Genesis: the Story of Why We’re Different

In the summer of 2011 I was fortunate enough to go to the Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of speakers and artists active in the “emergent Christianity” movement, and there Alison and I met up with Carl McColman, who introduced us to Mike Morell. Like most of the awesome people at the Wild Goose, Mike is a Christian who takes a dim view of dogmatic pronouncements and brimstony evangelism, and he grapples vigorously with the tensions between Biblical teachings and 21st-century reality.

For example, in his post “Evolution and the Two Trees in the Garden” he gives his personal interpretation of Genesis’s story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the apple. Mike suggests that the story isn’t really about two actual people, a talking snake, and a magic apple. Instead it’s a metaphor for humanity’s transition from pre-history to history:

But then… something happened. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but “suddenly” in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers.

This isn’t the only way of interpreting Genesis, of course. Micah Redding, a commenter on Mike’s post, suggests instead that it reflects our knowledge of our own mortality. Others have suggested that it represents the consciousness of ourselves-as-individuals, or dualistic thinking, or moral consciousness, etc., etc.

To me it seems very unlikely that humans actually underwent a physiological or neurological (as opposed to cultural) change as recently as a few thousand years ago. 6000 years ago, humans were already spread all over the world, effectively divided into separate gene pools. Any genetic change that started in 4000 BC would not have reached, say, the Aboriginals of Australia or the indigenous peoples of the Americas until a couple of hundred years ago. Did the Aztecs never (metaphorically) eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? No matter what you think the fruit of the tree represents, it would be hard to argue that.

My own take, of course, is that the Genesis story doesn’t have a “meaning” — outside of the meaning we assign it. And it’s interesting to look at the meanings we give it, because that tells us something about ourselves. In the 19th century, lots of people used the Genesis story to explain why women were second-class citizens; and some people still do that today, though thankfully that’s falling from favor. They also used to tell the stories of the exploits and treacheries of Adam’s sons and Noah’s sons to explain why there were different races of people, and why some races were better than others. You almost never hear those parts of Genesis brought up anymore. Instead, people today talk about what exactly God meant by giving us “dominion” over the world, and whether the story is applicable in some way to evolution, and what it says about the differences between people and animals, and so on.

But when you get down to it, the Genesis story is a tale about why we’re exceptional. There’s all sorts of things in there about humanity being made in God’s image, and being given special instructions, and being uniquely disobedient, and eating magical fruit, and so on; and all of these have been used to argue for humanity’s special place in the world — as well as for the male’s special place in the family, and the white man’s special place in society. Is this healthy?

It’s all too easy, all too tempting, to fall into the trap of thinking that humanity (or males, or the white race, or modern civilization, or the Western tradition) is qualitatively exceptional. All of these categories are certainly unique in some ways, but that’s true of all animals, peoples, cultures and subcultures. People (and animals) have always been sometimes brilliant and sometimes stupid, sometimes wise stewards of the earth and sometimes appallingly thoughtless, sometimes dualistic and sometimes mystic, sometimes moral and sometimes wicked, and so on. Even our technological advancement might not be unique: if we all disappeared tomorrow, almost all evidence of us would be gone in a few thousand years. What sets us apart, if anything, is scale. There are a whole hell of a lot of us being brilliant, stupid, wise, wicked, etc., all at once. But that’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.

Now, I’m all for sacred texts, and for studying them carefully, and trying to draw meaning from them, no matter how crazy they are. But Genesis should be handled carefully. History shows that it’s all too easily read as a grab-bag of excuses for powerful people to believe they’re exceptional, to believe they have a sacred mission, to believe that they can do whatever they want. So meditate on it, contemplate it, even believe it if you want; but do so with care and awareness. If I were going to recommend a creation story to believe, I’d pick one with less violence and misogyny. Personally I’m partial to the Taoist:

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and Earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten
thousand things.
I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand
things.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

(Trans. Jane English)

The Druid and the Wild Goose II: Conversation With Doctrine

In the previous post of this series about the emergent / progressive Christian Wild Goose festival, I talked about the courage of Christians facing moral contradictions between church authority and Biblical doctrine on one hand, and the call of heart and culture on the other. The Wild Goose was a place where they could come together, face the doctrine, and engage with it.

Richard Twiss, a devout Christian of Lakota heritage, showed this spirit when spoke movingly of how the invading Europeans justified the genocide of the Native Americans by comparing themselves to the Israelites invading Canaan, a slaughter carried out with God’s blessing. Does the Good Book really condone genocide? It certainly seems so, on the face of it. Most Christians ignore that part of the book, or assume it is a metaphor for… something or other, or no longer applies, or whatever. But Twiss said no, no: we need to face this.

Twiss also joined up with Lakota dancers to perform and lead ceremonies and dances at the festival. He said, “These may seem pagan or un-Christian to you. But they are the dances that God gave my people; and I do not apologize for them.” Twiss is still working on how to reconcile the ways of his people with the Bible, which he still believes in, and which says it is the only way to God.

Phyllis Tickle, I think, summarized the problem most succinctly. Christians, she said, must answer three questions today.

[Continue Reading…]

The Druid and the Wild Goose I: Christians Courageous

At the emergent/progressive Christian Wild Goose festival this year, I was extremely fortunate to meet a new kind of Christian.

I was raised with a sort of American Zen / New Age philosophy. But growing up in the American Southeast, I met a lot of Christians. Christians I’ve known well mostly fall into a few well-defined categories:

  1. Christians who are devout, and concerned about the fate of my soul, and actively trying to convert me. For the most part, these are family members. There are, of course, devout Christians outside my family who try to convert me, but I never get to know them well, thank the gods.
  2. Christians who are devout, and probably concerned about the fate of my soul, but are more interested in me as a human being they can relate to. These folks generally avoid discussing religion with me, because that might be awkward, and imperil our friendship.
  3. Christians who are not particularly devout, or religious at all; or perhaps they’re spiritual-but-not-religious. Again, these folks are more interested in our friendship than the fate of my eternal soul (or theirs).
  4. The rarest type: Christians who are devout, but cognizant of the place of Christianity as one faith among many, and comfortable enough with their spirituality to openly and easily discuss theology with me without trying to convince me. When we discuss religion, which is awesome, we mostly tell about our personal experiences, listen without judgement, and walk rather gingerly on our common ground.

But at the Wild Goose I met devout Christians who not only discussed theology openly, and were conscious of Christianity’s changing status in western culture, but dove deep into areas where they were uncertain. That takes courage.

[Continue Reading…]

Sacrifice, Sacrilegious, Savior

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Sacrifice

Sacrifice comes from Latin sacrificium, meaning “sacred action” (from sacra, “sacred”, and ficium, “to do”). It was used to refer to the performance of any priestly duties. Since these duties almost always involved giving something to the gods, sacrifice came to mean, first, giving something up to Spirit, and then later (in the late 1500’s in English) giving something up in general.

As for sacra “sacred”, it derives ultimately from Proto Indo European sak, meaning “sanctify”; and it is the basis for consecrate, sacerdotal, saint, sanctum, sacrosanct, and sanctify.

Sacrifice’s primary syllable, sac, is identical with that ancient Proto Indo European root sak from 8,000 years ago. It indicates directed, balanced energy (”sa”) pouring into a container (”k”); metaphorically, then, the energy is the sacrifice, and Spirit is the container. The same phonosemantics work for the rather more mundane word sack.

Thanks to Erik for suggesting this word of the day.

[Continue Reading…]

The Christian Sword: Evil Christianity

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” — Jesus (Matthew 10:34)

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.” — The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, 1861

ire31This weekend I was at the Feast of Lights, and heard a wonderful presentation by Andras Arthan on the last remnants of indigenous religions in Europe. As Arthan pointed out, European indigenous cultures were wiped out or absorbed by the Christian cross, starting with the Romans and carried forward by the various kingdoms that were born of the empire’s collapse. The European indigenous cultures were the first to succumb to the worldwide scourge of Western imperialism and corporitism that continues today. Arthan was unambiguous in his indictment: Christianity is to blame for these atrocities. And it was clear that many in his audience agreed with him.

[Continue Reading…]