Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas eve thoughts of a wanna-believer.

Two Sundays ago, at a festive mass of lessons and carols, the Grace Church choir sang this:

Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took,
As clerkës finden written
In their book.
Nor had one apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Then had never Our Lady
A-been heaven's queen.
Blessed be the time
That apple taken was.
Therefore we may singen
Deo gratias!
This wasn't the first time I'd heard this Chaucerian-era song, but it was the first that I'd focused on its meaning: that Original Sin, the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, was an occasion for thanks to God, because it allowed for Mary to become queen of heaven. In other words, no Fall, no need for redemption, and consequently no need for Mary to give birth to God's son so that he might, by sacrifice on the cross, atone for humanity's sins.

So, what if Eve hadn't fallen for the serpent's persuasion? One of the punishments inflicted by God for her and Adam's transgression is, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return." Were the primordial couple thus to be immortal so long as they refrained from this defiance of divine authority? Another punishment, inflicted on Eve, was painful childbirth. Does this mean that, absent the Fall, she would have been the beneficiary of a divine epidural? Or does it mean that the original intent was for her never to have children; indeed, for her to be Adam's helpmate, but not his bedmate? According to Genesis, after the Fall, they first were embarrassed by their nakedness before each other. This introduces a notion of sexual tension that hadn't existed before. Somehow, we seem to equate "original sin" with sex, but Genesis avers that it was the acquisition of knowledge; specifically, the knowledge of good and evil.

Later in Genesis, though, we get an explicit equation of knowledge with sex, in the statement, "Lot knew his wife." From this we get the nudge-and-a-wink expression, "know in the Biblical sense." "Carnal knowledge" is in fact an archaic legal euphemism for sexual intercourse (and also the title of a 1971 movie, starring Ann-Margret, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen and Jack Nicholson; written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols).

The connection between knowledge and sex is one to which I've alluded before here, and one that's been troubling my mind of late in connection with my fraught relationship with Christianity. I am ever mindful of the tension between belief and intellectuality, and of my resistance to accepting, in the words of the Holy Father (for me, an Episcopalian, a persuasive but not infallible authority), propositions that are not empirically falsifiable. My aversion to "faith" in the sense of unjustified belief, which carries with it as a corollary the spurning of those strands of inquiry which might cast doubt on such belief, is grounded on a visceral resistance to the circumscription of the pursuit of knowledge.

I refer to myself as a "wanna-believer" because I do wish I could believe, not in a Bible-as-literal-truth sense, but at least in a sense that could impart more meaningful content to the liturgy that I practice. With that, I wish you all a merry Christmas.

12/25 update: Did Ted Burke write this poem as an answer to my post? I'd like to think so. Even if, as seems more likely, he didn't, I still like it (as George Plimpton so mellifluously said in that Dry Dock Savings Bank ad in the 1970s) eNORmously.