Snake2.2018

© Rex A E Hunt
Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship, Kirribilli, NSW
23 September 2018


REVISITING HARVEY COX’S ‘ON NOT LEAVING IT TO THE SNAKE’…

In the mid 1960s, around the time of the ‘Death of God’ debates, 
including the now famous Time ‘Is God Dead?’ front cover, 
a young fresh-faced associate professor 
at the Divinity School of Harvard University, called Harvey G. Cox, 
burst onto the scene.

An American Southern Baptist by birth, and building a reputation as a bit of a radical,
he had been a frequent contributor of articles to such esteemed publications as 
The Christian CenturyTheology Today, Christianity and Crisis… and Playboy.

But back then it was his first book, The Secular City
“a fruitful and provocative analysis of the issues bearing on secularization within religion and culture” (Meland 1966)

that was getting rave reviews - both positive and negative - from all and sundry.

As one scholar wrote about the secularisation push:
“…I welcome this forthright note of secularisation in the churches. Anything that can rout the scent of sanctimonious religiosity in the churches can only be considered a cleaning force, a fresh wind blowing.”  (Meland 1966)

I admit I was not aware of it when it was first published,
but by the time I got through university and into theological college a few years later,
his book, the debates, and the followup books,
had all been well read.
And by me as well.

However my memory tells me I never heard a sermon on it from the pulpit!

In what might be an over simplification, The Secular City was basically
an exploration of the decline of hierarchical institutional religion,
“a positive estimate of the possibilities posed… by pluralism and urban life” (Cox 1969)

and that the ’city’ can be a space 
where people of all faiths fulfill their potential.

What appealed to many was Cox’s ability to distinguish between secularisation and secularism
and the suggestions he offered both theology and the church
for initiating new ways in which to express and to effect
the religious commitment.

Cox has gone on to publish many more well-known books since then.
And I continue to have one or three of them on my library shelves or on my Kindle.

But it is from one of his lesser known books, called On Not Leaving it to the Snake
a collection of previously published articles in various publications,
that I want to spend some time on today.

And then toss in another voice from ‘north-of-the-border’.

oo0oo

In the Introduction to The Snake…, Cox focuses on the Adam and Eve/Garden myth.
A myth that sets out the role of the humans - to tend the garden.

As any gardener knows tending the garden involves loving attention.
“Frequent strolls through the garden are mandatory, just to check in with what’s happening. What’s coming up? Which plants are crowding out the others? Is the mint over-reaching? Do the roses like where they are planted?” (Sanguin 2007)

Our best gardeners operate not as masters over the garden,
but as one intelligent source of creativity
        among other centres of creative intelligence, the plants.

And if you get stuck there is always the specialty magazine publications,
or the TV show, Better Homes and Gardens, with Joanna Grigg.

Traditional religion calls the Adam and Eve/Garden myth a story of ‘original sin’. 
Cox says the sin is not about right and wrong, or sex,
        or inadequate gardening techniques, but of sloth.

The avoidance of taking responsibility for the decisions we must make.
The abdication in part or in whole of the fullness of one’s own humanity.

The ‘snake’ - referred to as ‘crafty’ in a negative sense - is the one who controls the situation.
The one who tells ishah, the woman, Eve (incorrectly translated as ‘wife’), what to do.
“[Eve’s]… ‘original’ misdeed was not eating the forbidden fruit at all. Before she reached for the fruit she had already surrendered her position of power and responsibility over one of the animals, the serpent, and let it tell her what to do. Thus self-doubt, hesitant anxiety, and dependency, actually preceded that fatal nibble that has fascinated us for so long…” (Cox 1964, 67)

When we allow others to control us, Cox says, we are not fully human, 
because we do not live up to our potential
        and the world is the worse for it.

We can’t blame so-called ‘original sin’ for our failure to make decisions.
“We fritter away our destiny by letting some snake tell us what to do.” (Cox 1964, 67)

In the final paragraph of his Introduction,
echoing themes from The Secular City, Cox writes:
“We must be careful today with all our emphasis on the servant role of the church not to give the impression that the gospel calls [us] to plebeian servility. It does not. It calls [us] to adult stewardship, to originality, inventiveness, and the governance of the world. Let’s not let any snake tell us what to do.” (Cox 1964, 67)

To support his interpretation of the myth, Cox names several people 
who have acted decisively for the betterment of society, in spite of any ‘snake’.
        He calls them “flesh-and-blood” saints.
        And they are much more interesting than the pale and tedious ‘stained-glass’ variety.

While those named are from a different era, they were significant in their day:
• Dorothy Day - who cast her lot with the poor, against profits and property;
• Dietrich Bonhoeffer - who took part in a plot to end the horror of World War II;
• Camilo Torres - the Columbian priest, who summoned his fellow Christians to a revolutionary program for Latin America and was shot down in a skirmish between police and guerrillas.

Cox says such exemplary cases do teach us something:
“that deference and passivity no longer provide the quintessence of sainthood. Protest, skepticism, anger, and even insubordination can also be expressions of obedience to the gospel. Likewise the traits of obedience, self-abnegation, docility, and forbearance can be expressions of sin.” (Cox 1964, 67)

oo0oo

Enter ‘north-of-the-border’ Canadian, Bruce Sanguin.
Sanguin is an author and former minister of the well established 
        Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver.

He is a practicing psychotherapist as well as 
an international keynote speaker on evolutionary spirituality,
        especially the Integral Philosophy espoused by Ken Wilber.

In the final section of his award-winning 2015 book, The Way of the Wind
Sanguin also focuses on the Adam and Eve/Garden myth.

Where Cox berates the snake as being a controller who takes away 
our ability for making responsible decisions, Sanguin says 
the snake is the one who whispers in our ear not to be afraid.
“The snake… is actually G_d, the subversive, creative impulse to differentiate from the dominate culture, metaphorically the garden of our unconscious identification with the prevailing worldview.” (Sanguin 2015)

In Sanguin’s interpretation the Garden myth, likely written by priests and scribes,
presents a traditional worldview, a religious system whose primary concern 
is with the preservation of a particular order.
G-d’s order.
Traditional order.
Their order.

Thus, to live in accordance with G_d’s order, 
is to live in obedience to the rules set by others,
so taming or domesticating the twin evolutionary impulses 
for love and adventure. (Sanguin 2015) 

Ishah, the woman, Eve, is looking for a ‘what’s next, eyes open’ experience.  
Not the result of some external authority ‘who told you so.’
But an event where they will know from within,
        due to the evolution of consciousness.

And that for the tradition is deemed as dangerous.

Near the end of his comments on the myth, Sanguin says in this extended quote:
“The snake challenges the first couple to grow in awareness, to evolve. This story continues to be played out when fundamentalist religion warn against the perils of modernity, and, in the case of militant Islam, are willing to enact terrible violence to generate fear. It is played out when modernist capitalistic cultures are ‘invested’ in keeping our eyes shut to the violence that this worldview enacts upon the Earth… When any particular worldview or holding environment refuses development and uses fear and shame to preserve its own envelope, it does not represent the God of evolution and development.” (Sanguin 2015)

oo0oo

To leave it, or not to leave it, to the snake?
That is the question…

The traditional interpretation of the Adam and Eve/Garden myth
declares it a fall/redemption story…. a model of dualistic spirituality 
        that unfortunately has dominated theology, biblical studies, ministry training, 
        hagiography, and psychology for centuries.

The fall from grace is caused by an act of disobedience:
the woman succumbs to the snake’s temptation
        by taking the forbidden fruit, thus overreaching human limitations… and blurring the boundaries
        between human and divine.

For Cox the snake is an ambassador for the traditional order of things,
denying humans their rightful position and power 
to make their own, and at times, different decisions.

Do not trust your own experience as the basis for wisdom, says the myth.
Look to the priests.
Look to the commandments.
Look to the one in authority.

For Sanguin the snake is an encourager, a whisperer: do not be afraid!
“The snake is an ambassador of the culture that is awaiting the first couple outside the garden gates of unconscious obedience to external authority.” (Sanguin 2015)

Thus, a ‘mystic’ interpretation of the myth
rejects the redemption from a fall, but rather suggests
it is about rising up and reaching out - about consenting to be liberated 
from cultures that set restrictive, penal boundaries

And where such ‘consent’ is animated by a promise that only those 
who dare to reach out and take the forbidden fruit
        can fashion a world that our hearts know is possible.

oo0oo

The Adam and Eve/Garden myth as discussed by both Cox and Sanguin
is useful in the way it gives us a snapshot of a particular kind of culture,
        dedicated to eliciting allegiance and keeping our ‘eyes shut’.

“In truth,” suggests Sanguin in the very last paragraph,
“what needs redemption is not a presumed fall from grace, and its various solutions, including the Jesus fix. What needs redemption are the cultures of fear and shame that wish to freeze the evolutionary impulse that otherwise would allure us towards deeper expressions of beauty, truth, and goodness.”  (Sanguin 2015)

Let those with ears to hear, rise up.


Bibliography and Further Reading:
Cox, H. G.  The Future of Faith. New York. HarperCollins eBook, 2009
————-,  When Jesus Came to Harvard. Making Moral Choices Today. New York. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004
————-,  The Feast of Fools. A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1969
————-,  On Not Leaving It To The Snake. New York. The Macmillan Co., 1967
————-,  The Secular City. London. SCM Press, 1965
Fox, M.  
Original Blessing. A Primer in Creation Spirituality. Santa Fe. Bear & Company, 1983
Geering, L. G.  
In Praise of the Secular. Wellington. St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, 2007
Meland, B. E. 
The Secularization of Modern Cultures. New York. Oxford University Press, 1966
Sanguin, B. 
The Way of the Wind. The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Vancouver. Viriditas Press, 2015
————-,  
If Darwin Prayed. Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Vancouver. Evans & Sanguin Publishing, 2010
————-,  
Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos. An Ecological Christianity. Kelowna. Woodlake/CopperHouse Publishing, 2007

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