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Raising up the old Adam in us all

19 December 2014

Adam is neglected at the Nativity, but he has a universal significance, says Rod Garner


Driven out: engraving of The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), first published in Die Bibel in Bildern (1860)

Driven out: engraving of The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), first published in Die ...

A PIVOTAL character is missing from the vivid nativity landscape painted by Luke and Matthew in their Gospels. His name is Adam -the disobedient figure haunting the opening chapters of Genesis, who, by a solitary act, plunges humankind into darkness and death, and makes necessary the birth of Christ.

In the Christian narrative of our redemption, Adam is a significant player, theologically speaking, but in our Christmas services he is, at best, a shadowy presence, and, at the level of our religious awareness, hardly registers.

He appears in the first reading of the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols, where he hides in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit. And he is evoked in the medieval theology of the haunting 15th-century poem/carol "Adam lay ybounden", which depicts him bound in limbo until the saving birth and death of Christ.

Adam has something profound to teach us about our human predicament, but at Christmas (and, frankly, most other times, too) we are not tuned in. We are modern people - citizens of a sceptical and scientific culture, where Genesis is routinely interpreted as a story rather than as a factual account of our origins. When evolution offers a more plausible theory of human beginnings, there seems to be no need to fret about a biblical man who never existed.

But some (and here I include myself) do worry, though not for the same reasons. In the United States, millions still cling to the old-time religion that holds the scriptures to be infallibly and unchangingly true. They consistently tell Gallup pollsters that God created humans less than 10,000 years ago. They believe that the Bible doesn't lie, and, without a historical Adam, there would be no reason for Jesus, or the salvation he brings to a fallen world. In 2013, a large gathering of Evangelical theologians assembled in Baltimore to debate biblical inerrancy. One creationist speaker declared that "science changes, but the word of God never changes."

A packed meeting on Adam turned scholars away at the door. Academic papers bearing his name are circulating, and books on the same subject proliferate. In some instances, Christian universities across the US require teaching staff to sign testimonies declaring that God directly created Adam and Eve, "the historical parents of the entire human race". Jobs have been lost through a failure to comply.

THERE is another way to approach Adam. It pays attention to his great significance for Christianity in a holy season, and avoids the acrimonious debate between arch-conservatives, who regard evolution as a fiendish lie, and scientists, who prefer fossils to faith in an ancient book, as a surer guide to the emergence of human life.

To know ourselves even tolerably well is to be aware of our waywardness: that we frequently get things badly wrong; that, if not actually wretched, we are sometimes cruel and hateful; that, given the choice between evil and good, we can, and occasionally do, choose badly, with calamitous consequences for others.

There is an observable and alarming "human stain": a moral corrosion within us that led the sceptical philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to conclude that "Man is a being to whom something happened." Theology describes this in terms of the Fall: the venerable and verifiable Christian doctrine of original sin that illuminates the tragic and perverse elements within our nature, after the emergence of Homo sapiens millennia ago.

As an archetype or symbol of what it means to be fearfully human, Adam comes to us as the first "theological human". In keeping with his Hebrew name, he stands for all of us: one created from the earth (adamah); one to whom something happened, and one who reflects the riddle of our lives since the historical emergence of consciousness and the moral capacity for good or evil.

We shall not find Adam's real existence in archaeology or recorded history. He is no private character, acting in a private capacity. His tale is ours, and his truth lies in the fact that we are all "Adamic" - prone to skewed lives that trail glory but also yield dark fruits.

Adam tells us not to despair. He teaches us to think no worse of others than of ourselves, and to be compassionate, because we have come to recognise our own need for mercy. In so doing, he points us to the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who, in Bethlehem, embraces the same earth, to disinfect us of our pride and egoism and offer us a better way.

THIS is a big story - bigger than the annual recollection of a seasonal goodwill that fades all too easily; bigger even than the innocence and hope that we associate with the Christ-child, and with each new birth. Adam grounds us in the story of our being saved, and in the humbling truth that human frailty can still merit so great a redeemer.

Canon Rod Garner is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport, and theologian to the diocese of Liverpool.

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