East of Eden: Understanding the Creation Story

Essay by Joran Slane Oppelt on 21 June 2018 8 Comments

The biblical creation story — Adam, Eve, the garden, the serpent, the tree, the fall — contains the seeds of many of life’s greatest mysteries.

Why are we here? How did we come to be? What is our relationship to the force that created us? What is our relationship to the environment and to the other creatures on Earth? Does man exercise free will? Why is life full of suffering? Where is the line between right and wrong, guilt and innocence, damnation and salvation? For Jews and Christians, these questions (and more) are first posed in that short, simple story.

In this story, we find God creating man and woman and giving them dominion over all living creatures, Adam (the first man) giving names to those creatures, God forbidding them to eat from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” Eve (the first woman) being teased and tempted by a serpent, Eve eating of the fruit of the Tree, sharing the fruit with Adam, Adam and Eve realizing their nakedness and being exiled from the garden paradise known as Eden. The story has long been used to justify man’s separateness or falling away from God.

This violation of God’s command has come to be known as “original sin.” But, the idea of “original sin” isn’t mentioned anywhere in The Bible. In fact, the word “sin” isn’t mentioned until the fourth chapter of Genesis.

According to Thomas Matus, it was St. Augustine of Hippo that in the 3rd century “conceived of original sin as original guilt, transmitted at conception to each human individual. Hence, all of humanity is a massa damnata, an accursed mass, redeemed by Christ but still subject to sin.”*

Original sin is not a theme found anywhere in the origins of Christianity. It was invented by the church (as early as the 2nd century) as a mechanism toward salvation through Christ — or more specifically, through the church.

Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox famously called for the eradication of “original sin” in his pioneering work, Original Blessing (1983). This book represented his effort to “deconstruct and reconstruct our inherited religious tradition of the West: to deconstruct the woefully anthropocentric and pessimistic Fall/Redemption religion that begins with ‘original sin’ and to reconstruct religion with the more ancient and empowering tradition of creation spirituality that begins with ‘original goodness.’”

Modern contemplative, Brother David Steindl-Rast explains it this way: “When an educated person in the West asks me, ‘What is original sin?’ I answer that it is the Christian term for the universal phenomenon the Buddhists call dukkha. The original meaning of that term refers to a wheel that grinds on its axle: Something is out of order.”

Even the word “sin” in the West has commonly meant “evil” or “wickedness” (again, Augustine), but the translation of the original words in Hebrew (hata) and Greek (hamartia) find their origins in archery and actually mean something closer to “missing the mark.”

So, if the creation story doesn’t instruct us (or give us a concrete lesson) in “original sin,” what does it tell us?

In his new book, Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today, Bishop John Shelby Spong takes a discerning look at twelve aspects (or theses) of the Christian faith. One of these is the concept of “original sin” and the story of the Garden of Eden found in Genesis 2-3.

Spong reads the story of the fall through the lens of reason to sometimes comical effect.

The scene where Adam is wearing his newly crafted “fig leaf apron” — playing the first-ever game of “hide and seek” while cowering in the bushes from an omniscient God — is particularly ridiculous.

God metes out punishment to these conspiring parties as a parent would discipline his children.

Man’s punishment for his transgression is a destiny of “painful toil” and working on the earth, a lifetime of “thorns and thistles” in order that he may eat the “food and plants from the field.”

Woman’s punishment is to endure “painful labor” during childbirth.

The serpent’s punishment is to crawl on its belly and “eat dust” all the days of its life.

Spong paints this scene with all the projection, scapegoating and finger-pointing of a family dinner gone awry. He skewers and deconstructs the elements of this tale until there’s hardly anything left worth examining or redeeming.

And, this is one of the criticisms of Spong’s recent book. That it’s not “prescriptive.”

If we’re not to read this myth literally — this story that contains the seeds of so many unanswered and contested questions — then how are we to read it?

In The Power of Myth (1991), Joseph Campbell writes that these stories (creation tales and other tales from folklore) are “clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

Here are some of the many lenses through which we might read the biblical creation story:

Mythologically

What meaning can be found in the characters and their journey out of the garden? Does their nakedness come from a sense of shame or a feeling of other-ness? Does the garden represent the sacred time before creation or the border between sacred time and world time — the cycle of birth and death?

Campbell once spoke of an Indonesian legend of a tribe that danced around a fire. All was paradise until one of the dancers was trampled and died. He was buried and from where he was buried, a plant grew. The tribe then had to split their time between dancing and farming, thus moving from sacred time into the cycle of time, birth and death.

Cosmologically

What are the origins of man and our world? Is the moment when God breathes life and light into the world (Genesis 1) what we now know as the Big Bang? Does the creation of man represent his appearance (or evolution) on Earth? Does his exit from the garden paradise (Genesis 2) represent the moment that humanity became self-conscious (homo sapiens)?

Gnostically

What is the secret wisdom (fruit) that is hidden (hanging) in plain sight? What is the knowledge of good and evil, and why would the serpent encourage Eve to choose this fruit rather than that of eternal life? Who is this angel (the first, we are to presume) with the flaming sword that guards the eastern gate of Eden? Is the flaming (illuminated) sword a symbol for the understanding (illumination) that we seek beyond the garden wall?

Sexually

Is it a coincidence that the snake — a phallic creature who sheds its skin and is a long-held symbol of mystery and rebirth — is the one that tempts and confronts Eve about partaking in the fruit of the tree? Is it a coincidence, then, that her punishment has to do with birth itself and foreshadows her own fruitfulness?

Ecologically

If Eden is the garden and man the gardener, then what is our role in caring for the planet? What does it mean to have dominion over all living creatures? Where is the cycle of reaping and harvesting to be found in the 21st century? What is our relationship (degree of freedom and responsibility) to creation?

Joni Mitchell said, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Is this drive to return necessary because we have placed ourselves above nature?

Archetypally

Who is the Adam in us — the sometimes naive and altruistic hard worker? Who is the Eve — the curious and bold explorer of her own backyard? Who is the serpent — the sly trickster shouting “YOLO!” and encouraging his friends to taste the forbidden fruit? Who is God — the equalizing and balancing force who is forced to referee the game?

Shamanically

What is the animal medicine found in the snake’s advice to Eve? What role do the trees play in this garden cosmology? Can they be likened to the World Tree in shamanic/indigenous traditions (the Axis Mundi or “Immovable Spot”)? In punishing the serpent, what animal medicine might Grandfather/Creator be denying man?

These are but a few of the various ways we may read and re-read the creation stories found in The Bible. And, as an integralist, I encourage you to generously apply all of these lenses to the reading.

Now, I ask you: How else might you (and your family) read this scripture? What meaning might we have to unpack 2,000 years later from these mere 2,000 words found in Genesis 1-3?

How is our future understanding of our origin story different from the story we’ve been telling each other for centuries? And, is it a story that we can find ourselves (and each other) inside of?

~ Joran Slane Oppelt

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* Belonging to the Universe, Fritjof Capra and David Steindl-Rast with Thomas Matus (HarperCollins, 1991)
** Photos by R. Crumb

 

Question

I was raised in the Bible Belt as a Southern Baptist (shudder). I have attended may different types of churches in my life and have always likened myself to being spiritual instead of religious. I recently discovered John Shelby Spong, and have been devouring his books which have answered many of the questions and doubts that have come to my mind over the years. This web site has opened my mind and made me realize I am not alone in my beliefs and doubts. Now having come this far, I realize because of my strict religious upbringing my viewpoints would fall on deaf ears with my family and friends here in the south. This is how they were raised and they would not dare step out of that box.

While everything I am reading rings true, I am having a deep personal crisis moving forward from a life of dependent prayer on a God in Heaven. Does that make sense?

I have always struggled with the judgement of so called Christians, the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust, and the fact that people believe that because they are special God favors them. So, why am I going through withdrawal from something that I have suspected for a long time?

Answer

Dear Glenda,

One of our deepest fears as human beings is that of being alone. Even if what matters most to our hearts falls upon “deaf ears,” if those ears belong to family and friends, our attachment runs deep – to the quick, really. Even if we suspect that something is no longer true we can find ourselves clinging to it deep within, because we feel it keeps us connected and that without it, however much pain it might bring us, we would be alone.

I acknowledge and respect the courage to question, to wonder, and to follow the truth as you experience it in your own life. In reality, if we love the truth (not truth in an abstract sense, but the in the sense of what is authentic in our personal experience) it has its costs.
And yet there is nothing quite as sweet as coming to dwell freely and solidly, without defense, in in the land of our own soul. There is nothing quite as sacred as tending to the questions that matter most to your heart, mind, and body.

“Withdrawal” is such an exquisitely accurate description, because there is an addictive quality to our desire, our need, for the approval of others, especially when those others are family, friends, church and society. Be kind to yourself, for you are on the only journey that truly matters – the journey of becoming an authentic human being and it is “the road less travelled.” Find others who share your passion for discovery and questioning. And, perhaps the “crisis” is an invitation to greater intimacy with yourself, your longings, your desires, your unique journey. What a tremendous gift to be at rest when alone with your own soul, regardless of what others think or feel or, especially, judge as best.

~Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.

 

Comments

 

8 thoughts on “East of Eden: Understanding the Creation Story

  1. As a “post-Christian” erstwhile buddhist, I’ve found there are a variety of interpretations of the word “dukkha”. Some use it as a description of things, situations or the world at large being out of balance or imperfect. Others, I believe more accurately, use it to describe a consequence, a result of our beliefs about the world vs the reality of the world. Our lives often feel out of balance because of our beliefs, not because of the world. This include the fact that we die. I like being here! Why does it have to end? Because everything arises and passes away. Everything. So given that, we have choices about how we conduct our thoughts and actions. Adopting thoughts and actions which reduce suffering- not only our own but others -seems to be the best choice for me.

    • Gary, thank you for this perspective. I like that a lot. I’m actually co-owner of a place called the Metta Center of St. Petersburg. In researching the brand, we discovered that the “meta-center” is a ship-building term meaning the distance between the axis of a ship when upright and the axis when it is off-center or at an angle. We clearly mean Metta in the pali sense of “loving-kindness,” but it has been fun to carry forward and unpack the metaphor of the ship. Is love the guiding principle (the North Star) when navigating choppy waters? Is Metta (loving-kindness) what allows us to correct ourselves when we feel capsized and off-center? In this sense, if dukkha is the pain or discomfort in reality falling short of the ideal, then “off-center” is how we will feel until we realize the center is inward (and everywhere).

  2. Hi Glenda,
    I know exactly what you are feeling. The remedy for a “lonely” spiritual life is found in sharing your new and progressive ideas with others who are having the same sense of loneliness. We found a new church home where an ongoing group was meeting to share their views on the “Living the Question” study series. Nothing has grown and nourished my faith journey so greatly, with the added bonus of new friends with whom you will feel fully at home and with whom your will find comfort addressing any of your questions. I would think that progressingspirit.com would be able to direct you to a faith community near you.
    Best wishes,
    Paul

  3. Joran: I will use John Shelby Spong
    《Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism》1991
    Chapter3.“The Pre-scientific Assumption of the Bible” for my comment to your essay. Jack Spong says, “yet a popular television evangelist has written:‘the Bible is the inerrant…word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography、science、history、etc.’(Jerry Falwell, 《Finding Inner Peace and Strength》p.26.)Thus, we may conclude that the person who has made such a statement knew absolutely nothing about the common knowledge of the people in the 21st century.”
    The Genesis Stories and ‘Science’
    The earth is not flat.… The realization has been alive since the days of Copernicus and Galileo…. However,
    in the creation story, in the creeds of Christianity, the non-operative, pre-scientific, and clearly false view of the world is perpetuated. Those who seek to preserve these biblical understanding have to become anti-intellectual or must close off vast portions of their thinking processes or twist their brains into a kind of first-century pretzel in order to maintain their faith system. It is no wonder that they are afraid of knowledge…
    Those who have chosen to stay in the first century faith system would end up in fear and despair, and in meaninglessness. Their fear would often cause their eruption into anger…
    Pre-scientific Assumption of the Bible has also given a punishing God in the story of Noah and the great flood. Most people only remember that it had rained for 40 days and 40 nights. In more careful reading reveals that all the waters from the depth of dry land plus the opening of all the windows from heaven (Gen.7:11)caused the great flood. Then the inerrant Biblical story says: “And the waters prevailed above all the high mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.”(Gen.7:12, 20) A cubit is an ancient unit of length from 18 inches to 21 inches or more. The Himalayan Mountains could soar to 28,028 feet in its Mount Everest. And that would have been five miles above the Sea level. We are aware, however, that even if all the polar ice from both ends of the earth were to completely melt, only some cities near the sea level might be covered in real life. Therefore, a great flood such as being assumed to have covered the whole earth and all the mountains could only exist in our mythology. (Some scholars have posed the question concerning all the innocent chosen and babies that would have been found under the great flood.)…
    I will simplify the story of Joshua in the killing of Amorites by the Israelites when supposedly God had caused the dun to stop moving until all the Amorites had been all extinguished (Josh 10:12,13)…(The Vatican finally admitted that the sun could not have been stopped, as late as 1991.)
    Jack Spong has made it an amusing story as was first
    narrated by Luke in the 1st century AD. Under the popularized influence of the astrophysical Carl Sagan, we may assume that Jesus, after being dead and was resuscitated to life by God, went up to the space after another 50 days and was able to fly at the speed of light or 186,000 miles per second, and according to the inerrant Biblical assumption, after another 2,000 years, Jesus would still be flying up in the middle of the Milky Way system even today!
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  4. Hi, GLANDA: Rev. Dr. Kevin G. Thew Forrester gave a very good answer to your question. Then Paul has made a great suggestion as well. Since you have found the books by Bishop John Spong being very helpful to you, you might
    want to borrow the old book, often referred to by Spong, by Paul Tillich in (1952) which my Dad had left for me before he passed away in 1974. In Chapter 6 of Tillich he wrote about the experience which Martin Luther must have gone through.
    Tillich said, “Luther…had fought for an immediate person-to-person relationship between God and man. In him the courage of confidence reached the highest point in the history of Christian theology… He is alone but not lonely. … Neither popes nor councils could give him this confidence. … When the Reformation removed the mediation (from the Church) and opened up a direct, total, and personal approach to God, a new non-mystical “courage to be” was possible… Even during Luther’s time, however, it was still “Justification by faith” until present.
    I would like to mention that our 8 points in the Progressive Christianity, the faith system which has the need to believe saving our sins through the blood of Jesus Christ was assumed gone. Luther in the Reformation period had conceived accepting the acceptance through being unacceptable, which is the basis for the courage of confidence… Luther had to go through nonbeing from being, loneliness, fear of condemnation, despair, and finally he became aware of his ending in the abyss of meaninglessness. Tillich said that it was his awareness which saved Luther in the end. I hope that you will soon find one of the churches in Louisiana where Progressive Christians are present.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  5. GLANDA: In Louisiana you’d need to avoid those who belong to the “New Tea Party”. May I suggest that you look up Senator Mary Landrieu ? She has been In office
    January 3, 1997 – January 3, 2015. And she supported
    Bernie Sanders during the famous 8 hours long Speech in the US concerning the Corporate Greed vs. the Decline of our Middle Class (The SPEECH is available in a book.)
    But in the 2016 election she lost by a very slim margin.
    Perhaps you might volunteer to help her win it back in 2020? Please let me know what you find out.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

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