By Michael Vinson
And the serpent said unto the woman: Ye shall not surely die; For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. —MOSES 3:10-11
TRADITIONALLY WE THINK of the story of Adam and Eve in terms of the “fall,” as though Eve did something irreparable in the soteriological history of mankind. But that is only true if we think of the story literally—an actual serpent tempted Eve, and sin and death were introduced to the world.
If we think of Eve’s act of disobedience to God in other terms, though we can see it as a faith crisis. It would be difficult to imagine a better example of a faith crisis than having to decide whether or not to obey God, especially when you life depended on it.
But what if we approached the story as a myth instead of as history, viewing it through the perspectives of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung? Specifically, what if we viewed this story as a metaphor for the journey each person needs to take in order to bring wholeness to his or her soul: the hero’s journey, the process of individuation?
THE FIRST PART of our journey in life begins with the experience of childhood, which is similar to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are told to till the Garden, to work at taking care of it and thus providing for their own needs. So they have to work, but only in a very limited way—as a child might do chores but obviously not contribute much to paying the bills. Adam and Eve don’t even have to weed the Garden—no thorns and thistles yet, right? They live a childish life in the Garden, their cares and needs provided for by God.
Our process of individuation begins with baby steps as we learn to dress and feed ourselves. We head off to school, we brave a week-long scout camp, and eventually we leave home to go to college where we learn more about living on our own and providing for ourselves, even though we might still need money from our parents from time to time.
However, there is much more to individuation than merely learning to take care of ourselves. We must also psychologically individuate from our parents, which, depending on the emotional health of ourselves and our parents, can be a large or small task. We may battle a mother or father complex—dealing with a parent who is so controlling that they refuse to let us live our own life, insisting that we obtain their approval for any decisions we make.
Casting off a parental complex is never easy, especially since our church tells us to honor our parents. This confusing message—be independent, just not so independent that we don’t need them any longer—has a name: the Aphrodite complex—after the mother in Greek mythology who refuses to let her son, Psyche, marry Eros without imposing multiple restrictions—which of course has terrible repercussions for all three in that family.
Some people never reach this step in the individuation process. Even though they might live across the continent from a parent, just one phone call can be enough to re-ignite the complex.
The second part of individuation involves throwing off all external authorities (not just parental authority) in order to find our own, true, inner self. This part of the process is initiated by a growing realization that we are living our lives according to a kind of script that our parents, church, and culture instilled in us. This script, though useful at first, has made our lives a “wasteland,” as T.S. Eliot put it. No matter what we do, or what changes we appear to make, we still feel that we are running in a circle, never addressing the most important needs of our soul. The problem is, we rarely know what it is we should be doing to fill this emptiness. Joseph Campbell described this situation as wandering in a labyrinth. We continually travel through life fulfilling church, work and family responsibilities without actually feeling we have done anything that our soul really wanted of us.
For many of us, life in the Church is a kind of “Garden” life, where all of our spiritual needs are seemingly met. The problem is, though a Garden life can keep us sated, it cannot nourish the deepest parts of us—only we can do that. Similarly, Eve realizes that her Garden life is unsustainable, because it is ultimately without purpose. A life in which everything is provided, with no challenges, is really no life at all. As she famously says later, we must know the pain and sorrow of life in order to grow. And as Eve begins to search for answers to her nagging dilemma, she runs into the serpent.
Humans usually despise the serpent, frightened of its bite and disconcerted by its lack of appendages. But in many of the world’s mythologies, the serpent is the “wise” one—remember, Jesus told his disciples to be “wise as serpents.” In many cultures, the serpent is also a symbol of eternal life, because, like the Uroboros that devours its tail and is reborn, it sheds its skin and begins life anew.
The serpent tells Eve that she needs to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The problem is, God had explicitly forbidden her to eat that fruit, with the penalty of death for disobedience.
The “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” as a translation of the original Hebrew idiom has lost some of its original meaning. The original Hebrew doesn’t mean that the fruit would endow the eater with knowledge of what is good and bad, but with knowledge about how the world really works—the world outside of the protected garden.
As much as Eve wants to know how the world really is outside of the Garden, she still hesitates before biting. She remembers that God told Adam and her they would surely die in the day they ate the fruit. This is not referring to some future death; in Hebrew it means, “as soon as you eat it you will die.” But the serpent tells her she will not surely die, but will be as the Gods—knowing the true way the world works.
So Eve has a faith crisis in the Garden. God—both her father and her creator—has given her an explicit commandment to not eat the fruit; disobedience would be punished by death. Should Eve obey her desire for further light and knowledge, obey her soul’s yearning for fulfillment, obey her psyche’s wish to leave the labyrinth and go on a purposeful journey? Or should she obey God’s commandment?
Eventually, she decides that life in the Garden is no life at all. It denies her the soul building experiences she craves. And so she risks her life and eats the fruit.
“Individuation is an heroic and often tragic task, the most difficult of all,” wrote Jung. “It involves suffering, a passion of the ego: the ordinary empirical man we once were is burdened with the fate of losing himself in a greater dimension.”1
As apt a description of Eve’s decision as ever there was.
I WOULD SUBMIT that any religion that claims to provide for our full spiritual well-being is an attempt to substitute itself for our childhood paradise. It claims to provide us with all the answers we need. It commands us to not eat of the fruit of the Sunstone or Dialogue trees of knowledge of how the Church really works. But if we feel that longing to escape the labyrinth, if our soul cries out for more nourishment, if our self pleads for individuation, we can partake of the fruit and set out on Eve’s difficult path. Like Adam and Eve becoming aware of their nakedness, we will begin to be more self-aware, particularly of the things that are lacking in our lives—which we never missed before eating the fruit.
As we say in the Church, God gave Eve a conflicting commandment. If she obeyed, she could not progress. If she disobeyed, she would be thrust from God’s presence. Both choices were frightening, but one was essential.
I submit that God presents such conflicting commandments today. Did God create you gay, but does your church forbid you to make love? Did God create you female and give you desires for the priesthood but does your church forbid you a part in it?
Eve teaches us a hard, but essential truth. There is only one way to evolve spiritually. We must partake of the fruit. This is not an easy decision, and doubtless we will regret our action many times as we make our way through the lone and dreary world. We will often pine for our Garden days, and wonder why we ever left. We will miss God’s presence. We will wonder if the knowledge was worth the pain. And no one except our own self can tell whether we are doing the right thing. Eve couldn’t go to God for a testimony about her decision, but her decision saved Adam and herself, and showed all of us the way to psychological and spiritual maturity.