Though Life will rob me of my childhood days,
And hedge a way for free, unbidden feet,
It cannot steal my childhood thoughts and lays,
Nor break the spell that lets me hear the beat
Of Nature’s heart, and catch her whisper sweet.
Solace, by Ruby Archer
The process of growing up can be a profoundly uneasy one, and it can take longer than you first think. Even in our adult years we can find ourselves in situations that force us to grow up even further, and perhaps in a way that we may be instinctively reluctant to do. Life can sometimes pro¬pel us into bleak and empty spaces which we must navigate our way through.
This kind of growing up is part of life and everyone has to face it in some way or another. We’re made so that part of our life is the process of maturing, flourishing, and coming of age. And if life goes as it should, then the wilderness times and the growing times are very important indeed. Jesus, it’s true, took a child and placed the child in the midst of the crowd and said that this is what it means to enter the Kingdom. But whatever it was that he meant by that, it wasn’t, I think, that we should remain childish and avoid the paths of maturing and growth that lie before us.
Those looking on at religion and at religious people have often accused us of being infantile, of cling¬ing on to childish stories and dreams, as though reading the Bible were like reading fairy tales. And they are right to criticise us when religion is used in that way. But lived rightly, faith in God is a path to maturity, to spiritual adulthood or wisdom. It’s not for nothing that the early Christians spoke of the Christian life as being about growth into the full stature of the maturity of Christ. Faith is a form of growing up, not of childish avoidance.
In the story of Jesus in the wilderness we see a story of someone growing up and coming to terms with who he is and who he will be. We see someone tempted by immaturity, tempt¬ed to take the easy way of instant gratification, the stones into bread. We see someone tempted by fame, power, and spectacle, the kingdoms of the world and the dramatic rescue by angels. But in the end we see someone choosing the mature path of faith¬fulness to God’s word, and trust in the God who is with us in the ordinary world we must inhabit. Here is someone who has journeyed through the wilderness for a long stretch of time and who has grown into the one who will carry God’s presence into the world.
Many of us have learned to read this story as a story about the temptation to sin, and used it to reflect on the temptations that present themselves to us in our very different world. But today I offer an interpretation of this story as a story of growing up, of facing the wilderness that we must all inhabit, and of living a mature and responsible life within it.
I suspect that the story read like that draws on another story, the story of Adam and Eve. Their story begins not in the wilder¬ness, but in a garden, but they, like Jesus after them, have to learn to live in the wilder and more dangerous place. They too have to grow up, and perhaps this was God’s plan all along.
Most of us in the Church have grown up believing that the story of Adam and Eve and the snake has a clear meaning, that it is about Original Sin and The Fall. This must go down as Augustine’s greatest triumph, that sixteen centuries after him we are still inclined to regard his interpretation of this story as the natural one and the only good one. It’s so dominant that we hardly recognise it is even an interpretation, it’s just what the story is about.
But it wasn’t until about a thousand years after the story was first written down that Augustine read it his way, and many previous readers of this text would have thought his interpretation very odd. He read the story through what Paul said about Christ being the second Adam. He believed that sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, that it was passed on through sexual desire, and that Christ was the one who undid all this by dying for us. Augustine’s interpretation has a good deal to say to us about the inescapability of sin and the grace of God revealed to us in Christ. But it is not the only way, and certainly not the most ancient way, of interpreting the story of Adam and Eve.
There is another way of understanding this story which has its roots in the Jewish community and which is based on a close and attentive reading of the text itself. In this interpretation, the story is not so much about sin, temptation, and fall, as it is about the maturing of human beings and about their relationship with the rest of creation.
In the beginning of Genesis chapter 2, the Bible describes the earth in its early days as being without anyone to cultiv¬ate it. But then God makes a human being from the earth itself. ‘Adam’ means really something like ‘earth creature’ and is not a man’s name, but simply the name of an earthling. This creature is then placed into a garden, where he must till it and keep it. The text here talks much more about the earth and the ground than about the human being, but of course we, being human beings, always take more notice of the bits about us. And this earthling is like a child, living in paradise, knowing nothing of good and evil, and not even knowing of death. This is a crea¬ture ignorant, naïve, and protected.
Then God notices that the human being is alone, and so God separates the creature into two, into male and female. But then the human beings, encour¬aged by the snake, lose their innocence. They eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They become sexually mature and aware. And they discover that life must be hard work, that some human beings will dominate others, that there is suffering to be borne. And they discover the reality of death. The human beings leave the garden. They leave the innocent world of their childhood and are pushed into the wilder world of grown-up human living.
And now, at last, the earth has someone to cultiv¬ate it and make it fruitful. The creatures made from earth have work to do on the earth and they must get on with it. In the story, it’s necessary for the good of the earth that there are crea¬tures to cultivate it so that it can bring forth plants, and so this is a positive development for the earth even if for the human beings it seems a descent from paradise. As far as the story is concerned the human beings are bound to the earth, by their very name, by their origin. These grown-up human beings are those who complete the creation story by working to make the earth fruit¬ful.
If this interpretation is right, then it’s not that Adam and Eve ‘fell’ away from God’s original intention for them, but that they had to find maturity and their true purpose within creation. They, and we, were not made for idleness in paradise, innocent of good and evil, like perpetual children, but were always intended to grow up and to live in the harder, but more adult, world. This coming to maturity is exemplified in the Adam and Eve story by their coming to sexual maturity; they know they are naked, they can have children, by their gaining of the knowledge of good and evil, and by their experience of the reality of death.
These are the markers of human maturity, of what God intends for us. This is not punishment for some ‘original sin’, but simply what it means to be human. Children in paradise, knowing nothing, making no moral decisions and thinking themselves immortal are not yet mature human beings. And God has, in this story, and in all our lives, made it possible for us to learn what it is to be human and to know this as God’s will for us. The story of Adam and Eve is a kind of parable of the process of human grow¬ing up, and thus it is the story of all of us.
If our lives are to bear good fruit we have to grow up and mature, and though this has a cost for us it’s what we are called, propelled, led to do. If we are to ‘come of age’ we have to learn that life is more like the wilderness than the garden, that we will have to make judge¬ments and decisions, that life will bring pain and that it will end. But we also learn that only in this life, and not in a protected paradise, may we become fully human, bearing the image of God, and grow into the maturity of the stature of Christ.
There are those in the Jewish tradition who have always seen this story as being about the growing up of human beings. So perhaps for today at least we should open our ears to alternative voices. I am committed to a path of religion that is about human flourishing and maturity and not about keeping people in a childlike naivety. Christians, you might say, should be more ‘knowing’, more mature, more worldly-wise than anyone else. Christians, you might say, should be more strongly committed to engaging with the world as it is than anyone else. We know what the deal is and we have resources to get on with it, to live in the wilderness and to face down those who would tempt us to escape from it or live in denial of it. And we are those who know that ignorance is not bliss after all, that there is a deeper joy to be found in facing the world as it is, and that God is with us, even and perhaps especially when the way is hard.
As we begin the time of Lent, we read the story of Jesus in the wilderness. He, like Adam and Eve, had a tempter, but this tempter tried to lure him back to the innocence of the garden, to a place where nothing had to be worked for, but only asked tor, a place where he could be protected from death by angels, a place where the whole world could be his for the asking. Jesus, of course, rejected these temptations and stayed resolutely in the wilderness as it truly was: a place of hunger, a place of emptiness, but a place where God is and where God can be worshipped. And he shows us how to live in this place too, in whatever form it comes to us. There are no childish promises of escape, but there is an example of a mature human life, and the promise that God is with us.
At times, in all our lives, we’re propelled against our will into a place where we must grow up before God. These are not easy times, but they bring us gifts too, gifts which we are foolish to refuse. May this Lent be a time for the maturing of life and faith among us, as we grow into the full maturity of the stature of Christ.