One of the lectionary readings for yesterday, the first Sunday in Lent, was the Genesis story of Adam, Eve, the snake and the apple. On its face, this text suggests that we disobeyed God by using our own judgment instead of obeying blindly, and all of humanity’s problems go back to this root. Given how easily and often this interpretation has lent itself to abuses of church authority, I feel compelled to search for more creative ways of understanding one of the foundational myths of Western culture.
Without proposing a reduction of religion to mere psychodrama, I’d like to suggest that the Garden of Eden story expresses (among many other things!) an early stage in the maturation of the individual. It’s a poetic representation of how the child looks at the parent’s authority. And because, in St. Paul’s words, we are eventually meant to “put away childish things”, it’s not the last word on the interplay between independence and obedience.
Remember how it felt to be a small child. Our parents made a lot of rules whose purpose we didn’t always understand. As we got older, hopefully we saw more of the reasons for rules that seemed arbitrary at the time. Meanwhile, though, the bargain looked a lot like Eden: nurture and protection, and the freedom to ignore the hard choices that adults had to puzzle through (“the knowledge of good and evil”), in exchange for being a dutiful son or daughter.
But one day, we decided to test those limits. Ride that bike into traffic. Eat a whole box of cookies. What happened when we got caught? If we tried to hide the evidence, or shift the blame, that reaction, rather than the disobedience itself, was the greatest proof that we really weren’t mature enough to write our own rulebook yet.
Even so, Eden was kind of nice. They do your laundry for you and there’s always popcorn in the cupboard. From the teenage perspective, being kicked out feels like punishment. What are you talking about, go earn your own bread by the sweat of your brow? Without that responsibility, though, you’re not really living into the independence that you said you wanted.
What I’m suggesting is that the Fall and expulsion only look like a crime and a penalty from the human viewpoint because we’re ambivalent about growing up–“growing into the full stature of Christ”, to quote St. Paul again. Adam and Eve’s first act of self-awareness is to clothe themselves, to create physical separation and privacy between themselves and their divine parent. Individuation is a necessary but lonely process, and both parent and child sometimes feel nostalgic for the Edenic oneness of the womb.
For Christians, this trajectory comes full circle in the Incarnation and Atonement. Where Adam and Eve fell short of God’s design for full human maturity because they didn’t take responsibility for their own transgressions, Jesus embodies that design by taking on and cleaning up the transgressions of others. Where Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves to become different from their creator, God clothed Godself in human form in order to restore that connection, but still in a way that respected human freedom.
Again, this has its parallels in family life. As we develop an adult’s broader perspective, we discover that our personal autonomy, which may have seemed so absolute during adolescence, is shaped and limited by family obligations and by the behavior patterns we’ve inherited from our forebears. Though our abusive ancestors weren’t our fault, it falls to us to say “The buck stops here”–to face and reform those abusive tendencies in ourselves, and to bind up the wounds of our loved ones.