We have a lot of ground to cover today. But first, let’s review what we’ve established so far. The key points are as follows:
– The accounts of what is commonly known as “the Fall” in Genesis 1 and 2 are rich with imagery and thus intended to be read allegorically rather than literally.
– Something happens in the early verses of Genesis 3 that involves the pursuit of desire, and results in humanity (symbolised by Adam and Eve) experiencing both shame and separation from God and from each other.
So, now we arrive at the heart of the matter. Let’s see what we can glean from this.
First, if we think for a moment about shame, I think we have to conclude that it’s intimately connected with fear, because it has to do with exposure. We’re afraid that others will find out what we’re really like, and will disapprove of us because of it. This is why Adam and Eve hid from God; their attempt to cover their nakedness symbolises our continual attempts to conceal and defend our vulnerability.
But where does this shame come from? In the story, it manifests after Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To me, this eating of the fruit symbolises all human striving to judge good and evil. We can observe that judging good and evil is exactly what Adam and Eve begin to do immediately after eating the fruit: when God asks what they have done, they each attempt to shift the blame – Adam onto Eve and Eve onto the serpent. And what is blame-shifting other than a way of saying “I am in the right and the other person is in the wrong; I am good and they are evil”?
If we take a step back, we can see what it is that creates the environment in which blame-shifting and shame can occur. Before they eat the fruit, Adam and Eve live in perfect harmony with each other and with God. You could say there is complete unity. But after they eat, there is separation and disunity: for Adam to be able to blame Eve, he must first become aware of himself as an autonomous individual distinct from Eve. And for Adam and Eve to fear and hide from God, they must first perceive of themselves as separate and apart from God.
And so, finally, here’s what I’ve been working towards over the last three posts: at the root of fear is the idea of separation, which relies on the belief of me against the world, us and them, good versus evil. As long as Adam and Eve existed in perfect unity with each other and with God, there was no possible reason to fear anything; the notion itself was meaningless. But as soon as their “eyes were opened” and they began to see themselves as separate from each other and from God, fear and shame entered the picture. In other words, separation is the very soil in which fear and shame grow.
But what about desire? What part does it play? Celebrated French anthropologist René Girard has noted that our actions are usually driven by subconscious desire for what others have: Girard calls this mimetic desire. The fact that someone else has something – be it a tangible object or an attribute like beauty, wit or popularity – causes us to want it too, leading to what can be termed mimetic rivalry. But note also that, just like fear and shame, this kind of jealous desire can only arise when we see ourselves as being in some way separated from others. When Adam and Eve are in perfect unity with each other and God, they have everything in common and thus there is no basis for desire-fuelled rivalry. But as soon as there is a separate person, an other, there is a basis for desire and rivalry. The world changes from being a place of potentially infinite resources to being a zero-sum economy, where one person’s gain is always another person’s loss and every resource must be claimed or fought over.
What we then have is a complex interplay between separation, shame/fear, and desire. An awareness of our separateness is fertile ground for both fear and desire. And mimetic desire works to increase our sense of separateness by heightening the perceived differences between us and ultimately leading us to assign blame, to judge good and evil. It’s a vicious circle.
I have so far said very little about sin, even though that is what this story is widely thought to be about. What I observe is that the notion of separateness gives rise to sin in just same way that it gives rise to fear. We subconsciously direct our mimetic desire towards the other, and one of two things inevitably happens: either we want what they have and are ultimately prepared to hurt or kill them (figuratively or literally) to get it; or we feel compelled to fiercely defend what we have, believing it to be under threat from them. Either path leads us into accusation, blame-shifting, condemnation, scapegoating, manipulation, abusive power-wielding and, eventually, assassination. (Again, whether this is literal or figurative is not the point.)
Given that this is the kind of “fallen” world in which we live, what’s the answer?
Well, first, scripture tells us “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18). This seems to be saying that love is the antidote to fear. Love casts out fear, which seems to me to mean that where there is perfect love, fear has no place and simply cannot exist.
That’s all very well, you say, but it’s all too easy to see love as an abstract concept, in which case love “casting out” fear is pretty meaningless. How does love actually cast out fear?
Remember how we said that fear needs the notion of separateness in order to exist and thrive? Well, here’s what the love of God does: it reconciles man with man and man with God. It removes the separation that has been rooted in and fuelled by fear, shame and mimetic desire. It changes the world back from a merciless zero-sum economy into a place of shared abundance.
Here’s what the Apostle Paul said about the effects of Christ’s reconciling work:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
This is man reconciled with man. We’re all one! Don’t you see what this means? There is no other! Whatever we imagine to be the differences between us – race, colour, gender, creed, wealth, class, beliefs, social standing, or anything else – have been wiped out by the reconciling work of Christ. And if there is no other, there is nothing to be jealous of, to fear or to hide from.
As for reconciliation between man and God, by taking on flesh and becoming fully human in the person of Jesus, God has done as much as he can possibly do to remove any lingering notion that we are separate from him. Any ideas or feelings we have of being separated from God are just that – ideas and feelings! They are not the reality! God is not far off, separate and other; he is as close as can possibly be. There is no separation.
So there it is: in spite of all our rivalry, one-upmanship, accusing, naming and shaming, and killing, God’s love removes all separation by bringing reconciliation both horizontally (between man and man) and vertically (between man and God). And in removing all separation, God’s love banishes all fear and shame. When our separation is removed and we are made one, there is simply no place for fear.
I conclude with this: whenever we play the blame game, point the finger, engage in character assassination or aggressively defend me and mine, we are eating of the forbidden fruit and fuelling the cycle of fear, shame and mimetic desire, which always leads to death. Conversely, whenever we move towards others, overcome differences, accept rather than judge, and are prepared to sacrifice our own character rather than assassinate others, we crush the serpent’s head and enact Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation.
I’ve had enough of living in fear and shame. With God’s help, I will seek daily to choose the way of love, which is the way of unity in which there is no room for fear. Will you join me?
[ Image: Jesslee Cuizon ]