In American life there’s a tendency to admire fixed positions. This admiration is often imbued with reverence for a certain vision of unbending, uncompromising masculinity. Admiring phrases like “he sticks to his guns” remind us that the threat of violence—and a certain satisfaction in that threat—is an implicit part of the vision as well. A lot of people feel empowered by that Dirty Harry “go ahead, make my day” kind of thing.
It’s a tough thing to parse, though, because people who are able to maintain a set of deeply felt values in the face of life’s challenges and temptations accomplish something truly admirable and worth emulating. However, maintaining commitment to an ethic or a timeless set of values isn’t the same as holding on with white knuckles year after year to one narrow view of the world.
Ask any avid reader about their experience of a favorite book at different stages of their life and you’ll quickly find yourself in a conversation about how their feelings about and observations of the work changed and deepened over time. This is a very natural thing about going through life as a fully realized human being. You get older, you experience new things, you come into closer contact with your own fallibility, vulnerability and mortality—you start to see things in more dimensions than you did before. And this is where the idea of “sticking to your guns” is not so helpful and, in many ways, stymies our growth.
To make a connection here, I’ve always been partial to a bit of wisdom from an old Ani Difranco song called “Buildings and Bridges”.
In it, she observes:
“Buildings and bridges are made to bend in the wind. To withstand the world, that’s what it takes. All that steel and stone are no match for the air, my friends. What doesn’t bend, breaks. What doesn’t bend, breaks.”
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I was raised Roman Catholic.
I got some good things out of it, but ultimately I never really took to the religion. There were too many issues.
For one, I just couldn’t accept it when the nuns told me that my beloved Socrates was in Hell because he hadn’t accepted Jesus as the Son of God. It didn’t matter to them that Socrates lived and died long before Jesus was supposed to have been born. Old Socs was smart, but how was he going to see into the future? And be damned for all eternity for not having supernatural foresight? C’mon now.
The other thing I couldn’t accept was the concept of Original Sin. The whole story of Adam and Eve struck me as wrong. As a youngster what I got from it was that Adam and Eve were enjoying an innocent, leisurely, joyful life in the Garden of Eden because they had no idea what good or evil was. They were literally happy because they didn’t know any better. All they had to do was obey God and they’d get to remain in that state of ignorant happiness forever.
All goes well until, of course, the Devil (as talking snake) entices Adam and Eve into tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that God has forbidden them from eating. Then everything comes crashing down. Adam and Eve suddenly become aware and ashamed of their nakedness (does this mean they weren’t having sex before they ate the fruit?).
God is angry, and so takes away their immortality and casts the stain of their sin (disobedience, hubris, presumption?) forward in time to all human beings born after them. Theirs is the Original Sin that all people now carry from birth and for which all people must forever make up for so that God will accept them into Heaven when they die. In my mind, the cruxes of the sin were that A) Curiosity is bad. B) Listening to any voice but God’s is really bad. C) Human beings can’t handle knowing too much, certainly not the difference between good and evil. To be innocent and happy, they have to be ignorant.
For years, my image of Original Sin became a priest standing over a baby not long after its birth and saying:
“Hey baby, I know you didn’t ask to be here and you don’t really know what’s going on but now that you’re here, just wanted to let you know YOU’RE A SINNER!!! YOU MUST ATONE!!! OR YOU GO TO HELL!!! Welcome to the world, kid.”
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See, as a kid I really felt human beings were beautiful (I still think they are, but with a lot more qualifications). I couldn’t square this feeling with the idea that we were all intrinsically pieces of shit.
Over time, though, I started to see the whole issue of Original Sin differently. In part, my view of the story changed because I began reading poetry, and I began thinking about it in a series of powerful reveries that, in a quite literal sense, transformed my mind, if not my spirit. One of the things that poetry does is offer you a reality that has many, many levels to it. Some may find this maddening, but I found it exhilarating: Few poems are understandable quickly and simply. There’s no one key takeaway. Through the use of symbols, images and incongruous juxtapositions, even something as short as a haiku can offer numerous ways to think about human beings, nature, reality, life, death, history, God, transcendence, degradation, time, love, pain, passion. Truth, I learned, is multiple, complicated, vast, achingly beautiful, terrifying, even self-contradictory.
And when I began to look at the Bible more as poetry and less as simple, literal instruction, things felt quite different than they did before. For instance, consider how easy it was for the serpent to convince Eve—and Adam by extension—to taste the forbidden fruit. Why is that? If, in the stories of creation, God is believed to be all knowing, it makes sense that God, as their creator, knew Adam and Eve inside and out, down to the last atom, and thus knew that innocent frolicking in an isolated garden was not going to play for them long term.
Despite the deity’s anger at their disobedience, I began to see another angle to the story—that God chose to place Adam and Eve in the garden with the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil not merely to test their faith and obedience, but to teach them something about their essential nature, a nature that God, ironically, understood better than Adam and Eve did themselves. If you see Adam and Eve as metaphors for human beings as a whole, this view gets even more resonant.
In this sense, a propensity for innocence, ignorance, and the purely carefree is not the nature of human beings’ existence in this world. We have powerful desires, not all them good for us. We are curious. We are knowledgeable in that we know we will age and die; we know that we are frail; we know that we are driven to test ourselves and fail ourselves. We are not pure. We are conglomerate and restless. This is part of our beauty, but it means we will not be unfailingly faithful to God, or to anything. We aren’t capable of it. Original Sin has to do with our nature. It is at the root of all of us.
Because of our nature, a perfect home like the Garden of Eden is the absolute wrong place for us. To be close to creation and, eventually, through our deaths, merge with it, we must struggle. We must contend with our imperfection, live within it, learn from it, fight with it, have compassion for others in recognition of it. Click To Tweet And that struggle needs to take place elsewhere, in a harder world, not in paradise, which is for later, when we’re pure spirit (maybe).
Even though I moved on from Catholicism as I entered my teen years and arrived, in part through my obsession with ancient Greek mythology, at some personal form of pantheism, I will always be grateful I was raised in a spiritual tradition. It helped me learn early on that there are no simple or wholly permanent truths—and that our lives are filled with confounding and astounding paradox.
And that represents a greater adventure than any story about an unyielding solitary man with a very big gun. Though, even that type of tale has levels to it as well. 🙂
As always, thanks for reading.