15 February 2015

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Poison of Shame

As we look forward to Lent the daily readings have led us through the Genesis story of the Fall. Last week we heard the entire story as the movement from a certain kind of innocence to the disastrous consequences of "eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil". Several days running portions of this narrative were repeated and teamed with NT readings in ways which underscored various aspects of the wisdom it embodied. I came away from the week understanding several things more fully and clearly than I have ever understood before. Especially, I came to understand the distinction between guilt and shame and the costly price healing shame required of our God. But also I came to understand the innocence spoken of in the stories and the terrible fall from that to the sense of either worthiness or unworthiness which distorts our ways of seeing ourselves, others, and all of creation. (see also, Their Eyes Were Opened. . .NOT!)

In the story of the Fall Adam and Eve are part of a creation which God sees as (and which therefore IS) good. Humanity (symbolized in Adam and Eve) know themselves and everything else in this light and ONLY in this light. They exist in a state of innocence, a state of essential freedom and humility. They have vocations and live those out in Divine friendship and intimacy with one another; they know themselves as God knows them, as loved and a source of delight to God. It is an incredibly responsible life untouched by thoughts of worthiness or unworthiness. (Remember, Genesis 2:25 summarizes all this by saying, Adam and Eve "were naked yet they felt no shame.") It is a life which is open to transcendence --- an openness which takes the form of obedience (an attentive responsiveness) to God and the truth he reveals. But for this reason, because an openness to transcendence stands at the heart of this life, it is also a state in which temptation is already present.

And so the narrative moves from innocence through Eve's "theologizing" as she reflects on what God has said, who he is, who she is and is meant to be --- to her complete seduction and sin. From being a person who walks humbly with God, who knows herself and all of reality only as God knows them, she distances herself from such union and begins to think about God rather than conversing with God. (It is Walter Brueggemann who points out this primordial act of theologizing in his Interpretation commentary on Genesis. It is this universal tendency to theologize (and the challenge of preparing to do theology professionally) that led to my own prayer, "God forgive us our theology, our theology perhaps most of all!")  From theologizing and temptation Eve moves to the decision to outright disobedience. She is dazzled by her new way of seeing reality and embraces it by "eating of the fruit of the tree" which is forbidden her. She trusts herself rather than God, she listens to her own "wisdom" rather than to that of God and she makes a new knowledge, a new "truth" her very own. It is a disastrous act of betrayal of God, self, and others, whose consequences will color the rest of her life and that of all of her descendents for the whole of human history.

A Vat of Blue Dye and the Inappropriate Knowledge of Good and Evil:

Consider. You are arriving early for Mass in your parish chapel looking for some quiet time with God and as you come in to sit down you find a huge vat of dark blue dye sitting in the middle of the worship space. There was a sign on the door as you entered which said you are free to do all the things you usually do to prepare for Mass, but please leave the vat of dye alone. It is good in and of itself but it is not meant for you. It will change the way you see things, set you apart, and just generally mark you as a possessor of a knowledge of good and evil which is inappropriate for you. Someone has left a small step ladder against the side of the tub; its presence is intriguing and suggestive, but its purpose is unknown. You think about the sign and examine the tub and dye. You consider what a lovely color dark blue is for you and think, "Surely this can't do so much harm as all that! Perhaps the experience would be good for me. God surely does not wish to prevent me from knowing as much as I can. After all, God made me curious! He made me to steward this world and I must experience it intimately to do that!" Slowly you climb the steps testing them for solidity, strength, and balance (are you merely pretending to legitimate curiosity and research now?). Finally, you decide to dive in and, despite the qualm in the pit of your stomach, you make the leap! At this point you have sinned and know guilt. But this is not the biggest problem by far.

When you come up out of the dye you are dismayed to find that not only is every crevice of your body stained dark blue, but that your eyeballs are too. You look around the chapel and everything looks different. Other members of the assembly arrive and two things happen: 1) they look as though they too have been stained with dye, and 2) you know they are looking at you and thinking what a sinner you are! You have begun to know shame and the influence of shame. Over the next days you get rid of the ruined clothes, scrub yourself several times and manage to remove most of the dye, but as you walk through the world you are convinced that everyone sees the remnants of blue lodged in the creases around your fingernails. You even believe that despite your clothes they can see the dye you have not managed to wash out of a few well-hidden wrinkles and crevices. You sit next to these folks at the Eucharist and you are certain they know you for the horrible sinner, the worthless person you are. Over time you come to see yourself ONLY in terms of the dye and the imagined judgments. Even more unfortunately, you come to see everyone else as less or more worthy than yourself. You imagine, in fact you are certain, that they too jumped into the vat at one time or another and have little bits of dye in hidden crevices they never let anyone see. You confess your own sin and are absolved (guilt is easily forgiven) but your shame (a much more difficult animal) remains.

You hear the Gospel story of the lepers with their bells and cries of "unclean" from today's Gospel and you think, "there I am!" When people wish you the peace of Christ or tell you how much they love you, you think, "If only they knew how stained (inadequate, unlovable, unworthy, unfixable, unforgivable, etc) I am !! But you also think, "They are as stained as I am! Who do they think they are?" You know profoundly the knowledge of good and evil which God wanted you never to know. Rather than being love-based and trusting in God's mercy, your life is shame-based. Rather than knowing the humility, the appropriate dignity of being lifted up by God's love, you know the humiliation of being cast down by what you think of yourself --- and what you believe everyone else sees and either says or would say about you if only they could see you as you "know" yourself to be. Despite the fact that the ACT of disobedience and failure to trust (the decision to leap into the vat) has long been confessed and forgiven, the shame (the touch of the blue dye) remains and the healing required is deep and extensive.

N.B.: in this section I have spoken of the vat of blue dye in terms of the consequences which occur when someone decides to jump in. The analysis of the occasioning of shame works as well when someone else has thrown us into the vat and one has no personal guilt at all. In such a case the thoughts are similar: "Everyone can see what x did to me", "Everyone will know I deserved what was done to me," "They may say they love me, but if they only knew what x did to me they'd see me for who I really am," (this is especially powerful when the one doing the injuring was a parent!) "I am sure the dye has been washed away superficially (for instance by the good life one has led in spite of their woundedness) but deep down it is still there!" "I am unworthy, unlovable, broken, unfixable," and so forth.

The Signs and Symptoms of our Need for Transformation and Healing:

I have spoken of several signs of the move to a shame-based life: 1) the shift from judging the quality of an action to judging oneself and others (the shift from guilt to shame), and 2) the shift from standing in the truth of God's love where we share the knowledge of the dignity we call humility to feeling humiliated, being cast down to this degraded state by one's judgment of self. It is significant that in the narrative of Genesis Adam and Even do not know themselves in terms of worthiness or unworthiness until AFTER they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. That God loves them is the foundational, the defining truth of their lives until they exchange it first for guilt and then, more disastrously, for shame. (It is also significant, by the way, that psychologists see narcissism as a shame-based illness or disorder which is every bit as destructive as the horrible inferiority many know.) There is a third shift then which is central to the story of the Fall, namely, the move from self-awareness to that of self-consciousness. This shift is definitive for "eating the forbidden fruit" and is at least implicit in the other two shifts already spoken of.

Other symptoms and signs obtain as well. Fear. Fear of ourselves, of others, of revelation and exposure and so much more. A tendency to blame others, a propensity to shut ourselves away from others, to fail to risk loving, an inability to be transparent or to see others for who they are in light of God's love, a need for secrecy and an instinct to cover our guilt (the word shame has the same root as the verb "to cover"), and the tendency to overcompensate for one's perceived (and often masked) inadequacy or unworthiness by accumulating wealth, power, status, etc. God's love is the only thing that allows us to see ourselves as the same as others --- another sign of humility . Shame dictates we view them as either less worthy or more worthy than we and to do all we can to compensate one way or another. Whether we are looking at a despairing person's suicide or the narcissist's tendency to look at the poor (uneducated, etc) and say, "Who do they think they are?" we are looking at the effects of the forbidden knowledge of good and evil and the shame it brings in its wake.

Jesus, His Miracles and his Passion, the Solution to Shame:

Every healing Jesus does points beyond itself to his desire to heal the deeper and more fatal illness we know as shame. Last year I wrote that even had Jesus healed every ill person that came to him it would not have been enough.  Jesus' mission was broader and deeper than this. Jesus was not a mere miracle worker; he was the Messiah, the redeemer. Now I will add that he could have forgiven every sin ever committed, but that would not have been sufficient either. Again, his mission was the redemption and recreation of all of reality, the bringing of reality to the kind of innocence (truth) that is untroubled by shame, that knows and is known neither in terms of worthiness nor unworthiness but only itself in the light of God's love.

It is profoundly significant that the Gospel writers and Paul do not focus on the physical pain and suffering of Jesus' passion, but instead on its terrible shamefulness. While the pain he suffers is not unimportant Jesus suffers the depths of human shame, the soul murdering reality we each and all know so well. He drinks the cup of human shame to the dregs and drains the wine of isolation and alienation which separates every shame-based life from the Divine love and truth that leads to genuine freedom and fullness. He does so while remaining open to God;  through his obedience God's love,  the only solution to shame and its calculus of worthiness and unworthiness so characteristic of the fruit of the tree we should never have known, triumphs. (cf, God humbles us by Raising us Up).


For now I want to note that shame seems to be the missing explanatory ground of the events of the cross in almost every theologia crucis I have read. It is spoken of extensively by exegetes to illustrate what Christ himself suffered but it is not ordinarily mentioned by theologians as the cause of his condemnation,  torture, and death, nor is it usually identified as the profound universal illness that Jesus' death and his Father's subsequent vindication and resurrection of Jesus addresses. I think this is a critical deficit in our theology of the cross which is usually framed in terms of the dynamics of sin and guilt without ever mentioning shame. Given the honor-shame society which found Jesus' countercultural kingdom ministry so profoundly offensive, it is even more imperative that we understand shame rather than guilt alone as the illness he comes to heal, the scourge he comes to destroy. Paul said the sting of death is sin; we must also say clearly that the sting of sin is shame and the soul-murder it brings. Only the cross of Christ effectively addresses this whole dynamic.