Saturday, August 14, 2010

How Good Do We Have to Be? Part 1- A Story of Emergence

I've recently dusted off and began reading Harold Kushner's enlightening book, How Good do We Have to Be?, and so far I'm enthralled by it. In this book Rabbi Kushner addresses the issues of guilt and forgiveness before a compassionate, and understanding God.
Everyone knows the story: Adam and Eve, the parents of mankind, made one fatal mistake and we continue to pay the price for it. The story is often interpreted as detailing the origin of our Fall from Paradise and ever since then the divine has been harder and harder to reach. As you read along through the Old Testament, God distances himself further and further away from mankind as we struggle to hold onto that relationship. The writers of the New Testament wrote their books of the One who bridged God and man together again both by his actions and his being, Jesus Christ. As the followers of The Way began to flourish the early Christian community looked back into the scriptures for prophecies of Jesus and introduced a new creative spirituality to the world, Christianity. These are the lens in which the concept of Original Sin and the nature of Man are understood within mainstream Christianity. Kushner introduces the reader to questions which puts our previous interpretation of the Eden story under a microscope, not to tear it apart but because the old interpretation leads to too much guilt and an unreasonable quest for perfection.
"Isn't this a harsh punishment for one small mistake-- pain and death, banishment from Paradise, for breaking one rule? Is God really that strict?...And perhaps the most troubling of all, if the forbidden tree was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, does that imply that Adam and his mate had no knowledge of good and evil before they ate it? If so, how could they have been expected to know that it was wrong to disobey God? And why were they punished if they had no sense of good and evil before they ate it?" -How Good do We Have to Be, Chapter 2.
You may interpret and read the story as a historical retelling of literal events but I believe the questions should still be asked regardless of our beliefs. Atheist point to this story as an example that the God of the Bible is a petty, strict, and all around unloving God who does not deserve worship. Christians point to this story as proof that the gulf between Man and God is our fault and we deserve death for our sinfulness, for making that one fatal mistake. So how do we interpret this in the 21st century without falling into the trap of eisegesis? What does a 21st century listener get from these old tales? Rabbi Kushner reinterprets the Genesis story of not one of guilt, sin, and punishment but a tale describing our journey of evolution out of our animal life,
"It is the story of the first human being graduating, evolving from the relatively uncomplicated world of animal life to the immensely complicated world of being human and knowing that there is more to life than eating and mating, that there are such things as Good and Evil. They enter a world where they will inevitably make many mistakes, not because they are weak or bad but because the choices they confront will be such difficult ones...The story of the Garden of Eden is not a story of the Fall of Man, but of the Emergence of Humankind." [Ch. 2]
I doubt that the writers of Genesis knew about evolution (the sun did revolve around the Earth back then) but were at least aware of our differences between human and animal existence. Our lives are much more complex than theirs with the flexibility to commit acts of Good and Evil. The God of Vengeance no longer speaks to us in the 21st century not because we have outgrown the divine but because the vengeance, which took the form of natural disasters and illness no longer spooks mankind. We have studied the mechanics of the universe, the divine vengeance portrayed in the Bible is no more than mankind's limited understanding of nature in an age when everything was attributed to the gods. The curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard has been revealed. Mankind understands now that things just happen, and God may not have the power to stop it. But as Rabbi Kushner expresses in his incredible book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, God may not have the power to stop it but he will sit with you through the darkest of storms.

God's decree of work, parenthood, and our sense of morality is exactly what separates us from the animals, what makes us human. Kushner points out that God gave mankind a cautionary warning about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as if saying "it will hurt to know Evil, but what joy it is to know Good." Is Rabbi Kushner's creative interpretation worth retelling? Does it speak to you, and if so what is it saying? How would history have turned out if we began with an interpretation of emergence instead of an interpretation of guilt, or was this interpretation only possible with the emergence of the enlightenment and our knowledge of the cosmos?

The second chapter ends with a beautiful retelling of Genesis as to how the story might have ended if Adam and Eve chose to remain in Paradise (i.e. living an animal life).
So the woman saw that the tree was good to eat and a delight to the eye, and the serpent said to her, “Eat of it, for when you eat of it, you will be as wise as God.” But the woman said, “No, God has commanded us not to eat of it, and I will not disobey God.”
And God called to the man and the woman and said to them, “Because you have hearkened to My word and not disobeyed My command, I shall reward you greatly.” To the man, He said, “You will never have to work again. Spend all your days in idle contentment, with food growing all around you.” To the woman, He said, “You will bear children without pain and you will raise them without pain. They will need nothing from you. Children will not cry when their parents die, and parents will not cry when their children die.” To both of them he said, “For the rest of your lives, you will have full bellies and contented smiles. You will never cry and you will never laugh. You will never long for something you don’t have, and you will never receive something you always wanted.” And the man and the woman grew old together in the garden, eating daily from the Tree of Life and having many children. And the grass grew high around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil until it disappeared from view, for there was no one to tend it.

Part 1: A Story of Emergence
Part 2: Guilt and Shame
Part 3: The Cycle of Guilt
Part 4: The Wholeness We Seek
Part 5: Is There Enough Love for Everyone
Part 6: Final Thoughts


captron52 said...

Thank you my friend for once again posting something worthwhile to others.I absolutely loved it!

Doug B said...

I think it is the assumptions behind the question "How good do we have to be?" that intrigues me. Much like the assumptions behind the question "what must I to be saved?"

Don said...

Michael- I am intrigued by this:

"Mankind understands now that things just happen, and God may not have the power to stop it."

I would like to explore this concept. Is it one that Kushner further develops? This would seem to say that God is not omnipotent. I am fascinated by this idea and open to hear his reasoning. Thanks for this post.

Eruesso said...


Yes this is a concept which Kushner goes into depth in his previous book, "When Good Things Happen to Good People" (with "How Good Do We Have to Be?" being an extension or a sequel), in it he uses the story of Job as his main example in our struggle to understand suffering before a compassionate God. He brings up three points many readers of Job would like to believe:

1. God is all powerful, nothing happens without his will.
2. God is just and fair, people get what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked perish.
3. Job is a good person.

He states that as long as Job is healthy all three of them can be true, but it is when he suffers that only two of the three can be true at a time(unless you can practice some serious mental gymnastics). It's a great book, quick read which I highly recommend and which I posted on it last year.

His basic argument for a non-omnipotent God (albeit still a Monotheistic God) is that God set the universe into motion and does not interfere with its laws. God then is not a being who will answer prayers but will sit by you and comfort you when (not if) bad things happen to you. The universe is not entirely under the control of God and there is still chaos, but even though chaos is still present God will suffer along with you. Of course Kushner does a much better job of explaining his own book. I own 4 or 5 of his books with "How Good Do We Have to Be?" being his second book I've read. I highly recommend it.

Eruesso said...

Yes this is a concept which Kushner goes into depth in his previous book, "When Good Things Happen to Good People"...

Whoops, typo. I meant "When Bad Things Happen to Good People". On a related note, Kushner touches on the rationality people have on Justice and why Good things happen to Good people, but the majority of the book is about what it means when Good people suffer. Is it easier to make excuses for God or understand that maybe things happen without reason or cause?

'Dragon' Dave McKee said...

My belief is that the greatest gift is that the universe follows laws we can understand, with no physical substance to miraculous divine intervention. That the Tree of Knowledge gives us the ability - and mandate - to solve our problems for ourselves and truely step into the image of God as co-creators.

Eruesso said...

@ Dave-

Welcome Dave to A God-Sized Puzzle and thanks for visiting!

"That the Tree of Knowledge gives us the ability - and mandate - to solve our problems for ourselves and truely step into the image of God as co-creators."

The imagery of co-creator divine creativity is one I know little about but I've always found interesting. I was actually thinking about this concept while watching Dr. Who, a British sci-fi drama if you're unfamiliar with it, in an episode where he mentioned parallel universes which are created (or at least exist) by the choices we make. It's an area of science which I find very intriguing especially when it intersects with spirituality. Thanks for your input and if I may ask how did you come across my site?

Peace and blessings,


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