Thursday, February 22, 2018

Unitarian Universalist Sleight of Hand: Weaponizing Scripture, or the Invasion of the Meaning Snatchers

Masaccio's Adam and Eve bewail their expulsion from the garden.
As a religious liberal, I endorse pushing back against attempts to compromise the full humanity of unjustly marginalized people. But to enlist venerated Scripture in the cause of LGBT rights is questionable, particularly the way it was done in a sermon I heard last Sunday at First Unitarian Church of Dallas.

If you have to distort the obvious meaning of the first few chapters of Genesis, for example, in order to provide spiritual depth to firm beliefs in the "inherent worth and dignity" of everyone, you might be better off leaving Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel to the religiously orthodox.

"We won't allow you to weaponize Scripture," the Rev. Aaron White declared to the opposition at the climax of his 22-minute sermon Feb. 18.  But he made that point after having done so himself, at considerable cost to the meaning of the familiar Judeo-Christian myth.

The story holds three lessons for us, he contended: 1) We are not meant to be alone, 2) We are not to be ashamed of who we are, 3) We are called to keep one another.

These are worthy values, to be sure, but where do they come from — especially as applied to contentious moral and social matters such as full acceptance of homosexual and transgender people in their freely chosen love relationships? Not from Genesis chapters 2-4, as far as I can tell.

First, the preacher was struck by God's saying, after the first man was "formed from the dust of the ground": "It is not good that the man should be alone." But he didn't quote the rest of the verse: "I will make him an help meet for him." The creation of woman that follows, both in its physical manner (from one of Adam's ribs) and God's announcement of her role, clearly makes her subordinate.

Moreover,  the narrative has just explained why God felt Adam should not be alone. "There was not a man to till the ground" of the garden of Eden designated as the first man's permanent home. "And the Lord God took the man, and put him in the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it." So it seems there was some light work required of the sinless first man to make him worthy of his place in the garden, and the reason he should not be alone is that "a help meet" for him was required for proper maintenance of this special place.

From the start, then, God is not concerned that Adam will feel lonely, but that a man and the creature made from his flesh are needed as gardeners and groundskeepers. Presumably, the demands on the first couple are somewhat less than the hard labor that will be necessary once they are expelled from Eden by God's stern command. But still, there is from the start what in secular terms we would call a welfare work requirement, even in earthly paradise.

Second, the lack of shame the first couple has about their nakedness is obviously connected to their unfallen state. Contrary to the sermon, freedom from shame is a divinely ordained benefit available only to sinless human beings. The point is underlined by God's replacing the fig-leaf aprons Adam and Eve had made for themselves right after they had eaten the forbidden fruit with "coats of skins." Fittingly, this homely gift is the only "blessing" God bestows on Adam and Eve after condemning them and exiling them. This amounts to an endorsement of shame from that moment forward; God had awarded lack of shame only to the fully obedient couple before the wily serpent got to them.

Thus, it is weaponizing the Scripture in terms of current Unitarian-Universalist values to assert that Genesis says no one should be lonely and no one should be ashamed of who they are. Thirdly, it is doubtful that Cain's question to God after he is asked the whereabouts of his murdered brother Abel is anything other than a rhetorical dodge. God's question to Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?" is also rhetorical. (It is in line with God's first utterance to the first man after he and Eve had yielded to the serpent's temptation: "Where art thou?" In both cases, of course, the omniscient God already knows the answer. The Genesis authors probably intended to indicate that God expects us to be self-conscious, and thus morally responsible for our actions.)

Family values: Cain's parents discover Abel's murder (William Blake's image)
So when Cain lies and says he doesn't know where his slain brother is, he tries to cover the lie by retorting: "Am I my brother's keeper?" This is far from what the First Unitarian Church of Dallas preacher says it is: God is not calling us to keep one another, though there are certainly many subsequent passages in the Bible mandating universal love and concern as the foundation and generative power behind spiritual health. But that's not here, where God lets Cain's evasion hang in the air unanswered.

In sum, the three lessons presented by the sermon I heard are very shakily attributable to the Genesis narrative. So is the preacher's extrapolation of the meaning of Eden to say that judgmental human beings are responsible for kicking anyone they don't like out of the garden of fellowship and love. Who or what belongs in the garden of Eden is none of our business, frankly. If we succeed in building a better world, it will rise from the difficult, improvable conditions that the Old Testament God imposed upon Adam and Eve when he exiled them.

Worse, the final distortion of the story's message is that we today are responsible for "expanding the garden" to hold all humanity in an unlonely, shame-free, and mutually "keeping" embrace. But the Genesis story means nothing at all, whether it's taken as literal truth or a culturally powerful fable, if humankind's historical existence is not taken to be post-Edenic  — secularly, the unalterable human condition, or, in religious terms, an enduring punishment for overreaching and disobedience.

So I must reject the Genesis explanation of why our species is in the sorry fix that has been its lot from time immemorial. And that requires rejecting the Judeo-Christian origin myth as being a useful confirmation of everyone's entitled membership in the human family.

Unitarian Universalism must locate spiritual resources beyond what is inevitably a political dispute over who is deemed worthy of cultural and legal protection and support. Those resources are not in Genesis, and we are guilty of "weaponizing Scripture" if we misinterpret the myth to shore up our principles. Let's leave the weaponization of the Bible to those who believe in it, and go elsewhere to arm ourselves for the continuing struggle.