Saturday, March 12, 2011

First Sunday in Lent

It often amazes me whenever I watch TV police dramas, especially the British ones, that the code of honour amongst crooks is so strong.  Time and time again the suspect, who knows he’s been caught red-handed, refuses to grass up his mate even when it’s blindingly clear his mate has landed him in it.  I remember as a child one of the first lines of defence whenever I got into trouble – objectively, I’m not sure how often that was but it seemed to be all the time – the first thing to try to do was to point the finger at somebody else.  It seemed to come instinctively ... ‘it wasn’t me it was her’.

Evasion of responsibility seems to come pretty naturally to human beings, and our story from Genesis shows we’ve been trying to get away with it for as long as civilisation has been around.  It tells us some other things about ourselves also, such as our fear of having our internal contradictions exposed, our fear of being naked, metaphorically speaking, of being seen for who and what we secretly know ourselves to be.  Most of us have probably had that dream where we turn up for some important appointment, maybe an exam or a big meeting at work, and suddenly realise to our horror that we are stark naked ... if so, we know something of what Adam and Eve are going through today.

It’s what Bible scholars call an aetiological myth, which means that it is a story that tries to answer some nagging problems about how things came to be like they are.  Why are we so wilful?  Why do we so often do  - not only the exact opposite of what some authority figure tells us we must do, but what deep down we know is best for us?  Why is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence? Why do our best efforts and our smartest ideas so often turn to ashes and leave us looking and feeling foolish?  Why do we so often feel like naughty children even when we are way old enough to know better?  Why are things so hard? Why do we have to work for a living? Why is there pain in the world?  Why do snakes bite us? If God really did create us in God’s own image, then why don’t we want to do the things God wants us to do?

And so, at the beginning of the journey of Lent, we go back to that most ancient story to think about why we need to be on the journey in the first place.  And so we find ourselves back in the garden with the archetypal human couple, Adam and Eve. For me, anyway, the evocative power of this story was made even more intriguing with the discovery 10 or 15 years ago by biologists working with fossilised human remains that all of us living today share a common female ancestor, not so remote even as we might think, an individual living not much more than 100,000 years ago in central Africa – of course it was a discovery that challenged a great deal of what was then known about the spread of human civilisation, and the lady in question was promptly nicknamed Eve.  That’s by-the-by, I guess, but there is a great deal in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve that tells us what it means to be human.

And God places the creature of earth – which is what the name Adam means – in the garden to tend and nurture it.  The King James version, that most of us instinctively remember at this point, is not really correct in translating this as to ‘till’  - the actual Hebrew word means to serve, and comes from the same root as the word for slave.  Human beings are to care for and protect, not to consume and plunder.  We are to work in partnership with the earth to make it fruitful so that we and all earth’s creatures and life systems flourish together.  There’s an important difference which, given the environmental tipping point the planet finds itself at today, Christian theology needs to reflect on closely.

Secondly, the human creatures’ own needs are provided for in the garden, they are given a place in which they can flourish, but it is a freedom with limitations.  God tells them they must not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – an expression that in other parts of the Bible is simply taken as meaning everything – the good and the bad together.  Human wisdom has limits, and for human beings to live in the natural environment in a way that leads to mutual flourishing means understanding and respecting those limits.

All goes well for a time, but inevitably, there is a snake in the grass.  Freud aside, I don’t think the Bible is especially negative about snakes, especially since the seraphim, the holy creatures that hover around God’s throne room in the prophet visions of prophets such as Ezekiel, are basically snakes with multiple wings.  But the Bible does seem to assume snakes are powerful and mysterious creatures, and that’s not so surprising, every culture in the world seems to have some difficult story about snakes and how they got to be so scary.  And the snake is clever – the Hebrew word arum is a pun as the man and woman are naked – arunim – so somehow the craftiness of the serpent and the defencelessness of the man and woman are going to be contrasted.

Interestingly, the snake chooses the woman, not the man, to engage in conversation, and even more interestingly, the woman responds to the snake’s question ‘you can’t eat just anything, can you?’  by revealing she is already very intrigued about the off-limits fruit.  Not only does she tell the serpent they are forbidden from eating the fruit, she goes even further than God’s original warning by claiming that even if they touch the tree they will die.  The serpent argues the point – perhaps we might see a parallel in our own experience with the sort of elaborated arguments we carry in our own heads between what we know we should do and what we’d rather do – not only won’t you die if you eat this, but you’ll actually experience renewed life, the fruit of this tree will literally be an eye-opening experience – the divine knowledge it promises will make them gods themselves! 

So the woman eats, having been persuaded – or having persuaded herself – that the promised knowledge is going to be life-giving, not life-diminishing.  And then offers some to the man who – without any of the internal dialogue or conflict – takes it and eats.  The first woman might have been an opportunistic theologian – the man, it seems, is simply driven by his belly.

Then things start happening. "The eyes of both were opened (was the snake then right about the tree?), and they knew that they were naked . . ." It was indeed a tree of knowledge; they now "know" that they are naked, in other words they know their own defencelessness and vulnerability, they know that they can be seen through.  It is the birth of a sort of self-awareness that comes with curiosity about the world, and reflects the one thing that makes us human – our ability to reflect on ourselves, to find ourselves wanting and to recognise the discrepancy between our desire to put ourselves at the centre of our moral universe, and our true need to live within a network of relationships that puts limits on our desires but leads to mutual flourishing.  Before the man and woman acquire the ambivalent gift of self-awareness, their defencelessness was not a problem as they unconsciously lived within the garden in which all things had their natural relation.  But actually to be human is to be a breaker of limitations, to be human is to be curious and to reach for what is beyond your grasp – so at one level the story of the garden is the story of every one of us coming to self-awareness and having to learn the trade-off between self-actualisation and living in community, between getting what we want and learning to live in harmony with all that God has created in a way that leads to mutual flourishing. 

But in a way that modern human beings can surely relate to, for the first humans the first thing their new self-awareness leads to – is shame.  At first, in the garden of pre-awareness, their nakedness – their see-through-ableness - is not a problem, but now they go to ludicrous lengths to hide themselves. "And they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves." And so the story (or at least today’s instalment of it) ends in hilarious fashion, because ancient men and women knew all too well what fig leaves feel like – sticky and raspy ... You can imagine that when this basically comic tale was spun around the campfires everyone broke up laughing at this point. They sewed what together? A somewhat uncomfortable way to avoid the discomfort of being exposed for who they really were.

But of course that is the point of the story. When human beings set out to play God, we metaphorically sew fig leaves together to cover our nakedness, because, as we ought to expect, God is all too right about us. We simply cannot eat from the tree of divine knowledge; but at the same time we can’t stop ourselves. It’s what it means to be human, and perhaps God knew that all along or else why would the tree have been in the garden in the first place?

The good news of this story – which the lectionary writers haven’t let us get to yet – is that the strategy doesn’t work, and God continues to be able to see us, and see through us.  And yet God’s knowledge of Adam and Eve – or of us – does not condemn but them but creates a new future and a new history.  Turns out of course to be impossible to go back to Eden, and most of us, I suspect, would find it pretty boring.  But on this Lenten journey we learn again how to cast our fig leaves aside – how to be naked before the one who made us and who alone is able to resolve the contradictions of our human-ness.