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Haunted by Eden

Haunted by Eden[1]—Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-8 

March 1, 2020- 1st Sunday in Lent

Adam, Eve, the serpent and the apple—it is one of the seminal and best known stories in the bible.  Ask someone that’s never set foot in a church to name a story from scripture it’s likely they’ll name this one.  I think it’s been given too much importance.  For our Jewish siblings, with whom we share this story it does not play much of a role at all.  It certainly is not on par with the exodus from Egypt, the rise of David or the Babylonian exile.  In fact, the story of Eve, the apple and the serpent is only referred to a couple of times in the Jewish scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. 

So, why such importance in the Christian tradition?  Well, let’s back up a little.  I have come to see the New Testament as the written record of people trying to make sense of the power of Jesus’ life and his tragic and humiliating death.  They are trying to answer the question, “how could this man of God, the supposed, the savior of the Jewish people, how is it that he is executed like a common criminal?”  To answer this question they turn to the tools at their disposal—their culture and their scriptures.  In the scriptures they see the story of God saving the Jewish people from the final plague in Egypt (the death of first born sons) before liberation from slavery by instructing them to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on their doors in order to mark the homes as Jewish.  They also live in a culture of religious sacrifice, animals are routinely slaughtered at the temple to mark important events, and to atone for sins.  With this cultural and religious background people begin to identify Jesus as the “lamb of God”: the one whom is sacrificed in the crucifixion to save Israel from sin.  The sin brought into the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Romans 5: 12-21).  The story of Eve, Adam and the serpent becomes central to the Christian story because it helps to make sense of what happens to Jesus.  The church then adds another layer to this story in order to ensure a market for its services.  For centuries, the church says and some continue to say that because of this original sin by Adam and Eve, the only way to salvation is to wash away that sin by baptism in the church.

Because of the baggage this story carries, it can be difficult to see it any other way.  Sometimes we need the eyes of an outsider to give us fresh perspective.  Joseph Campbell, the late world-renowned expert on mythology has studied our scripture with the rigour of an academic and the artistry of a storyteller.  Campbell sees the Garden of Eden as a place of unity, where men and women do not know that they are different from each other, where God and humans are practically the same, God walks in the garden with them.  Then Eve and Adam eat the apple and the unity disappears, they enter the world of opposites.  Campbell says the knowledge of good and evil is the knowledge of opposites, of seeing the world in terms of opposite categories–male and female, God and human, good and evil.  Nothing is the same after that, the world becomes fragmented, divided, categorized.  We humans take what is whole and divide it; as a result, we become alienated, set apart and self-conscious.  We see that in the story, as Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness and cover themselves immediately.

Campbell says that to live is to be in a world of opposites, a world of divisions.  We cannot seem to help it; it’s how we make sense of life.  We take this common life we have together and we fragment it—animals and humans, Canadians and Americans, Jews and Muslims, black and white, rich and poor.  Doing this serves a purpose; dividing the world into categories helps us make sense of life.  At a traffic stop, you want to be able to distinguish light according to colour.  At dinner you want to be able to distinguish the salt from the pepper.  In order to communicate we need to divide the world up into words, so that there is common agreement that when we say a certain word we all mean the same thing. 

All of this makes sense, the problem is that we have so fallen in love with the mastery and control that dividing the world into categories gives us that we have forgotten or chosen to ignore the fundamental unity of all things.  Examples abound everywhere.  Just look at all the groups of people that refuse to acknowledge each other’s humanity.  Historically Canadians have done this to First Nation’s people.  Israeli’s do it to Palestinians and vice versa.  Throughout the world girls and women suffer at the hands of men who see them as inferior.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gendered people have all kinds of hate directed their way by those who see them as the other.  Consider the current environmental crisis; in large part it is a spiritual problem, caused by our refusal to see ourselves as part of creation.  We treat the planet as something apart from us; we act as if the health of the planet and all living things on it don’t affect us.  There are those who benefit from and exploit divisions for their own ends; politicians who make us fearful of immigrants and refugees even though study after study says such folks are a benefit to society.  Corporations pit workers from countries with lower environmental and labour standards with workers from countries with higher standards to boost profits.  Fearful religious people all over the world divide societies according to those who are righteous and infidels.  Sometimes to make money, sometimes to advance political causes.     

This ancient, well-known and misinterpreted story of faith, is saying that behind all the divisions, all the opposites there is a unity to life.  Christians call that unity God, the name we have bestowed upon the Great Mystery, with our limited language.  The Lenten journey we began on Wednesday is about finding our way back to that unity, to the place beyond opposites, beyond division; to the oneness we call God.  It’s the journey taken by Jesus.  It costs him his life.  Jesus is a threat to those who benefit from the carving up of the world into kingdoms, classes and religions in his day and ours.  The beauty and glory of Jesus is his seeing beyond the categories of sinner and righteous, rich and poor, man and woman, disabled and able-bodied, Jew and gentile, child and adult.  Jesus sees beyond the human imposed, fragmented categories of life to expose the glory of God that lives in the hearts of the people he encounters.  Helping see beyond the world of opposites to the unity of Eden.

The former Moderator of the United Church of Canada, Peter Short spoke at my graduation from seminary and he used a phrase that sticks with me still, he said, “we are haunted by our memory of Eden.”  In other words, even though we live in a world of opposites, a world that is divided and fragmented, there is something inside of us, a distant primal memory perhaps that longs for the unity at the heart of all things and our place in it.  Salvation isn’t about being spared the wrath of an angry God by believing certain things or performing certain rituals.  Salvation is about perceiving or perhaps remembering the unity beyond face value divisions, the unity at the heart of all things.  “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17: 21) Jesus said.  Eden is in our midst when we see the world as it really is.  May our Lenten journeys lead us there.


[1] This reflection relies heavily on the thoughts and analysis of Joseph Campbell in his interviews with Bill Moyers in the book The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1988, pp. 5, 47-48 and 107.