You’re Damned If You Do
and Your Damned If You Don’t!
(A sermon on the Old Story of Salvation)

by
Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
January 28, 2001

Probably the most popular explanation for legends and myths runs something to the effect that they may be a fairly true record of the guesses humans have made about the great mysteries of the universe. But when they are taught as unadulterated truth (as we know they are so taught); when they are sanctified by tradition and upheld as true doctrines of the revelations of deity, then they become an extremely pernicious influence upon the history of humanity.

When myths are taught as fact they pervert the learner’s ethical outlook. They poison the spiritual life. Why? (You ask.) Because they become substitutes for an integrity of thought which many theologians, including Albert Schweitzer consider vital to the ongoing progress of civilization.

It is my opinion that what Biblical teachers perpetrate in the name of truth in many churches and institutions of learning today is tragic in the extreme. On the other hand, to deny that the Bible contains no word of truth in it, even in symbolic form, is as foolish as the extreme just mentioned.

There is enough plain and wholesome truth in the world today without turning for constant reassurance to myth and legend. And we know that the Bible can (and so often is) turned to one’s advantage by taking whatever tack is necessary to prove one’s point. If one is able to recall Scriptural quotations (and their place in the Bible, e.g. “John 3:16; Romans, Chapter 12; the 23rd Psalm, etc.) such strategy gives the speaker an edge over listeners who might be too timid to question the source.

How often have we heard the following:

“For so many years I was afraid and confused by religious teachings. Reason told me differently. When I finally found this liberal church, it was actually quite difficult not to speak about my feelings of joy. I never believed there could be a church that relied upon reason and truth rather than fear and superstition in order to offer and to teach its principles and values.....”

In the Broadway musical, “The Apple Tree”, it is very clear that the writers did not intend that the Biblical figures of Adam and Eve (as contained in the Book of Genesis) be portrayed as they were in the original story. In that Biblical account they were afraid. They had eaten of the fruit of the tree that yielded “the knowledge of good and evil”. In so doing they had broken a divine command which had forbidden the eating of the fruit of that particular tree. The penalty for such disobedience was death. And so, human nature being what it has always been, when suffering from a sense of guilt, the two of them looked for an alibi - for something or someone to blame.

Said Adam, “The woman Thou gavest me, she tempted me, and I did eat.” But the woman also sought to shift the blame. She said, “The serpent beguiled me and I did eat.” So the Lord God cursed the serpent. Then he pronounced a curse upon Adam and Eve and all their descendants. And then, because he was still angry, he cursed the very ground upon which they stood.

Evidently even God himself was a little afraid. “They have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and know good and evil. They have become wise like us. If they eat of the fruit of the tree of Life, which also is in the garden, they will live forever. Then what will happen?”

And so, according to the story (and a wonderful legend it is in the telling, don’t you think?), God drove them from the Garden of Eden and placed angels with flaming swords at its entrance to prevent them from re-entering the garden and thus from any further access to the fruit of the tree of life. (Angry? You’ve got that right!)

Orthodox Biblical scholars tell this story and assert that it was in this way that evil came into the world. Pain, sorrow, tragedy and all the ills to which human flesh is heir were supposed to have descended upon humanity from that moment. Death also “came into being” as it were, as a result of what happened in the story.

Of course you and I, living in this new millennia know that this is only a legend; a portion of the myth of creation found in the first three chapters of the Old Testament Book of Genesis. The story is nothing more or less than a primitive “guess” as to how creation came about. As a part of the folklore of the Jews, it is also an early attempt on the part of the human mind to grapple with the mystery of the problem of evil, of suffering and of sorrow. “Why to the innocent suffer?” goes the question. But as fact, as absolute truth? No. We do not take such a story seriously notwithstanding the pressure placed upon teachers today to teach “creationism” as if it were fact!

So the Bible is seen by most scholars as a collection of poetry, stories and legends that were passed on by oral tradition as a kind of measured “guess” regarding the beginnings of human history. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, then, the Bible has become the ethical, moral and spiritual foundation for millions of religious people. Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians alike have alluded to this fact. Cardinal Henry Newman once commented on the Story of Salvation and the Sin of Adam by saying that “The human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.”

A Methodist theologian named Dr. Olin Curtis wrote, “I can see no forcible reason why it (the Genesis creation story) may not be a picture-narrative of actual fact. Why may it not be solid history in naive drama?”

We as Unitarian Universalists may not take the story of Adam and Eve and the fall of humanity very seriously. But I must caution us all that as intelligent men and women that we really should. Not only this, we should also try to understand the character and the effect of the story’s influence on history and upon people today.

In the time I have left, then, I would like to make some basic observations about the story. First let us consider the curse made by God upon women. In the Moffat translation we read:

“I will make childbirth a sure pain for you; you shall have pangs in bearing; yet you shall crave to have your husband and he shall master you.”

You will not be surprised to hear that it was this particular passage which contributed to the idea that women were inferior to men. It also added to the notion that while marriage may be a sacrament, it is at the same time a concession to the weakness of the flesh. More than any passage, I believe, this one is responsible for the belief that every child born into the world was conceived in sin and was basically an evil human being. (No? Believe it!)

The same words have been used to assert that women are indeed inferior to men. Pastors of southern churches often counsel church members who are wives to “obey their husbands” as Scripture teaches. Such instruction is given under the guise of “marital counseling” by hosts of conservative ministers. I am sure they believe sincerely that they are carrying out “God’s Will” by advising women “to submit”. Women’s Shelters are full of those beaten by self-righteous “religious” husbands!

Did you know that for centuries it was regarded as sinful to alleviate the pain of the mother in childbirth to any degree? This was because people were told that God ordained that there should be pain in the act of bearing children. It came to be regarded as part of the punishment for the “inherited guilt” of women. Records show that even as late as the 19th century, many devout women refused any anesthetic while in labor. Today, using techniques such as Lemaze therapy, women are able to actually experience the joy of childbirth through its pain as a choice, not punishment.

Not long ago there was a report that two parents from Pennsylvania had been indicted for murder. They had not eaten for over six weeks. Although both of them were unemployed it was discovered that they ad nearly $2200 in savings. But they would not spend it on food. They believed the money they had belonged to God as a tithe. They also believed that God would provide them with the strength to endure until work came along. Now I will tell you the tragedy. Though they found the couple in critical condition, their 14-year-old son was dead by simple starvation. So you see, I am not surprised at anything people are apt to do believing it to be “God’s command”.

What else transpired from this legend? How about the Christian dogma which stated that innocent babies were condemned to the damnation of God if they were not baptized? This idea still influences the minds and actions of its believers today.

I once served as Chaplain of a summer conference for ministers and lay people from different religious backgrounds. A young father said to me, “My wife has written to me that our baby has died. I have to leave here to join her at home. But I am so afraid. Our daughter died without baptism. Do you think she will go to hell?”

An additional thought occurs to me. By way of introduction let me read from the same chapter in the Book of Genesis:

Imagine how this idea contributed to the degradation of honest labor over the centuries. Work was considered “evil”. Laborious toil was humanity’s natural heritage as a consequence of Adam’s original sin. The humble and lowly workers who toiled with their hands were always considered part of an “inferior order” since such work was ordained so by God and Scripture. I can just hear some evangelist saying:

“These people should be content with their lot and submit themselves to the exploitation of those more fortunate than themselves....”.

The Old Story of Salvation placed a curse upon Adam and Eve and all who followed because they had eaten of the tree of Knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge or any attempt at exploring or understanding the secrets of nature was branded the work of Satan. Until the days of the Enlightenment human curiosity and learning were considered evil. The only knowledge which was of value was religious knowledge divinely revealed in Scripture. The quest for any other kind of truth was thought to be against God’s will - a sinful activity.

If, for instance, some scientific discovery contradicted the word of God, the word of God had to come first. New discoveries had to condescend. Even master Galileo, in fear for his life, renounced his scientific findings about the universe. And as I suggested previously, thousands of innocent victims were tortured, beheaded or burned at the stake for holding belief that unacceptable to “Holy Mother Church”.

For generations, such beliefs actually hindered the pursuit of scientific truth. It became an endless warfare of science with religious authority. Letters to the Editor appear in the Southwest all the time stating that the writer truly believes that the evils of our generation are the result of too much knowledge; that the world has to return to the revealed faith lest civilization perish. You doubt this? Watch a couple of Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” programs.

As far back as 1939 at the Christian World Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland, the delegates went on record to reaffirm the guilt of the entire human family due to the disobedience of our “first parents”. It also affirmed the complete helplessness of humanity to escape this guilt and achieve a righteous world apart from the miraculous grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. In short, the Conference proclaimed in the words of St. Paul that through Adam, sin and death came into the world and only through Christ, the “second Adam” could one be released from sin and death.

Jesus didn’t teach this. In fact, he emphasized a divine kingdom of the heart. He spoke of the potential goodness within us, not the evil.

One of the books celebrated over the decades as having made one of the most significant contributions to religious thought for our time was titled The Case for Christianity. It was written by Professor C.C. Lewis of Oxford University. Listen:

That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race. Some people think the fall of (humanity) had something to do with sex, but that’s a mistake. What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could be “like gods” - could set up their own world as if they had created themselves - be their own masters - invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside of God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all we call human misery - money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery - the long, terrible story of humanity trying to find something other than God which will make it happy.

I disagree with Professor Lewis. It seems to me that we have to stop regarding the story of the creation as a religious account of anything. It was a rude and simple effort to write down some record of the origin of the world. God had no more to do with the writing of it than you or I, and it is no more “inspired” than the countless other folk tales we find among traditions of primitive peoples.

And....and....if we teach any of it to our children at all, we need to stop clothing it in the garments of sanctity simply because it happens to appear in the Bible. We need to be frank in telling our kids that it is wholly a legend; that it is early humanity’s guess and is no more to be regarded as truth than the story of Romulus, Remus, the Capitoline Wolf and the founding of ancient Rome.

Naturally, children speculate. So, then, if we read the story of Adam and Eve with them, than in the name of everything we believe, we need to be honest with them. We need to let them know that such a story has no more foundation than does a fairy tale. We need also to point out how derogatory such a story is to women. Then, as they grow to maturity we can indicate to them how much anguish and spiritual suffering has been brought about by such an interpretation.

You know, it is really tragic beyond words that this myth has been used as it has. It is really sad that the entire edifice of Christian doctrine was built upon it. It is a crime against any enlightened conception of humanity and a crime against truth.

But my major objection is that it separates us from the rest of Nature. It denies the basic truth of Evolution and the Unity of Life - a truth sustained by our dedication to the principle of our respect for the interdependent web of all existence. And the old creation story ignores the truth that Life is in ascent.

The great wonder to me is NOT the fact of sin but the existence of GOODNESS ! For you see, notwithstanding all the greed, lust for power, cruelty, violence, ignorance, superstition, spiritual blindness and moral stupidity, there did emerge such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King.

As I think of this story and of the theory of evolution placed with it I know that whoever our first parents were that there was no fall. There was only an ascent, a striving upward, a reaching out for that which is more noble. The story of “the fall” of humanity is just that - a story. Humanity did not fall. Humanity ascended to truth.

Unitarians and Universalists have always envisioned a great religion founded NOT upon depravity, but on the unfolding life of humanity and a realization of the divine life within the human heart and mind. We have the potential for goodness; a capacity for finding truth; a yearning for justice and a love of freedom.

Contrary to the orthodox theologians, even if the story were fact instead of fable, I would finally say, after all is said and done, that God would not have pronounced a curse upon Eve. Instead, he would have blessed her - blessed her throughout succeeding generations. For to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of what is GOOD, is the beginning of the conquest of evil. Indeed, this fruit is not death. It is Life! So be it. Amen.

(N.B. Portions of this sermon were adapted from notes taken from a lecture given by the Rev. Dr. Horace Westwood, Sr.)