16 June 2006

A Great Fall

In a comment on my earlier post, entitled "Influence," my friend, Scott wrote:
As to the bible and the story of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps it was God's plan all along to have his children leave the garden. All was peace and beauty in the garden; frightenly boring if you ask me. How else is the soul/person to learn if not through being presented with challenges, with decisions, with different paths to choose from? Perhaps the fabled Tree of Knowledge, that Eve took an apple from was indeed a test that god had placed in the garden as a sign....as a sign that indeed his children had grown up enough, and with a tear in his eye, God would be able to send his children out of the nest and into the world at last.
I've been pondering this in odd moments over the past few days. It keeps popping into my mind. It is certainly unorthodox scholarship ;-) at best. I find that I want to reject it and then not reject it all at once.

Here is some of my thinking. First of all, I suspect my reasoning will be at cross purposes because I'm a "believer." I take it on faith that these stories are true. So it's difficult for me to separate my faith from my reason. I'm not blindly faithful, but these are stories that I hold dear. On the other hand, I also like to unpack my faith and look at it from all dimensions; question my stories, find their holes and peer at God anyway.

I have always loved myths. I've read them since I discovered my mother's highschool Greek mythology textbook when I was nine years old. I read that book cover to cover many times over. The Greek pantheon of gods and all the humans that interacted with them sprang to life that summer. Next I discovered Native American creation stories, Norse, Egyptian, Australian, etc. I read them all as I found them. They fascinate me.

So, just what is a myth? What must a story contain to make it a myth? I looked that up and found several pages of definitions here on the internet. The definition that resonated most with me was this: "a traditional story accepted as history; serves to explain the world view of a people." It is broad enough to be inclusive and yet definitive enough to exclude just any old story. There were many other definitions that also helped define the term for me, and you can read them all here and see which resonates most with you.

As I have read myths over time, I have discovered they all contain similar threads. (And as I wrote the last sentence, LightGirl walked into the room saying, "Mom, why do myths have to be so predictable?" She is reading Tristan and Iseult by Rosemary Sutcliff of her own volition. Perhaps I have passed one of my great loves onto my children.) Those similar threads have to do with the great similarities of human nature on one hand. On the other hand, the creation stories or myths, are also all very similar across continents, oceans, and cultures. So are the stories which account for how evil came into the world.

It has always been interesting to me that in every culture there was a time before time. During that time all was dark and chaotic, formless and void (as it is written in the Bible) or tohu va bohu in ancient Hebrew. Most creation myths involve the earth (or water) and the sky coming together to create the rest of the world and humans are created either last among the animals, or last after the gods. They also involve an early shadowy being which creates the earth (or water) and sky. This being is not always well-storied. The next interesting similarity is that the original creation has a level of perfection, goodness, or beauty that is desireable to the humans. The humans must be obedient to some stated rule of the god(s) in order to maintain that level of perfection, goodness or beauty. Inevitably, tho, the humans are disobedient. They break the rules and thus, allow all manner of evil, malady, pestilence and a level of chaos back into the world. Or they are removed from the perfect place and put into a world where there is evil, malady, pestilence and a level of chaos that did not exist in the perfect place. Here's a website where there are links to several different creation stories from all over the world and the resulting entrance of evil into the world stories as well.

I circle back to the Garden of Eden again in my thoughts. I know that most anthropologists will posit that myths are the efforts of a primitive culture to explain the nature of humans and the natural phenomena around them. Therefore it is to be expected that most myths will contain common threads in them. There is a certain level on which I find that valid. And then there are the bits which that cannot explain. There is the shadowy pre-creator who is sometimes not well-storied. There is the common thread of a pre-existence of a better place. Then, too, there is this idea that across continents, oceans and cultures we humans share a code of morality which cannot be explained. We know what is inherently "wrong" and what is "right" at base. There are some cultural differences, but we know that killing and torturing others is wrong, we know that it is right to respect our elders and our parents, stealing is wrong, caring for those who have less than us is right, etc. Those are written into our cultures, religions, communities, myths, and our DNA. How to explain that? That is where I turn to my faith.

I don't need to believe that the Bible is literally true for it to hold great truths. There are many Christians who believe that the Bible is the literal truth, the Inerrant Word of God; that every word written there is so true and real it can leap off the page and hurt one. That each story is literally and virtually true. There are many Christians and others who believe that the Bible is just another nice story book, filled with advice about how to be a better person. As you may see, there is a spectrum of belief and I probably fall somewhere in the middle. I don't believe the words in the Bible can do anything any more than the words in any other book can. Any work that is done in my life or in the life of my soul is done through the activity of the Holy Spirit (but that's another story).

So, what do I think about the Garden of Eden? What did happen there between Adam, Eve, the serpent, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and God? Can we know God's motives? Taking the last question first. Hmmm ... the omniscient, all-powerful, Alpha-Omega, Beginning and End ... can we know His motives? I rather doubt it. Or, I doubt we'll ever know all of them. We'll only know those He chooses to reveal to us. Now, even by my own standards I'm starting to sound like a looney. But the motives He revealed in the story were that His desire was to remain in a relationship with Adam and the woman (she wasn't yet named). If they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, He'd have to break it off with them, kick them out of the Garden and kill them. None of that sounds particularly good. It doesn't sound like a testing ground. Read the whole story for yourself here. When God cursed or punished Adam, the woman and serpent, he was not tearfully but joyfully sending them out into the world as a parent does a grown child. He was an angry God, disappointed that His creation had been marred by evil and thoughtlessness. There is that part of me that agrees with Scott; the Garden does sound kind of boring. If everything is perfect, what would one do all day? After he named the animals, what did he do? I've often wondered that. Now, we'll never know. We'll never know what it would be like to not have the knowledge of good and evil simply because we all have that. We all know what is good and what is evil; they are to a certain extent universal.

I'm still toying around with Scott's version of the story. There are parts of it that are much more approachable and appealing. But there are also parts that just don't conform to the myth that has been told by Hebrew story-tellers for eons. Those are the important bits for me. They are the bits which inform my faith. They help me to know who my God is and how to have a relationship with Him. This is the first instance in the Bible where God sets a standard for obedience. He tells the humans He has created that obedience is important to Him. We are almost completely and utterly incapable of meeting that standard. That fact is played out over and over again through out story after story in the Bible. The goodness of God and the inability of humans to meet His standards. These are the themes of all the great stories whether they are in the Bible or written by other authors. We humans love to hear about redemption and grace. And ultimately that is the story told over and over again in the Bible, even in Genesis. God's initial description of His punishment for eating the fruit was death, but when the time came, He redeemed His creation, and merely sent them away from Him. Grace.

I like the fact that Scott has gotten me thinking about this and that I'm unsettled by it. I like that I don't have any answers, just more questions. For me, this is the place where I'm willing to stand precariously on my faith; that place of being sure of what I hope for and certain of what I cannot see. I'm still approaching the cliff of unknowing, looking over the edge, seeing what's below and wondering what is on the other side.


Blogger Paddy O. said...

I think you hit on part of it. How does the myth interpret itself?

Also, I presently live in a forest. Not quite the garden, but not as far from it as the city.

One doesn't get bored. There's a surpring lot to do. It's not like living in the suburbs. I think a big, whole soul would find daily something to explore and marvel at. But, I'm a nature sort of guy.

Also, following the myth for what it says, there's that walking with God in the cool of the evening bit. That might carry one through the sometimes inactive afternoons.

6/16/2006 12:05:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Croghan said...

Hey LightLady,

Scott's interpretation may be unorthodox, but according to my understanding it's not entirely unOrthodox. What I mean by that is I believe that the theology of the Eastern Orthodox churches on this story has generally been much closer to the story Scott's telling than that told by Augustine and his successors in the Western church ("original sin", etc.)

I haven't done a study of this, but that's what I lernt in college. :-)

6/16/2006 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

Nice points, Paddy O. I grew up in the forests of New England and am now trapped in suburbia. I go back to it for spiritual sustenance every summer. And revisit it in photographs as often as possible. But I wonder how different the forest of this world is from the perfection of Eden must have been? Did Adam's breath catch in his throat when he gazed at it the way mine does when I see the craggy Rockies, or stick my feet in an icy mountain stream, or am momentarily inspected by a hummingbird? Or was that all commonplace to him?

It might be just that wandering with God in the cool of the evening that we are still crying out for? That empty bit of our souls that yearns to be filled? Who can know ...

6/16/2006 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

Mike, thanks for the more Orthodox point of view. Do you have any links where we can read about that? I'm always interested to hear what our Eastern brothers and sisters believe. I know that Augustine and then Constantine had an inordinate influence on our interpretation of the Bible.

6/16/2006 01:11:00 PM  
Blogger Paddy O. said...

Here's this

6/16/2006 06:36:00 PM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

Wow ... thanks for the link! That's some great stuff. We're doing a series at my church on the Beauty of God this summer, and I think I'll be going back to that for some material for the series.

6/16/2006 08:40:00 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

Interesting. Going back to Scott's comment, I wonder if perhaps he struggles with reading this from the perspective of an imperfect human. What motivates us and drives us and keeps us interested certainly wasn't the same before the fall. To my mind, boredome comes not from the peace and beauty, but from a lack of purpose. Sitting on a mountain enjoying the view will be inspiring for a while, but then will grow boring if that is all you have to do.

Adam and Eve, however, were created for a purpose and they were filling that purpose. Tending the garden and taking dominion of the earth is a big task full of its own challenges. It wasn't all idly walking through the trees picking luscious fruit and whistling with the birds.

And regarding similar threads across myths, they often get very specific. The serpent comes up repeatedly, as does some sort of forbidden fruit. Rainbow snake is seen as creator in Aboriginal myth. In Germanic mythology, Freia (where we get Friday from) has the noble task of delivering apples to the gods so that they might remain immortal. There is also a tree of life upon which the earth rests. A giant worm is eating away at it, and one day the tree will fall, bringing down heaven and earth...complete with a great battle and a new heaven and a new earth.

6/17/2006 12:03:00 AM  

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