Thursday, April 29, 2004

The Garden of Eden and "Original Sin"

What is the "original sin" that caused God to banish Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden? The common assumption is that it was sex, of which the "apple" is only a symbol. I've also heard sermons that talk about disobedience and irresponsibility, because Adam first ate the fruit that he was forbidden to eat, and then tried to shift the blame to Eve (who in turn tried to shift the blame to the serpent). The problem with all of these ideas is that the story of the Garden of Eden that is found in the book of Genesis in the Bible says nothing about sex (other than nakedness), and never uses the word "sin." So what is the story about? I believe that the story of the Garden of Eden is not really about sin at all, "original" or otherwise, but is a mythic explanation of the emergence of what we call "consciousness."

One of the important differences between human beings and other living creatures is that, as far as we can tell, humans are the only creatures that are "conscious," by which I mean that we know we are alive and we think about our own thoughts. We judge ourselves and feel embarrassment or guilt for when we judge our own actions harshly. As Mark Twain put it, "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."

If humans are conscious and other animals are not, and if the theory of evolution is correct (which is another argument for another day), then there must have been a point at which the human race made a transition between unconsciousness and consciousness. And that point of transition would not necessarily have been at the same time we got opposable thumbs, or walked upright.

According to psychologist Julian Jaynes, writing in his book 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," the rise of what we now call consciousness is a relatively recent development in human history, occurring but a few thousand years ago. He believes it is a product of our bicameral brains, which are divided into hemispheres with significantly different functions. Greatly oversimplifying, the right side of the brain is more intuitive (which Jaynes describes as "god-like"), while the left side of the brain tends to be more logical (which Jaynes describes as "man-like"). What we call consciousness is explained by Jaynes as a break-down between the two different functions of the two different sides of the brain, so that the "man" part of the brain began to experience the "god-like" judgments of the other side of the brain.

It is difficult for us now to envision an entire society dominated by unconsciousness, but that may have been the condition of at least part of some ancient cultures, and it is entirely possible that some of the people who were alive at or after the time of the transition would have noticed something happening. Which brings me back to the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.

The phrase "Garden of Eden" is synonymous with paradise, but what was it really like? The Bible says that God "planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed." Gen. 2:8. But it seems that the man did not have a life of leisure, because the Bible also says that "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it." That’s right, the man had to work. And we know two other things about Eden. First, that God told the man that he may eat of every tree of the garden except "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." (Gen. 2:17) Second, that the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. (Gen. 2:25)

When we read the story of the garden of Eden, what we are reading is a story of life without consciousness. The man and the woman have no knowledge of good and evil, and are never ashamed of anything, not even of their nakedness. They work and live in complete innocence, with no guilt, no shame, no fear, and nothing we could call angst.

All that changed when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for then "the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves." In other words, they felt shame. And when God arrived, they felt fear. And when God asked them what had happened, they made excuses. In other words, they were conscious of who they were and what they had done.

So why did God "drive" Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden? What the author (really "authors") of Genesis are confirming is that consciousness is a very mixed blessing. It brings us understanding of the world around us, and knowledge of good and evil, so that we are more like God. But consciousness also brings us pain. It is why we feel guilt, shame, and remorse. It is why we are often unhappy.

The authors of the Genesis were writing with nostalgia about a time in the not-so-distant past when life was much simpler, and much happier. People lived in the moment, working, loving, and dying. They felt physical pain, cold, and hunger, and sometimes fear and anger, but those were like storms that passed through and were forgotten once the sun appeared again. They never had an "identity crises" or a "mid-life crisis" or regrets about the past or guilt about a mistake they had made. They were childlike, and happy. In retrospect, it must have seemed like living in a beautiful garden, and they must have wondered what happened and why they ever left (or were forced to leave).

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Eternal Life

One of the traditional Christian doctrines that I have trouble with is the idea of life after death, or "eternal life."

One problem is that a life after death couldn't really be eternal, because "eternal" means "without beginning or end; existing outside of time." But as far as I can remember, my life did have a beginning, at my birth. If I had no life before my birth, then my life can't be "eternal" even if it should continue after my death.

And I have difficulty finding the doctrine of life after death in teachings of Jesus. Jesus spent most of his ministry preaching the importance of this life and this moment, and not concerns about the next day, much less the next life. "Give us this day our daily bread" and "observe the lilies of the field," not "give us the ability to live forever." References to "eternal life" or a "life everlasting" are few and far between, and often seem incomplete or out of place, as though added to the gospels by Paul or other apostles after the death of Jesus. (Unfortunately, most of what is now called Christianity is really based on the writings of Paul--who never met Jesus--and not the teachings of Jesus himself.)

To me, it diminishes the life and teachings of Jesus to say that what he believed and what he taught has nothing to do with our lives on earth, but is only a means to an end, the ultimate end being life after death. I believe that the life and teachings of Jesus are an end unto itself, and that we love God and love our neighbor not in expectation of a future reward, but in the expectation of an immediate, present "reward," which is the Kingdom of God.

This view is also expressed in "The Gospel According to Jesus" by Stephen Mitchell. In the introduction, Mitchell writes that, "When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being, a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world. It is possible, he said, to be as simple and beautiful as the birds of the sky or the lilies of the field, who are always within the eternal Now." Later in the book, in his commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus is asked about "eternal life," Mitchell refers to "eternal life" as "A synonym for 'the kingdom of God': a life lived in such a way that the personality becomes transparent and the light of God shines brilliantly through; a life lived fully in the present moment, beyond time."

In "The Practice of the Presence of God," which is a collection of writings by and about Brother Lawrence (ca. 1611-1691), Abbe de Beaufort writes, "[H]e worried neither about Heaven nor Hell. All his life was utter freedom and a continual rejoicing. He had put his sins between God and himself, as if to tell Him that he was not worthy of His grace, but that did not prevent God from flooding him with it."

The Abbe also wrote, "He did the most perfect thing: he left everything for God, and did everything for love of Him. He had entirely forgotten himself. He no longer thought about Heaven or Hell, about his past sins or about those he was presently committing, after he had asked God's forgiveness for them."

A somewhat similar thought (but expressed in a more secular way) appears "The Lives of a Cell," by Lewis Thomas. In a chapter/essay entitled "On Probability and Possibility," Dr. Thomas writes, "Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise."

So I have come to believe that whether there is a "Heaven" in the traditional Christian sense, or a "life after death," is really unimportant. If I believe in the love and grace of God, and see the world as an expression of his love and grace, then I am content with this world and this moment. What happens in the next moment is in God’s hands.

I hope that, in the last seconds of my life, I will still be immersed in thoughts of the wonder of life and the love of God, and not worrying about what happens next.