Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up

Defining sin, of course, is a favorite Christian pastime, coming in a close third after macrame and Salem-style barbeque. We're all sure we know what it is, and we're all double extra sure plus to let all the sinners around us know that we know.

As the caricature would have it, Christians fall into two distinct camps on the subject. On the one hand, you have progressive, social justice, organic Guatemalan llama's milk Christians. For them, sin is primarily a corporate thing, something systemic and thus a bit on the amorphous side.

On the other, you have the fundamentalist, bible-believing, it's either Jesus or H-E-double-toothpicks Christians. For them, sin is primarily a personal thing, something to do with your own walk with God and whether or not you've had your altar-call card punched enough times.

That's the caricature, anyway.

But the Christian view of sin isn't just about our collective injustices or our individual moral failings. Sin isn't a particular behavior or pattern of behaviors, but something somehow integral to the human condition. Scripturally, sin begins before the word sin is ever used.

It starts, of course, at the beginning, so to the beginning we must go.

So we traipse back to the beginning, to our two stories of creation. Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3—the ancient priestly story of creation, told as part of the temple liturgies—is all about the goodness and power of God. God makes and affirms all of creation as good, and while one Hebrew text includes a caveat in Genesis 1:31 that specifically excludes Howard Stern, scholars are divided on the authenticity of that codex.

It’s in Genesis 2:4, with the beginning of the second story of creation, that we see scripture’s explanation of why God’s good works seem so freakin’ messed up. It’s the story of the Garden and the Fall, even more ancient than the priestly tale, a story that would have been told and retold around the campfires of the nomadic Abiru peoples. Here, God isn’t towering and glorious, spoken of in rhythmic liturgical cant. He is close, intimate, One who walks through the garden at the cool of the day. He creates the ‘adam, meaning “creature of earth,” not through a divine command, but with hands crusted with the loam of the earth and the warm life of his breath. He sets him in the garden to care for it in all of its goodness, warning him only to stay away from the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

When the ‘adam needs a helpmate, God creates the ‘adamah, (the feminine form of adam) and things are briefly hunky dory. Then comes the passage that bugs the bejabbers out of every committed herpetologist.

The serpent—not Satan, that’s a later theological construction--arrives, and settles down to chat with the adamah. Interestingly, the snake doesn’t actually ever say anything that isn’t technically true, nor does it tell the adamah directly that she should eat from the tree of good and evil. It poses one question: What may you eat? Then it truthfully tells the adamah that the fruit won’t kill her (not right away, anyway), but will give her the knowledge of good and evil, just like God. So she chows down, and the adam, who’s been standing around the whole time listening in, eats too. Boom. There we have the root of sin.

But what is that sin? Is sin a flaw in how we are made, in the bodies that God knitted together from dust and breath? Or is sin something wrong with our minds, more a matter of our will?