Good and evil

As I was writing this week’s sermon, I found myself thinking yet again about the strange, strange story of the Garden of Eden. I came across a passage in Elaine Pagels’s book, The Origin of Satan, where she tells about an anonymous early Christian author who wrote a book called “Testimony of Truth.” This anonymous author also tried to make sense out of the Garden of Eden story, and wound up by saying the character of God must really be the evil one in the story — after all, God lies to Adam and Eve (by telling them they would die if they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil), and is vindictive and mean-spirited. No, said this anonymous author, the real hero of the story is the Serpent, who (believe it or not) is actually Christ!

I don’t buy the bit about the serpent. But let’s face it, God behaves in a less than exemplary fashion in this story. I like to retell the Garden of Eden as an existentialist parable with Eve as the protagonist: Eve has to make a decision in an absurd universe — she makes the best choice she can, a choice that turns out to have unforeseen consequences — and her choice shapes the rest of her life. No original sin, just an existential choice in the face of absurdity.

In this story and elsewhere, I feel the Bible matches both Camus and Sartre as a source for good existentialist philosophy. Take Ecclesiastes — how existentialist can you get? And if you’ve gone beyond existentialism to postmodernism, the confusing figure of Jesus is just whimsical enough, and just engaged enough, to suit.

That’s the lovely thing about being a heterdoxical heretic who doesn’t give a tinker’s dam for creeds and dogma — when that’s your attitude, you can read the Bible as a source of spiritual inspiration suitable for this very moment. And as Elaine Pagels points out, people have been doing this right along.