Wednesday, January 27, 2010
A Brief and Candid Conversation About Doubt
I have a good friend that has been seriously struggling with his faith lately (perhaps even losing it). Recently he posted an article entitled, "Empty: Some observations from Genesis," which contains some critical remarks on the narrative found in Genesis 3. With his gracious permission, I have included his post, as well as much of the candid conversation that we had over the matter. We hope that this might be of some help for others who are wrestling with doubt.
I spoke with a good friend earlier in the week about who/Who was ultimately responsible for my salvation from sin. I have not come to any kind of conclusion as to the truthfulness of Christianity, or any other major religion for that matter. Theologically speaking, however, I should be able to reason my way to an answer to the above question. First and foremost, the issue at hand is not who/Who saves me, but rather, "Why do I need saving?” Reading through the first few chapters of Genesis lead me to several observations.
Apparently, there were several choices made that eventually led to eating the forbidden fruit and receiving the knowledge of good and evil. I feel the final choice to eat of the fruit, to be the original sin. It is a sin-filled act because it went against a direct order from God. Therefore, up until the point of actually committing the act of sin, Adam and Eve did not know the difference between good and evil. God made it clear to Adam that he would die after eating said fruit. He did not say that his choosing to eat the fruit would be sinful in any way. After all, Adam had no knowledge of sin. I might be able to assume that Adam knew death was not something to be wished for. If that was the case, his only motivation to not eat the fruit would have had nothing to do with the fact that it was sinful. It would have had everything to do with Adam fearing death. Eve is in a similar situation, being told that eating of that tree would bring about death. Essentially, God is telling them not to eat of the fruit because death is bad, not because a violation of His law is sinful.
My next observation is towards the condition of nakedness. Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their nakedness initially. It could be that they, not possessing the knowledge of good and evil, did not attribute public nakedness to be either something that was good or evil. They were very likely indifferent to the matter. If they felt the need to cover themselves with fig leaves after the original sin, then the state of being naked before God is evil. Am I to believe that God was letting Adam and Eve partake in a form of bliss that, under the umbrella of good and evil, would require fig leaves? All I have to go by is that before eating of the fruit, their nakedness was embraced, and after the fruit was consumed, it was not. I cannot accept that this God would operate under the cliché, "Ignorance is bliss". One can only begin to imagine the things Adam and Eve might have done should they not have eaten the fruit.
My third observation is that humans are not the only species that took a beating because of Adam and Eve's foul up. Apparently, (and don't let them know, they could harbor bad feelings) serpents were punished. "You [are] cursed more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust All the days of your life." Genesis 3:14. I am sorry, I had to joke a little there; this whole topic is becoming rather serious. All joking aside however, the serpent received punishment for his act of deceit. This leads me to believe that God understood it was not exclusively Adam or Eve's fault. If humans today are under God's wrath, should they not repent, they (we) are paying a great price for something that is not entirely our fault. Actually, it is even more not our fault since we are generations removed from Adam and Eve. Serpents should face a fate far more worse than we will, but it seems that serpents these days do what they are going to do, without trying to bring religion into the mix. They eat, they sleep, they reproduce and they die. They do not seem to be so interested in saving themselves.
Next, it appears that God conveniently left out the whole Tree of Life bit. Adam was on a 'Need to know' basis and, well, he did not need to know. For those who do not know, this tree would give the consumer eternal life. "Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"-- Geneis 3:22. Now, if you were reading Genesis from beginning to end, you might, like me, be led to believe that Adam and Eve were already going to live forever. If not, then you must accept that when God told Adam that he would surely die if he ate of the fruit, Adam would have thought, "...well, I am going to die anyway, so WTF." Or, Adam was ignorant to his own finite existence, in which case, is just cruel. So Adam was ignorant, he was reminded of something he already knew, or he was an eternal being already. I doubt the latter, otherwise, why have a Tree of Life. The tree of life was around before Adam and Eve ate of the fruit.
So here I am today, and there you are. Theologically speaking, we exist now, but when we die, we face eternal joy or eternal damnation. If I want eternal joy, I am to repent of my sin and accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. If I want eternal damnation, well, I do not have to even want it. Apparently, that is the default condition. So, to come back to my original question, I need saving because of someone else’s' foul up. They only fouled up because of the deceit of the serpent. They had no filter by which to determine an act as sinful any more than a child is able to determine the nature of Grand Theft Auto as being bad or sinful. It seems that the early chapters of Genesis are a comedy of errors, the least of which were Adam and Eve's fault. I cannot reasonably accept Genesis in a literal way. Even if I could, I should not be held responsible for someone else's actions. If I indeed have an eternal spirit, it is worth much more, and should have no bearing on the mistakes of the first humans.
Hey my friend, I saw your post advertized on FB. I’m going to offer my critique and some candid words on the back end. I do so out of love for you my friend. Please excuse spelling and grammatical mistakes, as you will find many.
You suggest that the text teaches that Adam and Eve (‘A&E’ from here on out) had no moral sense, that “they did not know the difference between good and evil,” perhaps possessing a blissful ignorance. I think that you derive that from vss. 5, 7, and 22. I think however that this interpretation is simplistic for the following reason:
•“Knowledge” is a multifaceted concept in Hebraic thought. To know x, may involve conceptual and experiential dimensions. I may know about sex after Sex Ed, but its when I have it that I know about sex. Adam is said to “know” his wife, meaning a level of intimacy, not the acquisition of information not previously possessed. So, it is possible that Adam and Eve, though they had a knowledge of right and wrong in one way, did not have it in another (theory and experience perhaps). This fits well with the passage.
•In the previous two chapters man is marked with the imago dei (the image of God), by which man, although possessing many similarities with the animal world, is raised in dignity and differentiated by attributes not possessed by the rest of the animal kingdom in such heightened degree. One key demarcation is morality.
•If morality meant nothing to A & E like “;f;eeffee;;;” means nothing to us, then the narrative of Genesis 3 doesn’t make sense at all. Vs.2, “You shall not eat from any tree…?” Eve, if ignorant of morality proper, should have responded, “What do you mean by “shall not…”. Moral “oughtness” would be as meaningless as chicken scratches. And yet Eve relays enough conviction about right and wrong to waver at the serpent’s suggestions (vs.2). When God doles out particular punishments, he chides Adam for disobeying what he had “commanded” him (vs.17). Clearly, they were moral beings knowing the command of God, and yet spurned it at the suggestion of enlightenment.
•Consider that it was the serpent that said, “For God knows that in the day that you eat it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (vs.5). Your premise presupposes a certain interpretation of the serpent (taking him at face value). Remember, he is filled with half-truths, equivocations, and conflations. The point of the narrative is that the serpent was deceptive in this. Even in verse 22, we might take God’s statement to be bit of irony, “Behold” after stripped of their dignity, spoiled with sin, “man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” As if to say, “you listened to the serpent because of the promise of exaltation to God-like status (which was the very cause of Satan’s fall himself – Isaiah 14:14; Ezek 28:2), and instead of rising, you’ve fallen in shame.”
•A & E certainly knew that partaking of the fruit of that particular tree was sinful. What made their transgression especially heinous was due to considerations like these: (1) God made obedience so easy: what a light burden, that in the midst of such abundance, God should mark one as the test of faithfulness. The easier the obedience, the greater the punishment when there is disobedience. (2) Their action was a defiance of God’s authority so as to establish their own. Pride, the undue exaltation of a person, was the first sin. (3) They forfeited their dominion to a lesser creature, God having established A& E to be vice-regents over all creatures, even the supernatural.
As to the “shame” of nakedness, I also think your treatment is too simple and unfair to the text. Upon sinning, A & E knew they were naked and felt shame. The passage doesn’t mean to communicate that A & E didn’t recognize that one had an outy and the other an inny. Or that when they ate, they said, “Oh &$#&, I thought I had been wearing clothes this whole time.” Again, you’re not appreciating the word “knowledge.”
I particularly like Augustine’s treatment of this passage. He gives a very plausible explanation that when A & E refused to have God as their sovereign, God repaid the compliment by taking away A & E’s sovereignty over their bodies. This meant that appetites that were under their control were no longer under the power of their wills, one appetite being the sexual appetite (which the text hints at). Our inability to master our sexuality is a reminder of a forfeited dominion: ours under God’s and over creation (including our bodies).
You say, “it appears that God conveniently left out the whole Tree of Life bit.” I don’t think you are being fair to the text. This tree was a pledge of that immortal life with which obedience should be rewarded. With his disobedience, he lost all claim to this tree; and therefore, that he might not eat of it or delude himself with the idea that eating of it would restore what he had forfeited, the Lord sent him forth from the garden.
As to moral culpability, I think it is very clear from the text that the fall wasn’t exclusively laid at the feet of A & E, as is evidenced by the punishments doled out to each offender in the crime. As to how we are held responsible, keep in mind that Scripture teaches that A & E do have a greater responsibility before God because of their position as head of the human race and the how easy God made righteousness for them. With that said, Scripture also teaches that they are the fountain of humanity, and we are the stream. If the fountain is corrupt, so is the stream. John Locke, Jonathan Edwards, and many others have rightly argued that original sin is one of the most empirically verifiable doctrines. If morality means anything and “oughtness” should govern humanity, we desperately fall short of it. And though in one sense we clearly see this is a default position of our nature, and yet if we take any particular action where we sinned, our willful involvement in that activity should move a person to be careful about labels of determinism and fatalism.
I’m sympathetic to the difficulty of feeling like you’re punished for the sin of another. I think that our Western obsession with individualism robs vicarious realities from our worldview. We know nothing of the Hebraic and Eastern concepts of solidarity, oneness, and vicariousness. It may sound strange to your ears, it hasn’t sounded strange to countless cultures. This is why the Hebrews, with great joy, looked for a second Adam whose obedience to God would be counted to them as righteousness.
A Candid Assessment
Let me end with a few observations on your handling of the text. You start out your blog talking about theologically reasoning to a conclusion, indicating objectivity in your pursuit. You end your blog by saying “I cannot reasonably accept Genesis in a literal way.”
My friend, with all due respect, you have been extremely casual with your handling of this passage; you have not been reasonable. I would suspect that you consulted no commentaries or theological works on this passage and the doctrine of original sin (e.g., Edwards, In Defense of the Doctrine of Original Sin). I sensed no objectivity or principle of charity with which the critical thinking strives after. To be honest, it seems like you are emoting and calling it reason. This is all a bad foundation for concluding “I cannot accept Genesis in a literal way…” Make sure that your premises support your conclusions.
My friend, I know you are struggling with your faith. I understand that. But I sense that your doubt is bending your use of reason and critical thinking. I’m not saying that a person using their reason will come to my conclusions, but what I’m say is that they wouldn’t make the points you did. May I encourage you, start doubting your doubting a little more. The more you suspect your own reasoning, the better. It will cause your conclusions to be crisper and forceful. Step outside of your observations and lean on other folks who have wrestled with concepts that you never will and can. Use the fruit of their labor so that you won’t have to strive in vain.
Your friend who is for you.
While I am going to really think about what you wrote, I do not feel it necessary to try to disagree with it. In my doubts, I have found that I tend to question everything. While I will not just take what you wrote at face value, I do not see the point in me trying to dissect the text anymore than you already have for me. You see, I approached the text, as you said, casually. This allowed me to possibly find something that was never there to begin with. Either way, your response brought up an important point. I think it is safe to say that even some of the most 'on fire' Christians might not even consider in their lifetime the casual, questionable things I saw in Genesis. That is great for them, but someone like me who is seriously doubting, and even more, lacking the theological sense that I feel you have, how am I suppose to read the text and see the same thing you do? How am I suppose to be aware of all the Hebraic words and or what they were really trying to say. I had no idea how Hebrew culture affected their literature or they way they wrote. I struggle with the idea that God uses literature to reveal Himself to us. People look at the Bible and come up with all sorts of interpretations and translations. Would not God, in wanting to reach the masses use a method of revelation that is common to all people, something they can all understand? Especially considering all the Gentiles that He knew would come. We do not grow up with the dedication to scripture as Jews have and still do. I use to read Christian apologetic, and feel convinced that Christianity was the right way. Now that I read Non-Christian material, I feel just as convinced...and it is maddening I tell you!! I admire you for your commitment to Christ, and I think deep down, I envy that passion. Does not God, if He is, know that all He would need to do for me to believe again and serve Him is "X". If He would just do that, I would be much more of an effective tool for His Will, than I am now, wallowing around in doubt. This is truly not what I thought my life would be turning out like. Take care, and thank you again for your openness.
I appreciate your honesty and humility. Perhaps God could have used something other than literature to communicate, but it seems like we're the kinds of creatures that communicate with words. Once you string a bunch of words together and write them down, you have literature and all of the elements involved (including culture, grammar, syntax, semantics, interpretation). Language is common to all people, and therefore a book is a sufficient option to communicate. Granted, the book is set in different cultural milieus, but I don't think that the cultural elements eclipse the fundamental message that God wants people to hear (though having a rich understanding of these cultural dimensions will give you a richer understanding of the fundamental message).
"Does not God, if He is, know that all He would need to do for me to believe again and serve Him is "X"."
I wonder about this statement. What if you are wrong. What if, even though God does "x" for you, you still wouldn't believe (e.g. Matthew 16:1-4). Or, what if God doesn't want "x" to be that thing without which you won't believe? Put differently, what if God doesn't want you to believe in him on that particular basis (though otherwise it is not an irrelevant component for belief)?
As I mentioned before, I think there's something not right with the standard that you have set for believing Christianity. I can't put my finger on it right now, but maybe its one of these: (1) It would seem to make "belief" into something different. I don't have "faith" or "hope" that circles are round. That's just a fact imposed on me. There's no faith-like virtue in this. If God were something as empirical as a oxygen, it seems to undercut something important about the pursuit of God by man. (2) I suspect that the standard of seeing or touching would undercut a lot of precious things we believe in the life (e.g. love, desire, imagination), as well as ways we know (e.g. intuition). (3) A psychologist could always step in and question the most stark and clear "displays" of God as being a hallucination, a dream, or a psychotic fit (how many people have seen divine personages at Patton State Hospital). (4) A philosopher will say that you can never step outside of your 5 senses to see whether or not your 5 senses are reliable. And so if you did have some type of perception of God (visual and audio), you can't be justified in this belief without assuming the reliability of your senses, which is a unjustified assumption.
I appreciate your openness.