True confession time... I've been working on the stuff in this sermon for since 2002. I've preached versions of it in three different pulpits. It's a story I love and a text that won't let me go. Here's the latest go-round.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2011
First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
You Will Be Like God
I remember the year the movie Field of Dreams came out, I was telling some friends how much I enjoyed it because it was about the consequences of taking a leap of faith. “What are you talking about?” one friend asked. “That movie is about the relationship between a father and son.” “No way,” said another, “that movie is about the enduring power of baseball!” And so forth. And of course, the movie is about all those things. And more.
We all think we know what this story is about, right? Original sin? Disobedience? The “fall” of humanity? That old tune that many of us have heard so much it’s ho-hum second nature?
Hold on to your hats, folks!
I’d like to offer a different interpretation of this story. Why? Because we can… because before this was part of a theological debate about sin and salvation, it was a story. Before the theologians made the serpent the embodiment of Satan, he was… a serpent. A character in the story. And stories can contain more than one meaning. It’s just that I’ve been hearing sermons on Adam and Eve my whole life, and have felt that the original sin stuff, the “fall” stuff, may be good doctrine, but just a little bit ill-fitting to this story… or at least, incomplete.
In fact, original sin is a theological doctrine that did not get layered on this story until much later. If we take away that doctrine… and put it somewhere for safe-keeping, honest!… we’re left with a whole bunch of questions:
First, doesn’t this seem pretty harsh of God? Adam and Eve make one mistake and they’re kicked out of Eden? How are we to respond to such a God? What are the implications of worshiping a God who offers not three strikes, but one strike, and you are out, punished, forever, Paradise Lost… and not just Adam and Eve, but every single human being that would come after them. Does a God with a zero-tolerance policy inspire us to love God, love neighbor, and love ourselves, to drop our nets like those early fishermen and follow Jesus? Maybe… if we’re afraid of what God will do to us if we don’t… and that view of God is definitely out there. Some of us grew up in “golden ticket” congregations, where you believed a certain way to get your ticket to heaven because to believe otherwise resulted in God’s punishment and condemnation… but a “because I said so” God is an inadequate view of God.
This expulsion from Eden for taking a bite of a piece of fruit seems very harsh to me, especially since this is the same God who will lead a grumbling people out of slavery, who will someday die on the cross out of non-violent love for humanity, who will say “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive them, God, for actions that are a whole lot more grave than taking a bite of fruit.
Where is the grace in a zero-tolerance God?
But there’s another issue with this story. Does this not seem like a setup? Why would God create a tree that God didn’t want anyone to eat from? Why would God set up this test?
Now, we might respond to that by saying, “Well, God had to do that because we have to have choices. Adam and Eve had to be given a choice to do the right thing—without that, they’re just puppets, without any free will.”
Well, yes. Except I wonder how much freedom Adam and Eve had in that garden to choose right and wrong. If Adam and Eve did not have knowledge of good and evil, until they had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how were they in any way equipped to evaluate the merits of their actions? Punishing Adam and Eve for this would be like punishing a llama for not being able to do calculus.
And that right there is the sticking point for many folks.
The Jewish writer and theologian Harold Kushner has written about this story not as a fall story, not as an example of Paradise Lost, but Paradise Outgrown. He points to the story as an example of the ways we as humans are always seeking after greater knowledge and experience—for good and for ill. In the musical Children of Eden, the characters of Adam and Eve begin to get, well, a little bit bored by the perfect predictability of life in the garden. In this interpretation, Eve (and then Adam) are restless in Eden, where everything is perfect, everything is provided… so they eat the fruit in a search for wisdom.
That’s a fanciful way of illustrating what Kushner is talking about. He sees the decision to eat the fruit as a yearning for wisdom, for complexity and depth. We can read this story as one of being fallen… and we can also read this story as one of becoming more fully human. (Notice I didn’t say “or.” We can read it both ways.)
This is our story, is it not? It is human nature to grasp for what we don’t have. Not content with things as they are, we strive, we question, we experiment, we grow. This can happen in healthy ways (children maturing and leaving the homes they grew up in) and unhealthy ones (people who cheat on spouses because they think something better is out there).
One thing is certain, however—once that quest for knowledge, wisdom or experience has begun, life can never go back to the way it was. Adam and Eve never return to Eden. Children “can’t go home again”—things aren’t ever quite the same. And destructive deeds between spouses may be forgiven, but they cannot be undone.
In Lois Lowry’s young adult novel The Giver, Jonah is an eleven-year-old boy who lives with his family in a strange society in which everything is carefully controlled. All decisions are made by the benevolent elders of the community: whom people will marry, what jobs they will have. Even clothing and hairstyle are regulated. Strong emotions or outbursts that would be disruptive to the community are discouraged. Every aspect of life is designed to maximize harmony and the orderly functioning of the community. It’s all perfect, in its own way.
Jonah is given a unique job in the community: he becomes the Receiver of Memory. His role is to keep all of the knowledge of what has gone before, in case the elders ever need to consult that wealth of wisdom for advice. Jonah’s like a human library; he becomes the container for every piece of history, every emotion and human event. Through a series of meetings with the outgoing Receiver (now called the Giver), he learns and experiences things he’s never understood before, everything from snow to sunburn, from Christmas to a broken leg. He comes to realize how narrow the life of the community truly is. They do not know the joy of zooming down a hill on a sled… but nor do they know the horror of war. They don’t know good or evil. He alone does. And it is a terrible burden. It is a terrible burden, to have all this knowledge.
I have always pictured Adam and Eve’s experience of good and evil with a similar cinematic flair: they eat the fruit, and in an instant this knowledge comes to them in a series of powerful images flashing through their minds’ eye. The glow of family flashes to the devastation of brother killing brother. The exquisite beauty of creation is drowned in flood. They see the totality of human experience laid before them and are stripped naked by it, vulnerable in a way they never were before. And once they have gone down this path, things are never the same again.
Both these stories of Adam and Eve and of Jonah present a profound loss of innocence. And yet, Jonah realizes that his life before receiving memories was not much of a life at all. His was a world with no depth. His process is not unlike that described by Paul in I Corinthians 13, who “thought like a child, spoke like a child, reasoned like a child,” and put away those things when he became an adult.
We might think of Adam and Eve’s story in a similar way. Without the knowledge of good and evil, what are we? We are just like any other animal who walks, runs, gallops, creeps, soars on the earth. Knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human. And it is what makes us… like God.
The serpent says to Eve, “You eat this fruit, and you will be like God.” And the serpent is absolutely right. God confirms it at the end of the story: “They have become like one of us, like one of the heavenly court.”
The word “like” is very important! We are not God. But we are like God. Psalm 8 says that we are but a little lower than the angels.
And that means we have an incredible responsibility.
At the center of who we are as human beings is the knowledge of good and evil. No, we don’t know it perfectly, we probably don’t even know it that well most of the time. But our life is one of knowing good and evil… and perpetrating good, and evil.
We know the beauty of the birth of a child.
We know of the courageous fight for civil rights in this country.
We know people who minister to folks with AIDS, who visit the condemned on death row,
who work every day for justice and peace.
And we know the horrors of war.
We know there are places where women are beaten, and burned,
we know there are governments who torture,
places where children are forced to become child soldiers.
And we know of lands where people strap explosives to themselves and walk into open air markets.
Oh, we know good and evil.
We sit with the newspaper or in front of the TV news and we eat that fruit every day.
* * *
At the end of the story, God kicks Adam and Eve from the garden, and stations an angel to stand guard so Adam and Eve don’t return. But why does God do that? Just to keep us from the good stuff? Because God is a punishing, wrathful God? Because humanity doesn’t deserve Eden anymore?
Well, here’s one question that we don’t have to speculate on; we know why God expels them from Eden. Remember that second tree? The tree of life? The tree that, interestingly enough, God doesn’t forbid them from eating. God says… They know good and evil now. And now, if they eat from the tree of life, they will live forever…
And I can’t let that happen.
We are kept out of Eden, apparently, so that we will not eat of that tree of life. So that our lives will be finite.
Think about this. Think about what it means for Adam and Eve to know good and evil. The images of good are all fine and dandy, but those experiences of evil will be with them forever… Every bit of pain in the world, every act of violence, every horror of war, every cruel word, will be theirs to behold for all eternity.
When my great-grandmother reached her 90th birthday, several of her friends and family said, “And you’re going strong! We’ll be back here in 10 years to celebrate 100!” And she got very quiet and serious and said, “No… I haven’t decided whether I’m going to do that yet.” Here is a woman who lived through the 20th century and all its beauty and all its horror, a woman who outlived children and grandchildren, saying, It’s been a full life—beautiful and hard. And knowing that the burden will be lifted soon is a beautiful thing. And a relief.
Maybe God’s not punishing them by keeping Adam and Eve from the tree of life.
Maybe it’s a mercy, not to live forever with the knowledge of good and evil!
* * *
And so how do we sort through the various interpretations of this story?
Well, the original sin stuff got attached to this story because for many years—centuries really—theologians fixed on pride as the fundamental human flaw. Adam and Even flouted God’s commandment because they thought they knew better. We want to be our own gods. We think we know best for our lives. We don’t need God. We can forge our own path.
I would suggest that for people who struggle with pride, the traditional interpretation has much to offer.
But not everyone struggles with pride. Recent voices in theology have lifted up the exact opposite as a fundamental sin that some struggle with mightily: the sin of self-denial and self-deprecation: “I don’t matter. I’m not worth anything. I’m not lovable. My needs come last. Everyone else is more important, more valuable.”
For someone who suffers from this thinking, can you see how the traditional interpretation would actually do more damage to their sense of self? It also denigrates the God who created each of us in God’s image!
And so, if you struggle with this sense of self-denial, maybe you are called to hear something new in this story—namely, that you have been created in the image of God, and that you have knowledge, wisdom, and experience, that are precious gifts from God, and are not to be denied, but are to be celebrated and shared.
And so, depending on where you fall on that spectrum, this story might nourish you differently. It is up to each of us, when confronted with a story containing complex meanings, to search our hearts, to pray for guidance, and to wrestle, confident that in that wrestling there can be a blessing.
Thanks be to God.
This sermon was inspired by Harold Kushner’s How Good Do We Have to Be?