Christian theology begins with separation.
In Genesis, the separation is told in the story of the Fall. The Fall is a mythical account of humankind’s separation from God. It tells how existence is ripped from God’s immediate presence. Separation from God precipitates into separation from one another. This is a central aspect of the myth. Adam and Eve, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent, the apple, Adam & Eve’s shame, then banishment, and Cain killing Abel – all tell the story of humanity’s end of innocence. It is a divine drama about the fragility of human relationships, our reasoning, and the power of agency. Ultimately, the Fall is about our discovery of a knowledge that does not forgive. It is the knowledge of good and evil, our separation from one another, suffering and its consequences.
We moderns easily over-interpret and under-interpret the Fall. Our celebration of science, perspectives, and individual want for control make it easy to miss or avoid its point. If we forget that the Fall is a story about the human condition, it is easy to miss its message about our essential separation The point is that human experience eventually reveals a profound and fatal separation at the core of our existence. It is a separation so deep and irreparable that it can only be explained as separation from God. More than any individual act of transgression or feeling of personal guilt, our basic separation from one another and God is the heart and soullessness of sin. The two are entwined, coincident and reconciled together.
Focusing on the personal dimension of sin eclipses the more important claim that it is deeply embedded in our shared memory of human experience. This is what such a myth does. They provide a window into our shared human condition. In a sense, the myth of the Fall is not personal. Singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, doesn’t get lost in dogmatic doctrines or theological arguments. Her song, “Woodstock,” conveys the Fall and its effects in simple poetic terms: “We are stardust; we are golden. We are billion year-old carbon. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
The garden is the Garden of Eden.
Getting back to the garden is difficult, if not impossible. The search for our original innocence, let along our journey back to it, is fraught with insurmountable problems. Neither philosophy nor theology have been able to build a bridge back to the garden. In fact, our most popular and sought after solutions to this fundamental problem of separation seem to say more about sin and its effects than its solution. Here are two examples:
Historically, evangelical Christians offer a simple formula. They say we just need to accept Jesus as our personal savior. Then, the breach of sin & our separation is repaired. God repairs the human condition. God offers both grace and judgement, and reaches to us in our helpless situation. We are lost in sin. We are separated from God. But, if we have faith, all will be mended. This is what it means to be saved. So long as the saved believe in the bible, and interpret it the way they’re supposed to (which changes over time), the saved can return back to the garden. The saved are heavenbound. The way back to the garden is right religion.
One big problem with the salvation formula is that it doesn’t really work. Sin and separation persist in the human condition even after you’re saved. On the one hand, saved persons still experience temptation to sin on a personal level. The formula focuses on sin and salvation in its personal dimension. It focuses on choice and our individual want for control. Personal piety is important when dealing with sins, before and after salvation. The saved need a way to constantly remind themselves that sin is truly overcome and salvation is theirs. The path back to the garden is right religion and good behavior backed by a program of constant maintenance. This is where the persistence of sin shines through its solution.
Maintaining belief in your personal salvation means the saved will collectively project the persistence of sin out onto the world. Sin is projected on “this evil age” and everyone who doesn’t believe the way they do. The path back to the garden is restricted to those who understand sin and separation rightly, as well as its final solution. To maintain exclusive rights to the way to heaven, many evangelical Christians relentlessly separate themselves from everyone who doesn’t fit their perspective. There is always an out-group: heathens, Catholics, Mormons, feminists, lesbians & gays, and Liberals. Not everyone gets back to the garden. Self-righteousness, therefore, becomes another form of our true separation. In this brand of Christianity, sin and separation manifests in a uniquely religious form. The evangelical formula reflects and reinforces the human condition more than its opposite.
Other kinds of contemporary spirituality deal with our separation from one another and God in other ways. Some deny God altogether. Atheism – professed and practical – is one way to dispose of the Fall as a myth. Other spiritualities deny our separation from God or that sin exists. Since I’m more concerned with clarifying faith than discarding it, I’ll focus on the latter.
Many contemporary spiritualities profess that we are always already in the presence of God. Separation is an illusion. Focusing on sin, or the sheer negativity of sin, is the root of the problem. God is always already here. God is in us. God is around us. God is in our relationships. God may, in fact, be our very relatedness to each other and all things. Such spirituality is relentlessly positive.
What characterizes alot of popular spirituality is the way it rejects the wisdom of the Christian tradition. It stays with the positive while avoiding or being elusive with regard to its negative aspects. The myth of the Fall is either a relic of irrelevant religion, or sin is rejected because it receives so much emphasis. Between these two, our experience of deep separation becomes psychological problem, an medical issue, or a matter of perception. It is not shared human experience of universal condition. Such claims are antiquated, or simply not pleasant.
Because evangelical Christianity dominates so many people’s understanding of what Christianity is, I can see why people look for something different. I, too, have often wondered if the Garden is really here, all around us. Life is a tremendous gift. Creation is wondrous and awe-inspiring. Our relationships have moments of perfection and are life-giving. Perhaps, the problem of sin boils down to our perceptions and egoism. Maybe there is just a profound veil over our spiritual eyes.
But, what I keep coming back to is that this veil of separation has real and material human consequences. They, too, are all around us. Perception and human action continue to create injustice and reproduce gross inequalities. Such things are systemic. Evidence of sin and separation are everywhere. Controlling our awareness of others’ suffering or exposure to inhumane conditions reflects our basic separation more than remedies sin as a human condition. This spirituality, too, is counterfeit.
Not to mention, no matter how sharp our God-consciouness is, our awareness of God’s presence is easily undermined or distracted. Life ensures it. The feeling of union with God or communion with all things doesn’t last. The rhythm of life, and the demands of those sacred relationships we seek and treasure knock us off kilter. There is too much need and want both within and around us. There is too much busyness. We have uncooperative feelings. We still have deep moments to isolation, separation (there it is again!), even feelings of being abandoned, out on our own. Insurmountable ethical dilemmas remain. Why is there suffering? Why am I suffering? Isn’t there an end to this conflict? Why can’t the human family share and just get along? Is the path back to the garden avoiding these conflicts or go through them?
We manage these issues on a personal level most days. They, by nature, are spiritual.
We can address all these problems by focusing ourselves on God and in God. But, it takes relentless effort. The problems of personal, interpersonal, and collective life defy simple solutions. We can retreat into spiritual practices, self-help, positive psychology, meditation, and higher consciousness. Of course, none of this is wrongheaded. We should not give them up. But, sin-as-separation persists and remains essential to our collective life. Our relentless need to overcome it, or even deny it spiritually, are evidence of it. The presence of God is often elusive in life. At least, our individualism makes separation a belief system. Sin – or whatever you want to call it – lurks, exists.
We want to get ourselves back to the garden. But, can we?
I don’t believe we can get back to the garden. If we do, we do so individually or in isolation from others, which only demonstrates how enduring the problem of sin and separation is in the human condition. We can’t get back to the Garden of Eden because there is no path back. The knowledge of human suffering, our basic separation from one another, and suffering its consequences do not forgive. They endure, passed on through the actions of human beings and structures of society . Society is the living memory of our shared past, the collective memory of past generations. Escaping into our selves is not a solution, but evidence of the separation the Fall reveals to us.
There is no path back to the Garden of Eden because it is a place of moral and experiential innocence. It is mythical. It is utopian. It doesn’t exist. The garden, like the myth of the Fall intends, is an imagined place.
The value of this myth is not that it conveys how bad, we, human beings essentially are. I don’t believe that’s the point of the Fall. Nor is it intended to scare us into believing for the sake of salvation. The myth of the Fall preserves a profound and ancient human memory.
On the one hand, the myth of the Garden preserves a memory of our essential relatedness. Remembering the garden brings us back to an imagined place – beyond history and out of time – where humanity’s essential communion with one another and creation once existed. Such communion is basic to our existence, so basic that it is best imagined in mythical proportions – pristine, pure, and created by a common creator.
On the other hand, the Fall remembers the fragility of human relationships, our reasoning, and power of our agency. It preserves an understanding about our knowledge about good and evil. It is a knowledge that does not forgive. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting human suffering, but remembering it. It also means remembering what is possible by recalling what is was like before the need to forgive.
As Joni Mitchell recognized, getting back to the garden is important for framing one of humanity’s basic longings. It is longing for a human condition other than suffering and separation. It is a longing for redemption and restoration midst the human condition. It is hoping for a place for peace and harmony between human beings midst creation.
Getting back to the garden can be a metaphor for creating a better world. It doesn’t mean returning to a place that never existed, but preserving the memory of our essential union with God, with creation, and one another in both Jewish and Christian tradition.
The Garden of Eden may not be real. But, as a metaphor, it points to something very real. The Garden points to the presence of God in human experience, even midst our separation. It is a presence so profound, it is more than an experience. It is place within our historical common memory.
God’s presence may be fleeting, unwieldy, even wild and irrational in human experience. But, it is also as essential to being human as separation and suffering. The presence of God is often more difficult to define or describe than sin and separation. Experiencing God has been described as terrifying (Rudolf Otto), ecstatic (the mystics), indescribable (negative theology) and beyond our ability to directly communicate (Kierkegaard). That is why this experience belongs to spirituality, and its memory is preserved in its myths. God’s presence is an experience that is dynamic and open to interpretation. God’s absence attests to our separation as much as experiencing God in suffering and separation attest to God in human experience.
If Christian theology begins with separation, theology continues as a testament to God’s presence midst this condition. If sin points to separation in human experience, experiencing God is equally a part of human existence. Faith cannot overcome separation anymore than spirituality can immunize us from its consequences. But, if both embrace all life’s experience, both affirm God’s presence and work within it.
…and, if this true, sin has already begun to die its own death.