God looked down at Earth and saw all the ways humanity has been acting—the backbiting, the disregard and disdain, the willful hypocrisy—and God called one of the angels and sent the angel to earth to analyze the situation. When the angel returned, she told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 90% of people are acting horribly toward one another, and only 10% are not.”
God thought for a moment and then decided to send another angel to earth for a second opinion. When that angel returned she went to God and said, “Unfortunately, it’s true. The world is in trouble. 90% of people increasingly hold each another in utter contempt. Only 10% actively seek reconciliation and joy in one another.”
God was not pleased. So, God decided to e-mail the 10% that were sharing grace in the world, because God wanted to encourage them and give them a little something to help them keep going. And do you know what that email said?… Yeah, I didn’t receive one either.[i]
Had it been real, I’m sure you all would have received God’s encouraging email, even as I’m sometimes doubtful that I would. I think we’ll all acknowledge that in our world, it is difficult these days to maintain equanimity and goodwill, much less hope. Increasingly, it seems, we scurry to the polar ends of the socio-political spectrum; we interpret all data about those at the other pole in the most suspicious and negative light; and we increasingly only constructively engage with those with whom we already agree.
You know me well, and you know that I don’t casually or recklessly preach politics from the pulpit. When I do preach about things going on in our world, which sometimes unavoidably includes things that touch upon politics, I do so with trembling knees and in prayerful hope that I am preaching only the Gospel of Christ.
This morning I am not going to talk about the Supreme Court nomination hearing, its related saga, or yesterday’s confirmation vote. There is most definitely a time and place to discuss in Church such pivotal national events, and it is very likely that the Faith & Society Seminar will do so in the spring. And when we do, we will do so in a manner that seeks to offer an alternative to the suspicion and presumption of ulterior motives by our neighbors that I lamented at the outset this morning, because in the Church we are called always to presume goodwill of one another, not malice. We are called to sow grace, not suspicion.
This morning, though, the entire set of lectionary readings does virtually insist that we commit our souls and minds to the broader topic that has been swirling around in our culture for some months now, namely, the relationship of men to women.
Our Old Testament reading takes this issue all the way back to its origin: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then God took one of the man’s ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’”
We know what happens next. God walks with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, until the day that the serpent approaches Eve and convinces her to eat the forbidden fruit. Adam follows suit and also eats. Their disobedience brings expulsion from the Garden, lust, toil, and death.
At the dawn of the fifth century A.D., St. Augustine gave us the interpretation of these events that has remained normative throughout Christian religious and cultural history. As Rosemary Radford Reuther explains, Augustine argues that “the male was created first and then the female from his side to indicate the relation of superiority of the male and the subordination of the female by which they are to relate to each other in the social order. For Augustine, then, gender hierarchy was part of the original creation.”[ii]
And it gets worse for Eve when the serpent shows up. Augustine says, again according to Reuther, that “Eve took the initiative in this choice to disobey God, because as a woman she had less rationality and was closer to the bodily lower self and so was easily deceived by the tempting serpent. Adam, in Augustine’s view, was not deceived but went along with Eve in an act of kindly companionship lest she be left alone outside of Paradise.”[iii]
A math of sorts emerges from St. Augustine’s interpretation: Eve is derivative and, thus, less than Adam + Eve’s identity is tied to the body, whereas Adam’s is tied to the mind + Eve gives in to her physical appetites by eating the succulent fruit = Eve and her descendants—that’s all women—are both lustful and objects of lust. They are less than men, and they are to blame for all sins of the flesh.
No single person has had greater influence on Western thought than St. Augustine. His conclusions live in our cultural ether, both religious and secular. They are unquestioned, assumed, and therefore unconscious. Augustine’s interpretation of the Creation, Adam, Eve, and the Fall has informed the ways Western culture has viewed women to a depth of which we have been scarcely, and are only now becoming, aware. The objectification of women, the demeaning of women, the disregard of women, and the abuse of women all find a source in St. Augustine and, thus, in the Church.
And, Augustine is wrong. I don’t dispute the most influential doctor of the Church lightly, but here Augustine is wrong—flatly and plainly so—and I don’t mean that he is wrong simply by our twenty-first century standards (though that is also, obviously, true). Augustine was wrong when he developed his argument sixteen hundred years ago, because he is wrong in his interpretation of the language of scripture.
You see, we are too footloose in the way we apply the name “Adam” to the man in the Genesis story. The Hebrew word Adam—Ha’Adam—clearly and rightly means not “man” but “human.” Even more accurately, Adam comes from the Hebrew “adamah,” which means earth or ground. In the Hebrew text, Adam is the name used exclusively to refer to the first person in the second chapter of Genesis, prior to the creation of Eve. At this point in the story, in other words, the first person is neither male nor female. The first person is, rather, “human being,” a person of the earth. The best translation of “Adam” is, actually, “the earthling.”
When Eve is created, when the earthling is separated into two beings, both receive a new name. At that point in the Hebrew biblical text, the name Adam recedes, and the new names Genesis uses to refer to the two, differentiated people are “Ish” and “Ishshah,” which mean male and female. Eve, it turns out, is not derivative of Adam at all. Rather, from Adam—the earthling, neither male nor female—come both Ish and Ishshah, the man and the woman. What was one whole becomes two new equal parts. We miss this in English translation, but it is clear in Hebrew.
In a manner I take to be providential, today’s other readings speak with similar clarity. The Psalmist today, along with the Letter to the Hebrews which borrows from the psalm, speaks of both men and women together, begging of God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory.” Woman and man both, crowned with glory and honor, only a little lower than God, and created in God’s image.
Even today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, which on the face of it is about divorce, has at its root Jesus’ restoration of the status of women. Whereas under Mosaic law a husband could simply turn his wife out, Jesus asserts a standard that puts wives and husbands on equal footing.
This is the biblical witness. What does it mean today, for Christian people, both male and female? The implications are monumental. Pushing back against millennia of theology and cultural accretion that have insisted women are derivative, of the flesh, blameworthy, and culpable for men’s wrongs, we must teach our youth, enact in our world, and live our own lives in ways that affirm women as crowned with glory scarcely less than that of the angels. The Church must be a leading, and not a lagging, indicator in our culture that women are, in every way, the right recipients of honor, integrity, merit, and, most importantly, respect for their bodies equal to men. Whatever the issue of the day; whether in the public sphere, the workplace, our educational institutions, or the family; whatever the circumstance, large or small, we are to speak these truths, remembering that only together—Ish and Ishshah as one Ha’Adam, man and woman as one humanity—do we reflect the very image of God.
[i] Adapted from a joke at http://www.ba-bamail.com/content.aspx?emailid=19941