Thursday, 2 January 2014

OMG! The serpent was right?

"You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us go on toward maturity..." - Hebrews 5:12b-6:1a
Solid food is what the mature Christian meditates on. It's beyond the basics, and our author kind enough to tell us what they are in 6:1-2.
   - repentance from dead works
   - faith toward God
   - baptisms
   - laying on of hands
   - resurrection of the dead
   - eternal judgement

If the sermons in your church are about these then your preachers are preaching milk to infant Christians. That's not so bad because it probably means you have people in your congregation who have only recently seen the light1.

Anything beyond that is solid food, the kind of food that the mature need. But what is maturity? It is the ability to distinguish good from evil. It's an ability to make moral judgements for oneself, not simply to repeat what was written in the New Testament. It's a position of moral strength, a position of subjectivation in which the subject is not only free to choose but is able to choose good from evil. A phrase like that, particularly to an Hebrew audience, would draw their attention back earlier than Jesus, earlier than the prophets, earlier than the Mosaic law. It goes back to Genesis 3.
"And the serpent said to the woman, 'You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, who knows good and bad.'" - Genesis 3:4-5
The woman sees that the fruit is tasty, looks good, and is a source of wisdom. Of course she's going to eat it. She wants what so many of us want: wisdom to know what is the right thing to do. That's why this story isn't a literal story but an allegory about the human condition2. We all want to know how we should best live, and we'll grasp at any option to get it.

In a way, this is a thread through the Bible. The commandment of Genesis 2 relates to the drive to know good from evil. Torah is an elaborate effort to legislate good from evil. The Israelite histories are stories of people who did or didn't know good from evil. The prophets are re-iterating good from evil. The wisdom books are trying to teach good from evil. Jesus' commandments to love are dividing good from evil. The epistles are dealing with specific instances of judgements about good and evil.

When it comes down to it, the thing that Adam and Eve got wrong is the very same thing that the author of Hebrews is encouraging us to do: learn to distinguish good from evil. It's the very same goal but through different means. One is through a magic fruit. The other is through practice. There is no short cut to learning good from evil, there is only practice.

The serpent was not only partly right3 but it was pointing them in the same direction towards the knowledge of good and evil. The difference is our human ambition for the quick fix, for the easy path, for the life without struggle or growth.

Maturity based on this is the maturity that guides you on a daily basis. It's the maturity that tells you if the preacher is talking rubbish. It's the maturity that tells you what the right thing to do is because it's the right thing, not because of the consequences of being caught doing the wrong thing. It surpasses Torah, the prophets, the poets, and the proverbs. It can't be written, it can only be developed through faithful practice.

1. It might also be that your preachers are infantilising the congregation in the same way that we infantilise cats and dogs. Throughout their whole adult lives we feed them, rather than letting them do what comes naturally and let them get their own food. But I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt.
2. This story isn't really the story of The Fall, it's the revelation of the nature of humanity. Our condition didn't change, it was revealed for what it truly is. The story shows what we do when we think no one (especially God) is watching. Honestly, I don't think there was a Fall, just the exposure of human nature for what it is.
3. For a longer discussion, read "Did The Serpent Get It Right?" by R. Moberly in the Journal of Theological Studies 39.
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