In this fifteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the importance of names. “Name” is “man” in reverse with a final “e”, and we read in Genesis chapter 2 that God brought the creatures to Adam so that he could “name” them – in effect, so that he could translate them and choose the right word. God didn’t ask Adam to make the creatures because he is not an author – he cannot create out of nothing. He, and the rest of humankind, are translators. So “name” is central to man’s role in this world. What can the names of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary tell us about their roles? And what meaning can we find in the names of people like Strauss and Grant Gustin, and countries like Ukraine?
In this fourteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the importance of the word “believe” in the Christian Gospel. The word “believe” crops up again and again in the Gospel – this is what God requires of us: to believe in him, to believe in his name, in order to receive – the power to become children of God, eternal life, salvation, healing. When we believe, all things become possible. The video focuses on John 7:38 and the verse from Scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Once again, language is not only used to convey the message – it is the message.
For centuries now, the Church has been taking a dim view of the Fall, the moment in human history when Adam and Eve, the first man and his helpmate, created from one of his ribs, were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s never quite clear what was so bad about eating of this fruit, only that God had forbidden it (although presumably he knew perfectly well what was going to happen, how the two partners would be tempted by the serpent – nothing bad will happen to you, it certainly looks tasty – and would eat anyway).
I say the moment in human history, although it could be said to be the moment that began human history, when the clock started ticking, because up until then the two partners enjoyed eternal life, whereas now, once expelled from Paradise, they would be subject to death and corruption. I always think we still enjoy eternal life, we are eternal still, it’s just that eternity is hidden behind time and we must pass through a gate to get there. But it doesn’t take away the fact our soul (and our body at the general resurrection) are already eternal. We die in order that I be.
Why does the Church take such a dim view of this moment? Yes, as human beings, we are subject to the passions. We get angry, we do unkind things, we are arrogant, lustful, greedy. We treat others as objects. We want things for ourselves, to acquire worldly wealth (I say worldly, because there is clearly no way we can take it with us when we die), property. We aspire to a comfortable life, everything just so, everything in its place, no demands on our attention, except to enjoy ourselves.
And yet it never quite works out like that. Things go wrong. There are provocations, lines that need to be crossed. The car or the dishwasher breaks down and has to be repaired. We get ill. Things are not perfect. They are not perfect in order to teach us a little humility.
But it could be said that the very quality that got us expelled from Paradise – our rebelliousness – is often what keeps us going, the refusal to give up, the insistence on our hopes and dreams, our resistance in the face of life’s disappointments. Rebelliousness isn’t entirely a bad quality.
I am a little tired of the Church’s interpretation of the Fall, to be honest. I would like to give another interpretation, which I go into in greater detail here. The Fall represents sexual knowledge, the serpent is the man’s penis and the apple is the woman’s breast. Adam and Eve acquired carnal knowledge (at the man’s instigation, note), and for this reason they had to be expelled from the Garden of Eden (whose letters rearranged spell danger of need). Because once you become sexually mature, the process of dying begins. In ‘The Consequences of Man’s Fall’, Metropolitan John Zizioulas puts it like this: ‘In beings with organs – especially mammals – the ageing cycle begins from the moment that the organism reaches the point of reproductive maturity.’
I don’t think God was being cruel. He wanted us to be co-creators, but we are not like him, we cannot create ex nihilo (out of nothing), we are translators, we use what already exists and make something out of it. We are not authors. Only God is this. So when we create another being, we cannot just mould a body out of clay and insert the breath of life into it. We are not the originators of life, as God is.
What we can do, however, is give of ourselves (as Adam did in the creation of Eve, when a rib was taken from him). And in this way we can have children. The difference is it is not a clone army, like in Star Wars, they are our very own children, with their own personalities and identities. And we can only have children with another person, we cannot produce children on our own.
The alternative would be a heaven containing only two people, Adam and Eve, or as many as God created from our ribs, without our conscious, active participation.
God gave us the opportunity to knowingly come together and fill the Church ourselves, one generation after another. That is exactly what we are doing. Filling the Church, giving life in the only way we can, through translation. The Fall – so long as it is followed by repentance, an acceptance of our need – may not turn out to be such a bad thing.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com
I have always been confused whether we are supposed to receive a sign and then believe, or to believe and then receive a sign as a result of our belief, a confirmation, as it were. That is, does God open the doors of our senses to the other world, we perceive the other world and therefore believe, or does he open the doors of our senses as a result of our belief? Is it possible to believe something (or someone) you have never seen?
What set me on the journey of faith was an experience I had in 2001 on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples, Italy. I asked for a sign and I got one. So in a way my belief was a result of the sign I received. But that sign came about because I asked for it, so I was predisposed, I had realized the limitations of my self, my need for the other, I had pulled down the walls of my self-sufficiency, thrown open the gates, invited God in. Is this, therefore, the procession of faith: an understanding of our own limitations leads to a call to God, which leads to a response on his part, which leads to faith on ours?
BELIEVE itself is a very interesting word. It spells VEILED in reverse (remember the physical pair, pair of letters that look alike, b-d, one of which is a mirror image of the other). Well, the mysteries are veiled, aren’t they? We don’t see them at once, but they reveal themselves to us gradually, in response to the level of our faith and repentance.
But BELIEVE contains another word: if we take a step in the alphabet (b-c) and apply the phonetic pair l-r, we get RECEIVE. Christ said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life’ (Mk 10:29-30). So when we believe, when we follow Christ, we are to receive a hundredfold – the blessings of the spiritual life – with persecution – the world no longer recognizes us as one of its own because we have switched allegiance – and the ultimate goal is eternal life.
John the Evangelist has a lot to say about belief and eternal life in his Gospel. It is clear that the precondition for eternal life is that we believe. In fact, belief is the work of God – not to build mansions, not to perform impossible feats, not to exert ourselves strenuously, but simply to believe! The crowd has witnessed the feeding of the five thousand on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Christ’s disciples have returned to Capernaum in the only boat available. Christ did not leave with them, and yet when they wake up, they see that he is not there. They take some boats that have come from Tiberias and travel to the other side, only to find that Christ is already there, having walked on the water. How has he got there? Christ says they have come looking for him because they had their fill of loaves the previous day and it is this that motivates them. He endeavours to redirect their aspirations and when they ask, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’, he comes out with a strikingly simple statement: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’ (Jn 6:29) – that is, that you believe in me. Well, that’s not much to do, is it?
But the crowd immediately asks for a sign: ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?’ There we go again, the need for a sign to trigger our belief.
The first chapters of John’s Gospel are full of people like us looking for signs. In chapter 1, Nathanael believes because Christ saw him under the fig tree. In chapter 2, in Jerusalem, ‘many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing’ (Jn 2:23). In chapter 4, Jesus says to the royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum and to those with him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’ (Jn 4:48), though to his credit the royal official believes before he has actually witnessed the miracle. When Christ says, ‘Go; your son will live’, crucially he believes the word that Christ has spoken, even though he has yet to receive confirmation of the healing. The Church Fathers are always telling us when we ask for something – from God or the saints – we must ask with faith in our hearts, in the belief that what we ask for, if it is for our salvation, will come to pass. It’s no use asking half-heartedly. Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures, and for the royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum, this was an extreme situation. So he believed. With all his heart. This is all Christ asks of us. As a result of the healing (a sign or wonder), it then says that the royal official ‘himself believed, along with his whole household’ (Jn 4:53). Belief leads to healing, which in turn leads to more generalized belief.
In chapter 6, ‘a large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick’ (Jn 6:2). Again, a sign triggers belief. After the feeding of the five thousand, ‘when the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world”’ (Jn 6:14). A sign leads to belief. Even Christ’s disciples, after the miracle of the transformation of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, then believed: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ (Jn 2:11).
So it seems that we are only persuaded as a result of signs, an accusation Christ was often levelling at the Pharisees. But what does he say we are to do? I think he understands our weakness and accepts that we need to see a sign in order to believe. But, when it comes down to it, what we are to do is to believe his testimony. He does not testify on his own behalf – this point is reiterated several times in the first chapters of John’s Gospel – but rather he testifies to his Father, and it is his Father – together with John the Baptist in chapter 1, the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 and the scriptures in chapter 5 – who testify to him. There is a wonderful altruism here. We are to believe him because he does not testify to himself, but to the other, and this we can take as a confirmation of what he is saying.
The point is heavily emphasised. Just perform a search of the words ‘testify’ and ‘testimony’ in the early chapters of John’s Gospel. You might also perform a search of the word ‘believe’. These are probably the most important words, together with ‘water’, ‘bread’ and ‘eternal life’.
It is belief that leads to eternal life:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (Jn 3:14)
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. (Jn 3:36)
Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. (Jn 5:24)
Those who hear will live. (Jn 5:25)
This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life. (Jn 6:40)
Whoever believes has eternal life. (Jn 6:47)
It would be difficult to make the point more emphatically. But there are two other things that will lead us in the direction of eternal life: WATER and BREAD. These two words are, of course, connected if we apply the phonetic pairs d-t and b-v-w. BREAD is one of three words that refer to nourishment, all beginning with the same letters: BREAD, BREAST and BREATH. They are all connected by the phonetic pair d-t, addition of s or h. And WATER is a short step from WORD (phonetic pair d-t, change of vowels, all of which are open).
We come across the first in the wonderful story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This woman is very striking. She has had five husbands for a start. She also has a pithy way about her, asking Christ (the Creator of the universe!) how he thinks he is going to manage to pull up some water from the well where they meet near the city of Sychar if he doesn’t have a bucket! This is the man who created the universe, through whom the world was brought into being, and all she can do is affirm that he doesn’t have a bucket and he must think he is clever or something if he thinks he’ll get some water out of the hole without one.
Christ observes (as always), enjoys the humour (as always) and then comes straight to the point: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (Jn 4:13-4). He refers to this as ‘living water’ (Jn 4:10).
The ‘living bread’ comes in chapter 6. Remember that rousing hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’, in which the words ‘bread of heaven’ are repeated? The crowd who witnessed the feeding of the five thousand and followed Jesus across the lake have made reference to the manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness. Now that was a pretty impressive sign, wasn’t it? How about something similar? They want a corresponding sign without realizing (like Pilate when he asked Christ, ‘What is truth?’) that the sign (truth) is standing in front of them. To which Christ replies, ‘I am the bread of life.’ That bread is his flesh, the sign is himself, the body of Christ that we receive in communion. He doesn’t magic manna out of thin air. No, this is different. We partake of his body and by ingesting his body, which thus becomes part of us, we become part of his body. He goes on, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’ (Jn 6:51). There we have it once more – eternal life.
So eternal life is to believe in Christ. But it seems that not even his brothers believed in him, as John reports at the beginning of chapter 7. The time for the Festival of the Booths in Jerusalem is approaching, and they think he should make himself known. Jesus says his time has not yet come, but after they have gone to the festival, he goes anyway, in secret. He testifies to his Father. He performs signs. The chief priests and the Pharisees send the temple police to arrest him! The crowd is divided (as always). When he says he won’t be with them for much longer, they wonder if he is planning to travel among the Greeks – to go on an excursion! It gets to the last day of the festival, and by now (after seven chapters of signs and testimony), Christ is becoming weary.
And he does something uncharacteristic. He cries out. He shouts. He is at the end of his tether. He desperately wants them to get the point, to stop squabbling, to stop trying to kill or arrest him. And he cries out some of the most remarkable verses in the whole of the New Testament:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ (Jn 7:37-8)
The actual word in Greek for ‘heart’ is ‘belly’ (κοιλίας). And I wonder if the mention of ‘living’ reminds you of the creation story? After the Fall, what did Adam, the one who had been given the task of naming the creatures (that is, of translating), decide to call his wife? ‘Eve, because she was the mother of all who live’ (Gen 3:20). A footnote in the NRSV version of the Bible informs us that in Hebrew Eve resembles the word for living (Ḥawwāh/ḥāyâ).
And what do we get if we put ‘belly’ (translated as ‘heart’) and ‘Eve’ (which resembles the word for living) together? BELIEVE. The word BELIEVE confirms the truth of what Christ is saying.
I have already explained that, for me, the Fall happened so that we could have children, so that we could participate in the act of creation, and in this way form the body of the Church. I think God wanted us to participate in this action, even though he knew that sexual maturity would lead to our physical death, a barrier we must cross in order to enter eternal life (did I just see ENTER in ETERNAL?). This is where we are now, in the spiritual womb of the world, out of which the collective body of the Church is being born, in the same way as the body of an individual is born out of their mother’s womb. We are to be born twice, and this is the point we are missing. We are not there yet. We have been born physically (out of our mothers’ wombs), but now we must be born spiritually. That is the point of all the suffering, confusion, mistakes, misunderstandings – we are pointing in the wrong direction until we point towards Christ. There the needle will stop turning and become fixed.
BELIEVE contains other words: for example, I, BE and LIVE. It is also extremely close to BIBLE.
The message is there. All that we need to know is in the Bible, where Christ testifies to his Father.
And because he testifies to another – his Father – though he could equally testify to himself (Jn 8:14), we can accept that what he is saying is true. All we have to do is believe him.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com
Ideally, human life, like the Greek alphabet, should be a progression from the letter A to the letter I to the letter O: AIO.
A represents the act of creation described in chapters 1-2 of the Book of Genesis, in the beginning, when God created the world. It is the first letter of both the Greek and Latin alphabets, so it represents the first act in the history of time, the first thing we have to write about.
We already saw that the name God reveals to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14 is AM (in this word we see both the A and the O – the latter written W, like the Greek letter omega – because God stands outside time, of which he is the beginning and the end). AM created AN, the indefinite article, the article that is used for countable nouns, for nouns that we can see and draw a line around, that we can separate from ourselves and give free will. AM and AN combine to give A MAN, whose name was Adam.
ADAM also contains the name of God in Exodus 3:14 – AM – as well as both ways of writing the final letter of the Greek alphabet: O/W (D closely resembles O, M is an upturned W). It is as if the new Adam is already present in the old. These two ways of writing the last letter of the Greek alphabet, O/W, can be used to describe the Holy Trinity: O3, or 3 in One. Adam is not a chance name assigned to the first human, it has the imprint of God stamped all over it.
ADAM in reverse reads MADE, just as EARTH in reverse reads THREE (because it was created on day three and is the third planet in order of increasing distance from the Sun). Adam was made by God, who shaped him from the dust of the ground and breathed the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of life, into him.
Adam’s task was not to create all the creatures, it was to name them – that is, to translate – and we see this purpose accorded to Adam in the reverse of MAN, which is NAME (with addition of final e, very common in word connections).
Now NAME, if we rearrange the letters, spells MEAN and AMEN. When we name someone or something, we give them meaning. We acquiesce in the process of God’s creation, we accept our role in the same, and say AMEN.
But, in chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. See how EVE is already taking us away from the letter A and towards the letter I. If we apply the physical pair (pair of letters that look alike) v-y to EVE, we get EYE, and EYE sounds the same as the letter I (which, if we rotate it by ninety degrees, represents a closed eye).
We can see this progression away from the letter A towards the letter I in the name of the garden where Adam and Eve lived, EDEN, which is connected to ADAM by the phonetic pair m-n and the pair of vowels a-e.
With the Fall, described in chapter 3 of Genesis, we have turned our attention away from God and towards ourselves. The Fall corresponds to time. It is the era we live in, the timeline drawn by a teacher of English on a whiteboard, the letter I, when despite being surrounded by all of God’s goodness – the earth and all it contains – we think we can do very well without him (despite the fact we could not even breathe without him).
So, instead of calling on God, AM, we start to say I’M. Instead of saying AMEN to God’s commandments, we lay claim to our surroundings and say MINE. We have made the progression from A to I. This means that, while our physical eyes may be open, our spiritual eyes are closed: I.
Put three of these Is together, and you get the word ‘ill’, a triple ego if you like. We are spiritually sick because we have detached ourselves from the source of all goodness, the Holy Trinity. If you don’t believe me, look at what happens if we make the progression from A to I to I: we get the word ‘ail’. But God in his ineffable mercy always offers us a way out, because if we add breath to the start of this word and slightly alter the vowels, ‘ail’ gives rise to ‘heal’.
We saw in the article Alpha and Omega that one of the ways to escape the ego, I, is to treat it as a number, 1, and to count down to 0. This can be likened to opening our spiritual eyes: I to O. We turn our hearts to God in repentance, we realize we cannot live without him, or at least our life is ultimately without meaning if we do not live in, for and with him. This is the purpose of human life – to realize our need. There is nothing wrong with this. We sink to the bottom of the overturned pyramid, to use St Sophrony of Essex’s image, we descend into the hell of uncertainty and emerge the other side, strengthened and joyful.
Now, instead of saying I’M, we say OM, but I do not mean the mantra, I mean the Holy Trinity: O3. We redirect our sight away from ourselves to the centre of all being.
We saw in the article Chemistry that God the Father can be written O1, or no one. OM is connected to NO by the phonetic pair m-n, and ONE is NO in reverse with the addition of final e. So when we turn away from the I with all its hereditary fears and selfish demands, instead of saying I’M, we call on NO ONE, as we were meant to do because we are human.
The name of God is spread throughout language – language is insisting, albeit unobtrusively, that salvation for ourselves lies in calling upon God, but it must be a question of free will, a freely taken decision. We are given all the time in the world to make this step.
Instead of saying MINE, we say NEMO, which is the Latin word for NO ONE, or OMEN, a sign for the future, perhaps.
We make the progression from A to I to O, the progression of human life, which involves committing a mistake (or many mistakes) and then owning up to it.
AM – I’M – OM/O3/NO ONE
AMEN/MEAN/NAME – MINE – NEMO/OMEN
Now perhaps I have just made this all up. Well, not exactly. We also saw this same progression from A to I to O (AIO) in the question words WHAT – WHY – WHO.
‘What?’ is the question word of Creation: what is this creature? What will you call it?
‘Why?’ is the mantra of modern society, of the Fall: why should I do this? Why should I believe you? (‘Why?’ simply indicates a lack of obedience.)
The real and only valid question is ‘Who?’ (or ‘How?’, it makes no difference), and the answer is Jesus Christ. We see this progression in the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH, which corresponds to WHY, and in the Greek Septuagint translation of the name of God in Exodus 3:14, O WN (or O WH), found in icons of Christ Pantocrator, which spells WHO and HOW. We have made the progression, we have gone from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law, to the law in human form.
WHAT – WHY – WHO/HOW
Another example. The name of God in Exodus 3:14 is I AM, which gives us ‘law’ if we apply the physical pairs i-l and m-w (one letter is an extension or a reversal of the other). We associate LAW with the Old Testament, a set of rules which must be blindly followed, even to the detriment of people (for example, not healing on the Sabbath). This LAW, as we all know, can be a WALL. It protects us, but it also stands as an obstacle, especially when it is the letter of the law – and not the spirit – that is being applied.
If we make the progression from A to I, from LAW we get WILL: we apply our own will. We don’t obey the commandments to love the Lord our God with all our being and to love our neighbour as ourself. We seek our own will, we place ourselves – our profit, our comfort, our status – above the other and pursue our own self-interest. We have gone from the PROPHETS of the Old Testament to an obsession with PROFITS, as if the purpose of human life was solely to make money. It is not. The purpose of human life is to turn to God and, in God’s love, to show concern for our neighbour. That is to restore God’s image in us, to become properly human. We see many examples of this transformation in our everyday lives.
The Church Fathers, including St Sophrony, are always talking about God’s self-emptying (or kenotic) love. We imitate this love, taking ourselves – the I – out of the equation, opening our arms, making space for the other. We humble ourselves (St Sophrony goes so far as to speak of self-hatred). And what is the position of humility? It is LOW. We give space to the other, we ALLOW them. Instead of saying WILL, we say WON’T.
LAW/WALL – WILL – LOW/ALLOW/WON’T
Language is clearly indicating to us the path of repentance for those who wish to follow the example of Christ. I don’t know how to make it any clearer than this, but I will give just a few more examples. Note that all these examples of the progression AIO are between words. There are also examples of the same progression inside words, and we will see some of those in the next article.
Here is one of my favourite examples. In the Garden of Eden, there was no competition: DRAW. The ethos of our modern society, with its competition and counting up from the number 1, is to WIN. But Christ came along and told us to LOSE our life for his sake in order to gain it (Mt 10:39). Look at the vowels, and you will see the progression of repentance.
DRAW – WIN – LOSE
Losing, as we have seen, can be a frightening experience because it looks as if we are condemning ourselves to self-extinction, but I have likened this to the process of translation, where in order for a text to appear in another language, it must first disappear in the mind of the translator. This, for me, is what death is. It is a matter of having faith in the Translator.
Another favourite example. The SWAN may be taken as a symbol of purity. Certainly, it is very white. On the contrary, SWINE are a symbol of filth, the filth the Prodigal Son found himself literally rolling in when he was reduced to feeding his neighbour’s swine after he had wasted his father’s inheritance. What word will take us to the O of repentance? It is said that no one flake is ever the same. It falls out of the sky and alights on our nose. When we step in it, it soon becomes slush, or it can become frozen and cause us to slip, but newly fallen it transforms the landscape, turning it white again, forming a blanket under which Nature has a chance to rewind. I am talking about SNOW, of course.
SWAN – SWINE – SNOW
And one last example. The creature I most associate with the depths of history is WHALE, this creature that swims the world’s oceans and seems to have been doing so ever since the beginning of time. It is a creature I associate with the Creation, primordial and wise. What word do I get if I make the progression from A to I? WHILE, which corresponds to the process of time, time which has been spread out like a carpet for us to walk on while we make up our minds. And if I count down from the ego and make the progression from I to O? I become WHOLE, a combination of the Old Testament name of God, El, and O WH.
WHALE – WHILE – WHOLE
We already saw other examples of the progression from the I of the Fall to the O of redemption: LIVE-LOVE, SIN-SON and CHRIST-CROSS.
Language is urging us not to count up, not to make out that we are the owners of everything in existence. We are not. We are here to act as vehicles of love, to become sons, children of God, to lose our life for Christ’s sake on the Cross in order that we might receive everlasting joy in the resurrection.
Language confirms this. The Greek alphabet does the same, it provides the example. We may associate this with Eastern spirituality (for me, that is Orthodoxy) or with kenotic love and spontaneity, which doesn’t count the cost. There is another example, however, and I’m afraid it is provided by the Latin alphabet, which may be taken to signify a greater reliance on reason. Reason always counts the cost.
And that is because the Latin alphabet, instead of counting down from I to O, as the Greek alphabet does, counts up: from I to Z. This means that you have taken everything that was created, A, and used it for yourself.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com
The story of the Fall of humankind is related in chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis. It is generally understood to mean that the woman, Eve, was tempted by the serpent and persuaded Adam to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which the Lord God had told the man not to eat from or else he would die. The serpent – a representation of evil, or the devil himself – tells Eve that they will not die, but their eyes will be opened and they will be like God, knowing good and evil. The man and the woman eat and then become aware of their nakedness, which causes them to hide when God comes visiting ‘at the time of the evening breeze’. The Lord God asks Adam how it is he knows that he is naked, and he replies that the woman gave him fruit from the tree to eat; she in turn blames the serpent. God pronounces their punishment, and the man and the woman are expelled from the Garden of Eden.
I should perhaps point out one of the most remarkable word connections you will ever find, and that is when we rearrange the letters of GARDEN OF EDEN. I used to do this, sitting down in the early morning (between 6 and 8) while the house martins screeched around on a level with my eighth-floor apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria – rearrange the letters and see what I could find.
GARDEN OF EDEN gives DANGER OF NEED. This is surely a coincidence, language telling us something.
Adam and Eve were in danger of need. But what exactly is wrong with having a knowledge of good and evil, and why should that cause them to die?
I would like to suggest an alternative interpretation, one I thought was unique to me until I discovered that it had been offered and accepted before. This interpretation – which is only that, an interpretation – gives rise to several conclusions, which I would like to list at the end of this article.
I imagine Adam and Eve playing in the Garden of Eden, in innocence, as children do, without a care in the world and with not much to do except to admire God’s handiwork in themselves and the animals and plants that surrounded and delighted them. They must soon have become friends. Life must have seemed like an ‘Eden’ to them – no great responsibilities, no great amount of work, no aches and pains to bother them. Just an eternity of today.
Except, as children do, they began to grow, to become sexually mature, and their curiosity must have been piqued. Eve began to have these bumps on her chest; Adam began to grow hair around his genitals and his long thing got longer. And they must have begun to experience the first sexual stirrings, perhaps in the night, when they were asleep, lying among last year’s fallen leaves. Perhaps they began to experience pleasure and to wonder what pleasure lay in the other.
There is an obvious correlation between the serpent and the man’s penis. The snake has traditionally been associated with the penis and sexuality. So perhaps it was the man who, feeling aroused, suggested they acquire carnal knowledge, knowledge of one another. Certainly carnal knowledge can be for good and evil – good in a loving, committed relationship and in the procreation of children; evil when it treats the other as an object and seeks only its own satisfaction. Undoubtedly, in the history of humankind, sex has been a force for good and evil – on the one hand, a demonstration of love, two people coming together in wonder and amazement; on the other, an abuse of the other person when it is not consensual or merely pleasure-seeking, seeking a meaning where none is to be found.
So we have identified the serpent with the man’s penis, but what of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the apple? The apple can be related to the woman’s breast, that object that mystified the man and that he is now suggesting they eat of. After all, a fruit has flesh. It also has ‘the seed in it’, as we read in chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis, in the first creation account.
God had said that if they ate of the forbidden fruit – had sexual intercourse – they would surely die, and this is true, but bear in mind that the verb ‘die’ has two meanings: to expire at the end of our earthly lives, but also to expire in orgasm. This latter meaning is well documented.
What is the connection between these two meanings, and again why should the knowledge of good and evil be such a bad thing?
I think the answer is to be found in an article by a Greek bishop and theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas. In ‘The Consequences of Man’s Fall’, he writes, ‘In beings with organs – especially mammals – the ageing cycle begins from the moment that the organism reaches the point of reproductive maturity.’ So when we reach sexual maturity, we begin to die (in both senses of the word).
And this ties in with a teenager’s behaviour, because a child who reaches sexual maturity changes somewhat. They become more bashful, more private, they are no longer prepared to appear naked in front of their parents. Isn’t this exactly the behaviour of Adam and Eve when God comes looking for them ‘at the time of the evening breeze’? They hide themselves. They have become aware of their nakedness. And what is it they use to hide their nakedness that now causes them such shame? Fig leaves! Figs are another symbol of sexuality and the male organ.
So they have acquired carnal knowledge, they have slept together, and now they do not want God to see them because they are ashamed of their nakedness and they know that he will see it in their eyes. Their eyes have been opened.
But if sexual maturity coincides with the beginning of the ageing process, there is no other way to have children. So God – who so often is seen as inflicting punishment, as being vindictive, something that is as far away from his nature as it is possible to be – performs an act of charity, of love: he banishes them from the Garden of Eden in case they eat of the tree of life. He wants them to have children (I’m quite sure he knew perfectly well what was going to happen, just as any parent does), but he doesn’t want the ageing process that comes with sexual maturity to last for ever, that would be terrible, so he sends them out of the Garden of Eden to till the land they came from.
He does this in order that we might have children. In order to have children, we must die. This is the meaning of death – it is so that we can have the unparalleled blessing of procreating, of giving our life to another, who is then ‘the apple of our eye’.
This is a great thing – ‘Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn 15:13) – but it also serves another purpose: it builds up the body of the Church. It prevents God from having to create all the creatures, all the men and women, himself. He involves us in the process (albeit our involvement is slightly different, because life passes through us, it does not begin with us – we are translators, not authors).
In this sense, the earth is a spiritual womb, it is a womb in which a spiritual body – the body of the Church – is being formed, just as we are formed in our mother’s womb. We have not realized this. Just as there is spiritual blindness as well as physical blindness, so there is spiritual birth as well as physical birth. We are still in the womb, but now it is not the body of an individual that is being formed, it is the collective body of the Church, a body made up of many members (in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, Paul compares us to the different members of the body, each performing his or her own unique function, with Christ as the head).
And this is where we get into the realm of Christian paradox: life passes through us when we receive life from our parents and pass it on to our children; but we also pass through life, in the sense that we are not here for ever and we move on. We form part of the body of Christ, the body of his Church, but in the sacrament of communion it is his body and blood that form part of us. We lose our life and find it. I begin to think the Christian message is true precisely because it is paradoxical.
Is there an indication of the world as a spiritual womb? I think there is, because if we read the first creation account in chapter 1 of Genesis, we find that God created the day on day one (already we have the progression AIO in the word DAY, remember the correlation between O and D and between i and y) and then, on day two, he created the dome of the sky by separating the waters from the waters. Doesn’t that sound like a baby in its mother’s womb, surrounded by water? Perhaps this is why SKY can be connected to KISS and SICK, because for procreation to occur there must be a kiss, but sexual maturity is also the beginning of the ageing process, of what makes us sick.
Is there anything in language to connect the serpent and the man’s penis, to connect the apple and the woman’s breast?
Well, if you allow fluidity to the vowels and change one front vowel for another, you will find that PENIS is in SERPENT, with the addition of r and t. And applying the phonetic pairs b-p and l-r, you will find that APPLE is in the first four letters of BREAST, with the addition of s and t.
This interpretation – and it is only an interpretation – has three consequences:
- The Fall was a good thing. Otherwise, we couldn’t have children and the body of the Church could not be formed.
- Perhaps the woman is not entirely to blame; in fact it would seem that Adam was the prime mover in response to his sexual desire. We could at least speak about shared responsibility.
- While in the Church great emphasis is placed on monasticism, on abstinence and asceticism, it would appear that the purpose of life on earth is to have children, and this would give the option of marriage far greater importance than it is sometimes credited with.
So Genesis, that most remarkable book, is not just the story of the creation of the world and the Fall of humankind, but also the story of each one of us, of human life. We are born, just as the world (the body of Christ) is. We reach sexual maturity in order that we might give that life to others. We then have to die (we have now fast-forwarded to the Crucifixion) because it is the only way to give life – to die, to expire. But there is a greater mystery here. This is not the last word.
The word ‘die’, if we apply the physical pair b-d (a pair of letters that look alike; in this case one is the mirror image of the other), clearly contains ‘I’ and ‘be’. It is a very life-affirming word. The word ‘live’, if we remember the closeness between b and v, contains two ‘I’s and ‘be’ – this may refer to our physical and spiritual selves, to our human and divine natures (the latter acquired by grace in a process known in Orthodoxy as theosis), or to our fallen and resurrected selves. Anyway, it is manifestly not the end.
If we could only see this world for what it is, a place of spiritual growth (not a place to make money!!) – a spiritual womb – we might realize our connectedness. Having been born from our mothers, we are now – all of us, outside the constraints of time – in the process of forming another, spiritual body, one that has Christ as its head and one that will last for all eternity. The world is a spiritual womb. We must die in order to have children, participating in this way in the formation of the Church. And having died, we have no choice but to be born again, but this time without the straitjacket of corruption, without the ageing process. We will be ‘like angels in heaven’ (Mt 22:30). With one great difference: we will not be alone.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com