Friday, September 19, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Five: The Bible's Broadest Theme

The goal here is to understand the biblical story of the fall as it relates to the message of the cross, not to form or critique a sectarian view of the story’s origin. Many other books do that sort of analysis. Recall the exchange with Richard Dawkins in which Ken Miller said “I regard Genesis as a spiritual truth,” and then proceeded to give a brief rationalization for why Scripture was not written like science.1 The Discovery article described Dawkins, in response, as almost levitating “out of his seat with indignation.”2 It is time to examine a foundational part of the “spiritual meaning” to be found in Genesis, and having done the examination, to judge whether Dawkins’ indignation was warranted.

The first three chapters of the Bible are among the most famous, covering the two creation stories followed immediately by the story of “the fall.” Having created the world, the story tells us that God set Adam in charge of the Garden of Eden with only one prohibition: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) In the story God brings all the animals that he has created to Adam to be named. While performing the task it becomes clear to Adam that he needs a partner, and God creates Eve to be Adam’s by taking flesh from his side. According to the story, the first couple were “naked, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

Into this primal picture of innocence creeps a Serpent who asks Eve for clarification about the prohibition. The Serpent then contradicts God’s warning, saying, “You will not die…” (Genesis 3:4) The contradictory statement, of course, sets up a choice, whether to believe God or the Serpent. To bolster his chances of winning her trust, the Serpent casts doubt on God’s motive for the prohibition. “…God knows that when you eat of [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] …you will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5) The story goes on to tell us that Eve saw that the tree was beautiful, had fruit that looked good to eat, and—if the Serpent was to be believed—made one wise. Thus, by casting doubt on God’s motive for the prohibition, advancing the possibility of becoming godlike by breaking it, and appealing to the tree’s desirability, the Serpent gained Eve’s trust, and through her Adam’s too.

As long as Adam and Eve could assume that any good thing should be made available to them, God is automatically suspect for keeping an apparent good from them. Armed with that assumption, the Serpent’s words are free to do their work. God does not want me to have a good thing that is clearly available; so, apparently, God does not want what is good for me. At that point disregarding God’s prohibition and trusting the Serpent makes sense.

But does the assumption make sense when questioned? Doesn’t the assumption that any good thing should be made available to me fly in the face of the fact that others have good things that I have no right to take? Isn’t being friends with other persons incompatible with a boundless prerogative to pursue self-interest? Clearly these considerations are the case; just as clearly the operating assumption, which on the face of it seemed reasonable, turns out to be false in the context of a caring, trusting relationship. In fact, friendship can sometimes only be maintained at great personal cost. Returning to The Gospel According to John for commentary, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) On that almost tautologically true view, the greater a friendship is the greater the willingness of a friend is to make sacrifices for the friendship. Thus, friendship puts at least some limit on the pursuit of self-interest—to cite the most pertinent instance, not stealing from persons who are my friends, as Adam and Eve surely should have understood. And a person who does not understand that does not have the capacity to be a friend.

Accordingly, the story of the fall ends with a visit from God in the garden; followed by the revelation of Adam and Eve’s theft; and then this: “[God] drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed…a sword… to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24) Dramatically, emphatically, friendship with God ended.

What does one make of this story? In a search for the source of an intellectual conversion to a false view of God, it certainly stands out. It would constitute a clear and decisive origin in Scripture for the false conceptual conversion, if it can be agreed that it is so. And it clearly colors all of Scripture to follow; for never again in the Bible is humankind pictured in a caring, trusting relationship with God. But does the story of the fall produce a view of God contrary to the Supreme Irony? If so, the desiderata noted at the end of the last chapter will have been met.

In fact, the basic elements of the story of the fall do form a foil to the Supreme Irony. First, whereas the Serpent brings to the fore what God will not give to humanity, the message of the cross, when we look to the most famous portion of the text of The Gospel According to John, is that there is nothing so precious that God will not give it for the sake of humanity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes…” (John 3:16) Second, that which God withholds from humanity in the Genesis story forms the basis for the seed of doubt that the Serpent uses to call God’s words into question. By contrast, in the message of God on the cross, that which God does not spare for the sake of humanity—his Son—forms the basis of Christian faith in God. And third, whereas Scripture tells us that believing the Serpent’s account of God lead to death, believing “the message of the cross” brings eternal life: “…so that everyone who believes…may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It surely appears to be the case that to believe the message of the cross is to believe in a view of God that foils the view that the Serpent preached to Eve in the garden.3

More interestingly, when in the Genesis story the first humans chose to act on the temptation to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they chose to put self-interest above their friendship with God as evidenced by (1) that they chose not to trust God, (2) that they chose to violate God’s prohibition, (3) that they did so rather than protect their relationship with God, and (4) that they implicitly chose to believe that God did not have their best interest in mind. By acting to pursue what they believed to be in their best interest, then, Adam and Eve broke their relationship with God; they chose self-interest over preserving their relationship with God. The image of the first humans hiding from God at the end of the story of the fall depicts their awareness of the implications of their choice.

Most interestingly, if we allow the message of the cross to be used as a commentary on the fall, by placing their perceived interests above their friendship with God, Adam and Eve became ungodly. For to be godly in Christian terms means becoming like Jesus who, in the words of an early hymn that Paul quotes, “emptied himself” in order to obediently convey divine love to humanity,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form
of God,
did not regard equality with
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking on the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the
point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

The contrast is unmistakable. Humanity takes from God with the hope of becoming like God, whereas godliness is emulated by giving. The message of the cross—the Supreme Irony as Supreme Being—corrects that error by enacting the Supreme Gift and making faith in it the crucial aspect of authentic faith. It could not be clearer: The message of the cross corrects the serpent’s message at the fall.

Moreover, this view comports with the core Christian view of God as love. For love is a transitive concept and so can only be realized in a relationship. Adam and Eve broke their relationship with God when they placed self-interest over remaining true to the relationship. In doing so they became antithetical to what it means to be godlike, as expressed by Christian Scripture.

In short, for a human being to be godlike—from the perspective of Christian faith—means to be like Jesus, and to be like Jesus means to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of one’s love for others. Hence, loving self-sacrifice for one’s friends versus self-seeking sacrifice of the trust integral to one’s relationships are the contrary views which emerge when we juxtapose the Genesis story with the message of the cross—the message that Paul calls foolishness from the side of “the world’s wisdom.”

And clearly there is much to the contrast beyond the scriptural text. For if one asks whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation when those two domains of human value come into conflict, the question tears the human psyche in two. What is humanity, at bottom, a mass of self-seeking individuals, or a mass of individuals willing to sacrifice self-interest when necessary to preserve the integrity of the web of relationships that comprises human society? If I give up what I value most, I am a fool. The question is, “Which choice will define foolishness for me?” The answer is determined by what I choose as my primary source of motivation, and that choice informs the core of Christian faith and belief.

The message of God on the cross—the Supreme Irony as Supreme Being—clearly has its foil in the story of the fall. Thus, for Christian Scripture to be understood as literature in the most basic sense, the Supreme Irony of God on the cross as a corrective to the Genesis fall must be understood. At the most basic level, the message of the cross serves as the moral complement to the story of the fall, and that complementary nexus informs the Christian Bible’s overarching message and comprises its broadest unifying theme. One cannot be said to understand the Christian Bible on its most basic level without understanding that nexus of meaning. To approach the Christian Bible as literature and fail to see that nexus as its unifying theme is to fail to understand the Christian Bible.

That theme sets up a point of view that comports fully with Ken Miller’s view that Genesis should be regarded as a story that expresses a spiritual truth as opposed to a scientific truth. It seems reasonable that one should judge literature by the value of what it says, as opposed to what it does not say. What the Genesis story does say contributes fundamentally to understanding the Christian Bible’s core meaning. If one returns to attitudes expressed toward the Bible by the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, it is clear that their remarks fail to comprehend this most basic level of scriptural meaning: “But what does that mean!?”3 It is a telling question.

1. Quoted in Stephen S. Hall, “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Discover, Vol. 26 No. 9, September 2005 (
2. Ibid.
3. Scholars now understand the interpretive methods used by New Testament writers in expositing the meaning of Jesus’ life through the lens of Jewish Scripture. For a non-technical historical overview of the methods see Karen Armstrong’s The Bible a Biography (Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2007). My aim here is to identify the central interpretive lens, and thereby get to the core meaning of Christian faith. There is no historical reason—that I know of—to think that the first Christians imposed this interpretation on Jesus’ crucifixion: Its “fit” can just as well explain the interpretation.
4. Hall, ibid.

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