A Quest, the Fall, and Perceiving Grace

After the customary greetings, a fellow Unitarian Universalist seminary student and I began talking about “the fall” as an upcoming sermon topic at Groveland UU Fellowship, where I am interning this year.

Now, in Unitarian Universalism, it’s much more common to think of “the fall” as the season following summer, rather than the starting point of original sin.  Especially since our denomination doesn’t officially believe in original sin.  It is, in fact, rather rare to hear us speak of sin at all, and when we do, it’s generally with a laundry list of qualifications and disclaimers.  We’re much more about the hope and love and justice kinds of messages.

So of course my curiosity was piqued when my colleague brought this idea up.  And he clarified that when he said “the fall,” he really was talking about “the fall of man.”

At this, my ears perked up.  He said specifically “the fall of man.”  Not the fall of humans, or even man and woman, but just man.

This led me into a delightful mental exploration of whether it was all humankind who “fell,” or whether it was just man.  (Of course, this is presupposing that anyone “fell” at all.  And no, this isn’t going to turn into a man-bashing rant.  Just go with me for a minute, here.)

We’re all familiar with the general story: God puts Adam and Eve into a garden with an apple tree and says, “Don’t eat them apples!”  Eve eats one.  Adam doesn’t want to, but Eve talks him into eating one, too.  God gets mad and chucks them out of the garden.  All humans forever after that are punished because of this original sin that Adam and Eve perpetrated.  The end.

But let’s take a look at what actually happened in the story.

In Genesis 1:27, we read: So God created humankind in his image…male and female he created them.

So far, I see no evidence that one sex was favored over the other.  In fact, this speaks rather strongly to a vision of equality.  In the original Hebrew Bible, even God is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns—God-the-Creator using masculine, and God-the-Spirit using feminine.

Jump to Genesis 2.  Here we read a completely different version of the creation story.  (Did you know that there were two?  Check it out sometime.)  This is the one where we get God taking out the guy’s rib and turning it into a lady.  But if we look more closely, we see another message of equality:

Genesis 2:18, 20, 22-23: Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” …but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner….  And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh….”

In the Hebrew, the word that is here translated as “partner” refers always to an equal, if not a superior; never to an inferior.  And in this story, man searched among all the creatures of the world, but could not find one that would be a suitable partner for him.  In the end, only one who was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” would do.  To me, this speaks to the ideal of equality between men and women, that the ultimately desirable partner would be one that shares the same essentials—not one that would be submissive to the other.

So with this basis for equality between the original inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, wherein is planted the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (not an apple tree!), we come to see them as true partners.  Thus, it wouldn’t matter which one of them the serpent approached; as in any partnership, each bears a shared responsibility for the decisions and actions of the other.

When the woman (who isn’t actually named Eve until Genesis 3:20) decides to eat of the fruit from the forbidden tree, she isn’t acting out of an intent to do wrong.  She is acting out of a desire to grow as a person, to shape her own humanity.  In eating of the fruit, she is embarking on a quest for knowledge.

Genesis 3:6: So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate….

To my mind, I cannot see a sin here.  I do not see that the woman “fell” from grace.  She set out on a new and unexplored path, fraught with unknown dangers, but like any living thing, she sought ultimately to grow, to become more than she already was.  The man, however, is a different story.  But first, let’s take a moment to explore my notions about grace.

Grace, I think, is a matter of perception.  We are all born with a certain innocence, a naiveté about the world.  In this trustful, unharmed state, we have been gifted with the grace of childhood.

And somewhere along the way, most of us lose it.  All of it.  Gone.  We become fearful or mistrustful, uncertain or jaded, protective or angry, or some combination.  We realize that the world can hurt us.  Or to use a metaphor, somewhere along the way, we eat of the fruit of knowledge.  Our innocent “childhood grace” flees from us.

Yet it is possible to regain that grace, to earn back a measure of feeling at peace with the world.  Some people would argue theology with me, saying that grace cannot be earned through works but only given as a gift of God’s love.  Suffice it to say, I do not believe that.  I believe that it is difficult, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of personal work, both inwardly and outwardly, but I think it is possible.  After losing our “childhood grace,” we can strive to gain some measure of “earned grace.”  And, ultimately, it is the “earned grace” that we have a chance of keeping.

Let’s return to the man’s choice to eat of the forbidden fruit.  Genesis 3:6 continues: …and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

The man made no move to stop the woman from eating; he was right there while she was speaking to the serpent, and he made no protest.  And yet the quest for knowledge was not his quest; it was quite clearly that of the woman.  Both man and woman knew that God had asked them not to eat the fruit from this tree, and they both decided to eat it anyway.

But in the case of the man, he seems to have harbored some guilt.  When God returned to the garden and questioned them, in 3:12 the man says, “She gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”  He is defending his actions by giving the responsibility to his partner.  This is not an uncommon thing for us to do to each other—especially when we only did something because we were pulled along on some other person’s quest.  The man “fell” in this scenario not because he ate of the forbidden fruit, but because he ate even though he didn’t want to.

So I think that this is what the idea of the “fall” is all about.  When we seek to broaden our horizons by pushing boundaries, as the woman did, this can be a healthy avenue for growth.  But when we break the explicit rules passively, because we are following a path that is not ours to follow, doing something even though we feel guilty about it—when we do these things, they are perhaps our own little “fall” from grace.

Does that spell out the end of the world?  Of course not.  We all “fall” sometimes.  And if we can recognize that, and if we put the work into righting ourselves, we can earn back what grace we lost.

In my reading of Genesis 1-3, it doesn’t really matter whether it was the man or the woman who caused the other to eat the fruit; they were partners whose paths diverged.  What matters is that when we are presented with a forbidden fruit, we must decide whether we are embarking on a quest or preparing to fall.  What matters is how we move in the world, and how we will perceive our own grace and that of each other.

-lm

~ For all Biblical references in this post, I used The Peoples’ Bible, published by Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2009. ~

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About Leaping Loon

I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving our congregation in Elgin, Illinois. While I am determined to embrace my propensity to wander, it oftentimes takes a leap of faith to do so. My life's motto seems to be: "Leap, and the net will appear." True to my spirit, and following Love's call, I must simply free myself to go. Where will I end up? Let's find out. Welcome to my journey!
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7 Responses to A Quest, the Fall, and Perceiving Grace

  1. Chip says:

    I agree-we should pay attention to our feelings, and if there is some guilt or “ick” there, *not* embark on that path. However, I disagree that we are born innocent. Children are pure id; we are born as tiny balls of need and selfishness. We get away with it because we are cute, and because we have a lot of potential. Romanticizing infants as “pure” and “innocent” leads to a dangerous conflation of “innocence” and “ignorance.” See Rebecca Parker’s essay in Soul Work for her take on the Garden of Eden story

  2. Shawna says:

    Further evidence that the term ‘helper’ meant equal and not servant status – the same term is used to refer to God itself several times in the old testament.

  3. ogre says:

    I’d couple this with Mat 15:11–where Jesus explicitly affirms “It is not what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean. It is what comes out of the mouth that makes a person unclean.”

    Viewing Genesis through that lens, it’s not about the fruit–which went into their mouths. The warning from God is not “don’t eat this or I’ll evict you from the Garden, and make life hell.” It’s “in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.” (Gen. 2:17; Gen. 3:3 extends the taboo to even touching it)

    Adam weasels, “She gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate”–blaming, as you observe, his partner. I don’t think that “didn’t want to” is a very strong argument here. If he didn’t want to eat it, why did he? Just because the woman handed him some and said here, try it? He was at least willing. There’s no compulsion.

    But I think that will isn’t even the issue here. It’s what each of them do. Adam blames her, and she blames the serpent for tricking her. Given Mark 15:11, it’s not about the eating, it can’t be. And it’s not about having eaten, because the punishment meted out isn’t what was warned of (“in that day you will die”). No, they’re ejected from the Garden and punished with various forms of suffering.

    I’d look at that and say it’s got to do with Mark 15:11 and the lies being told. Not me, her. Not me, the serpent. We didn’t want to, we were tricked–but in each case there was a choice. One might make a very interesting discussion of the assertion that the knowledge of good and evil meaning that one will die (and what’s that say about God…?), but the very fact that the punishment is so different from what’s warned of suggests that it’s not about the eating of the fruit, but what “came out of the mouth” that was so ruthlessly punished. Mortality, Genesis claims, is the price of that knowledge (because clearly the strict interpretation of death “in that day” doesn’t hold). Not all the rest. That’s for something else. And I’d suggest that’s probably presented (implicitly) in Exodus 20:16; false witness–lies and deceptions. She made me do it. It tricked me.

    There’s the fall.

    The argument that it’s the fall of man and not of woman is just inconsistent with all that follows. Woman is punished, too. Woman is cast out, not merely subjected to mortality for eating the fruit.

    • Matt V. says:

      While I think that you’re pretty close to spot on in your analysis of the fall (I personally tend to talk about it as a punishment for not taking responsibility for one’s actions, which would mean, incidentally, that the man led the woman into the fall, and not the other way around), using a NT text to interpret an OT text is really rather sketchy. I mean, the other way around, sure, but using the NT in the way you do here runs the risk of reinforcing the supercessionism and thus antisemitism still present in some areas of our society which has historically led to some horrific events . . .

      –Thirst

      • ogre says:

        When one talks in terms of “original sin,” one’s already distinctly within the confines of Christian argument about the meaning of these scriptures. And while I appreciate the concern about superscessionism, I think that it needs to be watched for (and against), but not held up as a concern that delegitimates looking at “OT” (by which you mean Hebrew biblical) texts through “NT” (meaning Christian) texts.

        But Jesus was a Jew, and was making an argument within the context of Jewish debate over what mattered more; letter of the law or spirit of the law. It’s unreasonable to reject the idea of looking at what Genesis might/should mean to a Christian through such a lens–but entirely reasonable to raise the warning flag that says “don’t go here… when doing this.”

    • Matt V. says:

      (It won’t let me comment on the end of your last post . . .)

      The point about already being within the Christian debate due to the “original sin” thing is a very good one. When it comes to interpreting the Greek texts speak on the Hebrew texts, though, I at least, due to the way those texts are being taught at my seminary (namely as Jewish literature, the later written of which can be mistakenly be used in antisemetic ways), need the caveats (“This only applies to Christian debates and isn’t the only valid way to interpret these texts”) to be spelled out up front, or I start seeing warning lights. All in all, though, I think we’re on the same page, even if I’m a little bit doubtful if there actually are good titles for the sections of the Christian Bible that work in all contexts.

      –Thirst

  4. Carstares says:

    Embarking on a quest or preparing to fall – often it’s the same thing. : )

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