Out of the Garden and into the World:
How the Fruit of the Tree in the Midst of the Garden Gave Us Life
A sermon delivered by
Summer Minister, First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday August 6, 2000
Just about everybody in North America knows something about the bible. And we are also almost certain to have misconceptions about this collection of books - about what we think is in there and isn't and what we think isn't in there but is - a lot like children's misconceptions about the bible:
Children often confuse their vocabulary and come up with remarkable interpretations of things. And that isn't so different from the remarkable interpretations of the bible that adults come up with. It isn't surprising. The books' original languages are ancient, written in the context of a different culture and largely compiled between two and three thousand years go. Even being so distant from our experience and full ability to interpret them on their own grounds, the Jewish and Christian scriptures, a collection of books including letters, gospels, myths, soap operas, meetings with and disappearances of God, is an ongoing and powerful influence on Christian oriented cultures.
Stockwell Day's fundamentalist Christian values clearly influence his leadership in the Alliance Party and his understanding of the role of government in people's lives, here in Canada. And that party influences the country.
Of late it has been the biblical commandments front and center in the United States, as various states, including my home state Indiana, have considered hanging the 10 Commandments in schools as a way of dealing with school violence. I am not sure if proponents believe the commandments hanging in the front hall will stop kids from bringing a gun to school because of "Thou shalt not kill", or if the 10 Commandments hanging in the front hall of the school will act as a talisman to protect children from acts of violence.
I don't mean to be flip about this interest; parents want to protect their children. People believe government and public policy should reflect values that will serve the community. We all lean into what they believe will help. The bible is a powerful force. Religious values and their powers-that-be influence communities, government, and our lives, particularly biblical religious values.
Therefore, we Unitarian Universalists can't not talk about the bible, though most of us do not use it as a primary, even secondary sacred source, for our lives. We must know it better than many of us do, not because it is our sacred text. Our liberal religious values and lens upon these texts is essential because interpretations of these texts influence the public conversation so much, the public conversation which influences the decisions made in the halls of justice and legislative bodies as well as in our schools. Unitarian Universalists must be part of public conversations because we have a unique voice.
For example, I have several Unitarian Universalist friends who are chaplains. I worked as a chaplain during the four years of my studies toward ministry. We all agreed that UU chaplains are essential to chaplaincy. We agreed because we believe that for some chaplains from other faith traditions, it can be difficult to meet people in crisis where they are religiously. UU chaplains, when we fully work out of the principles and values of our tradition, have that capacity.
In much the same way liberal religious people, of whom Unitarian Universalists are one strong force, are particularly equipped, and I would say called, to bring our voices into public forums, to weigh in on what are the issues of the day. To examine issues toward solutions through a liberal religious lens that has the capacity of understanding the issues which confront us and how to counteract their potential damage will, to my mind, make deeper solutions possible.
And so I will look at one corner of the bible this morning, in the hope of reshaping how we look at the biblical stories of creation, by looking at them through the lenses of the spectrum of our values. Toward being able to enter public conversation when how these stories are so often understood comes up. Among the most commonly known biblical stories are the stories of creation and the following story of Adam and Eve being barred from the Garden of Eden. Although many people only see one story of creation and lots of us think of the creation and being kicked out of the Garden as all one big story, the two chapters of Genesis that tell these stories are much more complex than that. Most people in America do not recognize these stories as symbolic or metaphorical. Somehow, people continue to read literal truth into the texts.
Most people don't go so far as to really name Adam and Eve as the first humans but most people also don't spend time articulating other understandings of these stories in the early passages of Genesis. We are constantly conflating and distorting these remarkable stories in the book of Genesis with which the bible begins.
Adam, Eve and the Garden itself have appeared in sitcoms and advertisements, and it's not uncommon to hear somebody make a cautioning comment that might come out a little like: "Take a bite of that apple, and it's your fault what happens!" We're sure from the outset that the bite means something bad. Further, we are pretty much all in agreement that it was Eve who not only started it but also sweet-talked (hen-pecked!?) Adam into biting into that sweet, juicy apple. Although all Eve did was offer and Adam reached for the fruit and ate. And why do we think it was an apple? Why not a pomegranate which was by far a more common fruit? And the tree? Why not a fig tree or a date tree?! There is something deep within many people that feels the sharp pain of having been kicked out of the Garden of Eden where all was sweet and holy, a playground of the spirit, no troubles, no ambivalence or illness, no death and loss, and most especially appreciated, absolutely no need to do laundry!
Readers of the bible have been blaming Eve, and Adam a little too (Adam comes up as Jesus is understood by much of Christianity as "the new Adam", new and improved and without sin), for ruining things for people for at least a couple of thousand years. They took a bite out of that apple and, just like midnight at Disney World, they were out on the street, sprawled on the curb wondering what happened. Homeless. It was their fault. How are we going to get back in?
There are common misconceptions to clear up before we talk about getting back in. It isn't just children who have misconceptions about the bible:
Adam and Eve had their own misconceptions and mistakes to deal with: Stephen Mitchell, in his book, Parables and Portraits, offers this possibility: "Eve bites into the fruit. Suddenly she realizes that she is naked. She begins to weep. The kindly serpent picks up a handkerchief, gives it to her. 'It's all right," he says. 'The first moment is always the hardest.' 'But I thought knowledge would be so wonderful,' Eve says, sniffling. 'Knowledge?!' laughs the serpent. 'This fruit is from the Tree of Life.'"
Even this parable doesn't name the right tree. It is just too confusing, and that is partly because the written scripture pack together multiple older, oral traditions. We must keep this in mind.
The first sermon I ever preached on New Year's Day morning about 1985 -- to seven people (five of whom were my friends) focused on the hallelujah insight I'd recently had that it was better to be outside the Garden than in it. That I didn't want to get back in.
What little I remember of that sermon, I thought of the Garden (and still do) as a satisfying womb, but not a satisfying world. Even though I haven't been in the womb for some time now, clearly the womb makes for rather cramped living quarters. It is a better place to be out of than in once we're mature enough to manage without it. Recognition of the human ability to manage on our own and collectively, are basic values of our liberal religious heritage. It is good to be out of the Garden. When the time comes when we can make decisions on our own, like taking a view contrary to arbitrary unexplained rules, we are ready to be on our own.
We Unitarian Universalists declare a profound sense of affirmation in the human condition and its potential. So, I see Adam and Eve's eating of the fruit as less disobedience as the biblical tradition understands it and more a growth spurt in their ability to manage their own life journeys.
Now that may sound like a radical individualistic point of view and I don't mean it to be so. Individual humans have access to and wield a great deal of power and possibility but that we live outside the womb, or the Garden does not mean that we do not need others, that we can get by without community and some understanding of what is greater than ourselves. We need each other to meet our full potential. After all, two people were created in Genesis, not one. For more reasons than procreation! It is lonely to be alone for a lifetime. Community is essential to our religious tradition. Still there must also be time and space for autonomy.
Any one of us who has raised children knows we must let go, however fearfully or grudgingly, of our children's life choices. Not when they are twelve or fifteen, but let go we must. And all of us know that taking on our own life choices means making some poor ones. But I do not believe that the bites taken out of whatever kind of fruit that might have been in the Garden the decision to make self-determined choices -- reflect poor choices for Adam and Eve. Writer Helen Gardener says, "Even if Eve and Adam did eat that apple, why should we insist upon having the colic?" I don't believe they gave us the colic.
Our critical thinking skills, our ability to communicate both internally and with others means that even the biblical God understood at some level that we were designed -- created -- to decide and to choose. Through that lens God is a religious liberal. And that I do believe.
But apparently the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, had as much trouble letting go of Adam and Eve as we have trouble letting go of our own children. As I understand the story, God the parent got angry and maybe frightened at this display of independence and kicked them out of the house before they got an apartment of their own.
Being barred from the Garden was as difficult for Adam and Eve as it was for many of us when we were first on our own. My all time favorite comic strips is Lynne Johnston's "For Better or For Worse". Having lived across the river from Ontario in the Detroit area, I love the Canadian context of this comic strip and what it brings to us more southern Americans' consciousness. Recently son Michael was in the midst of moving out of an apartment with a friend and into an apartment by himself. His first great thought was how wonderful it would be to have sole ownership of a bathroom for the first time in 24 years. In an April strip (4/8/00), Michael slept in his new place for the first time and he lay in bed ALSO owning the creaks and groans of the night.
Being out of the Garden, out on our own, impacts life in every way imaginable. Some have parallels to leaving our parents' home and making our own way. Some are particular to what it means to be human at all.
In the Garden using our minds was hardly meaningful. Everything was given. Out of the Garden and in the world our minds are creative necessities for survival, exploration and imagination. In the Garden we had no access to feelings/emotion. Feelings and emotions are necessary, useful signs toward understanding the world we live in. We need that only outside of the Garden and in the world where our emotions lead us to make witness to our changing needs and the needs of others.
In the Garden we had no knowledge of our bodies. Out of the Garden and into the world, we know our bodies for the wonders they are; multidimensional and deeply responsive; In the Garden adam, the earth creature, named the creatures but didn't participate in creation. Out of the Garden, and into the world, life itself participates in the ongoing creation.
For better or for worse we have the capacity and wield the power to shape creation or contribute to its destruction. THIS IS LIFE. Eating of the tree in the midst of the Garden gave us life, not death. Real, gritty, authentic life and we have the ability and power to use it! Our minds, our emotions, our bodies and our creative potential.
In public conversation in the face of the disunities, the issues of our communities and the larger public context -- we Unitarian Universalist must weigh in on such issues. Using the language of the biblical tradition (and there are times when we must because that is what is influencing others) we can say with surety that God gave Adam and Eve and us the power to examine and understand what is going on, to feel and think our way through it, to engage our creativity.
Out of the Garden and into the world. To a world that isn't evil by nature, with human beings who are not ashamed and not abandoned. The God of the Jewish and Christian Bible gave us life, not death.
COMING OUT OF THE GARDEN AND INTO THE WORLD, GAVE US ACCESS TO OURSELVES.