Sunday, March 19, 2017

Maybe it Doesn't Matter if Eden Was a Setup

So I fed the troll and responded to an online question asking why we should all suffer because of something Adam and Eve did. Here's my response, expanded and edited:

There are a lot of ways of reading the story of the Fall. It does seem like a setup, right? “Here’s Paradise. Here’s the one thing you’re not allowed to do, and I’m going to put it right smack in the middle of Paradise where you can see it all the time, and I’m not going to explain why you’re not allowed to do it.”
So many Christians (and Jews) don't read this as a literal account, partially because any story where God is the bad guy needs a grain of salt, and partially because the epic battle of The Almighty God vs. John T. Scopes isn't all that troublesome outside of the Bible Belt. The Descent of Man and the Fall of humanity can coexist in most Christian traditions. (Something most Christians do is read heavily into verse 3:15, folding it into the Prophets and the New Testament to interpret victory over the serpent as the advent of a savior and, finally, victory over the Fall.) But regardless of whether they read the story literally and which other Scripture and traditions the readers bring along with them, most people also read the story as being about big, eternal problems that humanity is mired in. Problems like:
  • We die. What’s up with that?
  • Sometimes people do terrible things and I want to know who to pin the blame on, but the closer I look the more complicated it gets. I don’t like that. Can you tell me a story that pins the blame on women? I’d feel better if I could pin the blame for everything on all women for all of time. [Theologian’s note: You’re reading the story wrong, you jerk.]
  • We do the very last thing we ought to do. Like, we seem compelled, as a species, to just up and do the worst possible thing in any given situation. What’s up with that?
  • We work so hard and still barely have enough to get by. What’s up with that?
  • Romantic relationships. We feel incomplete without each other, so we hook up and then just destroy each other. What’s up with that?
  • God seems so far away. Is that true? Why?
So you can read this story as a play-by-play of an actual event, or you can read this story as an ancient metaphor, but in either case, you need to read it while remembering that it was passed down to tell us something about ourselves. Particularly about ourselves as we relate to God and to each other. We inherit a world that’s broken. We inherit self-defeating impulses and a mean streak and we tell stupid lies to ourselves and to the people who love us and the rent is too damn high and we live with the threat of dying coming ever closer. But we’re good, too. We’re amazing. We’re the culmination of life on Earth, the intersection of dirt and deity. And we’re so bad at it. And we’re not in Paradise, but maybe we were made for it, and maybe we’re headed for it.

So when you read the story with that kind of tension*, and if you take a long view of Scripture and tradition, it adds these concepts:
  • Both our greatness and our failings hold us in solidarity with all of humanity through all of time
  • It's inevitable that you and I will fail and will make destructive choices
  • Things didn’t have to be this way
  • If we remember who we are and who we should be, things don't have to be this way today
And the promise:
  • Someday, it won't be this way.

*Theologian’s second note: Once you start reading sacred texts this way (setting aside the literal vs. figurative battle and looking for why the text was preserved in the first place), it’s easier to have conversations with fundamentalists, progressives, and atheists that end in smiles and hugs instead of ulcers.

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