Who told you that you were naked?
Sept 22, 2010
I am glad that you are here, this morning, so early, on the first day of the new term and the new year.
“Who told you that you were naked?”
We are talking this term about big questions, and the significance of this one may not be obvious to you. But it is a big question, as I will try to explain.
“Who told you that you were naked?” This is a question God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It’s a quaint story, depicting God as a person who wanders through the garden in the cool of the day, and during the stroll God encounters his favorite creatures adorned in unusual costume. Whereas heretofore they had been just as the other creatures, now they had decked themselves with fig-leaves, which they had sewn together. They had made clothes. So we may say that the first casualty of the fall was the creation of the fashion industry. Because, you see, until they had eaten the forbidden fruits from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve had no sense of nakedness; they had no self-consciousness; no need to adorn themselves, no need to hide.
Alas, all of us, their children, have inherited their guilt. All of us are all too aware of our nakedness, even though the fashion industry continues to help us hide. To be human is to be self-conscious, to feel awkward, out-of-place, to want to hide. Who told us that we were naked? We learned it very young, when we failed, when we were misunderstood, when we were chosen last or called dorks, or ridiculed, or hurt. Maybe no one needed to. But still, we have been told every day, in one way or another. We have always been clothed, since our births. And we have been engaged in a life-long cover up attempt. We have been covering up our sense of inadequacy, springing from fear and doubt.
I will never forget when my youngest son, when he was about four years old, once asked the family, “what does embarrass: mean?” His older brother promptly walked over to him, pulled down the young kid’s shorts and said, “That’s what it means.” Such love.
Self-consciousness is apparently distinctly human. Lots of work has been done by cognitive scientists to see if other creatures can recognize themselves when they see their reflections in a mirror. This is how the concept of self is defined. Results indicate that a few other creatures do seem to “know themselves” – but very few. And certainly no other creatures have a fashion industry.
So what is the relevance of that question for us today? Simply this: When we feel vulnerable, or self-conscious, or exposed, we build defenses. Dartmouth is a place of great self-consciousness. It seems that every student thinks , at times, that he or she does not belong here, among these talented beautiful people. They even wonder if there has been some mistake. But these are times of vulnerability. Most of the time we manage to defend ourselves against our vulnerability, often by asserting, or trying to prove how smart we are, or how gifted, or how successful, or how rich, or how popular, or how strong. In many ways, our whole life can be spent trying to hide our fundamental nakedness – trying to deny the vulnerability that constitutes human life. So instead of cultivating compassion, we cultivate competition. This applies to groups – even nations, as well as individuals.
Implied in the story of Adam and Eve is the assumption that the fall into a state of self-consciousness, guilt, and doubt is a fall away from the innocence that we all long for – perfect comfort, the absence of self-consciousness in every situation. But, alas, there is no going back, Self-conscious we are. And it is our over-reaching desire for “knowledge” that often makes us so.
Is there a remedy for self-consciousness? Yes. We find it in those rare relationships of pure, unconditional acceptance. Some of us may be so fearful that we distrust these experiences. But they are real: they are experiences of God. For God’s love, as we know in Jesus Christ, is unconditional. Knowing all. Forgiving all. Loving all. May you be blessed with such love and forgiveness, so that you will be able to show it to others.