For the past month, we—you, my readers and I—have gotten distracted by another synod, this 2023 version of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), which doubled down on its opposition to most if not all expressions of LGBTQ+ sexuality. It’s important to keep in mind that the synod is not the church. And the issue is not sex, not really. The issue is the gospel. What is it that we hold to? What good news have we heard in the pages of the scriptures? What freedom have we tasted in following Jesus?
It was to some of these issues that my posts prior to the synod were addressed. I raised the question: is this a confessional moment? Is it one of those moments in the history of the church, at least in our small part of the church, when it’s time to grasp the gospel anew? Perhaps even to write a new confession? Not that the gospel has changed, but our grasp of it has. The irony of our time is that in trying to preserve the gospel, we risk losing it. In repeating the same words, we convey a different message, a message of intolerance rather than love. The Spirit requires us to think and think again about what we have been given. To be Reformed means to be always about the business of reforming.
Or so I think. And I think we—the church, Christians broadly, those of us in the Reformed tradition, and for that matter, those of us who are not in the Reformed tradition—have gotten stuck. We’ve gotten stuck with a formulation of the gospel that honors neither the Bible nor Christian tradition. In an earlier post, I called it “gnostic,” as indeed it is. And it is thin gruel in a time that requires a heartier message.
As a result of getting stuck, we are fighting the wrong battles, battles over sex, for example, as if sex were uppermost in God’s mind. Meanwhile, we are missing the point about church in our age: that we are too often telling the wrong story. Or better, telling the right story but in the wrong way. If we are to bring anything of grace, anything of God, anything of Jesus to this age, we will need to find ways to tell the story that speak to our time.
The structure of the story, of course, is always the same. Every gospel, regardless of who is telling it, is some way a story about what is right about the world, what is wrong with it, and what must be done to set it right again. In theological terms, these are creation, sin, and salvation. In this essay I will focus on the second of these, sin, human evil, which seems to me to be one of places that we have gotten stuck. The story we are telling about what is wrong in our world does not begin to address the actual wrong of the world, and because we get this wrong, we also get wrong what is required to set things right.
So what is the story we tell about human evil? If you are a member of an evangelical church of any kind—I include most Reformed churches here—what comes first to mind is the story we learned in Sunday School: the story of the Garden of Eden: the fruit, the snake, and Eve’s fateful decision to eat the fruit (and Adam’s passive acceptance of it from Eve). You know the story. It’s found in Genesis 3, or so we have been taught. Only it’s not really the story that Genesis 3 tells. It’s our reading the Genesis story, a reading that owes more to later theology than to the biblical account itself. And as has become increasingly clear, this reading misdirects our understanding of what’s wrong in the world.
The problem with our reading of the Genesis story is two-fold: it fails to take account much of what we know about who we are as human beings, and it fails to engage the biblical story in any meaningful way. I’ll take these up in that order.
Begin with what we know—what we have learned since, say, the 16th century. One of the marks of the way the church has gotten stuck that we keep trying to apply 16th century analyses and answers to 21st century problems, and when these answers appear not to work, we decide that the problem is that we lack rigor: more 16th century; less 21st century. Or so, it seems, in my denomination. The prevailing narrative in churches, the idea that history is one long slide downhill, defeats us in this regard. We fail to pay attention to what we have learned about human life in the past centuries, and we have learned quite a lot.
I’ll have to be brief here, not only because this discussion could easily swell to the size of a book but because it’s not my remit. There are others who know much more than I do about these matters. Allow me in the interest of sketching out what I have in mind just three brief suggestions about what we have learned and are learning about human nature in our time—things that any view of what is wrong in our world should take into account.
The first is the genealogy of human nature. It’s important to consider not only that human beings are prone to get things wrong but how we get things wrong. Evolutionary science accompanied by the decipherment of the genetic code has taught us that we share much in common with other animals. Our genes tell a story. Or several stories. They tell stories about our origins, and lately that story has become more complicated. Scientists have identified several species of humans who at one time coexisted. We carry genes not only from our own species, homo sapiens, but from other species like the Neanderthals. What’s more, we carry genes from the more distant past. We share something like 95% of our genes with chimpanzees, for example. These genes represent adaptations to a life that was very different from the life we now live.
The story our genes tell is in some respects the reverse of the story told in the church. In the church, we start with perfectly formed human beings (Adam and Eve) who by dint of a single decision lose their perfection. The movement is from good to bad. But in the story told by our genes, we emerge gradually and imperfectly from our ancestral line. And all that history remains in our genes, often causing us to act in ways that are dysfunctional, even if they may have been helpful in earlier times.
There’s more to be said about this, quite obviously, but let me move on to a second related area: advances in the study of human behavior. It has increasingly become clear that the way we react in many situations is less a matter of what we consciously decide and more a matter of predispositions. Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. The elephant represents our predispositions—predispositions resulting from a combination of evolution, culture, and experience. The rider is our conscious mind. When we encounter a new situation, it’s the elephant, Haidt tells us, that reacts first, slouching in one direction or another, manifesting fear or disgust or some other emotion, and prompting us to act in certain ways. The job of the rider, the conscious mind, is to rationalize what the elephant has already decided. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but the point is valid: most of the time it’s not the rider who is in charge; it’s the elephant.
For this reason, the moral life is often at war with our predispositions. We come with propensities to racism, sexism, and homophobia, among other less than laudable tendencies. Any account of what goes wrong in human life must consider the ways in which what we do is not what we choose but how we are wired.
The third issue has to do with the human capacity to deal with complexity. Our world has gotten more complex, and with that complexity the problems faced by humans are exponentially greater. Global warming, modern warfare with the threat of nuclear weapons, the refugee crisis, global economics, genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence, and more—these are problems and issues vast in scale that require for their solution and regulation global cooperation, but global cooperation is difficult if not impossible to secure. We have created not a single Frankenstein’s monster but a dozen, and they are rampant in our world.
None of these things are evil in themselves, but rather occasions for evil. Evil results from them. Not just from our choices but from our inability to deal with the world in ways that bring life instead of death. Perhaps you are thinking that this doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are collectively guilty before God—fallen in that very different sense—and therefore deserving of eternal punishment. By these lights the gospel does not address our life now so much as life after death. Our faith is not for this world but for the next. And if this is true, then getting things right in this world doesn’t really matter much. And thus, by degrees the church steps away from this world, from its cares and concerns. It substitutes an odd guilt before God (can anyone really believe that eating the wrong fruit in a garden would cause a loving God to curse his creation forever?) for what is actually going wrong in our world. And for what is going right. And thus salvation in this scheme becomes escape, escape not to human life but from it.
The church is forever sliding off into this otherworldly gospel. But this gospel is of not Jesus or of the Bible or of the best of Christian tradition. And many Christians, perhaps most Christians, are better than this theology. They—we—care about this world, about the earth, about neighbors, about life. And not just life in the abstract sense but the joys of human life, of music and art and dance and love, the fabric and the fragrance of life together. We care. We love life.
And so does the Bible. The story with which we began, the story told at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 2-3, is a story that ultimately celebrates human life. It’s not a story about a fall but a story about a choice—a fateful and fraught choice. It’s a story about what it means to be human. It’s a story with which to wrestle and ponder. Let’s turn to that story.
Note first where the story begins. It does not begin with the finished product, with perfection. It begins in process. Not long after Yhwh God (a way of referring to God particular to this passage) forms the first human (the ‘ādām, not yet gendered nor named) Yhwh God says, “It is not good for the human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). “It’s not good.” This is an account of humanity in the process of becoming. In that sense, it’s evolutionary.
In reading this passage we are often distracted by the first chapter of Genesis (actually Genesis 1:1-2:3). Because they come in this order we have read Genesis 2 in the light of Genesis 1. In Genesis 1, creation concludes with God observing that “It was very good” (1:31), “good” here not moral good but appreciation. I’ve quite liked John Walton’s observation that in Genesis 1 God acts like someone building a house. As each phase of the house is completed, God, the new homeowner, says of the construction, yes, this is good. And at the end looking at the completed project, God says, yes, yes, I can live here.
But better the observation of Gregory of Nyssa that Genesis 1 points not to the past but to the future. This is creation as God intends it to be. This God looking beyond where we are now to what one day creation will be. But before we get there, we need to come down the ground, which is where the story in Genesis 2 begins: with dust and breath. Dust of the earth, breath of God. These are not body and soul, as they often been taken. These are substance—what we are made of, dust, DNA—and relationship. We are formed of the dust; we are called into human life by the breath of God.
But who are we really? Where do we belong? Do we belong to earth, to dust, to the animals? Or do we belong to heaven, the divine world, to that which does not decay and die? It’s these questions that the story pushes forward. The story presents two possibilities, represented by two trees: the one, the tree of life; the other, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You can have one, the Lord God says, but not both. Choose life, and you will forgo the knowledge of good and evil; choose the knowledge of good and evil, and you will forgo life.
This choice is sometimes presented as an arbitrary command from Yhwh God—a test of human obedience. If this were the case, God would prove a foolish parent, for what parent with any sort of wisdom would say to a child: you can eat anything except that wonderful fruit over there? And what child would not want to taste what had been forbidden? But this is not what the story is about. It’s not about obedience but about the choice at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s the choice made not only by our ancient ancestors but by everyone of us.
Human life is defined by two things: knowledge of good and evil and death. Take knowledge first. The story never tells us what this knowledge means, but it drops hints. It hints at sexual awareness. After eating the fruit the couple come to know that they are naked. It hints at a broader sense of coming of age. It’s when we come of age that we become aware of ourselves as individuals and that, as individuals, we will die. But it’s more than that. It’s the ability to envision these things: good and ill, what we want and what we fear, life and death. It’s the capacity at the heart of telling stories. It is this capacity that sets us aside from the animals. Animals don’t tell stories.
And, yes, with this capacity comes the shadow of death. We are by definition finite. In antiquity to belong to the divine world would mean that we would live forever, but then we would not be human—not really. There is another story in something of the same genre, perhaps older, told in ancient Mesopotamia about the sage Adapa. It’s a story about what would happen if we were to have both the knowledge of good and evil and life. Adapa, who by the power of his magic has broken the wing of the south wind, is summoned to appear in heaven before Anu, the high god. He is told by his mentor god, Ea, that he should not eat anything in heaven. When he appears before Anu, Anu presents him with food, but Adapa refuses it as Ea had counseled him to do. When he does, Anu says something like: Too bad. If you had eaten the food, you would have lived forever, but now you must return to the earth to die.
Interpreters often suggest that Ea gave Adapa bad advice, but I don’t think so. What Ea, the Mesopotamian God of wisdom, realizes is that if Adapa had eaten the food, he would have become divine (see what the snake says to Eve), and in becoming divine he would have lost the most precious thing of all: his humanity. Take away death, and human life is no longer human life.
This is the space we occupy in creation. We are the creatures who know good and evil. We live and we die. The story in Genesis 2-3 would have us ponder what it means to live in this space. What does it mean to live with both that kind of knowledge and with death? The rest of the story works a bit of that out. God drives them out of the garden, not so much, it seems to me, out of punishment as out of protection.
I’ll not say more here, although there is much more to say. The story is deep and consequential. It requires repeated reflection. But allow me to offer a small suggestion for how we might begin to understand the story, a suggestion first made, as far as I know, by the great early 2nd century Christian theologian Irenaeus. Irenaeus suggested that the problem with the human race is that we are not yet fully formed. We are immature. We remain in process. We are still on the way to becoming human. This fits with the Genesis story.
And because we are not fully formed, like teenagers we have capacities that are too much for us to handle. What Jesus does in part, Irenaeus suggests, is teach us how to be human. He points the way towards maturity. This way of construing the gospel puts the emphasis on practice, not on theology. We become Christians not so much by believing certain things about Jesus but by following his way, his pattern of life.
And this in turn begins to address the issues that I raised earlier. If we are indeed creatures with knowledge too great for us, immature, on the way to being human but not fully formed, then what is required first of all is the way of cross. We live well when we live for others. The way of the cross is the way for creatures whose capacities exceed their ability to make the right judgments.
There is much to be explored here. What does it mean to live the way of the cross, the way of Jesus? But I suspect that if we put the way of Jesus at the center of our collective life in the church, we will be less stuck on things like sexuality. We will be known not so much for our opinions as for our compassion, which is in fact how the early church was known. What recommended the church to the Roman world was not its theology so much as its fearless love.
But all of that is to go beyond where I am able to go in this piece. I began by saying that the church has gotten stuck. It’s gotten stuck because it too often puts itself in the declarative mode when it should be in the interrogative mode. Often as not the scriptures themselves invite us into just such reflection. Genesis 2-3 is a case in point. It invites to reflect on what is means to be human. It puts to us questions rather than dogmatic answers.
And perhaps that also should be at the center of our task: to invite others to join us in reflecting on such matters. And to do so in the light of all we know and all we do not know. To tell the ancient stories and in them find the light of a knowledge greater than ourselves. And in that knowledge to find a way forward before it is too late.