The first in our Lenten Reflections series, by social theologian Dr Kevin Hargaden invites us to ponder our own existential homelessness.
Read Genesis 1-3
Let us begin at the beginning. To do that – to read Genesis 1-3 again at the start of Lent – we must begin by putting aside the tragi-comic, modern readings of these chapters. While Christians have good reasons to study and marvel at the discoveries of cosmologists about the start of the universe and biologists about descent through modification, Genesis 1-3 is not weighing in on the Big Bang theory or Darwin’s theories. As we read it carefully, we notice that it is not even one creation story, but two. In the first chapter, we see order being brought out of chaos. The language is spare, poetic. The Spirit broods. It closes with benediction upon benediction. Everything God creates is good, but these humans are very good: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) All material creation is worthy.
At the very end of this creation there is rest. The industry and work of making cannot be ceaseless. Where does God rest, but in this fine and ordered Cosmos he has laid out. The end of the universe is rest. Sabbath is the time that it takes to turn a place into home; that’s why keeping it is one of the commandments. It should be at the centre of our life.
The second creation story, distinct and separate, begins in Genesis 2:4. Having had the big-picture view, it is as if the composer of the text now invites us to zoom in. Instead of the sheer word proclaiming things into existence, here we see God as the gardener, fashioning man out of the dust and imparting to him the breath of life. Delight still pervades this account; “trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Genesis 2:9) fill this garden.
At the centre of the garden, God plants two special trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Life and death, knowledge of good and evil; these things are interwoven together at the core of our human existence. It is at this level – not that of theoretical physics or genetics – that the text speaks powerfully to our present lives.
The primordial home of humankind is that place where the life planted by God is at the centre. Adam is the gardener put in charge. He has dominion. But he is not the centre of the world. The life of the garden does not rotate around Adam. Adam rotates around life. Note carefully that Adam is not prohibited from eating from the tree of life. The significance of this tree only comes into play once sin enters in. Why is that? Because here, at the start, Adam, who stands for all us, has life.
Alongside the tree of life is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God immediately informs Adam: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Just like everything else that God says in these early chapters, these are good words. Adam is being given a gift here. He has no knowledge of good, evil, or death. He cannot make sense of this. What this prohibition gives Adam is his limit. Freedom springs from boundaries. Our rooms are marked out by walls, our gardens by hedges, our home is defined by perimeters.
If Eden is a garden to share with God, a place in which to be at home with our creator, creation, other creatures, and ourselves, then it follows that in our fundamental beginning, humans are those creatures who live from the boundary that is at the centre. There is a profound theology of home hidden in these ambiguous words about trees and prohibitions.
We see this in God’s immediate next-step. He decrees that it is not good for Adam to be alone. Home is the context for community and God crafts Eve. The truth that Adam’s response to Eve’s beauty inspires poetry (Genesis 2:23) echoes through the ages and comes to us every time we tune in the radio; pop-songs continue the long tradition of lyrical delight in the prospect of the other.
That these chapters are not attempts to scientifically present an account of origins is demonstrated again in the first verse of chapter 3. No attempt is made to explain where this talking serpent came from. This is not a modern-day Marvel Comic fairy-tale; there is no prequel referenced. This is not, after all, a historic story from the past. It is the contemporary story of our present.
We have not the space or time to consider in detail all that happens in the deception. Eve and Adam certainly have the wool pulled over their eyes, but they play their own parts. They let the mis-quoting of God go un-challenged. They embrace a path that clearly violates what their friend and Creator has told them.
We must be keen to the ironies in the text. We are told that “the eyes of both of them were opened” (Genesis 3:7), but they immediately act without understanding. They hide from their Creator. While the text is moving towards the ultimate exile in verse 23, we see that they are already displaced. In the flight into the trees of the garden, Adam and Eve find that they are no longer at home in their home.
God interrogates them and they confess, implicating each other in ways that we all recognise in ourselves. The judgment of God which follows is descriptive, not proscriptive. It is not that God imposes pain in childbirth or the curse of patriarchy, so much as he reveals what he knows follows from the violation of the boundary. Our home is meant to be a place where our life rotates around the life of God. If we insist on living in a universe where we are at the centre, we cannot be at home with God. If we put ourselves at the centre, we will push everyone else to the margins.
Here, we find the politics and the ethics of Genesis 1-3. The spiritual trajectory initiated in rebellion spirals out of the garden, into the world, where the rule will not be peaceful harmony with creation and creatures, but putting-yourself-first. The limitation that was grace when we were at home in Eden is a provoking law when we wander homeless in the world.
The chapter closes with eviction. The world is still good, but when we are no longer in harmony with it, it is no longer perfectly harmonious. We no longer quite fit where we are. Genesis is true – profoundly true – in this portrait of humans as creatures ill-at-ease in creation. The explanation we are given here has profound social implications. The creatures who futilely attempt to make themselves the centre are creatures who will constantly leave others in the margin.
This story of Eden teaches us that we cannot go back again. The gate is shut forever. We should beware of utopian proposals that promise us paradise – as it stands we are ill-fit for it. But the story of Eden also challenges us to stay true to who we remain to be – God’s gardeners, called to cultivate his good creation for the sake of all. Even if it is beyond our power to make everything good again, there are slow and patient practices we can observe to make things better. The tragedy of Eden is the ground upon which we grow hope for this world.
Homelessness may be our existential state. That’s all the more reason to ensure each one of us has the experience of secure housing. The end of the universe is rest. Us restless exiles should be eager to offer that to each other. Reading these texts in Ireland, in 2018, they come with a clear political demand: Christians on this island cannot capitulate to the idea of putting-ourselves-first. We must agitate to bring the marginalised into the centre. In concrete terms, that means we must offer everyone a home.
Thus, while homelessness may be our existential state, there is no justification for homelessness being our sociological reality. To reject the rebellion of Adam means to live into our vocation as cultivating gardeners. We cannot reconcile those left out in the cold with this true humanity. Genesis tells us the truth. The world is good, but it is hard to live. Humans are good, but they are hard to live with. We, who are cosmically out-of-place, must try to make a place for everyone
We are creatures who “live from the boundary that is at the centre.” What are the inviolable boundaries that mark out the core of your life?
“It is not good for Adam to be alone.” How do your ideas about home interact with your ideas about community?
“If we put ourselves at the centre, we will push everyone else to the margins.” How do those inviolable boundaries at the core of your life that you have identified encourage or discourage community?
Genesis depicts us “as creatures ill-at-ease in creation”. Where does this displacement express itself as a hunger for justice in your life?
As those who are existentially homeless, what concrete steps can you take to cultivate a world where material homelessness is defeated?
For Further Consideration:
In 2011, the acclaimed film director, Terence Malick, made a modern classic on similar themes entitled The Tree of Life. Through the eyes of a boy named Jack, it explores the existential homelessness that we feel as those who are longing for the Eden to which we can never return.