Are we “fallen”? Is there something really flawed and ruined about humanity? Do we need “saving”? Some theological perspectives would answer “yes” to these questions, or ones like them. In that sort of a theology, usually Jesus’ death is seen as the salvific act, the death is a necessary sacrifice, a good thing. I approach a perspective like that with extreme caution, even suspicion. What does it do to our collective psyche if some human deaths and suffering are necessary or “good”? I don’t like the implications of accepting the pain and sacrifice of another too blithely.
But we do need to grapple with understandings about our own nature and about who God is. These questions seem to me to go back to today’s first reading.
In the first reading Adam has sinned by listening to the “woman” who listened to the animal. He has embarked on a human pattern of othering any part of himself that causes him shame. He is hiding away from God, afraid and conscious of his own nakedness. Nakedness has ceased to be an innocent state, he needs a barrier between himself and the environment. Incidentally this is the first “nudey-rudey” self-shaming episode that many children internalise as parents battle them out of embarrassing habits.
God in this reading accepts Adam’s assertion that it was “the woman’s” fault and her assertion in turn blaming the serpent. God appears to be sanctifying the hierarchy we know so well. What is going on here? Why would an all-knowing and all-loving God create humans with not only the capacity but the yearning to “fall” in this way? Why give “Adam” such a flawed companion? Why allow the serpent to speak? The idealised “perfection” of Eden thus becomes reconstituted as a death-trap. Some theologies hold that God planned it all that way to make Jesus’ saving act all the more spectacular.
This also is problematic.
Let’s assume that God set up the fall and the resultant disconnection in order to make necessary and meaningful horrific violence and abuse many centuries later. At this point I can see some sense in the mocking atheists, the “spaghetti monster” people etc. If I understand my faith this way it does seem violent and compassionless. If I understand myself as so “fallen” I can see a need to repress my own emotions, my own impulses, my own over-loud heart.
I grew up with a faith related to that, and it didn’t do me much good.
But outside of this pericope, Genesis also tells us that we are made in God’s image. There must be some inherent beauty and goodness (ie grace) in our identity, whatever about “original sin”. How can we be made in God’s image and yet made only to fall and be fragmented and driven asunder? How can we be made in God’s image, yet in our very nature demand and need the violent death of another? What is “God” then?
Last week I mentioned George Monbiot’s assertion that human beings are intrinsically altruistic. While the bible does not specifically say so, this idea fits with many biblical stories and thoughts. It fits with the idea that we are made in God’s image. It fits with the idea that God loves us (why would God love the irretrievably fallen?). It fits with Jesus’ tendency to spread food and wine and joy together with his wisdom; to spread healing together with forgiveness; to spread love and hope in the world. To take blame and judgement as the main products of our faith is to miss the point.
“Out of my depths” of yearning to be more than some narrative of “fall”, I pass through the psalm where all things are redeemable into the second reading. Like the author of the second reading “I believe therefore I speak”. I may be wrong in what I say, but my theologising comes from a position of faith- my faith in God is important enough for me to have made this commitment. I am called to put in the hard work every week and write something, sometimes also to preach it. I often fail at this and other vocations in my life, but I also often break it into small enough steps to succeed at some of it.
There is more than fallenness and passivity and waiting in my relationship to God. I sweat real sweat of hard work over the computer each week. I shake with real anxiety when I stand up before people to preach. My collaboration with God is imperfect because I am a still growing-toward God little unfinished image, not because I am completely without hope and “fallen”. I sin less (I believe) when I think about what I am doing, when I focus my motivations on others (particularly on God) and when I make an effort. It is very easy to slide into all sorts of unhealthy relationships with myself, others, food, money, work and leisure. While I can’t make myself perfect through an act of will, or a decision or even through hard work I can make myself better or worse by trying or not. I need God sure, but God also requires of me a commitment of will and effort.
Seems like I am in a more complicated relationship with God than merely “fallen” or “saved”, each day I make choices (some without noticing) about who to be and how to be. I am like the babies I work with, I sometimes over-reach and other times I am tired or lazy or angry and do not try enough. I am human. I am flawed. I am imperfect. But I am intrinsically good.
I am made in God’s image.
The gospel cautions us against sin against the Holy Spirit. This is a debated text, but for an every-day reading I like to reflect on who the Holy Spirit is and where we encounter her? In the context of the reading, the Holy Spirit is to be encountered in Jesus who therefore should not be mocked or dismissed. We know from Jesus that we find him (therefore also the Holy Spirit) in our neighbour.
We are called to look for traces of good in each other and to recognise and honour the Holy Spirit in all. Are we willing to see these traces in our Muslim neighbour? In our lesbian neighbour? In our politician neighbour? In our militant vegan neighbour? In our private-school educated neighbour? What about the noisy child? The strangely dressed or pierced teenager? The overly talkative old neighbour? We are all made in the image of God and the good things we do (however fleeting or however consistent) all come from God’s Spirit. God’s creation cannot fail to have goodness at its core.
It is a denial of God’s spirit to dehumanise others, even others we disapprove of or disagree with. It is a denial of God’s spirit to be so cynical about humanity that we advocate violence or nihilism. It is a denial of God’s spirit to only value animals, plants or rocks only by how much money we can extract from what we do with them. Are these ways of thinking unforgiveable? I hope not. I hope God’s Spirit dwells so tangled and burrowed deep into our DNA that it is impossible to completely de-Spirit us.
That is what I hope, but Jesus DOES caution us not to be too small-minded to recognise and honour the Holy Spirit. If we mock Jesus, or if we mock those who have hope and idealism then we are doing a dangerous thing to our souls. Perhaps it’s not about getting our theology or our creed right in the end, it is about getting our relationship right.
Because if we manage to live according to the Holy Spirit- for a moment or a lifetime then we ARE Jesus’ family. That is what we are made for and always called back to as human beings, as earthlings. Let us pray that we know and do the will of God. Let us trust in God, our souls trusting in God’s Word. Let us love generously, recognising the family resemblance in all creation.