Fault: Lent 1

Lent has taken many forms over the years. In the early Christian Church Lent was time of preparation for baptism. Lent has also traditionally been a time of penitence. To this day many Christian communities view Lent as a season of personal reflection on how to live up to Christian ideals. There seems to be a current shift in the observances of Lent with many Christians now using this time to intentionally take up spiritual practices and draw closer to God. Whether drawing closer to God, engaging in personal reflections, observing the practice of penitence, or preparing for new life, the scriptures in the Bible seem to be one of the foundations to which we, as Christians, turn during this season. For this reason, I will be attempting through out this Lenten season to offer some scriptural reflections on this blog and these reflections will be based on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) or feminist lectionary Women’s Stories from Scripture for Sundays and Festivals: Remembering the Women by J. Frank Henderson, which also follows the RCL while offering passages reflecting the lives of biblical women to be used when the RCL does not.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that the scripture for the first week of Lent, the season of repentance and reflecting on sins, is Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 about Eve and Adam eating of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It is a text often pointed to as proof of “Original Sin,” the “untrustworthy” or “evil” nature of women. If you are unfamiliar with this passage or would like to refresh your reading of the text you may do so here. It is a text that has long affected the relationships of men and women, particularly in the realm of religious understanding and authority. But what does it say to us in Lent, about penitence, about drawing closer to God, about living the Christian life today?

I recently had occasion to re watch an episode of Bill Moyer’s wonderful PBS series Genesis in which Moyers, himself a pastor, gathers a variety of thinkers, artisans, scholars, and theologians to reflect on the major stories in the Book of Genesis. One of the Genesis episodes named “Temptation” addresses the Genesis passage about Adam, Eve, and the Tree of Knowledge. (And yes I must admit spending an hour listening to scholars discuss this was heavenly.) I mention this episode because in rewatching it I was particularly struck by two issues in the Adam and Eve text that I don’t think we often talk critically about: fault and relationship.

So often we approach this text with our tendency to idealize and analyze, and I wonder if in doing so we miss something important. We often imagine Adam and Eve in the garden with all their needs meet and without much worry. Perhaps it was ideal, certainly having all my needs met so I can simply be sounds ideal. But Adam and Eve were human. I have not lived as long as some people have but it does seem to me that one of the traits of our humanity is that if things get too easy we become bored; when we have too few challenges we wonder about new things, we strive to do something new, something to change the status quo although we always hope it will change for the better. It seems that some of that is a foot in this text from Genesis. Eve acts. If we ponder that without judgment for just a minute (go on, I dare you!) we see something different emerging from this. Steven Mitchell, in the Genesis episode comments that Eve is “the one who makes everything happen, who acts out of love for God, if God is wisdom.” (Genesis: a Living Conversation, New York: Doubleday 1996, 47.) In the text the serpent tells Eve “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” It is in some ways Eve’s eating of the fruit was a very Lenten act for it was an act to become closer to God, to “be like God”.

Yet, seeking to be closer to God can often change things in unforeseen ways. In the Genesis story, Eve took a human risk to do something different in order to become closer to God. But things did not work out the way Eve expected. There is in the text evidence that God told Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge before Eve was a part of the story, Eve may not have had this command directed at her. Nevertheless, whether Eve defied God, as is often said of this text, or whether Eve was acting out of innocence (which seems a closer reading of the text) Eve’s eating of the fruit changes the relationships in the Garden. In Genesis, prior to this episode God is portrayed as walking in the Garden with Adam and Eve. Yet that changes after the eating of the fruit. In the Genesis episode Marianne Meye Thompson makes the point that after the fruit is eaten “they clothe themselves, as if to hide from each other. And they also hide from God.” (Genesis, 52). The text then is about human changes. Changes in human ingenuity, changes in human spirituality, changes in relationships between man and woman as well as between humans and God.

Our text seems to indicate that changes in ourselves also lead to changes in our relationships with others. One of the other things I have noticed about humans is that we don’t like change. Adam very much portrays that aspect of human nature in this story. For when God asks why they are hiding, why they know they are naked, Adam explains that Eve gave him the fruit to eat. God does not fall for it. God does not tell the pair that everything is going to be okay. Rather, God acknowledges the change in all their relationships that will take place, perhaps because of their acts, but also because of the change that has taken place in the man and woman themselves. Not only is change never easy, but in this case the change also brings about suffering. In the Genesis episode Elaine Pagles says of this text that “it insists that suffering has to be somebody’s fault.” (Genesis, 50.) As Christians we live with a tradition that (perhaps not originally) for many centuries has taught that this is a text that tells of how a woman brought sin into the world and how man was given power over her. Sin is a form of suffering. And yes this is a text that speaks to how suffering came about in the world. But woman did not bring suffering into the world. The wisdom of acknowledging suffering existed in the Garden, locked in the Tree of Knowledge, before Eve was ever there. Once that knowledge of suffering, once innocence, came out it could not be put back. There was change; change that required Adam and Eve change their relationships to one another. Once change is proclaimed, it is not always a pronouncement about the way things will be forever. We know this. As Christians, it becomes part of our being. For our teacher Jesus was always challenging the ways people related to one another, turning relationships upside down, inviting the outcasts—even the outcasts from the Garden—back in. Change is part of the Good News!

So, welcome to Lent. Whatever you seek to do this season whether penitence for sins or drawing closer to God through spiritual practices, be aware that such changes can have profound effects on all your relationships. And may God be with you on the journey.

A Feminist Eschatology

The following article was prepared for a seminary class in 2007.

Eschatology is the study of human thoughts concerning what is “last”; translated from the Greek, eschatology means study of the last (1). The question this raises for me is: the last what? Theologically speaking, eschatology is commonly thought to refer to culmination of history or the end of time. In Christianity, eschatology is often associated with the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, and the return of Christ. For religions that place emphasis on the historical patterns of time, such as the Abrahamic religions, eschatology can serve as a “hope [that] locates the ultimate achievement of the ideal in a final era of human history” (2). Ultimately, eschatology leads us to reflect upon what it is that we consider to be ideal, and perhaps essential to the human experience in relation to both the world in which we reside, and the divinity in which we live and have our being. The exploration I will seek to engage in this brief essay is how some feminist theologians approach this notion of eschatology. What are the last things that feminist theologians hope for? What, ultimately, do feminist theologies hope for?

Traditionally, eschatology has brought to mind the Battle of Armageddon, and the notion of some who are cosmically crowned by a heavenly king, while others are sentenced to eternal torture. These images themselves smack of patriarchy with all its war, hierarchy, and threats to non-conformers. Feminist theologians, starting from the ground of their own experience and carrying with them a commitment to non-hierarchical structures, have tended to view eschatology in a different light, and use a different vocabulary in reference to it. Justice is one word that seems common in feminist discussions and visions of the eschaton.

Building on a tradition that emphasizes history in its concept of world completion, Rosemary Radford Ruether draws an eschatological vision based on the jubilee notion found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. She writes that “[i]n the Jubilee tradition this is thought of not as one ‘great cycle’ defining history from a beginning to an end but as a series of revolutionary transformations that continually return to certain starting points” (3). The idea of jubilee is that each family has possession of the land they need to provide for their means, and that individuals are free to benefit from the land. It is an idea that all have what they need to survive; this is the starting point to which justice returns in the world. An eschatological vision based on this would have to assume an ongoing process of justice in which injustices are righted and the necessary means of life restored to all persons on a regular basis. Ruether sees this “concept of social change as a conversion to the center, conversion to the earth and each other, rather than flight into an unrealizable future.” (4). It is ultimately justice among persons in community, and all the responsibility that entails, that Ruether advocates as an eschatological hope. It is a hope in which the ultimate meaning of humanity comes in the form of personal responsibility and a communal justice that encompasses all the earth. This is justice.

Justice—and the struggle for it—is also a primary (if not ultimate) goal for other feminist theologians. Judith Plaskow, as a Jewish feminist theologian, is even bolder in this pursuit writing of “the relationship between spirituality and politics as a theological issue” (5). The politics of which Plaskow speaks is social justice. The connection of politics and spirituality is paramount to Plaskow because drawing upon her Jewish tradition she reminds us “the prophets affirm that the forms of worship are meaningless in the absence of social justice” (6). Thus the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition that stands upon it, demands the not just the uplifting of but the reality of social justice as a prerequisite for worship. It is only through social justice that humanity can reach toward “new understandings of divinity” (7). Eschatology for Plaskow seems to be a reaching out for and bringing in those persons society marginalizes and considers to be “last.” This requires a political understanding and interaction with the world, because, “[w]hen spirituality is understood from a feminist perspective—not in otherworld terms, but as the fullness of our relationships with ourselves, others and God—it can not possibly be detached from the conditions of our existence.” (8).

Experience as the basis for the formation of theological and spiritual reflection is at the heart of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s Mujerista Theology. Isasi-Diaz’s eschatology is one in which, like Plaskow’s, there is an expectation that the establishment of justice will also bring with it the establishment of the kin-dom (sic). She writes that “[t]he main obstacle to the unfolding of the kin-dom is the alienation from each other experienced by all in and through the oppressive societal categories and structures that cause and sustain oppression.” (9). Thus, the kin-dom exists when oppression is banished and liberation established. The eschatology here is, again, a function of human interactions. As a Latina, Iassi-Diaz not only writes her theology from a feminist perspective, but also from a perspective that seeks liberation, culturally from within and racially from without. In this effort to organize for the liberation of the poor, of women, and of Latinas/os, Isasi-Diaz’s theology puts emphasis on the practical steps of how to build a community that will bring about the kin-dom. Such practicality is based on her emphasis that change will only begin when the oppressed achieve “conscientization” (10) of their situation and the oppressors are able to find their way to being in dialogical solidarity (11) and mutuality in which the oppressors come to understand the oppressed (12). From the perspective of Isasi-Diaz’s theology, it is justice between the people, with power and those without, that becomes the determining factor of when the ultimate hopes of humanity are achieved . Yet, this justice is “ever changing” based on the lived realities of people’s real experiences (13).

There are many ways in which eschatology has been and can be viewed. Often when we look to eschatology there seems to be little agreement about what the last things or times are. However, when we look at the question of what eschatology is from the feminist perspective there seems to be agreement, even across interfaith lines. Feminist theologies seem to agree that the eschaton, the ultimate hope for humanity, will be found only in the seeking and establishing of justice (Plaskow and Isasi-Diaz), or in the establishment of new ways of living in which seeks right relationships and justice among all inhabitants of the earth, human or not (Ruether). In terms of feminist theology, the eschaton is the realization of justice for and inclusion of those persons, and beings, whom are thought of last in the traditional hierarchies of power and control. There is also the implicit expectation of feminist theologians that this feminist eschatology includes roles and respect for women in the ecclesiastical / religious power structures.

***Endnotes

  1. Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology&oldid=175010037 (accessed December 4, 2007).
  2. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 243.
  3. Ibid, 254.
  4. Ibid, 255-256.
  5. Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, (San Francsico: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 212.
  6. Ibid, 214.
  7. Ibid, 238.
  8. Ibid, 213.
  9. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology, (New York: Orbis, 1996) 90.
  10. Ibid, 94.
  11. Ibid, 97.
  12. Ibid, 89.
  13. Ibid, 116

Bibliography

  • Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria. Mujerista Theology. New York: Orbis, 1996.
  • Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.
  • Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
  • Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, [on-line] available from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology&oldid=175010037, accessed December 4, 2007.