The lesson of Adam and Eve, our first parents

People of the Book – Adam and Eve

This new series, which we have chosen to title “People of the Book,” will explore figures in Sacred Scripture that continue to teach us lessons and show God’s salvific power throughout history to every generation. While the term is originally Quranic in origin, it has come to be used in common parlance to describe the monotheistic siblings of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, adherents of which honor many of the same Fathers (and Mothers) of faith. I recognize full well that Christianity cannot be reduced merely to a religion of the book (The Catechism explicitly condemns such reductionism, 108). But as St. Bernard said, the Word of God which we study “is not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living.” The figures explored herein share our theological DNA as members of the same family in baptism, and since sometimes water is thicker than blood, they warrant close attention and reflection.

Lewis Carroll seems to have put it well when he had his King of Hearts tell the White Rabbit to “Begin at the beginning,” and so I shall — the initial “People of the Book” are mentioned on its opening pages, our first parents, Adam and Eve.

We are all well aware of the narrative of the two original human beings, the serpent and fruit, the disobedience and expulsion from the Garden, but what significance for contemporary people do such figures really provide? Theologians today recognize the authentic, if not literal, truth of such a narrative. “The accounts in the first chapter of Genesis about the beginning of the history of the human race are not to be understood as an eyewitness report about the events of primeval history which was transmitted from the beginning and down through the generations…. They are to be understood rather as an aetiology which infers back from the supernatural, transcendental experience of the present to what must have been in the beginning the historical ground of this experience of the present” (Rahner, Foundations, 163).

Aetiology, the study of origins or causes, looks at the situation around us, (with its sadness, alienation, vengeance and death) and seeks to understand philosophically how these realities came to be. Adam and Eve are then deeply aetiological figures.

Pope Benedict XVI’s words help clarify: “The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we have just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are.”

Elsewhere he frames the issue in slightly more scholarly language: “The first Thou that — however stammeringly — was said by human lips to God marks the moment in which the spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed. For it is not the use of weapons or fire, not new methods of cruelty or of useful activity, that constitute man, but rather his ability to be immediately in relation to God … the moment of anthropogenesis cannot possibly be determined by paleontology: anthropogenesis is the rise of the spirit, which cannot be excavated with a shovel.”

Adam and Eve are then perennially relevant; they have much to teach us. In them we uncover truths about our innermost frailties, hidden desires and ultimate destiny. As Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “We think that we live in an age that has made many psychological discoveries. Believe me, we think many a thing is modern simply because we do not know what is ancient.”

And while contemporary developments in the natural and social sciences continue to lay bare the human person which is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139), Adam and Eve’s experience of shaking their fist in the face of their Creator continues to speak to every human person. Believers can of course appreciate and study the debates over monogenism and polygenism (whether the human race descended from one or multiple sets of “first parents”); but scientific findings make no less real, significant, or lasting the truth that Adam and Eve continue to profess to humankind in the 21st century; that something, somewhere went amiss in our personal and collective relationship with God and yet that this fact can be remedied to an unfathomable degree if we are willing to face it and accept God’s boundless mercy and forgiveness.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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