Selections from Adam, Eve and the Serpent
Since TSLG concerns itself with man's fascination with naked women and porn, I wanted to understand where our taboos against nudity and sex came from. I knew that religion was behind much of the suppression and I looked to this book by Elaine Pagels for clues.
TSLG considers religion and the Bible to be antithetical to true spirituality. By presenting the following Pagels quotes, in which Biblical passages are referenced, we are not intending to validate ancient fiction, but merely to acknowledge that, to some degree, we all have been affected by religious indoctrination.
If any of us could come to our own culture as a foreign anthropologist and observe traditional Christian attitudes toward sexuality and gender, and how we vie "human nature" in relation to politics, philosophy, and psychology, we might well be astonished at attitudes that we take for granted. Augustine, one of the greatest teachers of western Christianity, derived many of these attitudes from the story of Adam and Eve: that sexual desire is sinful; that infants are infected from the moment of conception with the disease of original sin; and that Adam's sin corrupted the whole nature of the universe.
Many people who have—intellectually, at least—discarded the creation story as a mere folk tale nevertheless find themselves engaged with its moral implication concerning procreation, animals, work, marriage, and the human striving to "subdue" the earth and "have dominion" over all its creatures (Genesis I:28).
Some insisted that only those who "undo the sin of Adam and Eve" by practicing celibacy—even within marriage—can truly practice the gospel. Others who predominate within the majority of churches, rejected such austerity and composed, in Paul's name, other letters, later incorporated into the New Testament as if Paul himself had wriiten them, which used the story of Adam and Eve to support traditional marriage and to prove that women, being naturally gullible, are unfit for any role but raising children and keeping house (see, for example, I Timothy 2:11-15); thus the story of Eden was made to reinforce the patriarchal structure of community life.
But the majority of Christians…rejected the claim made by radical Christians that the sin of Adam and Eve was sexual—that the forbidden "fruit of the tree of knowledge" conveyed, above all, carnal knowledge. On the contrary, said Clement of Alexandria (c. 180 C.E.), conscious participation in procreation is "cooperation with God in the work of creation." Adam's sin was not sexual indulgence but disobedience; thus Clement agreed with most of his Jewish and Christian contemporaries that the real theme of the story of Adam and Ever is moral freedom and moral responsibility. Its point is to show that we are responsible for the choices we freely make—good or evil—just as Adam was.
Augustine spent the last twelve years of his life battling for his interpretation of Genesis against a young Christian bishop, Julian of Eclanum, who attacked and criticized his theory of original sin not only as an abrupt departure from orthodox Christian thought but as Manichaean heresy, the very heresy that Augustine had once admired and later attacked. When Julian challenged Augustine to define what is "nature"—human nature and nature in general—Augustine replied that mortality and sexual desire are not "natural"; both, he insists, entered into human experience only to punish Adam's sin…this debate on the nature of nature…in which Augustine's views—antinatural and even preposterous as they will appear…nevertheless became deeply rooted in our cultural attitudes toward suffering and death.
To ensure the stability and survival of the nation, Jewish teachings apparently assumed that sexual activity should be committed to primary purpose of procreation. Prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, and infanticide, practices both legal and tolerated among certain of their pagan neighbors, contradicted Jewish custom and law.
Both polygamy and divorce, on the other hand, increased opportunities for reproduction—not for women, but for the men who wrote the laws and benefited from them. Jewish law even went so far as to require that a man bound for ten years in childless marriage should either divorce his wife or marry another, or else keep this barren wife and take a second to produce his children. Jewish custom banned as "abominations" sexual acts not conducive to procreation, and the impurity laws even prohibited marital intercourse except at times most likely to result in conception.
…Jewish customs concerning childbirth and nakedness were not arbitrary or trivial but actually built into human nature from the beginning. As the author tells it, Adam entered Eden during the first week of creation, but Eve entered the garden only during the second week; this explains why a woman who gives birth to a male child remains ritually impure for only one week, while she who bears a female remains impure for two weeks. The author goes on to recall that God made leather garments for Adam and Eve, and clothed them before expelling them form Paradise (Genesis 3:21); this shows that Jews must "cover their shame, and not go naked, as the Gentiles do," in public places like the baths and the gymnasia.
Following Jesus' advice, these young disciples broke with their families and refused to marry, declaring themselves now members of "God's family". Their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children's lives.
Thomas persuaded [Mygdonia], too, that to follow the gospel she must devote herself to celibacy, even within her marriage: "This sordid communion with your husband will mean nothing if you are deprived of true communion." Convinced by Thomas's words, Mygdonia turned away from her husband's anxious and loving pleas and then rejected his "shameless" sexual overtones. At first pleading headaches, she finally struck him on the face and ran naked from the bedroom, ripping down the bedroom curtains to cover herself as she escaped to sleep with her childhood nurse. Although her husband grieved, suffered, and raged, he finally yielded, and, receiving baptism himself, agreed to live with her henceforth in celibate marriage.
The distinguished ascetic Julius Cassianus instead blamed Satan, not Adam, for inventing sexual intercourse. According to Cassianus, Satan "borrowed this practice from the irrational animals, and persuaded Adam to have sexual union with Eve."
"Nature led [Adam and Eve], like irrational animals, to procreate"; "and" Clement might well have added, "when I say nature, I mean God." Clement says that those who engage in procreation are not sinning but "cooperating with God in his work of creation." Thus Clement confirms the tradition Jewish conviction, expressed in the deuteron-Pauline letters, that legitimate procreation is a good work, blessed by God from the day of human creation.
If engaging in sexual intercourse was not the sin of Adam and Eve, what was the first and fatal transgression? Such fathers of the church as Clement and Irenaeus insist that the first sin was disobeying God's command.
The attitudes that Clement and Ireanaeus helped to shape more than one hundred years after Paul's death set the standard of Christian behavior for centuries—indeed, for nearly two thousand years.
The married Christian must not only subordinate desire to reason but strive to annihilate desire entirely: "Our ideal is not to experience desire at all…We should do nothing from desire. Our will is to be directed only toward what is necessary. For we are children not of desire but of will. A man who marries for the sake of begetting children must practice continence so that it is not desire he feels for his wife…that he may beget children with a chaste and controlled will."
"The gospel," as Clement reads it, not only restricts sexuality to marriage but, even within marriage, limits it to specific acts intended for procreation. To engage in marital intercourse for any other reason is to "do injury to nature."
…for Clement's views on marriage virtually ensure that anyone who takes them seriously will judge himself or herself to be deficient by their standard. And Clement goes on to invite to the "angelic life" those eager few who shun the dangerous shoals of married life. For continence and virginity are, he assumes, better still—certainly safer, and far holier.
Augustine later described his overwhelming relief when at last he gave up his career, his ambition, the woman who had lived with him and borne him a son, as well as his impending marriage to a wealthy heiress, for the freedom and celibacy and renunciation. His pagan [beliefs] regarded such renunciation not only as social suicide but as the worst impiety and dishonor. But Augustine came to believe that it meant no more than "dying to the world"—destroying the false self, constructed accordingly to wordly custom and tradition, in order to "raise his own life above the world."
Even today, an adolescent who takes time to think before plunging into ordinary adult society—into marriage, and the double obligations of family and career—may hesitate, for such obligations usually cost nothing less than one's life, the expense of virtually all one's energy attempting to fulfill obligations to family and society, especially if one also wants to be recognized and celebrated within one's community. It is in the sense that Christian renunciation, or which celibacy is the paradigm, offered freedom—freedom, in particular, form entanglement in Roman society.
Even apart from renunciation of the world, the strict ethical attitudes of Christians had enormously raised the stakes involved in sexual activity. The casual sexual behavior that many pagans took for granted—homosexual encounters among mentors and friends at the baths, or the sexual use of slaves and prostitutes—were rejected by most Christians, who simultaneously rejected homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and infanticide. For most Christians, therefore, sexual activity risked conception and so involved both partners, potentially, at least, in the economic and social obligations of family life. The example of Jesus and his followers encouraged them instead to take the subversive path away from such obligations—toward freedom.
As Thealia sees it, such Christians use these passages to gratify themselves sexually, while pretending that their concern is with procreation. She admits that Paul did not require celibacy, but says he certainly preferred it for any who were capable of achieving this "means of restoring humanity to Paradise."
Finally Thecla is introduced by her sister in virginity Arete (whose name in Greek means "virtue") as one "who yields to none in universal philosophy, having been taught by Paul in evangelical and apostolical doctrines." Thecla sides with Thaelia and goes on to denounce the great lie of philosophical education: "The greatest of all evils is to say that this life is governed by inevitable necessities of fate." Thecla herself stands as living evidence against those who say that one must "accept one's destiny"—whether that destiny arises from one's anatomy, or from the familial and social circumstances of one's birth. In praising human freedom, Thecla declares that only those who live in chastity actually achieve mastery of themselves and of their destinies. She addresses her sisters as women warriors who "struggle and wrestle, according to our teacher Paul. For she who had overcome the devil, having undergone the seven great struggles of chastity, comes to possess seven crowns." Whoever wins this battle receives "a masculine…and voluntary mind, one free from necessity, in order to choose, like masters, the things which please us, not being enslaved to fate nor fortune."
Melanina and Pinian, like many others before and since, saw renunciation as a higher alternative to family obligations—obligations all the heavier because they were, in wordly terms, so privileged. As the historian Elizabeth Clark so ably has shown, "renouncing the world" sometimes brought wealthy and aristocratic women like Melania practical benefits often denied to them in secular society. They could retain control of their own wealth, travel freely throughout the world as "holy pilgrims," devote themselves to intellectual and spiritual pursuits, and found institutions which they could personally direct.
…a friend traveling from Rome brought to Jerome's monastic cell in Bethlehem a copy of writing that challenged the supremacy of asceticism over married life. Its author, Jovinian, himself a celibate Christian monk, argued that celibacy in itself is no holier than marriage and accused certain fanatical Christians of having invented—and then having attributed to Jesus and Paul—this "novel dogma against nature."
Jerome saw Jovinian as a serious threat and set out "to crush with evangelical and apostolical vigor the Epicurus of Christianity."
Jerome declares that Jesus himself remained "a virgin in the flesh and a monogamist in the spirit," faithful to his only bride, the church, and adds that "although I know the crowds of matrons will be furious at me,…I will say what the apostle [Paul] had taught me…indeed in view of the purity of the body of Christ, all sexual intercourse is unclean."
Those who actually chose renunciation often found, no doubt, the freedom they sought: we have seen how women who "renounced the world"—whether wealthy and aristocratic, like Melania, or women without means like Thecla—thereby claimed the opportunity to travel, to devote themselves to intellectual and spiritual pursuits, to found institutions, and to direct them.
Yet the men who wrote most of the literature in praise of virginity undoubtedly also found, in chasity and renunciation, the rewards of liberty they sought—freedom from the oppressive weight of imperial rule, of custom tradition, "destiny," or fate, and from the internal tyranny of passions. The appeal of that ascetic life is by no means confined to the past: the twenty-century writer Thomas Merton, who, following his conversion, entered a Cistercian monastery, no doubt was speaking of his own resolve as well as that of early desert fathers when he said: "What the fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion "in the world."
Given the intense inner conflicts involving his passionate nature and the struggle to control sexual impulses he reveals in his Confessions, Augustine's decision to abandon his predecessors' emphasis on free will need not surprise us. Much more surprising, in fact, is the result.
As John saw it, imperial rule epitomizes the social consequences of sin. Like his persecuted Christian predecessors, John ridiculed imperial propaganda that claimed that the state rests upon concord, justice and liberty. On the contrary, he said, the state relies upon force and compulsion, often using these to violate justice and to suppress liberty. But because the majority of humankind followed Adam's example in sinning, government, however corrupt, has become indispensable and, for this reason, even divinely endorsed…
…in the fourteenth chapter of The City of God, Augustine seems intent on proving that, even if Adam once had free will, he himself had never received it. Even in his account of Adam's case Augustine betrays his own ambivalence or, indeed, outright hostility toward the possibility of human freedom. What earlier apologists had celebrated as God's greatest gift to humankind—free will, liberty, autonomy, self-government—Augustine characterizes in surprisingly negative terms. Adam had received freedom as his birthright, but nonetheless, as Augustine tells it, the first man "conceived a desire for freedom," and his desire became, in Augustine's eyes, the root sin, betraying nothing less than contempt for God. The desire to master one's will, far from expressing what Origen, Clement, and Chrysostom consider the true nature of rational beings, becomes for Augustine the great and fatal temptation: "The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is personal control overone's own will" (proprium voluntatis arbitrium). Augustine cannot resist reading that desire for self-government as total, obstinate perversity: "the soul, then, delighting its own freedom to do wickedness, and scorning to serve God…willfully deserted its higher master."
The punishment itself, Augustine continues, "effected in their orginial nature a change for the worse." Augustine derived the nature of that change from an idiosyncratic interpretation of Romans 5:12.
But what epitomizes our rebellion against God, above all, is the "rebellion in the flesh"—a spontaneous uprising, so to speak, in the "disobedient members": "After Adam and Eve disobeyed…they felt for the first time a movement of disobedience on their flesh, as punishment in kind of their own disobedience to God…The soul, which had taken a perverse delight in its own liberty and disdained to serve God, was now deprived of its original mastery over the body."
That each of us experiences desire spontaneously apart from will means, Augustine assumes, that we experience it against our will. Hence, he continues, sexual desire naturally involves shame: "A man by his very nature is ashamed of sexual desire." What proves the truth of such assertions, Augustine believes, is the universal practice of covering the genitals and of shielding the act of intercourse from the public view.
Recognizing that Adam and Eve originally were created to live together in a harmonious order of authority and obedience, superiority and subordination, like soul and body, "we must conclude," says Augustine, "that a husband is meant to rule over his wife as the spirit rules the flesh."
Although originally created equal with man in regard to her rational soul, woman's formation from Adam's rib established her as the "weaker part of the human couple." Being closely connected with bodily passion, woman, although created to be man's helper, became his temptress and led him into disaster. The Genesis account describes the result: God himself reinforced the husband's authority over his wife, placing divine sanction upon the social, legal, and economic machinery of male domination.
Augustine, on the contrary, having denied that human beings possess any capacity whatever for free will, accepts a definition of liberty far more agreeable to the powerful and influential men with whom he himself wholeheartedly identifies. As Augustine tells it, it is the serpent who temps Adam with the seductive lure of liberty. The forbidden fruit symbolizes, he explains, "personal control over one's will."
So…Augustine concludes that humanity never was really meant to be, in any sense, truly free. God allowed us to sin in order to prove to us from our own experience that "our true good is free slavery"—slavery to God in the first place and, in the second, to his agent, the emperor.
As Augustine understood their task, having learned it from Ambrose, church leaders participate in the divinely ordained work of government: "You teach kings to rule for the benefit of their people; and it is you who warn the people to be subservient to their kings." At the time of Augustine's baptism, the Catholic church was in the process of consolidating its identification with imperial rule.
They offered to the bishop of Rome and to his imperial patrons a clear demonstration of the political efficacy of Augustine's doctrine of the fall. By insisting that humanity, ravaged by sin, now lies helplessly in need of outside intervention, Augustine's theory could not only validate secular power but justify as well the impositions of church authority—by force, if necessary—as essential for human salvation.
…It is Augustine's theology of the fall that made the uneasy alliance between he Catholic churches and imperial power palatable—not only justifiable but necessary—for the majority of Catholic Christians.
Augustine's theory of Adam's fall, once espoused in simpler forms only by marginal groups of Christians, now moved, together with the imperially supported Catholic church that proclaimed it, into the center of western history.
Universal mortality cannot be result of Adam's punishment, since God, being just, would not have punished anyone but Adam for what Adam alone had done; certainly he would not condemn the whole human race for one man's transgression. Mortality, therefore, must belong to the structure of nature: mortality, which human beings share with every other species, is not, nor ever was, within the power of any human being to choose or reject.
…Augustine went further than those Jews and Christians who agreed that Adam's sin brought death upon the human race: he insisted that Adam's sin also brought upon us universal moral corruption. Julian replied to this that "natural sin" does not exist: no physically transmitted, hereditary condition infects human nature, much less nature in general.
Such questions led both Julian and Augustine back to Genesis, and each claimed its authority. Julian insisted that neither death nor sexual desire troubled Adam and Eve in Paradise, for both death and desire were, "from the beginning," natural: "God made bodies, distinguished the sexes, made genitalia, bestowed affection through which bodies would be joined, gave power to the semen, and operates in the secret nature of the semen—and God made nothing evil."
As Augustine's claim that Eve's punishment has fallen upon all women, "This indeed is insane that the pains of parturition came into being because of sin." Labor pains, which for part of "the condition of the sexes," have nothing to do with sin. Innocent animals, including cattle, sheep, and cats, experience similar contractions to expel fetuses from the womb. If labor pains indicate sin why do baptized women, released from sin, experience them as other women do? Furthermore, Julian continues, the severity of labor pains varies considerably. Arguing that extreme pain in childbirth cannot be regarded simply as a universal "given," Julian observes that: "certain barbarian women and no mads, accustomed to endure physical exertion, give birth in the course of their travels with such facility that, without stopping, they go out to gather food for their young, and continue on their way, transferring the burden of their womb to their shoulders; and, in general, village women do not require physicians for childbirth…in fact, where luxury and softness increase, more women die in childbirth."
What about the man? Julian recalls the language of Genesis 3:17-19, emphasizing the words that refer to Adam's experience of nature: "Cursed is the ground in your works; in the sorrow you shall eat from it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the produce of the field, in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the earth, for you were taken from it; for you are earth, and you shall return to earth."
Such a person foolishly sees the earth itself—indeed, all of nature—as cursed and afflicted. Yet, Julian adds—perhaps referring to the pessimistic Augustine himself—"this lie cannot injure nature, nor the earth, in this curse, but only his own person, and his own will."
Why did Catholic Christianity adopt Augustine's paradoxical—some would say preposterous—views? Some historians suggest that such beliefs validate the church's authority, for if the human condition is a disease, Catholic Christianity, acting as the Good Physician, offers the spiritual medication and the discipline that alone can cure it. No doubt Augustine's views did serve the interests of the emerging imperial church and the Christian state…
Why do people outside religious communities often ask themselves as if spontaneously, the same questions, and give similar answers, blaming themselves for events beyond their power as if they had caused—or deserved—their own suffering?
For quite apart from political circumstances, many people need to find reasons for their sufferings. Had Augustine's theory no met such a need—were it not that people often would rather feel guilty than helpless—I suspect that original sin would not have survived the fifth century, much less become the basis of Christian doctrine for 1600 years.