Sunday, February 26, 2023

Original Sin

     Today is the first Sunday of Lent. As is becoming my usual practice, attending Mass in a language that mostly goes over my head, I spent the homily in my own meditation on the Scripture readings. This time, just the first reading, which is Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7. The first sin, the sin of Adam and Eve in partaking of the only fruit that had been forbidden to them in the whole Garden of Eden: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The sin is disobedience, or presumption, or trying to usurp God's place and be (as the serpent said) "like gods." 

    But why does God forbid them to eat of that fruit? I mean, leaving aside the question of why God would plant that tree there, right in the center of the garden, why wave temptation in their faces and then forbid them to touch it. Leaving that aside, why would God not want them to have the knowledge of good and evil? It seems so baffling, so counter-intuitive. Isn't that basic human formation, what parents try to teach their children and religious leaders their congregations? What is this allegory really all about?

    The fun thing about biblical allegories is that they can be about lots of different things. The whole point of lectio divina, or meditating on the Scriptures, is that there are always so many new things the same old story can say to the reader. This story of Adam and Eve, the serpent and the fruit tree, is thousands of years old. It's very unlikely that I'm the first one to think of this, but it's the first time I've looked at it from this particular angle, so maybe it will be fresh to you, too.

    So I think, what do we actually do with this knowledge of good and evil? How do we use it? It seems so obvious that knowledge is the basis for choosing good and rejecting evil. But stop a minute, and reflect. Is that actually so? I mean, in practice, in our lives. No ... it is not so, is it? We do or fail to do all kinds of things every day, often contrary to our highest concepts of what is right and what is wrong. 

    Even St. Paul talked about how he struggled with doing the evil he wanted not to do, and failing to do the good he did want to do. Every single one of us is guilty of violating our own standards of right and wrong. Not only that, but our minds are capable of coming up with plausible (at least to us, at least in the moment) justifications for whatever we want to do. 

    Because "whatever we want to do" is the key, really, to motivation: we are motivated by emotion, and not by cognition. Fundamentally, we are motivated by desire and aversion. I want this, I like this, I take pleasure in this; I don't want that, I hate that, that is unpleasant or distressing. Cognition comes in before, insofar as our desire and aversion are shaped largely by ignorance and distorted thinking; and it comes in after, to justify our past actions and emotions. But it is not our rational minds that actually motivate our good or bad moral choices. 

    We think that the knowledge of good and evil is an objective good for human beings to have. But if it doesn't motivate us to choose good over evil in practice, there is something it does drive us to: to judge. We use that knowledge of right and wrong and we judge the hell out of each other, and out of ourselves, too. Adam and Eve's first reaction was to judge their own nakedness and cover it up in front of God. Their second was to pass the blame to someone else: Adam to Eve, Eve to the serpent. 

    Even as I sat in church thinking about these things this morning, I was engaging in furious judgment of a man across the aisle. He was leaving his wife alone to try to keep their two small boys under control, as if they had nothing to do with him, as if it was clearly more important for him to be allowed to focus serenely on the altar and it was her job to prevent him from being bothered by the children. She looked pretty furious, too. 

    Of course, that's what I saw ... but who knows what actually happened? He might have offered to stay home with the kids, and she insisted they were old enough to keep quiet and still. He might have been sitting there in church resisting a strong temptation to grab the boys and go outside and play with them until Mass ended, inwardly embarrassed at how much of a misogynist jerk he looked like, so that Mom would have to accept the reality that she was expecting too much of such little kids in the first place. I dunno. There could have been 1,000 different scenarios other than the one that looked so obvious.

    The point is, I was sitting there judging the heck out of that man, right in between meditating on how the knowledge of good and evil doesn't motivate us to do good and reject evil ... it only causes us to judge. I was aware of the irony. 

    So if our actions are motivated more by emotion than by thinking, then what? Thinking is twisted to justify whatever we want, and feelings are volatile and unreliable. Neither one, at least by itself, is a very useful driver for living good and holy lives. What then?

    There is a third guide, at a deeper, more stable level than either emotion or intellect. For me, that is the "voice of God" (although it certainly is not a voice). Glennon Doyle calls it the "Inner Knowing." Some call it "gut feeling," or the Universe, or the Dharma, or Brahman, or their deepest, most authentic Self. It's intuition, or in any case it is accessed by intuition, by any other name, in any other framework of meaning. And it can be cultivated through meditation or any kind of mindfulness practice. 

    My own tradition uses tools such as lectio divina, prayer, meditation, frequent examination of conscience and manifestation of thoughts, willingness to be taught by someone more advanced in the spiritual or ascetic life. Disciplines like fasting, silence, obedience, also give us practice in becoming mindful of the possibility of a gap between impulse and reaction. 

    It is in that gap alone that we are able to choose responsibly between right and wrong. Not by rational decision alone, not by desire or aversion alone, but by stepping back and allowing that third thing -- intuition, inner knowing, gut feeling, the Holy Spirit -- to direct us. That is where true conscience lies. That is integrity.

    It's harder to be led by Spirit than by Thought or Feeling. It happens at a deeper level, requires pausing, requires time and practice and humility. Committing to it is hard, but it is the pathway to a much better, more fulfilling, richer life. 

    The sin of Adam and Eve was to take the false shortcut. They were tempted to go the easy way to knowledge of good and evil. But all it got them, and all it gets us, is enough knowledge to judge ourselves and each other for falling short. It didn't get them, and doesn't get us, the ability to live by that knowledge in practice. For that, we need to return to the Source, to the Spirit, to do the work of mindfulness, of detaching from fleeting thoughts, desires and aversions. To settle our spirits in silence and stillness, and let the voice of God (by any other name) lead us through the moral obstacle course of everyday life.

%%%%%  PEACE  %%%%%

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