Monday, May 02, 2005

At Stone-Two-Birds

Robert - I have a question that is completely off topic. The creation story has always fundamentally bothered me. If God created man in his image, but told him not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that means man was created without conscience. Does that mean God is without conscience?

And where it really bothers me is why knowledge of good and evil, which I kind of take as sentience, in my own way of seeing this, would be denied man. Because without it, we wouldn't be human.

Where have I gone wrong in this?

This allows me to kill two birds with one stone, because of what happened to me yesterday.

My brother-in-law, a marvelous fellow who is the soul of kindness and generosity, returned to church several years ago and "discovered" Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar and such like readings of scripture, and became enamored of it. He loves to engage me in long discussions of the exegesis of texts, and being the kind of "all or nothing" person that he is, he reads widely in the "new" scholarship that's available. So this past weekend he had to be away from a Sunday School class he leads at one of the bigger (and Methodist, FWIW) churches in town, and asked me to come over and cover for him.

Which may or may not have been a good idea; we'll see. Having little time to prepare anything "new" (and no real inclination to get off my intellectual butt and do so), I picked up the basics of my thinking on hospitality, and ended up talking about Luke 7:36-50, knowing it would be controversial but expecting it would provoke the kind of questions and discussion he said his class was known for. He usually, he said, just tossed out "a piece of meat" and let them go at it. So I tossed out my meat, and stood back.

But what I tossed, instead, was a flash grenade. They all sat gaping eyed and, figuratively, at least, slack-jawed. After all, I was dressed like a pastor ("Roman" collar, no tie; haven't worn one in years), and talked like a religiously trained person. But what I said......

Which brings me around to Tena's question. Where has she gone wrong? Nowhere, actually. The error is in the church, if anywhere. Hard to blame the "congregation members" when the church itself is fuzzy to obtuse on the concepts.

This is a vexed problem, in one sense. "Israel" means "struggles with God," and my Old Testament professor used to warn us against letting God off too lightly. It seems reasonable, of course, that we would not struggle with God, merely with our understanding of what God is, or requires, or demands, and who we accomodate it. It isn't quite that simple, however; in fact, it isn't that simple by half.

But in this limited space, responding to this question, it has to be almost that simple. Take that advice, not to let God off the hook too lightly, as a starting point, or something to bear in mind. Then move forward. Move forward by first reading the opening chapters of Genesis and noting that, like the Gospels of Mark and Luke, we have two very different origin stories here. In the first. God creates the heavens and the earth, divides the water from the land, brings forth plants and then animals, and finally makes man in God's image. "Male and female God created them," in fact. That's where the "created in God's image" language comes from.

Now, go to Chapter 2. God "speaks" creation into existence (not really, but let's not belabor the theological point now) in Genesis 1, and humankind is part of that process. In Genesis 2, God actually forms Adam from the dust ("Adam" means, in Hebrew, roughly "red earth"), and later makes Eve as Adam's companion, from one of Adam's ribs. And while God pronounces all of creation, without boundary or limit, "good" in Genesis 1, God sets a few ground rules in Genesis 2, and even seems to have established a bounded Garden from which Adam and Eve can be excluded. Just so Creation seems divided between "good" and "not good." Genesis 1 is about the boundlessness of God; Genesis 2 is about the boundaries that pervade creation.

That's one observation, that shows how much dichotomy there is between the two stories. And the second is the more vexing, if it is coupled with a soteriology that requires the damnation of the human race because of the temptation of two people. In our post-Romantic individualist culture that seems particularly harsh, especially in a society that stratifies itself according to a caste system as vicious and unyielding as any Indian or aristocratic model (part of what I did wrong yesterday morning was to present prostitutes as people first, and reformed or even grateful converts, second), we don't like to think that any one else can decide our fate for us (although, of course, it happens all the time, and we accept it). But in a culture where identity rests, not in the individual but in the community, the "family," this problem doesn't present itself at all.

But is Genesis 2 really about damnation and perdition and punishment? Or can it be read as an explanation for our imagination? After all, it is easy to imagine an easier life than we have known, and to retroject that imagination onto the people who lived before us. We have an amazing capacity to see the complexity of our lives, but to imagine that the lives of others are simple by comparison, and in simplicity, probably happier and easier. The Garden of Eden answers that need; to see our past as one from which we have declined, and to which we should aspire to return. It's the same root as Arthur's Camelot, and the Once and Future King. It's not the only root of human nature, but it is the one most influential in Western thought. The Garden and the reason we don't live there anymore, is meant more as an explanation of our present circumstances, and why we can "remember" (or imagine) an easier life, but can't attain it. Onto that ideal is built the Augustinian perception that "our hearts are restless until they rest in thee," and then graft onto that an apocalyptic desire for justice and retribution, and before long you have sinners in the hands of an angry God. And it seems that God set this whole business in motion without or consultation or a chance for our participation, except as failures. And it seems God has no conscience.

And it is an easier lesson to sell, to tell the people that their lives are hard because of the original error of two people, and that it won't get any better until they accept that they need a Lord and Savior, and that there is a representative of that Lord and Savior who will figure it all out for them. Or at least give them the guidance they want in settling these big questions into small answers that are conveniently arranged around the lives they want to lead, anyway. We understand justice and punishment and retribution, especially if we set out to build our lives on them, and it feeds the self-worth of the individual to set them against both the world and below God in a constant tension that keeps them humble and haughty in nearly equal measure. We like, in other words, clear boundaries. We want to know what is good, and what is evil, and how to distinguish the two. In that Genesis 2 is right: we want the god-like power of ultimate knowledge. But having acquired it, we find out too late it doesn't make us happy, either. We find out, in fact, that we should have spent a bit more time thinking about what that: "And it was good," might really mean.

But it doesn't set up a boundary, and we like our boundaries. If our God truly came to earth as human, and truly welcomed prostitutes without making them go through a purification ritual of some kind first, without requiring they make some kind of down payment as a sign of good faith before they could join the party, then it means all the boundaries are down, and that God's ways are truly not our ways.

And that while it is good, we'll have to spend a little more time thinking about what "good" is. Which is not so much a curse, as a responsibility. And if we don't take up that responsibility, the consequence is not so much a curse for eternity, as it is damnation in the here and now. God offers us life "into the ages," in the koine Greek of the New Testament, not after the ages are over. God offers it, but do we take it? That's the question. And what does God offer? We can't let God off the hook so easily. Like Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok, we have to wrestle with the angel to get the blessing. But the blessing is, in part, our sentience, our knowledge of good and evil. After all, how can we know it is good, if we don't know what bad is?

But is God responsible for this state of affairs, or are we? Or is it a shared responsibility? I'm not quite sure I know what hook God gets hung on, but I'm willing to keep God on there, if only by wrestling with the messenger. Now whether that is even publicly comfortable, as my experience yesterday confirmed for me again (it isn't!), or even the accepted (and therefore "proper") basis for ministry (the other "issue" in this matter); well, we'll have to see.

(p.s. this is a classic case of running out of time rather than having found what I wanted to say. Somebody make sure I come back to this; I want to go at Tena's final question again, when I have the chance.)

No comments:

Post a Comment