Leaving the Garden

Lent 1 March 5, 2017

Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7

Our Old Testament reading this morning is one of the best known of all the stories in the Bible: the story of Adam and Eve and the apple. I expect most of us have been familiar with this story most of our lives: how God placed Adam and Eve in a beautiful garden, where all their needs were cared for, as they could eat all the fruit in the garden; all the fruit, that is, except the fruit of one special tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. How the sly serpent tempted Eve, and she ate, and Adam ate – and for disobeying God they had to leave the garden and toil to feed themselves in this harsh world.

And we probably all of us have a pretty good idea what this story means: it is the story of the Fall, of the one primal act of disobedience that brought sin into a perfect world, and death; and that because of this one act sin, we have all inherited Adam’s sinful nature, and are subject to sin and death. This is what St. Paul seems to be saying in the second reading, although admittedly it’s a pretty dense argument and maybe not that easy to follow. It is what the church has taught, in various ways, for centuries.

Now you know me, I’m not one to quarrel with the church’s traditional interpretation; I’m not suggesting it’s wrong. But it is, I will point out, just an interpretation: the story itself does not say in so many words that this is what it means. The words “sin” or “Fall” or “punishment” are not found in the text. This story is a myth, that is, a tale told by an ancient society to express fundamental truth about the world. But as a myth, as a story, it is richer than any one interpretation. Stories suggest their own meanings, the more attentively we read them.  Good stories, rich stories, myths, give new meaning every time we go back to them.  That’s why we come back to these stories here, Sunday by Sunday, fully expecting after so many years that they will still speak to us in fresh and living ways.

So what might we see in this story, if we could read it for the first time, without the centuries of interpretation we have learned? It’s not easy to do. In a sense, it’s what we try to do in the Tuesday Bible study. One theme that emerged: this seems to be a story about growing up. It is the story of how Adam and Eve went from a state of happy innocence, with all their needs looked after, to a place where they had to be more aware of and responsible for themselves.

They eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That knowledge, being able to recognize the difference between good and evil, is the basis of moral responsibility. It is what makes us different from the animals, or from very small children. When a toddler takes a toy from another, or a young dog steals food from our plate, we may not be happy with them, but we can’t really blame them. It is only after we have taught them that this is wrong that we can really say that they are naughty to do this. Before they learn this distinction – and a wild animal never does – they are in an amoral state: the categories of good and evil don’t really apply to them.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that this is considered our greatest sin, learning the difference between good and evil, and so becoming morally responsible actors. One would have thought that this is a good thing. As today’s psalm says: “Do not be like horse or mule, without understanding.” So maybe the curse of Adam, the fact that we are all, as Paul puts it, “under sin”, is not so much a special punishment that God has laid on us in anger, but more one of the consequences of growing up: we are responsible for what we do. We have the possibility of sin, of intentionally doing wrong – and, unfortunately,  we avail ourselves of that possibility from time to time.

And then there is the fascinating theme of sexuality that lies very close to the surface in this story. After they eat of the fruit, Adam and Eve know that they are naked, and they are ashamed. Again, this is what distinguishes us from the animals, who live their lives naked and without shame, and whose sexual lives seem to be so much less fraught with meaning and with complications than ours: they simply mate when instinct tells them. Or again, very young children, too young for any sort of sexual awareness, can be unselfconsciously naked with each other; but when they get older, this is no longer appropriate.

Now it is one of the most unhealthy things in the Christian tradition, that this story has been interpreted to equate our sexuality with sin. St. Augustine has a lot to answer for here. For centuries people have been taught to be ashamed for having sexual feelings, leading to untold misery and guilt, and contempt or even oppression for those who show their sexual nature too openly, particularly women.

But if we read this story as being simply about growing up, then a healthier picture emerges. It means simply that for us, unlike for the animals, sex has a moral dimension, it places us before decisions of right and wrong; but our sexuality as a whole is not dirty or evil, but simply grown-up.

Even the question of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, that they did what God told them not to do, may look a little different under the aspect of growing up. After all, this too is part of the process; as our children develop a will of their own, they will disobey us. Yes, this can be infuriating, in the “terrible twos”, and the even worse “fourteens”, and we grumble and complain about it. But when we think about it, we know it is appropriate. We know that an absolute command – “don’t ever touch the stove”, “don’t ever play in daddy’s workshop” – is only going to work for so long. We wouldn’t want our 19-year-old simply to blindly do whatever we say: we might think we do, but really we don’t we expect them to develop a mind of their own, and make decisions on their own. Even if we find it frustrating when those decisions conflict with our wishes, we can’t put the genii back in the bottle by issuing commands about what they should do with their life.

And the expulsion from paradise, the sending forth out of the garden into a world where we must toil to make the ground yield our food: well, I think every one who has had a halfway happy childhood will know what that is about, will understand the nostalgia for that carefree time that is lost forever when the cares and worries of adulthood come upon us. It is what the poet Dylan Thomas speaks of in his heartbreakingly beautiful poem Fern Hill:

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh, the loss of paradise is a universal human experience, not necessarily a special punishment of God for our sins.

Now I am not suggesting that this story has nothing to do with sin. The theme of sin is writ large in the middle of this story, in the desire to be like God. But that is another sermon. My point today is that we have so relentlessly moralized this story, seen it so much as being only about sin and punishment: and the result has been that we have moralized the process of growing up.
And that has led to some pretty bad distortions:

– we have made our sexuality to be simply bad, simply a matter of shame and guilt

– we have made knowledge itself suspect, as though awareness and intellectual curiosity were itself an offense against God. Someone spoke on Tuesday of knowing a conservative family where the father didn’t want his children to go past grade 8 in school: once you have learned to read the Bible, any other knowledge is vanity and takes us away from God.  Unfortunately that mentality is still with us, in the widespread, religiously motivated distrust of science, and the denial of climate change.

– we have put obedience at the centre of how we think about morality, leading us to want to find simple rules to follow, rather than the practice of love that Jesus taught, the taking responsibility for other people’s well-being that is so much more than following rules.

I guess the central question is this: do we consider the process of growing up that this story describes to be a bad thing? Because I fear that is what the tradition interpretation of this story has done for us. It has left us with a kind of Peter Pan faith, a faith that is a bit ashamed of being a grown up, a faith that really at its heart just longs to be that little child again, to be back in a world where things were simpler, where our heads weren’t cluttered with knowing too much, where there was no sex to confuse us, where there were simple rules to follow, where God would just look after us like a loving parent.  I fear that for many people, this is what faith means.

Well, I understand the temptation. But I am also quite sure that God is calling us to live out our faith as who we are – in other words, as an adult faith. A faith where we may sometimes long for the innocence of the garden; but where we also know in our heart of hearts that the loss of that innocence, the expulsion from the garden, even the eating of the apple itself, was not in the end wrong and evil, but is part of who we are meant to be: grown-ups, people who live their faith in a difficult and compromised world. People who know that there is a difference between good and evil, even if we don’t always know which is which in everyday life, and sometimes choose the evil anyway. People from whom God demands more than blind obedience, but that we should be responsible decision-makers, choosing what builds each other up. People who seek knowledge, to help us better understand the world and act in it.

I fear the childish religion that glorifies the innocence of the garden and demonizes the hard world of adult faith has too long compromised our witness to the world around us.  After all, why would any engaged thinking adult want to be part of a religion that tries to pretend we are still children, tries to hide from responsibility for the realities of this world.

Let us, finally, accept the Fall without moralizing it, accept that it is what it is, and so embrace our adulthood without regrets. Let us face the challenges of responsibility, of living our faith in a complex and compromised world. And, most of all, let us remember that we did not leave God behind in the garden; that he has accompanied us into the adult world, and calls us here to discipleship and service.