Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
There’s a radical difference between Quaker understanding of Genesis and that of other Christian traditions. One reason for that is our understanding that sin is “not for term of life,” or at least needn’t be. The binary alternatives before each of us (salvation from sin or condemnation in it) are of utmost importance, and is the main topic of Scripture, which aims to support us in our move toward salvation.
Genesis not only gives us a creation myth, but it also emphasizes the binary order starting with that first verse. The dividing of one thing from another that occurs throughout this story is about creating order: one thing goes here; another thing goes there. So, the Being in whose image we are created is an ordered being, not one who is “without form and void” as the earth is (and as we are, who are made of the earth) without him. (That second and third verse in chapter one is a beautiful image of the experience of coming to feel God’s presence in worship.)
Our Quaker tradition recognizes and espouses the relationship between God and man that reflects this divine order. Here’s Penington talking about the right order in Eden:
Here was the sweet estate, the sweet peace, the sweet liberty, the sweet uniformity of all; all being kept and preserved in that life, virtue, wisdom, goodness, power, and love wherein they were made; the creatures naturally becoming subject to, serving and obeying man (man using them and ruling over them not in the tyranny, not in the lust, not in the vanity, not in the excess; but in the righteousness, in the love, in the meekness, in the moderation, in the divine wisdom, in the pure power and virtue of the life… (“That Man is fallen from God” Works, I. 403).
That we should try to distinguish one thing from another without reference or fidelity to God and the divine wisdom is to engender disorder. This is what the myth of the fall is about. Not only does our vie for autonomy upset our relationship with God (alienation and exile from paradise), it upsets our relationship with each other (now we have one sex or race or nation dominating the other), and it upsets the relationship with creation (we tyrannize and lust, in vanity and excess, is a good description of what we’ve done to the environment).
The tradition’s answer to this chaos (and Quakers’ understanding of the tradition) is to return to the relationship with God, to fidelity to the light within, so that we may be rightly ordered in our relationships to ourselves, one another, and to our environment. Sin is thinking that we know better (without the truth within) what is good for us. Quaker values and testimonies don’t work; we need the living God moving upon the face of the chaotic deep of our souls.
Our choice isn’t between some literal interpretation of the Genesis story and science. It is to use our God-given minds under the aegis of divine wisdom that will allow us, in the image of God, to distinguish one thing from another: heaven from earth; right from wrong; life from the death we have sadly manifested on the earth, by and large.
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