This post is a response to Ken Trainor’s column in the 2/4/15 issue of the Wednesday Journal entitled “A shameless display of vulnerability.”
To begin, I think Ken is right on target when he declares, “Shame blinds us. To overcome shame, we have to become vulnerable. In other words, “naked.”
Where he misses the mark is in his treatment of the biblical myth of the Garden of Eden. He wrongly accuses the biblical account of causing our hang-ups and existential misery and advocates an alternative interpretation to the story.
Let me start this way.
I agree with Ken that the Garden of Eden story is a myth, a term used by literary/linguistic scholars. Nahum Sarna, a Jewish scholar at Brandeis, wrote, “Myths, then, in the final analysis, have as their subjects the eternal problems of mankind communicated through the medium of highly imaginative language.”
That said, where Ken misses not only the bull’s eye but the whole target is in his misexposition of the biblical text. The contention that “it was shame that drove them [Adam and Eve] –and us—from the Garden of Eden” is a careless exposition of the text and imposition of a psychological worldview on it.
I use the term “exposition” because in every Protestant seminary I know of (I’ve studied in five of them) the rule is that exegesis must precede hermeneutics. Exegesis is the scientific—yes scientific—attempt to understand what the author of the text meant in the time and place in which it is written. For that reason, I was required to study Greek for two years in order to get into seminary. Discerning what the original text means is so important that we needed to read it in its original language.
That point made, the eating of the apple story in Genesis simple does not say that it was shame that drove Adam and Eve for the Garden, i.e. from shalom, paradise, happiness, blessedness, whatever you want to call what life should be.
I have three commentaries on Genesis in my library. The consensus is overwhelming.
v Nahum Sarna. The Bible presumes that God operates by an order which man can comprehend, and that a universal moral law had been decreed for society. The most seductive attraction that the creature could offer was the potentiality of the forbidden fruit to make humans like God. Freedom and responsibility are burdens so great for man to bear that he is in vital need of discipline.
v Walter Breuggemann (an American Protestant). Our mistake is to pursue autonomous freedom. Freedom which does not discern the boundaries of human life leaves us anxious. So what is urged, if not knowledge? Ignorance? No, not ignorance, but trust. [The temptation myth deals] with the problem of human autonomy and the ways in which such autonomy leads to alienation and death, for self and for others. The far agenda (by which is meant the one that is likely intended by the narrator) is how to live with the creation in God’s world on God’s terms.
v Helmut Thielicke (a German Protestant). There is one place where God wants us to realize that we are only men, that though we are like God, we are not equal with God, and that we must be content to remain within these limits, the limits of humanity! He has permitted us everything and given us free choice; except that if we violate this one point, if we invade this one place that is reserved to God, we shall die.
What the text declares, in other words, is that shame is a result of disobedience which is a result of not accepting the boundaries innate in human nature, of having grandiose fantasies that we can somehow “be like God.” A story which interprets this contention comes from Africa. An Anglo visited a remote village with a wall around it. At night a man locked the gate. The Anglo asked, “Why do you prevent the villagers from going out of the village after sunset?” To which the African replied, “We lock the gate, not to keep the villagers in but to keep the lions out.” I think that spin is much more faithful to the original meaning of the text.
Now to be sure, people can impose any meaning they want on a text. People, for example, can assert that Barack Obama was born in Africa. They can say that but it is simply not true. Ken can say that shame drove Adam and Eve out of Paradise, but that clearly is not what the text says.
He, of course, is free to compose a new myth. Which is what I think he is really doing.
An additional thought which is a risky interpretation on my part. I hang around with a lot of disgruntled Catholics, who are disillusioned with the leadership of the Catholic Church for the last several hundred years, were inspired by Vatican II, painfully disappointed by what followed and are now inspired again by Pope Francis.
When Ken states, “Our understanding of myths change as we evolve, and there are truths that we have yet to discover—that go far beyond simple tests of obedience imposed by an unreasonable supreme authority,” I suspect that what he really means by unreasonable supreme authorities are the ones who have lived in the Vatican who have claimed to be infallible but who have really imposed their agenda on the biblical myths which, if you read them carefully, have not nothing to do with what they’ve claimed.
I’m not saying this about Ken, but I know a lot of “drop out Catholics” who accuse the Bible of all sorts of felonies, but they have never read it. They don’t know the difference between an epistle and a gospel let alone what the J, E, P and D sources are. They make statements about the Bible as outlandish as the ignorant belief that all black men are angry and violent or that all people on welfare are gaming the system.
For me, the challenge is not in reinterpreting the old myth but in discovering what it meant in the first place.
The existentialists like Camus and Sartre claimed that “existence precedes essence.” That is, that there is no such thing as “human nature” and that responsible humans acknowledge that and be about the business of creating their own identity.
The creation myth disagrees with that. It states that there is a nature peculiar to us humans and to deny that reality is a fantasy which gets us in more trouble than does shame.