CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #21
THE STORY OF "THE FALL"
We are all familiar with the story of "The Fall" (Genesis 2:25-3:24). Given their right relationship with the Creator, "(the original human beings) felt no shame before each other" (2:25); they eat the forbidden fruit and experience "shame"; they sew "fig-leaves together to make themselves loincloths" (3:7); God comes in search of them and asks the question that echoes in every human heart: "Where are you?" (3:9). This is the universal story: Connected with God, human beings were utterly at ease with themselves and each other; disconnected from a proper relationship with God, this ease of relationship is replaced by dis-ease – we feel "shame"; in our "shame" we hide behind "fig-leaves".
This experience of "shame" is a non-rational, gut experience. It may manifest itself in feeling awfully alone and even alien to oneself; a sort of embarrassment; perhaps sadness and emptiness when we have so much; vulnerability and nakedness in the face of existence; even a strange sense of "guilt". And there may be no (apparent) good reason for it – nothing we have done, nothing anyone has done to us. Any of us can experience this "shame" at any time; it is not brought on by society but by our very existence. Our fundamental choice – one which will shape our existence – is between facing and fleeing.
FLEEING: "THE FIG-LEAF SYNDROME"
An instinctive reaction to "shame" is denial. "Shame" is painful, so we "sew fig-leaves together" and endeavour to hide. That is pathetic and absurd, but we do it anyway. Some of us spend too much of our time and energy and talent striving to evade that dark place of our "shame" and the pain it evokes. Literally anything that can give us the illusion of being in control can also be used as a "fig-leaf". "Fig-leaves" may be worn as badges of honour and even bring us wealth and respectability. Thus we may work excessively, strive to possess many things or grasp at popularity or respectability.
Perhaps most worrying is the violence we can wreak on ourselves and others because we are caught in the "fig-leaf syndrome". Ernest Becker notes: "All through history it is ‘the normal average men’ who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves." Hatred and violence are modes of flight, born of denial. The darkness behind the "fig-leaves" of our lives that we dare not face is stalked by personal "demons" that we attempt to slay "out there". Pain that is not dealt with does not go away; it simply shifts. Much of the great literature of the world struggles with this situation – the pain of existence and our attempts to deal with it more or less well, more or less badly.
PRETEND FACING: THE ABUSE OF "SHAME"
"Shame" may be used to manipulate and control people. It is not too difficult to push unsuspecting or vulnerable people into that space of "shame" and then draw them into your power by offering to rescue them from the "shame". Social conformity often depends too much on this dynamic as does, for example, much advertising. Organised religion has been known to do the same. Thus, the faithful may be indoctrinated with the belief that this experience of "shame" is actually the result of their behaviour or non-conformity; they are told that they are "bad" or liable to "damnation" unless they conform to this or that law, custom, ritual or expectations of the group. If the faithful accept this message – consciously or unconsciously – they will be prone to evade the "shame" and seek out the solace and refuge offered by that particular religious group through conscientious adherence to its laws, faithful participation in its customs and rituals, generous commitment to its projects and uncritical acceptance of its expectations. This kind of "shame"-based religion erodes human freedom and is the very antithesis of authentic religion.
"Christian moralism" exemplifies this pseudo-religion. It is, in fact, a form of moral and psychological violence, despite its rhetoric to the contrary. When we reduce the Gospels to a moral blueprint and reduce Jesus to a moral teacher and thus reduce the Christian life to a moral project, we end up using the pursuit of "virtue" as a control mechanism. Christianity is reduced to a sort of moral behaviourism. The "virtuous" can feel satisfied with their "virtue", and mechanisms and rituals are established to restore the "virtue" of the "virtuous" when it is "lost". Mysticism and the liberating mystery of communion are forgotten. This is probably what Marx meant when he called religion "the opiate of the people".
FACING: THE CROSS AND THE EMPTY TOMB
The ultimate and tragic irony of this kind of pseudo-religion for its followers is that it uses the universal experience of "shame" to avoid that very experience. Authentic religious experience, as the Bible testifies, is about the inner journey which entails, among other things, a liberating encounter with the Eternal Lover precisely in that experience where we know our indigence and utter vulnerability, our poverty and utter helplessness in the face of existence. There, and only there, can we be sure that we are not cheating when we hear the voice within that reminds us of our divine destiny. The experience of "shame" is – potentially at least – the gateway to our humanity in its deepest possibilities.
The cross and the empty tomb are the two great symbols of Christianity. These symbols invite us into our humanity with the promise of freedom; they carry the profoundly reassuring truth – and we all need desperately to be reassured in this matter – that facing into the dark night of our souls will not only not destroy us, it is the one and only path to become what we are called to be as human beings. God has already entered that place of "shame". God awaits us there and, in and through Jesus, says, "Come, follow me. Don’t keep the pain in circulation – live through it and out of it. It will destroy you if you do not live it; you will destroy it if you do live it; I am inviting you to be in love, not to do virtuous things. Come!" Karl Rahner puts it well:
"We Christians, then, are really the only people who can forgo an ‘opiate’ in our existence or an analgesic for our lives. Christianity forbids us to reach for an analgesic in such a way that we are no longer willing to drink the chalice of the death of this existence with Jesus Christ. And to this extent there is no doubt that in living out its Christian existence Christianity is required to say in an absolute and sober realism: yes, this existence is incomprehensible, for it passes through something incomprehensible in which all of our comprehending is taken from us. It passes through death. And it is only when this is not only said in pious platitudes, but rather is accepted in the hardness of real life – for we do not die at the end, but we die throughout the whole of life, and, as Seneca knew, our death begins at our birth – and it is only when we live out this pessimistic realism and renounce every ideology which absolutizes a particular sector of human existence and makes it an idol, it is only then that it is possible for us to allow God to give us the hope which really makes us free."
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
How would you describe this inner experience of "shame"?
What do you understand by "the fig-leaf syndrome"? Reflect on the basis of personal experience.
"Hatred and violence are modes of flight, born of denial." Reflect.
In what sense might it be said that "we keep the pain in circulation"?
What do you find helpful in facing and dealing with your inner pain?
Have you had any experience of "shame" being abused? Reflect.
How would life look for you and those you love if you all dealt with pain at its source?
How might you deal with pain at its source in families and other groups?
"I am inviting you to be in love, not to do virtuous things." Reflect.
Is your life focused more on what God wants to do for you or what you think you must do for God?