God makes Adam and Eve, places them in the garden, and tells them not to eat from the tree of knowledge. They screw up. God kicks them out to spend their lives toiling the fields and suffering in childbirth. To this day we bear Adam’s curse—our inclination toward evil.
Or at least that’s the story most of us know, and rebel against accordingly. At the Re-Imagining, the feminist theological revival that happened in the nineties, women proudly chomped on apples as a symbol of their willful embrace of knowledge. Liberal Christians reject the doctrine of original sin, replacing it with Matthew Fox’s “original blessing.” All of us Christians struggle to overcome millennia of unnecessary shame about human nakedness. There’s even a movement to reinstate the good reputation of snakes.
The story of Adam and Eve is so problematic and has been so soundly refuted, most of us call it quaint and shelve it.
So imagine my surprise when Thomas Merton, whose theological and mystical teachings I greatly admire, takes Adam seriously. His reading of this archetypal story is so fresh I can barely wrap my mind around it:
After Adam had passed through the center of himself and emerged on the other side to escape from God by putting himself between himself and God, he had mentally reconstructed the whole universe in his own image and likeness. That is the painful and useless labor which has been inherited by his descendants—the labor of science without wisdom; the mental toil that pieces together fragments that never manage to coalesce in one completely integrated whole: the labor of action without contemplation, that never ends in peace or satisfaction, since no task is finished without opening the way to ten more tasks that have to be done.
To Merton, sin isn’t a moral failing; it’s the false self we construct and sustain. As James Finley describes Merton’s thought, “Sin is a fundamental stance of wanting to be what we are not. Sin is thus an orientation to falsity.” The path back to the garden follows Adam’s journey in reverse, away from our attachment to false constructs back through the center of our soul toward God.
While I utterly reject the notion that I was born a sinner, I struggle daily with the falseness that masks what I’m sure is my real essence. I know that frantic, fruitless scrambling for a sense of my place in the world. I’m going to need some time mucking around Merton’s Eden before I get it, but I have a hunch he’s on to something. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
One last spiritual memoir writing session at Wisdom Ways before our summer break: This Friday from 1:30-3:30. We’ll “unearth the truth” in memoir together. Please join me!