Part 1 Paradise is not out of our reach! It’s not saved for later!
When most of us think about paradise we conjure up ideas about a place that exceeds all our expectations, a good spot to live! In the Judeo-Christian tradition paradise is the world as God created it, perfect! “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.” Gen 1:31 Then things went bad. Adam and Eve messed up. They thought they knew better than God and ate the fruit. The author of the story knew mankind well enough to figure that they would blame somebody and in this case it was the devil, Satan, posing as a snake. I think of Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, who always said, “The devil made me do it!”
Regardless of who was to blame, the fact is Adam and Eve lost paradise and the rest of us have been suffering ever since. “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Gen 2:18 But isn’t that a story?
As children, stories got our attention because they filled us with images and ideas to which we could relate, entertain ourselves, and even be comforted. Cinderella and the Jealous Bullies, the Three Bears and the Careless Intruder, Hansel, Gretel and the Untrustworthy Adults, The Frog Prince and the Pitiless Princess all taught us something about life and how to cope with it.
The author of Genesis must have known we could relate to the story he wrote. He wanted to explain to his fellow inhabitants why they found themselves in a hell of a predicament since they were complaining about the hardships of living and how it was not their fault. After all, they worked hard yet nothing seemed to get better. People cheated, stole, and even killed their own brother to get ahead. Thus the author included the story of Cain and Abel.
Despite hearing the story so many times from childhood and on, it seems to have lost its real significance and most of us have become fatalistic about the condition of humanity today and just shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s the way it is. Life sucks”!
What’s the use of imagining a paradise, although God knows we try to make one! Resorts are advertised as “paradise” on earth! Even our homes and cars are likened to the perfect place to remedy our ills. Consider how much effort and money most of us spend to try to create a paradise for ourselves.
Is anyone ever satisfied? Is paradise just for some of us? Many can’t begin to realize that dream come true! As a result crime increases, murders are numerous and even violence between different groups is constantly escalating. All we can do to alay our fears and sorrows is to pray and suffer like Jesus did according to most preachers. Our reward will be the heavenly paradise! What we are left to do is to imagine what the heavenly paradise will be like and look forward to it, at least for most of us without millions to make our own.
John Lennon’s song, Imagine says it all.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people Sharing all the world
You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one
Imagination is a human characteristic that only humans possess. A little child will often ask “why” something is happening, “what” something is, or what can be done when something bad happens. Stories help a child to grasp the meaning of the world around them by attempting to relate the information in a concrete tangible manner with visuals and sounds that are familiar to them. Thus drawings, words, objects, and music are some of the most primary tools by which we learn. We create a pretend world in which we can live, a world that gives meaning and satisfaction to what’s going on within and around us. Religion does that for us as well. We’re promised that there is a “heaven” or as I like to say, a “haven” where nothing will go wrong and all will be well.
As we get older, reality hits us like a slap in the face and we wake up from fantasy land only to confront the real world of pain and sorrow, work, success or failure and so many more ups and downs of life. We try to figure out the purpose of our existence and usually conclude that we can only survive and feel safe and secure from whatever causes us pain, sorrow, or disappointment. However some say, “Eat or be eaten” as Elton John sings in the Circle of Life song.
“Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense.” Prov 12-11
In the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Bible is the source of many stories that attempt to feed our imaginations and alay our fears and anxiety by attempting to describe the perfect origins of life on our planet and the universe in which it is located and the significance of our little life amidst it all. The scriptures try to explain the various behaviors of humans both good and bad, like Cain and Abel, David and Bathsheba, Joseph and the Pharaoh and of battles won and battles lost, heroes and heroines, oppression and freedom, life and death and everything in between.
Reality for adults came when science raised its rational and factual head, bursting some of the most endearing myths that made humans comfortable and safe, like waiting for heaven above, like the Sun revolving around planet earth, or that the earth was flat and heaven was in the clouds. In almost every area of life, science changed how we view life and our own lives. For many people, the numerous sciences like astronomy, physics, biology, psychology replaced the many biblical stories and tales found in the Bible that tried to explain our world and human behavior.
In reality some of those stories were and are seen as actual events which are parts of history that bear little more than factual information to remember or forget. Yet for many others those stories were explanations for the good and bad in the world and how we might survive similar calamities and hope for a positive outcome or be rescued by the Divinity we worship.
As humans journeyed through the ages, legends, fables, myths and other narratives were used to teach the common people about their culture, ethnicity, religion, society and even themselves. Eventually even fairy tales were used to explain the unexplainable or the mysterious parts of life, such as desires and dreams. The stories would encourage people to have hope and faith or help them cope with tragedy and devastation caused by disease.
During the Enlightenment many facts, discoveries, and other scientific information threatened the existence of such stories. A divide began to occur between faith and reason and eventually anything associated with religion and its stories became known as superstitions or myths that were debunked. Many used such excuses for abandoning religion and anything associated with it. Yet most believers saw science as the enemy of their religion and the faith. Infamous scientists like Galileo and Newton, Kant, and others were chastised and in some cases declared heretics to be shunned and put on trial. Their works, books and theories were banned by the authorities for a long time after their death.
Today, religious stories and legends are still popular, however most of them don’t provide the same kind of inspiration, awe, and wonder that they provided for our ancestors even as late as the twentieth century. Politics, entertainment, sports, commercialism, journalism, media, and the internet are now the means by which we seek solace, affirmation, acceptance, and even love and contentment. That which confronts us: tragedy, disease, addictions, divorce, senseless killings, mental illness, racism, bigotry, poverty, and homelessness appear to be incurable or unsolvable. Medicines, therapy, advice, “how to” books, videos, or podcasts and social media seem to provide temporary fixes for the individual but not for humanity in general. The state of human affairs seems horrifying to say the least. Is faith lost? Is Paradise still attainable?
Still, as Carl Jung concluded, “There is a religious instinct in all human beings – an inherent striving towards a relationship with someone or something that transcends human power (a higher force or being). Deep down most of us want to believe what is proclaimed about heaven and our future in that “paradise”. However,the Paradise that we long for appears to be unreachable, maybe even lost. The biblical story certainly conveyed that but human progress and ingenuity seems to contradict that command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because we have concluded that we can determine such. Of course today we ask WHAT is TRUTH? Our world appears to be crumbling and paradise seems to be more elusive than ever! But there’s hope.
Marcus Borg, an eminent scripture scholar and author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, offers another interpretation of the events, people, and traditions found in the Bible. He claims that they are theological stories that attempt to use narratives as a means of understanding and gathering significant meaning for the people of Israel which are even relevant for Christians and Jews today. He goes on to demonstrate how story and storytelling provides not facts but a wealth of symbol, ritual, and tradition that can help us cope with everyday life just as the ancient peoples did. “There’s nothing new under the sun” we are told. If they found in those stories what comforted them, then we should too. Such stories were the means of educating and indoctrinating or catechizing the people of Israel and later they did the same in the Christian era even including this modern world.
Borg also stated that his central claim about the value of stories in the bible is captured in three “macro-stories:the Exodus Story, the Story of the Exile and Return, and the Priestly Story. These, he insists, are at the heart of Scripture” because they shape the Bible as a whole and provide a description of a spiritual and religious life that ultimately leads to a life of happiness, well-being, and even to a paradise of sorts, not a dream or fantasy but to a healthy, content, life that shares itself in love by caring, serving, and respecting everyone on the planet by sharing and making sure all live in peace and harmony. A tall order but possible! “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” G.K. Chesterton
Part 2 will explore how these three major stories help us find the Promised Land, the Paradise that each of us lost. Stay tuned!