want to but because we must.
If God had taken away the proverbial tree, he would have taken away Adam and Eve’s free choice to choose Love or to turn away from it. And then they wouldn’t have been able to really, truly, love at all.
The tree had to be there. And by the tree, I mean the choice. The choice had to exist. For love to be real, you have to have the option to say: “No, I don’t want that.” “I choose my good over your good.” Or, in the best case scenario, “I choose your good, regardless of what that means for me.”
We do it all the time, even still to this day. How many times during a day are we faced with that very same decision. I can be short with my kids or I can be patient. I can get irritated at the person in front of me in line who is taking forever, or I can be gracious. On a larger scale, I can offer myself as a gift to my husband and my children, my neighbors, strangers and friends, or I can choose self-preservation and selfishness.
Back at the beginning and resonating through time to our very moment in this world today, that choice contains so much power.
It’s what makes love possible in the first place.
The Bedtime Chat
Of course, with my son, I didn’t quite go into all of this depth just yet. He’s six, and, God-willing, we’ll have time. But we did talk about the tree, and what it means. We talked about God and how he desires more than anything for us to love Him and other people and the world. And if he had taken away the tree, if he had taken away that choice, then our original parents wouldn’t have been able to really love Him or anyone or anything at all.
The story of The Fall is a sad story, but it’s so very, very important. It’s only the beginning of a much bigger, much more beautiful story of Love, giving all of Itself for all of us. The story we are all a part of, even to this day.
And I can’t wait to have more conversations with my kids about it as we live our our lives in the domestic church we call home.
One thought on “Why Didn’t God Just Take Away the Tree?”
how lovely are the children with their questions. My mom says that when I was a toddler I used to torture her with philosophical questions. Once, I asked how it could be that God has no beginning since anything I could think of has a starting point. She drew a circle in a paper and told me “See? there is no beginning and no end of the line. Do you understand now?”. And so she tells that my answer was: “Yes, God is round”.
Children’s questions have the primordial roots of human quest for truth, good and beauty. There is an interesting essay from the catholic English philosopher Denys Turner, in which he explicitly states that the fundamental question “Why is there something rather than nothing” is a profound “childish” question. The title of the essay is “How to be an atheist”, with fine English humor. I can send you a copy if you like.
Actually, about the significance of the Fall, I would recommend Turner’s book “Julian of Norwich, a theologian”. This medieval woman (apparently, the first known female writer) was a mystic that meditated during years about the question that your son asked you. Denys Turner explains her thoughts in a modern and accessible language. I can get you a pdf copy of the book if you like.
At any rate, thank you very much for sharing your family experiences. I have something else to pray for now.