Friday, February 18, 2011

Traditions Today #1: Adam and Eve

How does our understandings of the stories/traditions of  our faith color the way we view, and act in, the world today?

I’m not going to approach this series too systematically but I will likely focus most on what I know best - Christian traditions and biblical stories. I want to include other religions and other traditions and will as I learn more about them, but for now why don’t we start with the beginning, at least the beginning of the most commonly held religious beliefs, the creation story, from the Old Testament. This is a story shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians – who together make up over 51% of the religious traditions in the world and about 85% of those in America.

According to a 2010 Gallup poll 40% of Americans believe that man was created in his present form, by God no more than 10,000 years ago. This is down from 55% in 2006 (according to a CBS poll)
This is more than a theological discussion. It’s a very hot political one as well. There are still stickers in text books across the country, warning that evolution is ‘just a theory’. There is a renewed push in several states to legislate that evolution be taught with more than the usual disclaimers. 60% of biology teachers are afraid to teach the theory and spend little time on it, if at all. 13 percent of the teachers said they "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design…”

So here some questions to consider. I would really like to hear people’s answers to some of these however, if they don’t interest you but the topic does, forget them, just share your thoughts. Please and thank you!
1)      Some consider the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. Others consider it divinely inspired but not inerrant. Do you think a refutation of the literal creation story threatens the idea that the Bible is the word of God?
2)      What are the moral, spiritual lessons we learn from Adam and Eve? How can we apply them today?
3)      Do you believe in the concept of “Original Sin”. If so, can you share your thoughts on this and its impact on how you view the world?
4)      What, if anything, do feel it says about the character of God, or morality in general? 
5)      If you believe the story to be a literal, historical account – what are your thoughts on the evidence/science that counters this understanding?
6)      If you believe the story has some truth, if not literal, what do you consider it to be? An allegory – if so, of what?
7)      If you think the story has no historical validity, how would you describe its role/impact in our society? Would you like to see that role changed? How?

I want this to be a real discussion and for that to happen, everyone needs to feel they will be respected as individuals should they participate. I will not ridicule the assertions of anyone here. I may debate against them, even vigorously, but I will respect anyone that is willing to genuinely engage in the process. All serious attempts to contribute will be appreciated.

In the interest of fairness I will share my viewpoints with you as well here. If you have something to say about them, that would be great but I would rather hear about and discuss your thoughts on the story.My views will be part of any subsequent conversation anyway.

My viewpoint: I think there is no empirical evidence for the literal truthfulness of the creation story of the Old Testament. I consider it a creation myth on par with those of other faiths. I think there is some questionable morality on the part of God in this story as well. I don't think that it should be a curriculum topic in science classes, either as young earth creation theory or as intelligent design. The only place I think I has a place it schools would be in a literature or comparative religion class, the latter being one I wish we had as standard curriculum in the US, like they do in the UK.  

Thank you for reading and please leave a comment.

Teaching the controversy:


  1. You might be interested in Rabbi Harold Kushner's interpretation of the Garden of Eden; he essentially thinks it's a parable about human evolution.

    And recently, some quacks over at the Templeton foundation have been making some real stretches trying to make Adam and Eve fit in with actual history, which Jerry Coyne blogged about on several occasions.

    Of course, you know where I stand on the OT. There's not even a shred of historical evidence that the Jews were ever in Egpyt. It's just a bunch of myths and hagiography.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I look forward checking those references out.

    Have you seen this?

    Nova - The Bible's Buried Secrets

    I know Nova can be a little sensationalized and I know there are much better sources for the case this production makes - but it's an entertaining approach to the topic, and it makes does make it palatable to a larger audience.

    It's available on YouTube:

  3. I know i'm very late to this, but I just got to your blog today, and it touches on some stuff I have spent a lot of time on in my head.

    So...on #3--Original Sin:

    I've thought a lot about this. I think the story's bare elements have a useful message that is almost always lost. The version I was taught centered around sex, and suggested that female licentiousness and male rebelliousness and curiosity caused the Fall. They realized their nakedness and were ashamed. Wow, the misogyny that has come from that one interpretation. But, that's for another day.

    The part that interests me is the curiosity and the knowledge. Adam and Eve lost paradise by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Knowledge of what, though? Sex seems too easy by far, and frankly political as well. What cares God about sex? I don't buy it.

    They pursued the one thing they expressly could not have and made themselves miserable in the pursuit. To me, this is trying to see the face of God. The knowledge they pursued was knowledge of God. The ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That's the knowledge of God. All morality stems from the relationship between creation and destruction. If you believe in the Unity model of this relationship (a single God who is both creative and destructive, as well as sole repository of all divinity), as monotheists by necessity do, then knowledge of good and evil would require having the same awareness as God. THIS is what's forbidden. They tried to elevate themselves about their station, to violate the one unbreakable rule, to know what cannot be known and should not be tried.

    To me, the moral lesson to be wrestled from this is to accept that NOBODY has the answers, that none of us can really know the things we most long to know--how we got here, what else and who else exists, what life means and when it begins and ends. We cannot really know, and the ones who think the answers are simple and knowable believe they know God. They (we) have eaten the fruit, a poison that looks like an arbitrarily hidden elixir but have in reality lost their/our way, have lost paradise.

  4. And, some more. Then, I promise, I will shut up.

    In application, I think it's readily apparent as well as tremendously ironic. What could be a story about living in awe and wonder, recognizing how small we are and how vast and mysterious is the universe, is instead taken as the staging grounds of human division, oppression and so much else. The Original Sin story has been used to villify women, to suggest the baseness of all human endeavor and negate the great beauty humanity is capable of, to oblige people to bow down to regimes (both overtly political and ostensibly purely theological) responsible for horrors. The idea that we were all born tainted has been used to shame people into obedience that has all-too-often been used for evil.

    But, I also think that we approach the Bible all wrong in general. To accord it any serious weight, in my belief, is not to take literally whatever nth generation translation we happen to be reading, but to continually attempt to hear the distant echo of some really difficult to actualize truths mixed in with a lot of politics, history, editorial selectivity, translation and interpretation.

    I think that Christian religions in general (and I focus on Christianity because it's the family of religions I've had the most experience with and formal instruction in) use the Bible as a selective source of rules to follow. Some of those rules are useful and very moral: show kindness, treat your family with respect and love, try to take care of those who cannot care for themselves, etc. But some of the rules are arbitrary, political, or exploitive: the Bible permits slavery, suggests stoning a wayward daughter, depicts God demanding human sacrifice, forbids the eating of shellfish and pork, etc.

    Religion promises that if you follow these rules and any other dictates they happen to come up with (especially the Mormons, who are constantly coming up with new rules and promises), then you will live forever. That's the promise. That's what everyone wants, and so that's what religion promises--Heaven, resurrection, the 2nd coming, all of these various stories and approaches are all about the desire to escape the finality of death, and the finality of death is frightening because of the unknown. Religion fills that gap, that dread, with rules and rewards.

    I think the Bible is valuable if one chooses a more complicated and intimate relationship with it, as one (of many) sources of contemplation and inspiration. After all, which is hharder: being restrictive in life options by choice with the promise of immortality, or wrestling constantly with the fact that we can NEVER know for sure what death means until we die, period, and therefore must make our choices in constant relationship with that reality?

  5. Great comments! (No shutting up. Please, keep them coming!) I love how you worked in Milton and Prometheus into the first one, along with much more I'm sure I didn't pick up on. I also liked how you made it an improvement on the story of Prometheus. It's not a rebellious member of the pantheon gifting humanity with knowledge, it's humanity courageously and defiantly taking it for themselves. That IS inspiring.

    I also found your observation on reading the Bible very useful, particularly the bit about seeking the distant echos of truths "mixed in with a lot of politics, history, editorial selectivity, translation and interpretation.". In many ways I have all but dismissed the Bible as anything but ammunition to justify disbelief. I have been so discouraged by all it's horrors. I have acknowledged but dismissed it's value as well. I seek the same lessons and values elsewhere without the destructive baggage. It probably doesn't help that most of my understandings of the 'good stuff' in the Bible were given me by the church and not as much by my own reading. I have read it all the way through but only twice.

    So here is my question. Since there IS so much to sift through in the Bible to find those pearls of wisdom, it it worth it? Should we not extract those pearls and repackage them in a way that eliminates the possibility of them lending credence and validity to the rest? If they stand on their own, should they not do so, to avoid giving undo credit to the source itself? "Thou shall not kill" is all well and good just as long as we stop reading there, before we get a few verses down and learn the proper way to take women as spoils in war. I think that the "politics, history, editorial selectivity, translation and interpretation” over burden the book so much that it’s difficult to justify it as a relevant book in any way beyond providing context for understanding its presence in our literature and culture. Is it not time to actively work to have it relegated to the same self and same level of moral important as other important works of fiction? Are there not better books, more skillfully written, with better lessons that should replace it as social/moral frameworks for much of our society?

  6. I hear you on the dismissal of the Bible. When I first left organized religion (something over 20 years ago now), I also rejected the Bible, based on the parts I had read--mostly old testament. Later, it was suggested to me that the second half was more pro-human, and so I read some of it, and still found all that 1Timothy stuff pretty narrow-minded and misogynistic. I once again decided the book was full of horrible poliitcs and couldn't possibly be The Truth when it was so clearly riddled with political machination.

    In the last few years, though, I've started coming back to it--not because I think it's The Truth, but because it does play such an enormous role in the world, which is fascinating when you think how few people have read it (I, myself, have never made it all the way through. I need to get off the KJ edition, I think. I bog down in the archaic language.). I think, to be the principle document structuring so many human relationships for so much time, it must either have a lot of wisdom in it or we are truly effed.

    That said, I completely agree that it may well be more useful to package these lessons in a better way, one less fraught with ideological baggage. Nursery rhymed and fairy tales work perfectly well to teach morality to children, for instance. However, in any effort to standardize these stories, I think we will run into the same problem, just in a new form.

    When you try to take transcendent truth--difficult for one person to reach in a lifetime of contemplation and work, much less for the whole species at once--and write it down, it gets mixed up with a lot of other stuff. That's the human part, the ego and imperfection, as well as the desire to try anyway.

    Personally, I've gone from wanting it consigned to the dustbin of history to just wanting people not to take it so darned literally. Also, I want people to read and contend with its very real problems and bigotrioes. Not to make excuses for it, not to ignore it or blame the Jews for it or any other nonsense. Just to read it, to accept it as evidence of the fallibiblity of the book and therefore its predominantly human nature. That would be enough for me.

    Then again, if people started treating the Bible as the human attempt (largely failed) to record divine inspiration, the whole Christian world would be a LOT different. So in the end, I suppose I agree with you. Sure took a lot of words to say that, though. (Apologies--I think while I type, so I often don't know what i really think until I've finished writing it. I should go back and edit, but feh.)