I like asking questions, I always have. Historically this has been a source of trouble for me, but generally speaking, an enjoyable kind of trouble that I would never trade for anything. Questions often result in feeling and thinking, both of which are healthy expressions of what it means to be human, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t have your best interest at heart. At the center of loving relationship is the liberty to ask questions, embrace doubt, and to have faith renewed in the resulting truths as they are revealed. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How should I live in between? What is my relationship to others in this process? These are questions that occupy my mind. But most often the questions that plague my existence are summed up very easily with the every present “Who am I?”
I once wrote that “religion may be the single greatest obstacle to a relationship with God” and with each passing year I become further convinced that this is true. I define religion loosely of course, as there are doctrines that I embrace about the nature of God and humanity, although with a lot less certainty than I once claimed. Dogmatism boasts what Lalich and Tobias label in Take Back Your Life, “total explanation of past, present, and future…” With every passing year, I grow more convinced that total explanations are just units of information strategically masquerading as justifications for our pursuits of power and security. As I contemplate my continuing journey, I can’t help but be influenced by biblical narratives that have long been implanted in mind and heart, as some of my earliest memories, even pre-literate, involved an open Bible and attempting to copy letters and sentences I could not decipher. But even learning to read them didn’t make a great deal of difference, given that on one hand the Bible is a book of great simplicity and complexity depending on your perspective, and sometimes it is simultaneously both.
The primal memory that gnaws at me is rooted in Eden’s paradise, where God created humanity in perfection and gave them a choice with a very obvious temptation in the middle of that paradise consisting of a tree marketed as “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” An interesting name isn’t it? If He really wanted them to leave it alone, why didn’t God call it the Death Fruit Tree? But the story says He didn’t. He labeled it a tree of “Good and Evil” as if both were necessary and you couldn’t have one without the other. By contrast, a tree that was simply known as “The Tree of Life” seems incredibly pedestrian. It is hard to blame Eve for being intrigued by a tree whose fruit promised such possibilities. Famously, she and Adam, with a little convincing from a subtle sales snake, didn’t resist the temptation and surrendered to the fruit after seeing it was “good to eat.” I’ve eaten that fruit too. Did you ever notice that the Bible doesn’t say that the fruit wasn’t good to eat? I suspect that the fruit of that tree was like a lot of things that taste good but don’t necessarily digest well. For nearly fifty years I’ve struggled with my own understandings of good and evil and the impact that these understandings have on this thing I call life. This is the origin of religion and why all of us have one, even those who claim to have none.
I don’t claim to be a Old Testament theologian, so I’m confident there are many who could better exegete this passage, but it strikes me that when our first parents did eat this fruit that God sought them out. He went looking for them as they fled in fear and endeavored to hide themselves with constructed coverings that were inadequate to meet the need. They sought solace in a leaf. Did you ever wonder where those leaves came from? Perhaps they came from the very tree that caused the despair? We certainly have a way of committing to the things we consume don’t we? We pursue pleasure, money, status, and power with reckless abandon and then cover ourselves in the residual trappings of what we don’t totally consume, decorating ourselves with hollowed out husks that eventually consume us. We quite literally become what we eat, good and evil, that are processed together because they are unavoidable, inevitable, and inescapable. But the gospel voice still echoes this far removed from paradise; “Where are you?”
I ask a different question. The question I most often ask myself is “Who am I?” But that wasn’t God’s question. His question was “Where are you?” This was God’s question because while the location of our first parents had shifted in relationship to Him, it hadn’t altered their fundamental relationship with Him. While their choices exiled them from enjoying a garden paradise, it never removed them from God. God followed them beyond the Cherub’s flaming sword. He relentlessly pursued them throughout history, until the dark day on Golgotha’s hill where Christ was stripped of all the accoutrements of our feeble attempts at hiding our manufactured shame and declared “It is finished.” Christ finished religion and restored a relationship that wasn’t ever lost, only hidden behind leaves, and reveled once again in the shadow of a garden tomb.
In Jordan Peele’s brilliant horror movie US, the Wilson family is pursued by a group of Tethers which mirrors their own attempts to find meaningful identity. The weapon of choice by these menacing doppelgängers are scissors, a duality of wholeness which is always identified as a pair even though they are one unit. Throughout the film the Wilson’s attempt to free themselves from these Tethers only to discover a terrifying truth in a spectacular twist, revealing that who was the monster and who was the mother, who was the predator and who was the victim, wasn’t at all as they assumed. Peele’s metaphor sings a gospel tune, we are never as good as we assume and perhaps at times far more evil than we could ever imagine. Good and evil aren’t easily identifiable boundaries but are more like inseparable revolving doors that we pass through constantly in this life, often not knowing exactly on which side we land. At any given moment, we are far better than we think and simultaneously far worse than we imagine. The leaves of Good and Evil’s tree still decorate our souls, but they should not diminish our identity.
Religion still tethers us to misunderstandings of good and evil, keeping us distracted from life. Religion pursues us doggedly while relationship with God in Christ embraces us in acceptance. There are no easy explanations of past, present, and future, only the truth that God loves us and calls to us “Where are you?” but never “Who are you?” A Father never forgets His children.
“Therefore as beloved children, be imitators of God.”