Some time ago I was out preaching a parish mission and in the Q&A afterwards a guy asked if it was a sin not to believe the Bible. He’s a scientist and he said he simply can’t accept the story of Adam and Eve. He asked if it was true that the church expects us to believe in a historical Adam and Eve.
So I explained the difference between a doubt and a difficulty.
A difficulty is when you are confronted with something seemingly incredible or impossible and you say, “How can that be?” You retain curiosity and open and enquiring mind. That’s OK. A doubt is when you are confronted with the incredible or impossible and you say, “That can’t be.” At that point you’ve closed your mind and cut off enquiry and possible solutions to the problem. Difficulties with the faith are not only permissible, they are to be encouraged because it is through facing the difficulties that we think through our faith and discover solutions. The mindset of “How can that be?” is full of wonder and trust and most of all–open mindedness. Doubt is negative, self righteous and closes down.
So what are we to do with the story of Adam and Eve? I asked Frank what he didn’t believe about Adam and Eve. It turned out that he was a former Baptist and what he didn’t believe was the picture book Bible story fundamentalist version of the second chapter of Genesis. He didn’t believe in a handsome naked man standing behind a waist high bush and a beautiful naked woman with long hair discreetly covering her bosom as she talked with a snake about an apple.
He didn’t believe there were only two people in the world who lived in a garden somewhere around Iraq about six thousand years ago.
Good, because you don’t have to believe all that about Adam and Eve to be a good Catholic. All you have to believe is that there was, somewhere at some point in time, a man and a woman who were our first parents and that they made a monumental choice to disobey God. I reminded him that the stories in Genesis are ancient Hebrew creation myths. They are symbolic stories that incarnate the truth. They are not necessarily factual reports of exactly what happened. However, it is not true that the stories are intended to be merely myth–they are not a make believe fairy tale that didn’t happen at all.
So when and where did Adam and Eve live? The answer is, we don’t know. The stories in the first twelve chapters of Genesis are lost in the mists of what we call “pre-history”. It is only with Father Abraham that we can begin to piece together historical places and people. What can we say about Adam and Eve? First of all, we can conclude that they were not the only people or humanoids on earth at the time because their son Cain went out and found a wife.
My own theory is that there were other human-type creatures on earth, but that Adam and Eve were the first specially created humans with souls, with free will and perhaps the first with language. They were the first to have a relationship with God, and therefore the first parents of all who believe. Did they live in a garden? Were they naked? Did they talk to a snake? Did they eat an apple? Was there a tree of the knowledge of good and evil? I’m not saying there wasn’t, but it is possible to believe that most of these elements of the story are symbolic, but that the essential story is that a specially created man and woman lived on the earth in a state of child-like innocence and bliss–that they had a unique relationship with God which they spoiled by disobedience. The rest of the details can remain open ended. You may believe it all literally, but you needn’t.
Is it okay to take some of the details in the Old Testament with a pinch of salt? Yes it is, because we’re supposed to use our brains when it comes to the faith, and one of the reasons so many people take leave is because unthinking folks insist on Biblical literalism. In what sense do we take things with a pinch of salt? With the sense I described above of facing a difficulty not a doubt.
Let us take, for example the details of the talking snake. If you like you can dismiss it completely and say it is a mythical element. Or you can insist that it was a real python or some other creepy snake who really did talk to Adam and Eve. Or you can approach the matter with a bit of imagination and curiosity and surmise that the devil was tempting them and that in plenty of literature he is referred to as a serpent or a dragon or a reptile and this is symbolic language that reveals his nature. You could also surmise that the story evolved and grew over the centuries, and that when it was first told Satan was described as behaving in a sneaky, serpentine fashion and the storyteller was speaking metaphorically….”That old tempter Satan. What a snake he is!” Then subsequent storytellers referred to Satan as “that old snake in the grass” and soon they were saying that it was a talking snake.
We actually think and speak this way all the time. Let us take a historical event, and see how the story is told. George Washington was a real historical person. He was an honest and upright person. We tell the story of how he cut down the cherry tree and his father asked if he did it and the boy said, “I cannot tell a lie.” Was there a cherry tree, an axe and that exact conversation? Its possible, but it is also possible that the essential facts were passed down and details altered. Then let’s say someone told the story and said, “At the point that his father asked George the question, that old serpent the devil put into his mind that he might lie and get away with it. But young George resisted.” Down the line it is possible that a talking snake finds his way into the story.
You don’t have to go along with the talking snake to affirm that George Washington was an honest person even when he was a kid and that when he was bad he owned up.
To think this through doesn’t mean we dismiss the historicity, and we always leave the possibility of a literal interpretation open even though it seems unlikely So when confronted with these difficult aspects of the Old Testament we engage our imagination and curiosity and we don’t leave out the possibility that perhaps a real snake really did talk to them. Weird things happen.
Does it matter? I think it does.
Why does it matter? It matters because our faith is historical. From the beginning of the book of Genesis, through the genealogies of the Jews we are reminded that the characters from pre-history are linked with the characters we know are historical. The Jewish writers are intent to show that God’s interaction with humanity is historical and real and not mythological in the fairy tale sense.
Consequently, we affirm that Adam and Eve were historical figures–how and when they lived and the details of their fall from grace are open to speculation based on the Biblical account.
PS: This is another reason why we don’t have much room in our story for “Mother Earth”. The Judeo-Christian story is always presented as being rooted in real people in particular places in history. Characters that are purely mythological simply do not have a place in the story…not even symbolically. We use symbols to be sure and we use fictional characters like Job and the parables of Jesus, but what you will not find are purely mythological figures–either in stories and certainly not in the devotions and worship of our faith. Yes, I know St Francis wrote a poem that included a reference to “Sister Mother Earth” but that’s one line in a poem. It’s not exactly crucial.