How would you like to grow up without the experience of pain? Think that'd be swell?
Follow the link above to the story I recently read on the CNN website -- about a little boy born with a neurological disease that makes him immune to pain. It's heartbreaking -- imagine your child sucking on his or her thumb, like kids do, and nearly gnawing it off because s/he doesn't realize that's what s/he's doing. Or concussing himself or herself against a wall because s/he just can't feel how hard s/he's slamming into the surface.
Hansen's disease -- one of the conditions thought to be described by the word "leprosy" in the Bible -- is another illness that deadens the sensation of pain. I was told that oftentimes the grotesque mutilations one sees in Hansen's patients have less to do with the disease process itself and more to do with sufferers' inability to feel what's happening to their extremities; they're easily burned and broken.
As I was reading this, I thought not only about my recent revisiting of the Book of Genesis, but also about all the times in my childhood I'd been told that one of the results of the Fall was the entrance of pain and death into the world...as if having nerves responsive to stimuli, and mortal bodies, weren't a part of the picture before. This is nonsense. And it's not a matter of a fundamentalist interpretative method vs. an historical-critical one; it's just not in the text.
The pain-in-childbirth curse leveled by God in the story is also nonsense if taken at face value; of course a human baby with a "big giant head" is going to hurt coming through a narrow birth canal. Carl Sagan had a really interesting take on the metaphorical truth of this story in The Dragons of Eden; that the size of the human head has evolved to its utmost -- any larger and the only way women could accomodate it would be to evolve pelvises so wide that they could no longer walk with ease. And what makes our heads so huge? Our cognitive ability. Which makes us not only reasoning creatures, but morally reasoning creatures. Creatures who evaluate their actions, or non-actions, in terms of good and bad; whose moral deliberations cause guilt and frustration and pain. The few sociopaths among us whose brain pathology prevents them from having this ability are -- dangerous. People we wouldn't want living next door to us or taking care of kids or old folks or making decisions in high places.
All of which is to say -- we need some pain. We need physical pain and we need emotional and moral pain -- as St. Teresa of Avila put it, the ability to be displeasing to ourselves. This is our dilemma living in the world, believing in a God who loves us and wishes us well but also knowing that suffering is part of the equation. Christianity, unlike belief systems that see our enfleshed existence and experience as illusory, as distractions to some greater truth, acknowledges both the reality and the necessity of pain.
But that message can get lost when religious teachers, through their own ignorance or simple unwillingness to deal with big questions on the part of their students, perpetuate the image of Eden as a real place "where everything was beautiful all the time" and we could have innocently cavorted through all eternity if we hadn't have screwed things up. No. The child in the CNN story is living in pain-free Eden that's more like hell; we long to rescue him from it. Sociopaths live in a moral Eden while making the world around them hell.
There's a medieval Christmas carol -- I can't remember which one -- that speaks of the Fall as a happy misfortune because it began the process that led to the Incarnation -- to God With Us. I think this one line in an old song contains more sound theology than much of the blather about the creation story generated by the Church before and since. We're the way we are because we have to be, to be human. We believe that God loves us enough to have chosen to be with us, to walk with us, as one of us, and in doing so hallows and redeems the suffering that we must go through to be human. To me that's a more profound and moving image than the Sunday School comic-book story. Which isn't to say that I expect churches to start feeding five-year-olds Kierkegaard-level musings on the nature of brokenness and redemption. But I would challenge churches to stop treating 25- and 45- and 65-year-olds like five-year-olds, and create church cultures that support and encourage ongoing religious formation for all -- education that isn't afraid of hard questions and doesn't rely on easy answers.