Friday, February 11, 2005

Lent 1: Temptations

Today's reading from Genesis is the account of the so-called "fall". I say "so-called" because the word "fall" never appears in it. For that matter, neither does the word "sin". According to Genesis, the cause for the breach in the divine/human relationship is disobedience. Another key category in this story is "knowing." The forbidden tree is the tree of "knowledge"; the serpent says that if they eat of the tree God "knows" that their "eyes will be opened"; "knowing good and evil" makes one "like God"; and finally, the human couple "know" that they are naked.

It might be more interesting if the lectionary included verses 18 through 25 of chapter 2. Three things happen in those verses. First, God acknowledges the human being's need for companionship. Up until this point God has declared everything to be good, but for the first time, God declares something to be NOT good: "It is not good for adam to be alone." (NB: The NRSV translates adam as "the man", but this is a little misleading. The Hebrew word adam does not specify gender. The human being is not differentiated as male and female until Eve is created.)

Second, God brings the animals before adam one by one. This is one of the most humorous episodes in the Bible. The text implies that God wants to see if adam will pick one of the other animals to be his partner, but alas, none of them is suitable.

Finally, God creates a partner for adam. Now, humankind is differentiated into male (ish) and female (ishah).

It would be good to include these omitted verses because the irony of the story of the fall is that no sooner has God given adam a helper than the helper becomes the catalyst for disaster. Presumably, the serpent was one of the animals God offered to adam as a helper. So the helper especially created for adam and an animal who was a potential helper instigate the event that brings about exile from Eden.

If we include the omitted verses, then it becomes plainer than ever that Augustine was right about evil. According to Augustine, evil is privative. Rather than being the opposite of good, evil is good that has been twisted. Eve sees that the fruit is "good for food" and a "delight" and a source of wisdom. The crime is not inherent in the fruit; the crime is the misuse of the good. Furthermore, neither Eve nor the serpent is bad. Eve is the partner God created to remedy the problem of human loneliness, and the serpent is also God's good creation.

Similarly, the Tempter does not offer Jesus anything that we would regard as a sin or a crime. He offers him bread, world rule, and popularity. Does anyone doubt that Jesus would have used the bread to feed the hungry or that he would have ruled wisely and well? And surely he would have used his status as a celebrity to promote his teaching. But in each case there was a catch; Jesus could only acquire the good ends (bread, power, and fame) by using questionable means. Sometimes the end justifies the means; more often it does not. An idealistic politician influences legislation on behalf of a generous contributor, thinking that she is on the side of the angels on most issues. A police officer uses a little muscle to get a criminal to confess. Once we set out on the wrong path toward good ends, the path tends to diverge more and more from our goal.

The Reformers spoke of the Christian life as being simul justus et peccator ("simultaneously justified and sinful"). Calvinism is notorious for claiming that human nature is "totally depraved". The phrase is unfortunate, but the idea behind it is worth rehabilitating. Calvin's idea was that even at our best we are still estranged from God, and that is a good thing to keep in mind.

The meaning I take away from this is that our greatest temptations come not from the shadows but from the light. A friend of mine is fond of saying that an excess of virtue is worse than an excess of vice because there are no restraints on virtue. The greatest evils are not done by those notorious criminals but by the "brightest and best" who have convinced themselves and a few others that they know what is best.

At every moment we are confronted with the situation that Adam and Eve faced. The greatest temptations are not grotesquely evil. They are things that may be in and of themselves just as the fruit appeared to Eve: wise, good, and "a delight to the eyes". But take care: one choice leads to paradise and the other to exile.