6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” [Genesis 3:6-10, NRSV]
From innocence to shame, and the possibility of return, the Bible speaks of a journey that promises a rich soil for contemplation. Here are some points for starters.
1. Friendship and Estrangement
When the author of Genesis 2:15 writes about Adam and Eve being naked and yet they were not ashamed, he sets up a significant bridge for understanding their “fall” in Genesis 3. What he does is to prepare the readers for a dramatic contrast with Genesis 3:7” – “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” He takes the readers from the beauty of human innocence and honour, to a point of shame and dishonor, on account of an abuse of human freedom.
The writer of Genesis attempts to place all this as the singular reality that stands at the origin of the three-part itinerary of human history in Holy Scriptures – creation, fall, redemption.
In the beginning, Adam and Eve had no shame in their relationship to themselves and to others. The crucial underlying reality was that they were in the right relationship with God. Innocence was bliss. The moment that innocence was lost, shame set in. Dragged along in the trail of being ashamed, were a cocktail of painful effects such as guilt and fear. Along with these effects, compulsive behaviour emerges:
- to shift blame through denial (“The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” “The serpent tricked me, and I ate” – Gen 3:12),
- to hide shame through concealment (“they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” – Gen 3:7b), and
- to deal with fear through flight (“I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” – Gen 3:10).
2. Pope Francis’ Vision in Laudato Si’
This dramatic contrast is underlined by a deep message that runs through the entire Bible: In friendship with God, humanity is blessed with innocent bliss, peace and beauty; separated from God, humanity experiences guilt, shame, and estrangement from self, others, and the world.
In the encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis explains:
- “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin.” [LS, 66]
His diagnosis on the implications of all this on the natural and social ecology pinpoints the soul of the entire text:
- “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” [LS, 2]
3. Simon Weil’s Vision of Sin-Concealment
In the 1930’s, Simone Weil (1909-1943) exposed the ways individuals and society concealed sin by not recognizing sin as sin.
Sin was a thing people hardly recognized anymore, Weil lamented, except when “other people” committed it. Conversely, people recognized goodness only when they themselves did it. Diagnosing sin as something that was suppressed but real, she found its manifestations in people’s readiness to demean others, to hold them guilty, to accuse society, and to change the world by violence.
Today, individuals and society conceal shame by refusing to recognize sin as sin. Key manifestations in this sin-concealment are found in individuals looking at the outside instead of the demons within the persons, focusing on corporate wrong-doing rather than one’s own faults, betting on the passing of time to erode one’s sins, and assuming that there is safety through anonymity in sheer numbers.
4. Bonhoeffer’s Vision of Shame
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) had a notion of shame that placed him far ahead of his time.
From his background circumstances of dedicated resistance against the debasing atrocities of Hitler, Bonhoeffer developed unique insights into the human condition. Shame, he assessed, was the result of estrangement, a broken union. Humanity, he found, tended to respond to shame by covering and concealing. But, Bonhoeffer the theologian refused to see the overcoming of shame in psychological terms. Instead, in proposing a primarily theological remedy, he insisted that shame is overcome only by the restoration of fellowship, that is, re-union, with God.
In our reading, we can see that not only does God seek out the sinning humanity (“[T]he man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’” – Gen 3:8-9), He actively provides the solution of shame: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” – Gen 3:21.
We thus see Bonhoeffer’s analysis of shame as being profoundly biblical:
- Shame ultimately comes from disunion with God, so that the solution of shame should come from God.
- Shame “gives reluctant witness” to our fallen state and disunity.
- Shame is not a temporary social discomfort, but the deep longing of every soul for reunification with God.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, November 2017. All rights reserved.
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