Original Sin

The notion of original sin is unique to Western Christianity.  Jesus taught to the contrary: children are not so tainted. “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 19: 14.

Wikipedia describes original sin, its origins, its various interpretations and applications at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_sin:

According to a Christian theological doctrine, original sin, also called ancestral sin,[1] is humanity’s state of sin resulting from the fall of man,[2] stemming from Adam’s rebellion in Eden. This condition has been characterized in many ways, ranging from something as insignificant as a slight deficiency, or a tendency toward sin yet without collective guilt, referred to as a “sin nature”, to something as drastic as total depravity or automatic guilt of all humans through collective guilt.[3]

The concept of original sin was first alluded to in the 2nd century by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in his controversy with certain dualistGnostics. Other church fathers such as Augustine also developed the doctrine,[2] seeing it as based on the New Testament teaching of Paul the Apostle (Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22) and the Old Testament verse of Psalm 51:5.[4][5][6][7][8]Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose and Ambrosiaster considered that humanity shares in Adam’s sin, transmitted by human generation. Augustine’s formulation of original sin was popular among Protestant reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, who equated original sin with concupiscence, affirming that it persisted even after baptism and completely destroyed freedom.[2] Within Roman Catholicism, the Jansenist movement, which the Church then declared heretical, also maintained that original sin destroyed freedom of will.[9] On the other hand, some modern Protestants deny that the doctrine has a basis in Scripture.[10]

There are many western Christians who reject the notion of original sin.  Emerson rejected it in Self-Reliance:

Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination, and the like. These never presented a practical difficulty to any man,– never darkened any man’s road, who did not go out of his way to seek them.

Albert Schweitzer writes in his book, published posthumously, The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity:

Out of the story of Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit there arose in late Judaism, and passed over into Christianity, the doctrine that this sin continues to be at work in all mankind. So long as the words of scripture still have some validity–and the words which the earliest records of Jesus give us surely stand supreme–no one ought to expect a Christian to regard this doctrine, which was unknown to Jesus, as part of the essence of the Christian faith. Christians must be allowed to think in this matter as Jesus did. Jesus gives us in his speeches an insight into the essential nature of sin which needs no elaboration in the direction of a doctrine of original sin. Belief in this dogmatic view of sin is not the same thing as grasping and experiencing the problem of guilt in all its depth.

Schweitzer recognized that Truth is not always to be expressed or accessed by the literal rendering of Biblical writings.  Sometimes the Bible points to Truths without bounding them with the limitations of language:

The expectation of the Kingdom which would come of itself was not to find actual fulfillment. For centuries Christianity looked for it in vain. It could not easily come to terms with the fact. It had to try to understand what could be learned from it. When it applied itself to the interpretation of the signs of the times, it could understand them only as meaning that it was called upon to renounce its old ideas and learn anew. The task was laid upon it of giving up its belief in the Kingdom which would come of itself and giving its devotion to the Kingdom which must be made real.

Paul the thinker recognized as the essence of the Kingdom of God which was coming into existence that it consists in the rule of the Spirit. We learn from this knowledge which comes to us through him that the way in which the coming of the Kingdom will be brought about is by the coming of Jesus Christ to rule in our hearts and through us in the whole world. In the thought of Paul the supernatural Kingdom is beginning to become the ethical and with this to change from the Kingdom to be expected into something which has to be realized. It is for us to take the road which this prospect opens up.

Joseph Campbell interprets the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as expressive of the human condition within the fields of opposites.  Christian fundamentalists, indeed mainstream Western Christianity, view that disobedience as a fatal defect which was passed from Adam and to all humanity as though it were a thing, a fatal gene.

I do not see the act of “disobedience” as representing anything more than expressing the human condition in the field of action: how does one balance self interest with the interests of others; how does one live in right relationship?  It is a metaphor for the transformation of the human heart by the Christ, God with us.  Salvation is being set free to live, not a state of being acquired by adopting “right belief.”  Salvation is one of the gifts of righteousness, i.e. living in right relationship with others and with our world, not a static state of being.

At the outset, I stated that original sin is a Western feature of Christianity.  Eastern Christianity (Greek Orthodox) did not adopt it.  Salvation is through Jesus, it would hold its, but god is merciful.  A fine distinction is drawn by Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Orthodox_Christian_theology :

Salvation, or “being saved,” therefore, refers to this process of being saved from death and corruption and the fate of hell. The Orthodox Church believes that its teachings and practices represent the true path to participation in the gifts of God. Yet, it should be understood that the Orthodox do not believe that you must be Orthodox to participate in salvation. God is merciful to all. The Orthodox believe that there is nothing that a person (Orthodox or non-Orthodox) can do to earn salvation. It is rather a gift from God. However, this gift of relationship has to be accepted by the believer, since God will not force salvation on humanity. Man is free to reject the gift of salvation continually offered by God. To be saved, man must work together with God in a synergeia whereby his entire being, including his will, effort and actions, are perfectly conformed with, and united to, the divine.

In Judaism there are some Old Testament notions that the sins of the father may be punished in succeeding generations, and that is not based upon inherited sin from Adam.  To the contrary, Ezekiel 18:20 provides, “The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.  The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

Islam holds that we are born innocent, pure; that sin is determined strictly by what we do during our lifetime, neither condemned by nature nor saved by faith without works.  The mere thought of sinful acts is not a sin: only the act.  Sin is violation of the laws of God, not a state of being.  We are judged by our deeds, and then, not by the mere fact that we have sinned, but that sin is balanced according to whether it is major or minor and the balance among them.  Nonetheless, God is merciful and sin may be forgiven upon repentance.   In fact, the Koran provides precisely to the contrary to the nature of original sin: “. . . “…man can have nothing but what he strives for” (Quran 53:38–39).  And, “Who receives guidance, receives it for his own benefit: who goes astray does so to his own loss: no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another …” (Quran 17:15)

Buddhism has no God who sits in judgment of humankind.  The Buddha is neither an incarnation of God, nor a Savior.  It shares with the other religions a deep respect for all life.  There is no place in it for either sin or original sin.  All life is marked by suffering, but it has nothing to do with punishment.

Next page: https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/preface-to-universal-truths-expressed-in-math/

Experiences of “God,” the Divine, and the Sacred: Marcus Borg

“The more”My notion of “God” tends to be vague and intellectually influenced.  More abstract than personal.  I wonder to what degree my convictions and experiences are conditioned by my infant polio experience and six month hospitalization. And yet, when I reflect on my life, I see “the hand of God at work,” and I am thankful.

I have, however, powerfully experienced the Sacred and the Divine while listening (penultimate abstraction?) to, conducting, and being absorbed by music: especially listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and conducting portions of Handel’s Messiah at St.Anselm Catholic Church, Anselmo, Nebraska with the Custer Chorale; Mark Embree and Jane Bunnel, soloists; and instrumentalist of the Hastings Symphony with Beth Cole, harpsichord.  Transcendent!

My conviction and experience of God perhaps best accords with Marcus Borg’s experience and belief as told at http://www.marcusjborg.com/2010/07/01/mystical-experiences-of-god/

Marcus Borg: Mystical Experiences of God

My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced.

These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true.

My experiences were what scholars of mysticism call “extravertive” or “eyes open” mystical experiences (the other type is “introvertive” or “eyes closed”). I saw the same visual “landscape” – a forest, a room, the inside of an airliner – that I normally see. There were no extra beings, no angels.

For a minute or two (and once for the better part of an hour), what I was seeing looked very different. Light became different – as if there were a radiance shining through everything. The biblical phrase for this is “the glory of God” – as the book of Isaiah puts it, “the earth is filled with the glory – the radiance – of God. The world was transfigured, even as it remained “the same.” And I experienced a falling away of the subject-object distinction that marks our ordinary everyday experience – that sense of being a separate self, “in here,” while the world is “out there.”

They were experiences of wonder – not of curiosity, but of what the 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel called “radical amazement.”

They were also experiences in which I felt that I was seeing more clearly than I ever had before – that what I was experiencing was “the way things are.” And they were also experiences of complete peacefulness, marked by a sense that I would love to stay in this mental state forever. Anxiety and distraction utterly disappeared. Everything looked beautiful.

When I had these experiences, I had no intellectual understanding of mysticism. Indeed, whenever I tried to read mystical writings, they seemed like gobbledy-gook. I had no idea what they were about – they were completely opaque. But after these experiences, mystical texts became luminous. I recognized in them what I had experienced.

The effect was to transform my understanding of the word “God.” I began to understand that the word does not refer to a person-like being “out there,” beyond the universe – an understanding of “God” that ceased to be persuasive in my teens and twenties.

I began to understand that the word “God” refers to “what is” experienced as wondrous and compelling, as, to use William James’ phrase, “the more” which is all around us. Or to use a phrase from the New Testament, the word “God” refers to “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). “God” is not a hypothesis, but a reality who can be known.

Thus, to argue about whether God exists seems to me to be based on a misunderstanding of what the word points to. If “God” means a person-like being “out there,” completely separate from the universe, then I am an atheist. I do not believe there is such a being. But if the word “God” points to a radiance that pervades “what is,” as I now think – then, of course, God is real. Not just the God of Christianity, but the God of all the enduring religions.

Sin and Its Consequences

Christian concepts of sin generally include sins of commission (in violations of legal or ethical prohibitions) as well as those of omission (in violation of legal or ethical commands or duties).  In my first year of college, I had a religion course with Dr. Nida.  His definition of sin has had great significance for me over the many years: “sin is anything that separates us from the love of God.”  In law school, Professor John Snowden distinguished the negative form of the law of the road, as a prohibition (“do not drive faster than 65 miles per hour”) and a positive, but open ended, command (“drive safely”).

For the Christian, as, I’m sure, with many other religions, focus is often upon omissions or violations of fine details of the law.   Jesus confronted such legalism throughout his life.  “Love and do not judge.”  “Is it not right to do good on the Sabbath?” versus “Do not be like the Pharisees, notorious ‘protectors and keepers of the law, often to the point of mere display.”  “Do not harvest food (wheat) on the Sabbath.”  He railed against any religious authority that would burden common people with technicalities, as though it were millstones about their neck.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us that the self righteous religious authorities ignored one of their own who had been beaten and left to die beside the road; it was one who was hated by their own, the Samaritan, who showed compassion for the man and took responsibility to restore him to health.  The Samaritan was the “good neighbor.” The message: be the good neighbor, even though the one that you help may hate you.

For Jesus, the core of the laws were simple: love God, and like that, love all.  In such a view, sin is the disruption of right relationships with others and with the world, as well.  To the degree that one sees the Divine in all of creation, disruption of right relationships with all life and the world that we live in is sin.

Religious Tolerance writes of the variety of Christian notions of the taint of sin at http://www.religioustolerance.org/sin_over.htm:

Most conservative Christians believe that   almost all of the Mosaic Code no longer applies to them. It was replaced by   God’s grace in the New Testament. However, many hold on to the applicability   of some of the laws, like the two condemning homosexuality in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 which   they quote often.
Sin is implied in the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule.
Sin is implied in the   analogous Ethics of   Reciprocity found in almost all other religions.

Conservative Christianity deviates little from historical Christianity on matters of sin. However, secularists and followers of present-day liberal Christianity often find their beliefs in conflict with biblical passages and traditional Christian teachings. They find many biblical passages about sin difficult to understand or comprehend; they violate modern religious and secular concepts of morality and ethics.

Christianity, and other Western religions, have historically taught that most [“unbelieving”] people will spend eternity in Hell after they die:

Because of Adam and Eve’s “original sin”   that all subsequent generations of humans have inherited from their ancestors   before birth, and/or
Because of their sinful   acts perpetrated during their life on earth.

Different Christian religions view Salvation differently. For example:

Roman Catholicism places great emphasis on   church sacraments as the main process by which a person’s sins are forgiven   and one is assured to eventually attain Heaven after death.

Most conservative   Protestant denominations have traditionally placed salvation from sin firmly   into the hands of the individual. She/he must repent of their sins and trust   Jesus as Lord and Savior in order to be saved from eternal punishment in   Hell after death. This remains a major concern, within at least the   conservative wings of most Western religions; it strongly motivates many   conservative Christians to proselytize others in order to convert them to   their belief systems.

Although there are reported accounts of “near death experiences,” there are no reports of life following after unabated physical death, in terms of organ shut down for a prolonged period, and confirmed, or significant bodily deterioration.  There was a remarkable book concerning the reality of heaven as told by a child, but its content is a matter of faith, not experientially verifiable nor subject to duplication.  We can only draw upon our human experiences to describe notions the survival of any part or essence of the individual after medically irreversible death.  Therefore, notions of what happens after death are much more varied among the major religions.  Such consequences range from physical and/or spiritual resurrection in the Latter Days, to continued life “in the people, or, as to the individual, Heaven or Hell, Purgatory, life simply ends, reincarnation with more opportunity’s to “get it right,” and, as opposed to the spirit ascending or descending to its “reward,” notions of the continued presence of the spirit of the deceased in the memories and lives of survivors. There is no way to physically confirm or disprove such notions.  One can choose how one “sees” or treats the death and loss.

For example, a member of my Sunday school class reported one Sunday that both of her parents were killed in an auto accident. She was told by mental health experts that she needed to grieve their death or it would haunt her.  She said that they were coming from a casino where they had both been successful at the games, and they were driving home when they were killed. She said she imagined them in heaven, enjoying their winnings. She was happy for them. I was somewhat confused and inquired: ” I thought you did not believe in a place called Heaven.” She responded. ” I don’t, literally. But that is the way and that I imagine them.”

Later, I was talking with a woman who tragically lost a young child in a tragic event.    Her experience of grief over the last decade has not entirely relieved the pain.  It never can.  But over the years she has transformed the tragedy with hope of reunification in the future, after her own death.  “It doesn’t really matter whether and how we are reunited.  If I am wrong, upon death I will know no different.”

This range of belief concerning the consequences of sin after death is wider among the regions, even among their sects, than any other aspect of religious concepts.  The reason is that the other concepts have some relationship to shared human experience.  For example, love, hope, estrangement, separation, reunification, atonement (at-one-ment), and forgiveness are common human experiences fundamental to human existence and human relationships.

All that we can do is ask how that belief, although unverifiable, affects the quality of our living today: does it promote our respect for life? is it conducive to courage to face life’s challenges? does it inspire love and inclusiveness?  (These latter considerations are based upon value judgments, such as, is it better to love than to hate?  Or is it better to live in the present with hope than to be shackled to the past with vengeance?

http://debatingchristianity.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=233027 represents a Jewish view of sin and its consequences:

Humans are inherently neither good nor bad; humans are just humans. All humans have an impulse toward good as well as an impulse toward evil, and that is not going to change throughout our lives. We will not magically lose the impulse toward evil through an infusion of the Holy Spirit, a Second Birth, or any other such supernatural experience. We are all doomed to remain human. Sorry about that.

Further, our job is not simply to resist the evil impulse and go with the good; for one thing, that is not humanly possible to do 100%. For another, the evil impulse is necessary to human existence. For instance, if there were no such thing as selfishness, to ANY degree, we would all be poor and homeless because we would all have given away everything we own.  If no one sought sexual gratification, humans would have been extinct before we ever got out of the caves – and maybe the trees.

It is our job to take the evil impulse and sanctify it; to turn it to the service of good. Do you ache to be famous? Be famous for doing good; be a philanthropist or a volunteer. Do you want to be rich? Get rich by inventing or discovering something that benefits everyone. Do you want power? Run for office, and do your best to serve and do good for the people who elect you. Do you crave sex? Get married to someone who feels the same way and ball your brains out; make each other happy. Do you want to be admired and looked up to and depended upon? Do the same, and have many children.

The emphasis in Judaism is on doing good, not on not doing bad. It seems to me an altogether more positive, healthier, and happier approach. One spends one’s energy looking for good things to do, not bad things to condemn.

Whereas the typical Christian feels self-assured of heaven if he or she “confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” and is “born again, (right belief), Muslim assurance is generally limited to special acts, such as martyrdom.  On the other hand there are a number of sins that will guarantee eternity in Hell.  Beyond that, there is nothing to guarantee the Muslim eternity in Heaven.  That will be decided after death on an individual basis, if the Muslim was “good enough.”

For an examination of the major world religion, in their various prominent aspects concerning sin and its consequences relating to life after death, see http://www.comparativereligion.com/salvation.html

The Tree of Life

disobedience,Genesis 2

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth[a] and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams[b] came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

. . .

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam[f] no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs[g] and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib[h] he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

Genesis 3 (NIV) “The Fall”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring[a] and hers;
he will crush[b] your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.

21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

The notion of a tree representing life is not unique to the Jewish scriptures, nor to Christian and Islamic interpretations of those scriptures.  We have discussed the concept of a tree as representing humankind’s condition of being capable of both good and evil, and with knowledge to distinguish the two.

In the second story of creation as told in Genesis 2, very is as a second tree, the fruit of which Adam it is forbidden to eat: that is the tree of life.  Mythologically, it represents the connection between the heavens, accessed by its height, and the underworld, accessed by its roots, expressed in its canopy through branches and twigs which sprout from the main trunk.

In the Power of Myth, conversations of Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell, Campbell explores the mythical implications of the second story of creation told in Genesis 2:  once Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, threatening the exclusive province of God’s wisdom and knowledge, God had to expelled them from Paradise before they ate of the Tree of Life, which would grant them full equality with God.

Whereas eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil empowers humankind as well as burdens it with the duty to make the choice between good and evil and to take the consequences for those choices, the lack of the benefits of the fruit of the Tree of Life further burdens humanity in that each man and woman’s venture into the world of space and time is limited by death.

Similar concepts of the Tree of Life are expressed in ancient myth throughout the Mesopotamian region independent of the story as told in Genesis: ancient Persia, ancient Babylon, ancient Egypt, and ancient Assyria.

Even in China there was an ancient Taoist story of a peach tree, the fruit of which would bestow immortality.  During the 1990s, archaeological diggings of a sacrificial pit revealed three bronze trees representing a scene consistent with that myth.

In 1998, when my grandmother, Ruth Bond Fitz Randolph, was expected to turn 100 years of age, the Bonds and Fitz Randolphs planned a family reunion at Camp Harley Sutton, near Alfred, New York. Her husband’s brother, Rev. Elmo Fitz Randolph, spoke at the reunion’s Sabbath worship, in which he expanded  the concept of the family tree with the notion of grafting, intended to represent marriage into the family and its enrichment of the tree and its fruits.


The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Christianity came to see the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, contrary to God’s command, as the source of “original sin,” inherited by mere issuance from Adam.  That notion has no basis in the life and teachings of Jesus.  Rather, it is rooted in the letters of Paul in his justification of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles and presentation to them of Jesus as Savior.  The name, Savior, was derived from one of the names attributed to Caesar, as was Son of God and others.  Paul had one foot in the Gentile world, and the other in the Jewish World.  From his Jewish heritage, Paul connected Jesus to the sacrificial lamb, without blemish, given as atonement for the people’s sins.

The Biblical story of Genesis is predated by a similar Babylonian story of approximately 2300 BCE.  That is represented by a cylinder seal from that time and area.

Generally, the Judaic interpretation of the story is that with the act, humankind became inclined to evil.  The medieval French rabbi, Rashi, considered the offense to be Eve’s addition to God’s command:

‘Neither shall you touch it.’ [By saying this, Eve] added to the command, and thereby came to detract [from it].  This is as written [Proverbs 30:6], ‘Do not add to his words.’

Rabbi Meir asserted that the forbidden fruit was the grape, which Noah later tried to redeem by making sacramental wine of it.  Rabbi Nechemia asserted that the fruit was a fig, and that Adam and Eve used the fig leaves to hide themselves.  Yet another asserted that the fruit was wheat.  The general Jewish interpretation is that the act of eating the fruit of that tree caused evil to mix with good.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, enlightened by learning of his time, said of original sin:

Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination and the like.

Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers speaks of the significance of the story:

. . . Without that knowledge, we’d all be a bunch of babies still in Eden, without any participation in life.  A woman brings life into the world.  Eve is the mother of this temporal world.  Formerly you had a dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden – no time, no birth, no death – no life. . . .

Campbell speaks of the historical background to the story:

There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan.  The principle divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess; and associated with a Goddess is the serpent.  This is the symbol of the mystery of life.  The male – god – oriented group rejected it.  In other words, there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden.

He explains that, according to Genesis, prior to the “Fall,” man and woman did not know that they were different from each other.

The two are just creatures.  God and man are practically the same.  God walks in the cool of the evening in the garden where they are.  And then they eat the apple, the knowledge of the opposites.  And when they discover they are different, the man and woman cover their shame.  You see, they had not thought of themselves as opposites.  Male and female is one opposition.  Another opposition is the human and God.  Good and evil is a third opposition.  The primary oppositions are the sexual and that between human beings and God.  Then comes the idea of good and evil in the world. . . .  To move out into the world, you have to act in terms of pairs of opposites.

Although Islamic sacred literature includes the story of Genesis, the Koran, itself, refers only to a tree, the fruit of which God forbade them to eat.  Because of their disobedience, they were evicted from Heaven to dwell on earth.  They repented and God forgave them.  Thereafter, those who follow in the path that God directs will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven, but those who disobey shall be punished in Hell.

Concerning the symbol of the tree in other religions, Wikipedia provides at  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life

The concept of a tree of life has been used in science, religion, philosophy, and mythology. A tree of life is a common motif in various world theologies, mythologies, and philosophies. It alludes to the interconnection of all life on our planet and serves as a metaphor for common descent in the evolutionary sense. The term tree of life may also be used as a synonym for sacred tree.[1]

The tree of knowledge, connecting to heaven and the underworld, and the tree of life, connecting all forms of creation, are both forms of the world tree or cosmic tree, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica,[2] and are portrayed in various religions and philosophies as the same tree.[3]

The following is one interesting Christian perspective of the Jewish heritage relating to this story.  It somewhat reflects Joseph Campbell’s interpretation of the story as an introduction into life a world of opposites, called “merisms.”


What is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Written by Douglas Stuart On the Tue, 2012-04-03 05:56 0 Comments

In Genesis 2:17 where you have the Garden of Eden story and God’s prohibition he says, “You can eat of any tree you want but you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” Now, I have a question. Why wouldn’t he want them to eat of that tree most of all? Wouldn’t God want them to know all about good and evil? Isn’t that just the right tree to eat from? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil—know what is good, know what is bad, be able to choose between them, right?

Actually it is misleading. Here is the situation. The knowledge of good and evil is what is called a “merism.” Let me give you some examples very quickly. In the Bible we really have a lot of merisms. A merism is an expression of totality by the mention of polarity. You mention some opposites and it implies everything in between. For example, the west and the east are used as merisms. Heaven and hell, if I ascend to heaven there you are, if I go to Sheol there you are. Does that mean that God is only at the two extremes? No, he is everywhere, that is the point. Near and far are used as merisms. “Peace to the far and peace to the near,” says the Lord. In other words peace to everybody. More examples of merisms— “going out and coming in” is a fairly common merism. “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in,” meaning the Lord will take care of everything in your life.

Then “good and evil” is actually a very common merism. It means “any kind of thing” or it means “everything.” Their idols cannot speak, cannot walk, cannot do evil, cannot do good, meaning they just cannot do anything. The knowledge of good and evil is a way of saying in Hebrew “all knowledge, knowledge of everything” and that is what God does not want people to know. If you read the story, you see that is what Satan says. He says, “Hey, he knows you will become like gods knowing everything. That is what he is trying to keep from you. Don’t you want to know everything?” Knowing everything sounds interesting. And they do and after the fall God says, he is speaking again in heaven as he often does in many places in Scripture not just Genesis, “Look they have become like one of us, they know good and evil, they know everything.” Does that mean that they actually know everything? You say, “Alright, immediately draw me a graph for the following equation.” No, it takes time to know that. The idea is that we now have more knowledge than we can morally handle. That is the point of what is emphasized here in this story.

Part of the human dilemma as a consequence of the fall is that humans have enormous knowledge of how to do bad things as well as how to do good things. The same human being that knows how to create a computer and all the bandwidth that they use for all the good communication purposes so you can get e-mail from your cousin in Mongolia also has provided a way for a vast increase in the dissemination of pornography in our age. The same skill that uses atomic energy for good makes weapons out of it. The same skill that does anything can be used for bad. Human beings, unlike hamsters and June bugs, have enormous capacity for choices; taking skills that they could use and should use for good and employing them for evil. That is part of the human dilemma. We are in trouble because we are so good at doing bad. That is, I think, the message that you are supposed to get out of this whole story about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Made in the Image of God (Imago Dei)

At a minimum, the notion of humankind made in the image of God necessarily implies the inherent worth (sacredness) of each person.

The first Biblical source of that notion is found in Genesis:

Gen 1:26–27 (NIV)

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Gen 5:1, 2

This is the written account of Adam’s family line.

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.

Gen 9:6

“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.

In Christianity, alone, there is a wide range of interpretations of “made in the image of God” ranging from humanity as a manifestation of God, more specifically, in Jesus, himself, to a notion of Trinity (either coequal or modes of manifestation of the Divine), to the notion that we are the “hands and feet of God” to “do God’s will.”  One enlightened Christian interpretation of the meaning of “created in the image of god” is expressed in the Michelangelo masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Creation of Adam.

In that the Old Testament is recognized as sacred scripture of Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity, those traditions each have their own perspective on what it means to be “created in the image of God,” not so dissimilar from the range of Christian views on various theological matters.

Hinduism recognizes the one supreme God, Brahma, to be manifest in all of nature as, creator, sustainer, and destroyer.  Some might interpret these manifestations as a Hindu counterpart of the Christian notion of Trinity.  Based upon the central belief that Brahma exists in all things, it would hold that all humanity is divine.  The Indian custom of greeting another with a bow and hands together, as though in prayer, is a customary Hindu acknowledgement of the divinity in the other.

Buddhism is unique among the world religions in that it holds no concept of God.  That view perhaps may best be described in the words of the second century CE Buddhist philosopher, Ngarjun:

We know the gods are false and have no concrete being;
Therefore the wise man believes them not
The fate of the world depends on causes and conditions
Therefore the wise man may not rely on gods.

In the secular world, some similar notions relating to the special nature of humankind are expressed in such phrases as “dignity of life” and “inalienable rights.”  Although efforts have been made to obtain a world consensus on the meaning of these and similar  phrases through the United Nations and other world bodies, their meaning remains elusive of common interpretation and implementation.

A Non-Exclusive Christianity of Universal Truths

What really is Christianity?  How does it relate to other faiths?  How is it similar or different from other religions or faith traditions?

If a Christian takes the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, literally, he or she would be hard pressed to be an inclusivist among world religions.  If a Christian does not take the Bible literally, but as a record of humankind’s perception of the sacred in the world in which we live, and of experiences of relationship with a perceived power of becoming which we call God, then it becomes possible to embrace one’s own religious traditions while still respecting the religious traditions of other cultures in other places throughout the world.  A good chaplain is trained to do this.  Just as two witnesses to the same event will see and described two different events, each from the perspective of that observer, so the experiences of the sacred or divine will also appear within the frame of the experience, intellect, reasoning and emotional life with respect to each witness.

The Christian fundamentalist or literalist has often argued that if the Bible is not literally true, and if Jesus Christ is not literally the Son of God, sacrificed for the salvation of humankind and bodily resurrected, then Christianity is a fraud.  One scripture which is used to support such a position is 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ be not raised, then your faith be useless and you are still under condemnation for your sins. If we have faith in Christ, only, in this life, then we are the most miserable people in the world.”

To take the Bible literally, as God’s own Word directly from Him to us, is, from my perspective, tantamount to a view of nature which limits all knowledge to that which appears to the senses, i.e.  from the object’s surface or exterior.  The notion that humankind was made in the image of God, Imago Dei, necessarily implies God’s activity in the lives of all people, and in the world surrounding each, whatever their religion, their faith, or their “lack thereof.”  I use the latter phrase advisedly  with reference to skeptics, agnostics and atheists: in fact, one cannot live productively without some kind of faith – at a minimum, in the physical world in which they live.  See Eric Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion.

In the posts to follow I will explore Christian concepts and principles which appear to have some  universal recognition.