Eden – Where it all went wrong, theologically
Preacher: Jayne Ozanne
Readings: Genesis 3:1-19; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 5:16-21
I lost my cat a few weeks ago – which has rather turned my world upside down. If you’ve ever lost an animal, you’ll know the heart wrenching journey it takes you on – the worst thing is the not knowing…not knowing if he’s trapped or hurt or just lost. Wondering if and when you might ever see him again. Wondering when you should stop looking. Heaven knows what it must be like to lose a child, as the parents of Madeleine McCann and sadly countless others have done. To be honest, though, Oscar is like a child to me, given I live on my own, and so the pain has been very real.
I must admit it’s really rocked my faith too; and taken me to a very dark place.
I know lots of people have kindly said they’re praying – but it all seems rather futile. I mean surely there aren’t a magic number of prayers that are needed for God to suddenly hear our cries and choose to intervene? Surely there’s not a magic set of words that will mean Oscar suddenly jumps through my cat flap again. Why do some prayers get answered and others don’t? Why does God allow this suffering? If God is omnipotent and omnipresent – why can’t He (or She) do something?
Where is God in the Dark?
Ironically, a few months ago I asked a senior clergyman who I trust and respect, if he could help me “go back to basics” and look again at some of the basic tenets of my faith. We joked that this was like a “Post-Alpha” course, one that you could only do after having been buffeted and bruised by life, and found old answers wanting.
At the time I wanted to go back and look again at things like:
“Why does God allow suffering? If He is there in the midst, why doesn’t He stop it?”
“Why should I bother to pray, if God is going to do what He is going to do anyway?!”
“Indeed, why should I bother praying for healing, when so many people remain ill and sadly die (or starve, or can’t cope – you fill in the line)?
If I’m honest, I no longer buy the following platitudes said by well-meaning Christians, but which can belittle the real trauma people are going through:
“Don’t worry, this terrible thing might have happened, but God will use it for good.” or
“Ah yes, I know just how you feel (no you don’t, you can’t possibly know what I’m feeling!) and what’s more, Christ has been there too (really, did he lose His cat?)”
You know, those who want to pretend that it’s all “jolly hockey sticks” and that all we need to do is remember that “heaven will one day be better”.
No, now I want real answers, not platitudes.
I must admit that I was surprised – and somewhat relieved – to learn that my learned friend, seemed to have just as many questions as I did. In fact, we both really enjoyed being open about the fact that there were things that we still just did not understand. My friend asked if he could send me a book which he had recently read, and I nervously agreed (as I sadly have little time to read these days). I took it away with me on retreat and have found it so raw, true and beautiful, that I found myself shouting “yes” on nearly every page. It is called “God in the Dark” by Peter Longson and I highly recommend it.
It has stretched and challenged my thinking, perhaps most significantly over my understanding of what is arguably one of the most fundamental teachings that I have taken for granted as a Christian. “The Doctrine of The Fall” – as set out in Genesis 3, which we’ve just heard read to us. It’s a key passage from which so much subsequent teaching derives, not least the belief – still held by many – that LGBT+ people are sinful and should be healed, or at least refrain from loving someone as their “unnatural” desires are a product of ‘The Fall’.
The first thing to note, however, is that nowhere – not in this passage, nor anywhere else in Scripture for that matter – is this infamous event in the garden called ‘The Fall’. That was a name given to it by the early church father Augustine of Hippo, although it comes hand in hand with the doctrine of “original sin”, which was first discussed by Irenaeus a hundred years or so earlier. In a nutshell, this teaching basically suggests that all was once perfect in the Garden of Eden until Adam ate an apple (because Eve told him to, egged on by a speaking snake who we assume is the devil) and then everything went wrong from then on. I have heard many differing sermons on this passage – some have used it to explain headship arguments, others have focused on the curses saying that now we are redeemed by Christ we are no longer subject to these curses and should therefore be free from them (which includes believing that women should no longer have problems in childbirth).
In his book Peter Longson tries to summarise what is viewed as typical evangelical teaching by referring to passages from a book by the Revd Dr Mike Lloyd, Principal of Wycliffe College, Oxford, entitled Café Theology. Sadly, I haven’t got time to go into this into too much detail, but he certainly encapsulates my old “evangelical take” on all of this, which put simply (and I’m afraid I’m missing a lot out) says:
Firstly, that there is a huge gulf between how we see the world to be, and how we sense it could and should be…The Fall is the story of how that gap opened up.
Secondly, that Evil, suffering and death have no right place in God’s world – they are not part of his original purposes, meaning we have an ethical duty to try and remove them from his world. And thirdly, Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God affected their relationship with Him and each other but also with the natural order.
Peter argues that this teaching leads us to two areas of thought. “The first is an appeal to a pre-Fall world in which everything in the garden was lovely, with the implication that the created order we now see is not the one envisaged by the creator. The other…is a particular view of the “meaning” of the cross and the resurrection, which…is of little help to those whose starting point is woundedness or bewilderment (such as after a personal tragedy, like my losing Oscar), rather than an overwhelming sense of personal guilt (which is what many evangelists focus on).”
Peter goes on to explain why this is all so important, saying “A theory of creation that says ‘the universe as we know it is so far out of kilter with God’s intention that it shows nothing of His character, or His way of working’ will directly influence what we feel we can say about the cross ….If we misunderstand the nature of the created order, we will misunderstand the nature and activity of its creator and ..redeemer.”
Put far more simply: life is messy and, I believe, was always going to be! You’ll have to read his book to understand all the reasons he gives, but in a nutshell, he puts forward a different narrative to the one that says “that Christ came to put things back to how they were allegedly “meant to be” (such as us all being straight, cis-gendered, able bodied – I could go on). Instead he suggests that “Christ did not come to initiate a return to Plan A. Rather there is a Part One and a Part Two. For now, life does indeed come from death – that is how it works in Part One, and how it was always meant to. The last action in Part One, before the Prelude to Part Two (where we now find ourselves) is the death of Christ. And the resurrection is the first – and only – evidence we have that in Part Two there will be a change to the way everything works; a new kind of physicality”. For as St Paul reminds us in our New Testament reading from Corinthians, we are promised a “new heaven” and “a new earth”.
But I fear I go too fast. I’m trying to cover a major theological topic in minutes. The critical take out is this. Jesus never referred to what happened in Genesis 3 as ‘The Fall’, indeed nobody in Scripture does. Instead, what we need to grasp is that we have a Creator God whose method of creation is to create us with the natural ability to make mistakes, so that we are neither robots nor perfect clones nor automatons. I know we probably all know that, but I’m encouraging us to look again at what this really means. The way the world has been made, ordered, brought into being with life and death built into it. It is how our whole ecosystem exists, indeed how our world – even our universe – was made. It was not made as something perfect that then all went wrong after “The Fall”. We are created “perfectly imperfect” – on purpose, by design. That was the plan from the start!
What is more, our God enters into this messiness, this imperfection with us – for our God is not apart, not distant, not aloof, nor static. Scripture shows us that our God constantly responds to situations that we face, such as our losing our loved ones, He enters into all the mess and dirt and darkness that we find ourselves in, and ultimately redeems it – for that is what Christ did for us “on the cross”.
That is the promise that King David lays out for us in the psalm set for today – Psalm 23. A psalm that has brought comfort and succour to millions throughout history, which clearly states that whilst we will all have our “dark valleys” to get through, God’s promise is to walk with us. That His perfect love will surround us, and He will be present in our suffering.
I appreciate, I have covered a lot of ground. What I hope you will resonate with is the need for us to sometimes “go back to basics” and examine certain things, even age-old doctrines, that we may have taken for granted. The most important of which, I believe, is that concerning the creation story and how we have been created by our Creator God. I believe it was always His design to create us “perfectly imperfect” in order to allow us to be unique and free. Our quest on earth is to be holy – although as Nadia Bolz Weber is keen to point out in her book, Shameless, purity is not the same as holiness. This is another “basic doctrine” that needs revisiting – for holiness is the union we experience with one another and with God, whilst purity is about separation from and frequently leads to pride or despair.
For now, let us remember then that God’s plan was never for us to “go back” to being in some “perfect pre-Fall state”, but instead to enter – through what Christ has done for us on the cross – into a “new creation”. That is what St Paul sets out for us in our passage from 2 Corinthians. In the meantime, whilst we are here in this imperfect world, with life and death built into it, God’s promise is not that we will avoid dark valleys, but that He will always walk with us through them, and bring us through into the promise of a new day. Hallelujah!