Text: Genesis 2 and 3 (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden)
Do you ever have dreams in which you realize to your horror that you’re walking down the street naked? I do. Dreams like this remind me of my fears of exposure and shame.
Today’s reading from the second and third chapters of Genesis bring such dreams to mind. When Adam and Eve are created, they walk naked in the Garden of Eden with no more shame than that of any other creature. But after they eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they feel shame and try to hide their nakedness with fig leaves.
Feeling shame signals when we have crossed a boundary. It reminds us of cultural norms, like not going naked in public, and ethical norms, like not lying.
The story of the Garden implies that knowing right from wrong is a prerequisite for feeling shame. Morality requires a certain level of intelligence, personal mastery, and social learning. For this reason, morality only applies to those who have reached “the age of reason.”
Of course, many other things besides shame can be found in the story of the Garden of Eden. It is the second of two creation stories told in Genesis. Sixteen hundred years ago, the theologian Augustine based his doctrine of Original Sin on it. It has been used for centuries to enforce rigid sex and gender roles and male supremacy.
I am struck by how different this creation story is from the one in the first chapter of Genesis. In that story, God is denoted by the Hebrew word “Elohim” and not the word YHWH used in Genesis 2 and 3.
Elohim creates the heavens, earth, birds, animals, and humans over six days and in that order. In contrast, YHWH creates Adam first and then stumbles as he tries to make a companion for him. Adam patiently names all the birds and beasts that YHWH makes even as he rejects each one as a life-companion.
This and other parts of the story might seem silly. But I appreciate how — in a dream-like way — they reflect some central dilemmas: the tension between our animal- and our spiritual-sides; the necessity of toil; and connections between intelligence and the moral choices that confront us as we grow up.
Besides shame, the story of the Garden of Eden hinges on other emotions — loneliness when Adam is the only human; compassion when YHWH finally creates a suitable companion for him; desire when Adam and Eve first meet; curiosity when Adam and Eve succumb to the snake’s temptation; and anger when God punishes their disobedience. But shame is the only one of these feelings that is named in the story.
I wish it named the other feelings that motivate the characters. Knowing about emotions and how to express them are central skills in every stage of life.
As a child, I was taught right from wrong, but not much about sensations, the feelings those sensations give rise to, and, and the desires and dislikes that are revealed by the actions that our feelings motivate.
It wasn’t until my 30’s that I got around to learning the vocabulary of emotions. I found helpful the idea that four words — “mad, sad, glad, and afraid” — can remind us of four main groups of emotions.
Of course, there are more emotions than just anger, sadness, joy, and fear. Each of them can be combined with the others and with surprise or disgust to create variants. Shame, for instance, is fear combined with disgust.
As a child, church and school did not help me to learn about feelings. Instead, I was taught to judge. I was told that people, things and events were acceptable or unacceptable; good or bad. Speaking about feelings was discouraged. Many conversations involved judgments.
Today, I believe the opposite. I accept that feelings are not only unavoidable but essential. Feelings reveal our likes and dislikes; and they shed light on our values.
By the same measure, I now try to avoid judgments. Declaring something as good or evil hides one’s feelings and makes it harder to discern the sensations behind them and the values revealed by them. Feelings reveal, I believe, while judgments conceal.
This perspective on emotions and judgments makes it hard for me to work with some parts of the Bible. Genesis One declares Elohim’s creations to be good seven times. Genesis 2 and 3 are about good and evil. The New Testament ends with the Day of Judgement. I could go on.
When we name the emotions at play in the story of the Garden of Eden, I find it more helpful. Fear is felt not just by Adam and Eve after they have eaten the forbidden fruit. YHWH also shows fear when he says “these humans have become like one of us, knowing both good and evil. They must not be allowed to take in their hands the fruit from the Tree of Life as well, or they will eat of it, and live forever.” YHWH curses them and expels them from the Garden because he is both angry and afraid.
Morality is connected to how we handle our feelings. When we express our anger, sadness, joy, or fear with violence, we run the risk of violating the values of love, justice, and kindness. Unmasking YHWH’s emotions leads me question his morality at least as much as the morality of Adam and Eve.
I understand why Adam and Eve might feel ashamed of their nakedness. Humans are a conflicted species. We are governed both by physical instincts and by complex understandings that originate in big brains that have bathed in linguistic and social history. The knowledge that arises from personal experience and social learning sometimes cuts against the grain of our physical identities and leaves us feeling unsure, fearful, and ashamed.
Some of the shame we feel — whether about nakedness, desires, or deeds — can dissolve when re-examined in the light of learning. But shame has its purposes; and an inability to feel shame under any circumstances signifies that one has either not yet reached the age of reason or has developed a kind of psychopathy.
Shamelessness has been in the news recently. The 45th President of the United States seems incapable of shame. His immoral actions — some which might reach the level of treason — don’t give him any pause. Supporters of the President revel in his shamelessness, while others are alarmed that the most powerful person in the world seems to be impervious to moral reasoning.
In my own life, I wish I had felt less shame and pursued some plans with greater confidence than my fears allowed. But I appreciate that shame is always a possibility.
Emotional intelligence includes the ability to know and recognize all feelings — whether we feel mad, sad, glad, or afraid — and how to express them in ways that don’t harm others. Naming and knowing shame is part of this.
We live “East of Eden” because we are not unthinking beasts governed only by instinct. We are social animals with minds and spirits created by languages that carry a vast cultural history.
The story of the Garden of Eden names the emotion shame. My hope is that today’s reflection on the other feelings at play in Eden has reminded us of the complexity of the task of knowing and handling our feelings. May we also trust that we are supported in this task by the same Grace that banishes us from “paradise.” Our conflicted lives east of Eden involve toil and pain. But they are also ones filled with an endless capacity for hope, joy and love.
May it be so. Amen.