by Father Mike Stubbs
In Native American stories, the coyote often appears as a trickster. He is not evil as such, but frequently causes a lot of trouble because of his playful nature.
In Sunday’s first reading — Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7 — another animal figures significantly — a serpent. In many ways, the serpent in our story resembles the coyote of Native American stories. Notice that the text does not describe the serpent as a fallen angel or as a super-natural being, but, rather, as the most cunning of all the animals.
Calling the serpent cunning does not come across as a compliment. He knows just enough to make trouble for the first man and the first woman. He tricks them into eating the forbidden fruit.
The serpent assures them that “‘your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.’ . . . The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes and desirable for gaining wisdom.”
But appearances are deceiving. After the man and the woman eat the forbid- den fruit, they realize that they have made a mistake: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked.”
There are two classic approaches to the mystery of evil. The first explains it as an error of judgment, mistaking something for good which is not, much as the man and woman do in our story. As weak human beings, we cannot see clearly. As a result, we fall into sin.
This approach correlates with the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who emphasized the importance of the intellect in his understanding of the human person.
The second describes evil as emanating from a heart twisted and corrupt, full of malice, an active force opposed to good. This approach correlates with the theology of St. Augustine of Hippo, who stressed the importance of the desires of the heart in his understanding of the human person. One of his most famous sayings reflects that empha- sis: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.”
In the Genesis story, the serpent deceives the woman by telling her that the fruit will open her eyes and make her like a god. Later Jewish and Christian tradition identified the serpent as Satan, a supernatural being opposed to God. This interpretation puts a more sinister slant on the temptation by the serpent. It is not merely the playful prank of a trickster but, rather, a malevolent ploy to wreck the human race.
So, which is right? Do we go with St. Thomas or St. Augustine? Do we follow our heart or our intellect?
What do you think?