Saturday Night Theologian
13 March 2011

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (first published 13 February 2005)

North Korea this week admitted that it had developed nuclear weapons. Their admission was hardly a revelation to the rest of the world, since intelligence sources had claimed for several years that Pyongyang had a handful of nuclear weapons, but their public confirmation of these reports marked a new challenge for the rest of the world, particularly those countries that have attempted to get North Korea to forego its nuclear aspirations: China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. It is particularly problematic for the three largest of these countries--China, the U.S., and Russia--to argue that North Korea has no right to develop nuclear weapons, since they all have large nuclear arsenals. It is also ironic, or perhaps even disingenuous, for the U.S. above all to seek to limit nuclear proliferation while at the same time the Bush administration is actively working on developing a new class of battlefield nuclear weapons, like the bunker-buster bombs the administration craves to add to its arsenal. Leaving aside for the moment the hazards involved with nuclear power, one can argue that it offers an alternative to the continued burning of fossil fuels, whose combustion is raising worldwide temperatures and whose supply in limited. On the other hand, the temptation to move beyond producing energy into building terrifying weapons is great, and it is a temptation that some countries find too great to resist. The story of the Fall is a story about temptation, missed opportunities, and the transformation of good into evil. God planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, but God told Adam and Eve not to eat its fruit. The Hebrew phrase "good and evil" is a figure of speech that encompasses all knowledge, not just an understanding of morality. The tree bore a fruit that promised the world but cost the soul of the one who ate it. The fruit was a temptation, according to the story, because it was good to look at, but also, and more importantly, because it could make the man and the woman wise like God. Knowledge is a fruit that tempted Adam and Eve, just as it tempts us today. It offers the opportunity for great good, but too often we miss the opportunity because of our lust for power, fame, or fortune. The acquisition of knowledge in and of itself is good, because of the potential that it offers for doing good works, but our human frailties often pervert the potential for tremendous good into the realties of overwhelming evil. The discovery of the hidden power inside atoms was an incredible bit of knowledge that Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Curie, and others at the beginning of the twentieth century uncovered. The atom has the power to generate electrical energy. Atomic radiation helps doctors diagnose and treat illnesses and fractures. Understanding the secrets of the atom brings scientists closer to understanding the mysteries of the universe, from the Big Bang to the Grand Unification Theory. However, our understanding of the atom has also led to great evil. Not only can nuclear energy create useable power, it can also be wielded as a weapon of mass destruction with a yield beyond that of any other weapon known. Radiation in small doses can look inside the body, and in slightly higher doses it can eradicate cancer cells, but as the byproduct of a nuclear explosion, radiation can both kill immediately and alter the normal functioning of cells so that people die from dread diseases even years afterward. The secrets of the atom can help us understand the world, but the misuse of the atom threatens to destroy the world, or at least its human inhabitants, along with innumerable other species of plants and animals. Perhaps it would have been better if scientists a hundred years ago had never discovered how to unleash the power of atoms, but the human quest for knowledge is innate in us, as the story of the Fall illustrates. Rather than try to stifle the acquisition of knowledge, we need to learn to recognize both the possible benefits and the potential dangers of that knowledge, and we as a society need to do all we can not to transform the good into evil. Nuclear weapons are a prime example of a great discovery twisted by the lust for power into something perverse, and the world will be a better place when all nuclear arsenals are dismantled. Many other goods have been hideously transmuted into evils, resulting in such modern problems as global warming (fossil fuels), deforestation (agriculture), various types of cancer and other diseases (chemical pollutants), handguns and assault weapons (invention of gunpowder), subjugation of women (religion), and overpopulation (medicines). To borrow a phrase from nuclear physics, human knowledge in the past century has reached critical mass. We must apply our knowledge for good and turn away from harmful applications, for the very existence of life on this planet hangs in the balance.

Psalm 32 (first published 13 February 2005)

How truly happy is a man
When God forgives his blackest sin.
What joy when God removes the guilt
Through him whose precious blood was spilt.

When hidden sin was in my life,
My days and nights were full of strife.
I felt your rod upon back.
My heart despaired, my strength grew slack.

In desperation to you I cried.
My deepest sin I did not hide.
I said, "My sins I must confess,"
And you forgave!  You called be blest.

So pray to God you pure in heart,
While it is day before the dark.
You hide me, Lord, from misery
And surround me with shouts of victory.

"I will show you the way you should go,
And teach you wisdom that you should know.
Don't stiffen your neck in pride and say,
'I can make it,' for I am the Way."

The wicked live in sore despair,
But for the faithful God's mercy is there.
So be happy in God and lift your voice,
You righteous ones, rejoice, rejoice!

Romans 5:12-19

I don't believe in the doctrine of original sin. That is, I don't believe that every human alive today directly inherits the sin of Adam and Eve by the mere fact of being born. One reason I don't accept original sin is that I take Adam and Eve to be literary characters in a theologically-inspired creation story rather than literal people, so it would be impossible for a child to inherit sin from a literary figure. Another reason is that I believe all children are born innocent in the eyes of God, without any sin at all. Of course, it doesn't take long for children to learn to sin, because sin at its heart is disobedience: disobedience to parents, disobedience to legitimate authority figures, disobedience to God. Other than people with serious developmental disorders, I agree with Paul that all have sinned. There can be no question that sin has spread throughout the world, wherever human beings are present. In today's reading from Romans, the verse that strikes me is the last: "For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." Paul is drawing on the ancient philosophical canard about the contrast between the one and the many (also used by Spock in The Wrath of Khan), and he's also using a principle of rabbinic exegesis, arguing from the lesser to the greater. The act of Adam, Paul says, infected the world, but the act of Christ--a second and greater Adam--counteracts and cancels out the Adam's act, with the result that the world has the potential for righteousness. Unfortunately, as we look around at the world we live in, we can see that it is far from just. I think a large part of the problem is that followers of Christ have, as a whole, not taken to heart the act of Christ. Rep. Peter King is holding hearings in Congress on the threat of Muslims to America. The rationale behind these hearings is not only bigoted, Islamophobic, and dangerous, it is dead wrong. The biggest threat to Americans--a country in which about 75% of the populace self-identifies as Christian, in contrast to less than 1% who are Muslims--is Christians. No, 85% of Christian churches are not breeding grounds for terrorists (drawing of Rep. King's mischaracterization of U.S. mosques), but Christians are a threat nonetheless. Why? Not because they promote conventional terrorism, involving bombs and shootings, but because they simply don't care enough about their fellow citizens to change the unjust structures of both government and society that are oppressing millions of people. Among industrialized countries, the U.S. has the highest rate of infant mortality, and it has high rates of poverty and income inequity and low rates of medical care and education. Not coincidentally, we also have extremely low tax rates, and a disproportional amount of the tax revenue we raise goes to weapons, instruments, and organizations of war. These structural sins of our society do not reflect the righteousness that Paul advocated for followers of Christ, and it is up to Christians, who comprise the majority of the electorate, to address these issues in a straightforward manner. Righteousness that results only in personal aggrandizement and haughty condemnation of "the other" without effecting a just transformation of the structures of society is not righteousness at all. Fortunately, we have the example of Jesus, and the promise that by observing and emulating his obedience to the principles and will of God, the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4:1-11 (first published 13 February 2005)

I have what you might call a healthy fear of heights. I have no problem climbing a ladder or even being on a two-story roof, as long as I'm not too near the edge. I fly on planes with few qualms, although I prefer to drive anywhere within about 500 miles or so. However, although I like to hike and climb hills, I have no desire whatsoever to scale a mountain that requires the use of ropes, hammers, and spikes. I watch movies like K2, Vertical Limit, and Cliffhanger with a certain amount of terror. I feel the same way when I watch a high wire or a trapeze act at the circus. All I can say about Belo, the star of the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus, is that he must be crazy! When I visited the circus, he climbed a ridiculously high, wobbly, vertical pole, swung on a trapeze, and performed other stunts high above the ground that I would never have attempted even on the ground when I was younger and more nimble. As the saying goes, it's not the long fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop at the end. I say all this to say that I would never have been tempted to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, or any other tall building, to see if God's angels would come to rescue me. They wouldn't need to rescue me, because I wouldn't jump. I wouldn't even be anywhere near the edge of the roof. Similarly, I've never been tempted to turn rocks into loaves of bread. I don't know how to do it, so it's just not a temptation. Although I've never been anywhere close to starvation, I've felt like I was starving at various times in my life, particular during my teenage years. The hungriest I've ever been was at Philmont Scout Ranch during the summer of 1977. We hiked in the mountains of northern New Mexico for two weeks, and we ate freeze-dried food that we carried in our backpacks. Freeze-dried food is OK, but the portions they allotted to us were not enough to satisfy the appetites we worked up from hiking ten miles a day or so. One night two friends and I liberated a can of Hershey's chocolate syrup that somehow hadn't made it into whatever that evening's dessert had been. We snuck out a little way from the main camp, opened the can, and proceeded to drink its entire contents. It was sickeningly sweet, but it helped. On the way back home from our stay, our scoutmaster made the mistake of offering to buy us as many McDonald's hamburgers as we could eat. After an appetizer of about half a dozen sandwiches in the car, I managed to eat nine hamburgers that day, and others in the group also consumed vast quantities. Despite my hunger, however, it never occurred to me to magically change a rock into bread or a pine cone into a hamburger. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, I presume that the temptations to leap from the pinnacle of the temple or to turn stones into bread were real, despite the fact that I can't relate to them. However, I can relate to the last temptation, the promise of great riches in exchange for worshiping the devil. I haven't ever been rich, I don't ever expect to be rich, and I don't even particularly want to be rich. What do I want with the wealth of the whole world? On the other hand, I wouldn't mind if someone paid off my mortgage; or if I suddenly inherited enough money so that I could devote myself to study, writing, and teaching, regardless of remuneration; or if on my next trip to the beach I discovered some long-lost buried pirate's treasure. We're familiar with stories of people like Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the love of Margaret. We remember Joe Hardy, who sold his soul in exchange for a role in getting the Yankees to the World Series in Damn Yankees!. We've also read about Dorian Grey, who traded his soul for eternal youth and beauty. We might not be engaged in Satan-worship, but we often find ourselves paying homage to love, sports, youth, riches, power, or some other worldly idol. The desire for more of the world's goods even penetrates the doors of the church when we offer financial management seminars as a substitute for Jesus' command to give all we have to the poor. The things that tempt me may not be the same things that tempt you, but we are all tempted. Only by maintaining a close walk with God can we avoid succumbing to a host of temptations around us. Lent is a season in which we remember our weakness, our spiritual impoverishment, and our susceptibility to sin. As we enter this time of the year, let us remember that we cannot live the Christian life on our own. We need the strength of the one who was tempted in every way as we are, yet overcame his temptations through the power of God.