A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 24, 2011
Genesis 1:24-31a; Selection from Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing
A wise storyteller knows that once he lets go of a story—whether it is in written or oral form—it is no longer his. That story in a sense becomes the property of his readers or hearers, to be filtered by their life experiences, personalized, and reinterpreted in ways the teller of the story may never have imagined. The way we hear and interpret stories is dependent upon our own personal experiences. And the meaning stories have for us can also change over time, as they are filtered through new life experiences, personal maturity, and so on. Sometimes stories that were meant to be interpreted symbolically or allegorically are interpreted literally, in a way that the original teller never intended. But that is the chance the storyteller takes.
Such it is, I suspect, with the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. In telling the story of Adam and Eve in an Eden paradise, the teller of that story was not (in my humble opinion anyway) seeking to tell a literal story of two historic persons who lived about 6,000 years ago. His aim was much deeper, as he wrestled with answers to questions having to do with how the earth came to be, how life on earth came about, why there is suffering and death in the world, and so on.
The point is especially pertinent when the Hebrew storyteller gets to where he talks about the “first sin” of disobedience that resulted in the man and woman being driven from the garden of paradise. The common misconception is that Eve took a bite out of a shiny apple, and then gave the apple to Adam who also took a bite, constituting their first sin. But nowhere in the Bible is it written that Adam and Eve ate an apple! And the idea that God would bring terrible punishment—including illness, suffering, and death—not only upon Adam and Eve but upon all humanity for taking a bite out of an apple is quite ludicrous, when you stop to think about it.
Yet, this very piece of the Hebrew storyteller’s story was taken literally by some early Christian leaders as the foundation for an elaborate theological system upon which much of the Christian church was built. Adam and Eve’s act of “eating the forbidden fruit” was assigned the term “the fall of man.” The term “the fall of man” is not to be found in the Bible either. Through that fall from grace, it was said, universal sin, guilt, suffering and death came into the world and was passed on to every human who would ever live. Since Adam and Eve had fallen from God’s favor and brought universal sin, guilt, suffering and death upon all humanity, then it was deemed that there had to be some remedy to restore humanity to a sin-free state and state of acceptance by God. Hence, there developed the idea of blood atonement, sacrifice, an elaborate doctrine of salvation which was to include Jesus and was to become the dominant, all-controlling passion and purpose of the Christian religion. And it was largely based on Genesis 3:15 where God is quoted as saying to the serpent who beguiled Eve, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” That verse was interpreted allegorically to be speaking of Jesus who died on the cross to defeat Satan (or the Serpent) and redeem or reclaim fallen humanity.
The cycles of the Christian Year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, and so on—all have as their basis the coming of the Savior into the world who corrected the mistake that Adam and Eve made in the Garden. High masses that reenacted the sacrifice of Christ became the center point of Christian worship for hundreds of years. Hundreds of Christian hymns have been written on the theme of the Savior who corrected the sin of Adam. Systematic theology classes in Bible colleges and seminaries have been developed around this theme. But here is the question: Did the original teller of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis have any idea that his story would become the basis of a world-wide religion founded on correcting the mistake of a couple named Adam and Eve who probably were not intended to be looked upon as historical figures in the first place?
Well, I have given thought to these matters for years; to the ideas of original sin and the fall of man. But it was Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing, that led me to venture deeper into this subject and see it a different way. Matthew Fox has been described as “A visionary activist, and one of the most important religious thinkers and teachers of our time.” Originally he was a member of the Catholic Dominican Order. But in 1989 Fox was “silenced” by the Vatican for his views and outspokenness. Then in 1993 he was dismissed from the Dominican Order altogether. He is now an Episcopal priest and prolific writer and lecturer. Original Blessing has been described as a “revolutionary and controversial work of contemporary religious thought.” Fox’s thesis is that the Christian Church erred when it allowed—over time—the idea of original sin and the so-called fall of man to become the dominant religious theme and reason for being, to the exclusion of other theologies that are just as valid and even older and more life-affirming. One of the early Christian theologians who was greatly responsible for the original sin and fall/redemption theologies becoming so dominant was St. Augustine who, as a young man, sowed his own wild oats far and wide. But after his conversion, Augustine was preoccupied with sin, especially as it related to sexuality. (Some have said that Augustine did more to mess up our thinking about human sexuality than any other Christian theologian.) Then in the Protestant Reformation period, John Calvin (a devotee of Augustine) carried the sin-focused theology even further and made sin the starting place for all theology, claiming that everyone and everything in the world had been totally corrupted by sin. But the Church has erred, Fox contends, in focusing upon human sinfulness, in making people feel like wretches or worms in the dust, and teaching children that they were born in sin and are little sinners.
Fox points out that the creation-affirming spirituality and tradition is much older than the original sin and fall/redemption tradition is. Religion, you know, began in response to the mysteries of the natural world, as ancient men and women sought to relate to the God or gods responsible for the mysteries of nature. There are bits and pieces of the creation-affirming theology scattered throughout the Old Testament, as in Genesis where there is an intimate relationship pictured between God and humans (especially in the writings of the Yahwist or J source), in the Psalms where God’s presence in the majesty of creation is celebrated, and so on. The often repeated phrase in the first chapter of Genesis that is indicative of this positive, creation-affirming theology is “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Everything. Every single aspect of creation. And it was very good. This is the beginning and foundation of a positive, creation-affirming theology. The idea of the earth and everything in it being good. The idea of humans being basically good. The idea of celebrating the presence of God in the glories and beauties of the created order. The idea of God being experienced in and through the natural world. Such a theology of creation-goodness was there at least 900 years before Jesus. Now, the fact that the creation-affirming theology is one of the oldest in Jewish-Christian thought does not in itself make it better; older does not necessarily mean better. But the point is, celebrating the presence of God in the created order has deep roots that go back at least 3,000 years and is still meaningful to many today, so that says something positive about it.
But this positive, creation-affirming spirituality that celebrated the presence of God in creation and experienced God within the natural world was sort of pushed aside to make way for the sin-centered, fall/redemption theology. The dominant idea about God became the God of salvation history, the God who knew Adam and Eve were going to sin before he created them, so he preordained that one would eventually be born into the world to atone for their sin. And everything in religious history revolved around that end. But in fashioning Christian theology in that way, the God who created all things good, the God who could be experienced within the beauty of creation (who walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day, as the Yahwist or J writer put it), sort of fell by the wayside. And, according to Fox, much to the detriment of the human spirit.
And so, what Matthew Fox calls for in Original Blessing, and I concur with him, is reclaiming the idea of original goodness (as opposed to starting with the idea of original sin) and celebrating and giving place to God in creation spirituality. Surprisingly, Fox does not suggest throwing out the fall/redemption theology altogether, and one doesn’t have to. But he is suggesting just not making the original sin and fall/redemption theology the dominant theology of the Church to the exclusion of creation-affirming spirituality where creation is looked upon as being good rather than sinful and God is experienced by way of the natural world. Fox is suggesting that to really know God, we need to return to creation, the natural world, where God as Creating Spirit may be found to be at work. “When creation becomes the starting point of spirituality once again,” Fox says, “then hope will return also” (7). Now just to clarify, the suggestion is not to worship creation or the natural world. We can admire, be moved by, draw inspiration from, and be restored by immersing ourselves in creation even as we pay homage to the Spirit seen to be at work in it all that many people refer to as “God.”
So, where does this leave us? The question, I guess, is what is the starting gate for our personal and collective theologies? Do we start with sin, estrangement from God, human wretchedness? Or, do we start with the idea of blessing and basic human goodness? When we think of God, do we think of a God outside of creation, a God removed from this world, who set creation into motion like a great watchmaker and then stepped back from it, or who was involved solely in so-called “salvation history”? Or do we, like the ancient Hebrew writer of Genesis, think of a God that can be experienced in this world, through the created order; a God who is said to have walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day? Each of us must decide for self. But where we begin has a tremendous impact on our total worldview and it colors how we see everything and everyone around us. Amen.