If I were still in Germany, yesterday would have still be Christmas – they celebrate a second Christmas Day, without even renaming it “Boxing Day” – and so I’m going to declare Christmas still in season. Or maybe I mean, it’s still open season on Christmas? Really, I just want an excuse to write down a few thoughts about the Christmas Eve service I attended before New Year’s festivities begin.
The first Bible reading at the service was the story of the Fall of Man from Genesis. While it’s a rather gloomy place to begin, it’s also entirely logical. If Jesus had to come and redeem the world, there’s gotta be some reason why we needed redeeming in the first place.
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “
4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. …
17 To Adam he [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Genesis 3:1-8, 17-19, New International Version
Oddly, the selection read from the pulpit left out Genesis 3:16, the part where Eve and all mothers are cursed forevermore: “To the woman he said, ”I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
I appreciate that this edit may have intended to play down the misogyny, but let’s face it: the story tells of Eve screwing up. She was the weak link. It’s her role that allowed church fathers such as St. Augustine to insist that original sin was sexual. Indeed, Augustine believed that it was transmitted from one generation to the next via semen! Another church father, Clement of Alexandria, advanced what we today might call a more sex-positive interpretation. Clement held that Adam and Eve’s sin was disobedience, and thus wasn’t sexual at all.
While I’m all for inclusive language in Christian churches, there’s something dishonest in trying to minimize the misogyny of Genesis 3, given the history of its interpretation. The Judeo-Christian story of the Fall of Man – why isn’t is called the Fall of Humanity, dang it?! – is remarkably harsh on women compared to the other origin stories that I’m familiar with.
Like Genesis in the Bible, the Qur’an also links humanity’s fall from grace to Adam and Eve eating from a forbidden tree. However, the Qur’an does not single Eve out for any particular blame. On the contrary, it’s Adam who’s approached by Satan (not a serpent) in the Garden and led to disobey Allah:
But Satan whispered evil to him: he said, “O Adam! shall I lead thee to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that never decays?”
In the result, they both ate of the tree, and so their nakedness appeared to them: they began to sew together, for their covering, leaves from the Garden: thus did Adam disobey his Lord, and allow himself to be seduced.
Here, too, their nakedness becomes an issue, but it’s Adam who disobeyed. It’s Adam who was seduced by Satan. I’m not claiming that the Qur’an is perfectly enlightened on gender issues, but on the events in the Garden, it doesn’t share the misogyny of Genesis.
The Gnostics who lived in the first couple of centuries after Christ’s death took yet a different perspective. Some of them considered themselves Christians, while others rejected the label. (In the end, that distinction didn’t matter much, as they were all relentlessly persecuted as heretics.) For Gnostics, the original sin of humanity had nothing to do with either sex or disobedience. It was a willful rejection of knowledge in favor of ignorance. I really like this interpretation. Especially after Bush II, it’s easy to see how much evil can be wreaked when a leader and his people choose ignorance.
The Buddhist origin story as told in the Agganna Sutta identifies greed and craving as the source of human suffering. The story is actually not technically one of origins but of a cycle in which the world passes into formlessless, then re-evolves:
There comes a time … when, sooner or later, after the lapse of a long, long period, this world passed away. And when this happens, beings have mostly been reborn in the World of Radiance; and there they dwell, made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. There comes also a time … when sooner or later this world begins to re-evolve. When this happens, beings who had deceased from the World of Radiance, usually come to life as humans. And they become made of mind, feeding on rapture, selfluminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory, and remain thus for a long, long period of time.
Aganna-Sutta (pdf alert!)
And those humans would remain pure mind and light, were it not for their apparently inevitable fall into suffering:
[S]ome being of greedy disposition, said: Lo now! What will this be? And tasted the savoury earth with his finger. He thus, tasting, became suffused with the savour, and craving entered into him. And other beings, following his example, tasted the savoury earth with their finger. They thus, tasting became suffused with the savour, and craving entered into them. Then those beings began to feast on the savoury earth, breaking off lumps of it with their hands. And from the doing thereof the self-luminance of those beings faded away.
Note that craving ushers humans back into a state of suffering and sets them on the path to other sins that will incur further suffering. One of the later sins is, indeed, lust, but it can’t appear until quite late in the game, once humans have differentiated into male and female:
And in measure as they, thus feeding, went on existing, so did the bodies of those beings become even more solid, and the divergence in their comeliness more pronounced. In the female appeared the distinctive features of the female, in the male those of the male. Then truly did woman contemplate man too closely, and man, woman. In them contemplating over much the one the other, passion arose and burning entered their body. They in consequence thereof followed their lusts.
Make no mistake, lust is identified as a sin. But the Agganna-Sutta doesn’t blame the woman any more than the man.
Does this mean that the Christian tradition must stay forever mired in Augustinian notions of women and sex as the source of original sin? Well, no. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas (whose views on the Incarnation I’ve previously discussed) reconceives original sin as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Catholic feminist theologian Christine Gudorf takes a similar tack:
Original sin, sometimes called social sin, or the sin of the world, is socialized into us as we learn our world, as we learn to speak a language, to interact with different persons and groups, to accept a specific role in society. Born into a society permeated with racism, sexism, poverty, and violence, we learn varying degrees of complacency toward, and come to accept these realities:; that acceptance, once socialized into us, forms the groundwork for our committing overt acts of sin. In sexuality, too, original sin is present in our world. Patriarchy, misogyny, the related evils of homophobia and heterosexism, and alienation from and disdain for the body and sexuality are forms which original sin takes in the sexual context.
Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, p. 17
And this is the conception of sin that I chose to keep in mind as I sat through the rest of the Christmas Eve service. Which was just heartbreakingly beautiful. I have to say, the Presbyterians know how to do it right in this town. They included all the best joyful carols: O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World. The choir was beefed up by a few out-of-towners and even a visiting opera singer (as my friend who sings in it happily admitted), and they were so good, they managed to make even Away in the Manger touching, not cloying. We sang Silent Night by candlelight. I’m not a practicing Christian these days, but I still tear up at the music, when it’s done right; it’s some of the best evidence I know that there’s something divine at work in our lives, at least potentially.
As for redemption – our world needs more of it. I felt that the service, which ended with a prayer for peace and an end to imperialism, was on the right track regarding original sin, after all.
This post was informed by the following books (though any errors are, of course, my own):
Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective
Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective
Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics
Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels
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