Listening For God

Translator Stephen Mitchell on east and west, the psyche, and the divine.

          CP: You give a very different reading to the garden story--as a metaphor for the development of one's psyche through the course of a lifetime. It struck me how much less punitive that is than the traditional reading.

          Mitchell: This story presses everybody's buttons. Not everybody's, but of the people that I have read to, many, many people have found it a very difficult and troubling story. When I've read it, even to a group made up mostly of Buddhists, you can feel the energy in the air. You could cut it with a knife. Especially the women have flames coming out of their ears when they hear it. Because, as it's written and as it's been traditionally interpreted, it's a story about male blame of women for all the misery of humanity. This is not even speaking of the original sin interpretation of Augustine, which was taken as the interpretation by the church.

          It's something that as a culture, I think, we are mature enough now to get past. And once you look beneath the surface of what the writer obviously intended--and he intended his God character to be the one we are in sympathy with, and the serpent to be a naughty or a nasty character, and he intended Eve to be blamed--but being a great writer, he was in touch with some much deeper element in the human psyche, and in spite of whatever his intentions might be, the story itself has an intelligence that leads us to look at it in a different way, a deeper way. And it becomes much more interesting, I think.

          So when you read this fresh, as I hope people will do, you can see all these curious elements. The God character, who's a kindly character even if a little bumbling, plants the forbidden tree right in the middle of the garden, creates the serpent, a very persuasive, talkative animal, and creates the character as a serpent in the first place. He must have been, even unconsciously, aware that there's this relationship between a serpent and wisdom, that a serpent sheds its skin and is reborn in that sense. In itself, it leads away from the standard interpretation.

          And also, one thing I mentioned in the introduction is that the God character doesn't tell the truth and the serpent character tells the truth about, you know, as soon as you eat this fruit you will die. That's a verse that theologians have been trying to explain away for probably 1500 years. But it's clearly out there as the literal text. All of these elements, it seems to me, lead us to look more deeply and to see it as something else on the level of the soul.

          In the tradition that I've been trained in as an adult, Zen Buddhism, and in many of the other great spiritual traditions, there's no difference between psychology and theology. When you get to the deep places of the soul, you discover that those distinctions aren't there. As a matter of fact, there's nothing there. It's a great freedom. You can't even talk about the soul at a certain depth, or about God, because those are very imprecise, reified words that talk about them as if they're nouns, and they're not at all nouns. The world of nouns and verbs is something we live in at a certain gross level of reality, and distinctions--especially those kinds of distinctions--aren't valid.

          But even more important than the blurring or the disappearance of those kinds of distinctions is the disappearance of a certain kind of moralistic distinction--the distinction between good and bad, and up and down. I talk about that at some length in the introduction. One of the things that deeply moved me and impressed me about the great writers of Genesis--J, and the Joseph author--was their open-heartedness and their inclusiveness. The fact that there were not heroes and villains in these great stories, as there are throughout most of the Bible and the gospels, too. You have that very limited mind at work throughout the Bible and the New Testament, where the world is split into Us and Them. God's people and the unchosen. In the gospels certainly as much as in the Hebrew Bible, even though people tend to think of the mind that wrote the gospels as a very loving mind, it's not so in my opinion. The Pharisees are always lurking in the background like Victorian villains, twirling their mustaches. And then in John, you have the Jews as the children of Satan. It's a very hate-filled, dualistic mind.

          But that's not so in the greatest stories of Genesis. The unchosen or defeated characters are given just as much voice, just as much loving attention, as the "good" characters. I talk about Cain and Esau, and there are extremely moving moments when the unchosen characters express themselves: Bless me. Bless me too, father. Such a deeply, deeply moving moment. And the largeness of mind it takes to portray the brother who has not got the blessing being much more open-hearted than the chosen brother--that's astonishing of the writer to do. This mind is a rare thing in sacred scriptures of the West. And very precious too, I think. CP

          Stephen Mitchell is appearing at Borders Bookshop (3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 825-0336) on Thursday, September 19, at 7:30.

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