The Garden of Eden vs The New Jerusalem

I am always interested in how our own personal experiences and journeys through life and faith, impact our theologies and doctrines.  When I did my undergrad in Theology, this was an inherent part of the learning that I gained.  It seems to me that this was one of the most significant things that I learnt over that time, and I remain suspicious of those who speak of 'arguments from experience' with disdain or smuggery, as if they have won the argument (whichever argument they are fighting) by simply raising the fact that someone's life and interactions with God's cosmos has had an impact on what they think about that cosmos.

Such important doctrines as our theories of atonement are rooted in the ground of the time from which they came, and the people who lived particular lives, in a particular time. The Exemplar theory, a witness of great love from the Abelard who was castrated for his, Penal Substitution theory from Calvin the lawyer, Satisfaction theory from Anselm's understanding of the feudal system. Simplistic of course, but nevertheless, it is not a coincidence that these theories are rooted in lives lived, and the impact of those lived lives on the way Scripture is read and interpreted.

It strikes me that some of our conversations on sexuality and the proper place for acts/expressions of sexual love might benefit from some honest self-examination of our own lives lived.

In scripture and theology there are often concepts which find themselves in seeming tension with each other - justice/mercy, election/freewill, heaven/earth, body/spirit etc etc.  As human beings are wont to do, we find it difficult to find a way to hold these things together, to live in the both/and, rather than the either/or.  I sometimes wonder if we are incorrect in trying to keep these concepts in tension, rather than finding ways to integrate them in our minds and lives.  That justice is found within the mercy of God for example.
One of these is the 'concepts in tension' is the pairing of The Garden of Eden and The New Jerusalem.  The perfect paradise which we left through disobedience versus the city of God to come.

I have often wondered whether, where you rest at the moment, with regards your position on sexuality, will be reflected in where your heart finds itself with regards to The Garden of Eden or the New Jerusalem.  We know, in theory, that we have left Eden and our trajectory is towards the New Jerusalem, but, particularly in Western theology, we found a way for The New Jerusalem to be the Garden of Eden.  Are we going forwards, or going backwards?

In the West, we have tended to understand the story of salvation as something like this:

The world was made perfect, humans transgressed, Jesus came to redeem, perfection recovered.

Another story, that found through the Eastern Christian tradition, particularly found in Irenaeus, reminds us that the world was not made 'perfect', but that it was made 'good':

Good (waiting for perfection in Christ), humans transgressed, Jesus, restoration of goodness, perfection.

Are we going forwards in order to recover an old way of being, or going forward to discover a new thing?

I have lived for a number of years with an eschatology which looks more like the second of these stories.  And so it is not hard to understand that when it comes to ways of being human community, ways of family, I find myself left cold by arguments that equate themselves, for all their posh language, to the old 'God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve' line of thought.

I do not desire to go back to Eden, but on to the New Jerusalem.  And in the New Jerusalem, there are possibilities, there are stories of family and love and intimacy, which are yet to be told.  I do not know yet what these possibilities are, but I know that they do not necessarily have to conform to the Old Creation.

Depending on where your own proclivities are weighted - do you desire Eden or Jerusalem?  The Garden or the City? The Old Life or the Unknown Life? - I suspect will have an effect on how easy or hard you might find it to engage in genuine conversation about sexuality.  Conversation which may lead to as yet unknown forms of human living, rather than re-establishing the known.

It is interesting for me to question myself, in light of this reflection - what about my life lived has meant that the New Jerusalem is where my own heart is drawn? I suspect a childhood begun in a council flat in Aberdeen, with parents who were steeped in a work ethic, has had an influence I can't measure.  It was never that where we were was awful, I never felt a desire to escape.  However, I did grow up knowing that life was a bit of an adventure, that you could forge a path that was unknown to you or your kin before you.  I learnt that money and housing and clothes and cars were passing nothings, and that love and work and justice would remain.  I learnt that the things of value come with you into the unknown.  I also learnt that moving forward was good. That staying where you were was to turn down the possibilities of flourishing that were open before you.  To take the opportunities offered to you, walk through the door. Be brave.  I have moved house 13 times in my life.  New places, new people, new ways, cultures, thoughts.  All these interest me, intrigue me, cause me to think, to explore, to live life beyond the life I have thus far lived. And I have also learnt that respectability is not the same as goodness.  I also prefer cities to gardens.

The honest truth is that any comments or theologies, or interpretation I may come to offer, on any subject, will always have been formed by these learnings.

My life lived.


Anonymous said...

I remain suspicious of those who speak of 'arguments from experience' with disdain or smuggery, as if they have won the argument (whichever argument they are fighting) by simply raising the fact that someone's life and interactions with God's cosmos has had an impact on what they think about that cosmos.

The problem is that there's an equivocation over the word 'experience' that often comes in here.

If you say, 'Listen to her: she has first-hand experience of what she's talking about' then you mean that she should be listened to because he knowledge of the facts is, because of her experience, likely to be greater and more accurate than someone who does not have such experience. If, for instance, I were to be talking about the situation in Northern Ireland and then someone said, 'Actually, Jane grew up in Ballymena, and it's not like that at all' clearly people should trust Jane's recollections as being more of an accurate representation of the situation on the ground than those of someone who has never set foot in the province (however many articles they might have read).

Similarly someone who has first-hand experience of Syria, or Gaza, or Ukraine.

So that is a valid type of argument from experience.

The problem is that often that is then equivocated into the idea that people's subjective experience, their emotional experience, is worth listening to, which of course it isn't. Subjective, emotional experience has no place in an argument.

But often people will try to admit the worthless, emotional experience into an argument by making it sound like it's the valuable, first-hand-knowledge-of-the-facts kind of experience.

It's this equivocation which gives all argument from experience a bad name.

(Of course, we must also remember that even if something is argued from the basis of the second type of experience, that doesn't mean it is false. It just means the argument given is invalid. The conclusion might still be true. Simply explaining why someone with such-and-such an experience might be expected to hold such-and-such a belief does not prove either that the belief is true or false; it is simply an irrelevant, subjective detail).

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Anonymous

I generally don't reply in detail to anonymous comments. Thanks for your thoughts they have made me think. Although I'm not sure that our emotions are ever totally disintegrated from any argument we present - nor am I convinced they should be. But I did appreciate thinking about your thoughts.

Have a good day.