It’s “Free-for-All Friday,” which means I’m responding to a question from one of my readers. So, here we go!
“I just finished reading Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. I found a lot of it incredibly insightful, but I’m still struggling a bit with the section on Paul’s letters. In Romans, Paul uses the phrase “in Adam” to contrast with the phrase “in Christ.” I’m struggling with what the phrase “in Adam” represents, or living life according to the flesh.
How might I reconcile this with the idea of inherent union with the Divine, when it seems like Paul is implying that humans are born “in Adam”, and to quote Borg, into the “life of separation or estrangement from God.’”
This is such a good question, and I wish we could ask Paul for a clarification. It reminds me of an interaction I had in a small group discussion several years ago. Someone brought up something that Paul (or someone claiming to be Paul, I’ll come back to this) wrote, and I responded, “I think I disagree with Paul on this.” She was shocked by my answer, but I do think it’s valid to disagree with the Bible. In certain instances, disagreeing with the Bible may be the Christian thing to do!
When we talk about Paul’s writings we are talking about seven letters that all scholars accept as authentically Pauline. The other six are disputed, with most scholars feeling confident that Paul couldn’t have written the Pastoral Epistles (Titus, 1 & 2 Timothy) due to the contents reflecting issues and church structure that did not exist in Paul’s lifetime. In the seven genuine letters, Paul mixes metaphors in an attempt to try to explain the mystery of Christ and what it means to be living ‘in Christ.’ To put it another way, Paul and the early Christians were building the plane as they flew it. Which leads us to these kinds of passages that tend to be confusing and hard to reconcile.
When it comes to the language ‘in Adam’ I don’t believe Paul is talking about the concept we know as “Original Sin,” because that doctrine did’t exist in Paul’s lifetime. That doctrine, which says we are all born with the stain of original sin, separated from God, emerged with Augustine around the year 400 CE. Knowing that, what do we do with Paul’s language? I think Paul is using Adam as a metaphor for the sense of estrangement humans feel in terms of our connection to God. In the Genesis story Adam and Eve aren’t separated from God due to their disobedience (it’s not called sin in Genesis 3). After all, God shows up for an evening walk with them!
They feel a sense of separation, which is estrangement. The separation is self imposed, not divinely dictated. So, for Paul, ‘in Adam’ encapsulates that sense of estrangement and the fallout of how we try to cover up with fig leaves to hide the fact that we feel shame. In Christ, Paul says, that estrangement and shame are overcome, and we discover that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
If we take the Adam metaphor literally, we end up where Augustine and subsequent generations of Christians have, with separation and shame. If we let Adam function as a metaphor for what happens when we allow our ego and the desire to judge (that’s the temptation of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, I think) to cause us to experience estrangement and pain, then it is a powerful contrast. Christ liberates from shame, confirms our union with God, and invites us to the path of transformation.
That’s a convoluted response, unfortunately, but this is often where Paul leads us: Into the messiness of shifting metaphors, learning as we go, and knowing that at best we see in a glass darkly. I hope this is at least somewhat helpful, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you’d like to submit a question, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a great weekend!