Shame is the hatred of the self or at least the belief that the self deserves punishment. Not all shame is bad or inappropriate. In fact, shame can be healthy when one commits a bad act and seeks to atone for that act. In this circumstance shame informs the self that the self has committed a bad act. Shame becomes a problem when it expands beyond this role and dominates a person’s life and infiltrates every moment of existence. When shame expands beyond its useful role it becomes difficult to live a moral life according to Christian morality as defined by Jesus. Specifically, when asked in the Gospel of Matthew which is the greatest commandment Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (MT 22:36-40).
A person I recently interacted with who is a self-avowed white supremacist and Christian whom I believe to be shame driven expressed that because he does not love himself he is not required to love his (presumably non-white) neighbor. I found this to be a clever loop-hole but it ultimately fails for two major reasons.
First, to love God (the first and most important commandment which even my white supremacist acquaintance would acknowledge) he must also love God’s creation which is an extension and reflection of God. God’s creation includes one’s self and his neighbors. Certainly this love is not unconditional. In order to love something whole heartedly (as the greatest commandment requires) the love cannot come from a place of obligation. The heart must have the free will to choose to love or to not love. To love out of obligation is merely going through the motions, is not whole-hearted and lacks real value.
Second, in the absence of self-love, shame will expand beyond its useful role because in this environment shame does not serve to bring the self back from error but rather to annihilate and perpetually punish the self. With this type of shame naturally comes comparison to others, resentment of others and jealousy of others. In this environment it is impossible to love one’s neighbor or one’s self. I believe if one cannot love himself he cannot truly love God. Life becomes joyless and hateful to the self and the others with whom he interacts. Under these circumstances there is no room for the Holy Spirit to enter the heart. This is self-annihilation. According to Saint Paul the fruit of the Holy Spirit are Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control. (Gal 5:22-23). None of these fruits can ripen in an environment of shame and hatred for the self and one’s neighbor.
Before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the Book of Genesis specifically states “they were both naked … and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:25). But when they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they became aware of their nakedness, became ashamed, covered themselves and hid from God. (Gen 3:7-10). It was shame that separated man from God since the very beginning. It is also shame that separates man from himself and his neighbor (extensions of God). This is why shame (the absence of self-love) is ultimately self-annihilating.
In chapter eleven we come to the Tower of Babel where all the people of the world speak one language and attempt to build a tower so tall that it reaches heaven. God becomes concerned that if they complete this project they will somehow threaten him. God’s solution is to make mankind speak all different kinds of languages thus making them confused and unable to work together. The project is subsequently abandoned.
I find this story similar to the story where Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge. In both stories God does not want man to get too close to God even though God made man in his own image and supposedly endowed him with free will. In a sense God is like the shame ego in Genesis. He is conflicted. On the one hand he creates man with seemingly genuine affection. On the other hand he sabotages man’s efforts to grow and becomes wildly angry and wrathful when man screws up. God seems to be afraid that man might become too powerful. This ancient story of the creation becoming more powerful than the creator is played out in 2001 A Space Odyssey where man’s tools, at first a bone used to break other bones and eventually a computer that controls life support on a spaceship threaten man’s existence.
This conflict can be explained in that Genesis is a compilation of several different sources written by different authors with different perspectives. As such it makes sense that God might appear to have different personalities in different stories. Although there are stories in Genesis where God appears conflicted with himself in the same story.
The Gnostic interpretation of God in Genesis is that he in fact is not God but rather the demiurge, a lesser being who created the world and trapped man within his creation. In the Gnostic world man is trying to wake up within this matrix, understand the true nature of his confinement and ultimately escape through the agency of this awareness. See gnosis.org for a fascinating treasure trove of information on the Gnostic tradition. I especially recommend the audio lectures by Bishop Stephan Hoeller.
In some ways God acts like an alcoholic father in Genesis. He lashes out unpredictably and then becomes apologetic (as with Noah). He never admits fault and man is expected to love him, indeed to worship him. And when man has a problem with this situation, man is to blame. It is no win situations such as these that give rise to the shame ego. In order to be right with God, man has to accept that he is wrong.
In truth, man is innocent. Man did not ask to be brought into this existence under these circumstances. It is curious that nakedness is considered shameful. We see this with Adam and Eve and again with Noah. It is also curious that free will is associated with shame. Nakedness (i.e., man’s true self hidden under his outward appearance) is shameful. Gaining knowledge is wrong. Reaching for the heavens is wrong. It could be argued that in the Book of Genesis God himself is shame.
After the story of Cain and Abel Genesis skips forward in time through the use of genealogies. As a reader, my shame ego looks over my shoulder when I reach the genealogies in Genesis. It makes me feels like I should read them. Another part of me (my true self) wants to skip over them. Logic weighs in on the side of skipping over them. Their value is as a reference. The information is there if needed but it is not necessary to read them absent a need to find the information. Not to mention the fact that they are boring to read. But when I skip past them my shame ego tells me I am cheating and not really reading the Bible. What happens is I skim over the genealogies not really absorbing the information but satisfying my shame ego’s desire that I mire myself in useless effort so that I feel like I have obeyed the rules while ultimately stagnate my growth.
After struggling with the genealogies, we arrive at the story of Noah and the Flood. God is frustrated with his creation he endowed with free will. It turns out mankind used this gift of free will and chose not be as God intended and so he decided to wipe them out.
And God seeing that the wickedness of men was great on the earth, and that all the thought of their heart was bent upon evil at all times, it repented him that he had made man on the earth. And being touched inwardly with sorrow of heart, he said: I will destroy man whom I have created, from the face of the earth from man even to beasts, from the creeping thing even to the fowls of the air for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace before the Lord. (Gen 6:5-8).
I suppose Noah found favor with the Lord because he followed the will of the Lord seemingly without questioning. He had no free will or was unwilling to exercise it. God then meticulously instructs Noah on how to build the ark and how to populate it. Noah does all that God tells him to do without question. After he builds and populates the ark God floods the world and wipes out his creation. After the water recedes Noah and the other survivors leave the ark Noah makes an offering to God. He is pleased and promises that he will never again destroy the world with a flood.
Later Noah plants grapes and makes wine. He then drinks the wine, becomes drunk and passes out, naked in his tent. His son Ham sees him naked and tells his two brothers Shem and Japheth who walk in the tent backwards so they do not see their father naked and cover him with a cloak. Noah then wakes and finds out that Ham had seen him naked. Curiously, Noah then curses Canaan, Ham’s son.
Noah carries the shame ego passed down from Adam and Cain all the way through the genealogy to Noah. Noah curses Cannan and not Ham or his brothers because shame is cowardly and attacks the weakest target. Shame robbed Noah of his free will and his true self. When Noah got drunk these walls broke down. He then felt embarrassment and rage and vented it on Cannan who presumably would then shame his son so that it could be continuously passed down through the genealogy after Noah. It is this same shame that had been passed down to me. It is the one that makes me feel bad for wanting to skip the genealogies in the Bible.
In Chapter Four of Genesis Adam and Eve are now living outside of paradise but still in direct communication with God. In this location they beget their first children Cain and Abel. Cain seems to strongly carry the shame mindset. He is a farmer and his brother Abel is a shepherd. Both of them make offerings to God from the fruit of their respective labors. God shows respect or favor to Abel’s offering but not to Cain’s. The text is not clear about how God conveyed this information but Cain becomes angry and jealous of his brother as a result. In this context Cain’s anger and jealousy are shame based reactions because they arise from his assumption that God is disrespecting him by showing respect to his brother. He is living by comparison. It is this assumption, that favor to one means disfavor to another that is at the heart of the misery of the shame based experience.
God then asks Cain:
Why art thou angry? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well shalt thou not receive? But if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? But the lust therof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it. (Gen 4:6-7).
This is interesting. My reading of this is that God is telling Cain not to live by comparison and that his favor of Abel’s offering has no reflection on Cain. Furthermore, God tells him that to live by comparison (i.e., with the shame mindset) is the gateway to sin. Of course sin can be interpreted as an offense to God, meaning, God has preferences and sin is simply something God does not like. I tend to look a sin as those actions which stop a person from growing and truly living a full life. Living with the shame mindset is absolutely something that I would classify as sin in this respect. It makes sense to me that God would not prefer this. Further, if I am to look at the character of God as being symbolic of man’s true self which becomes buried by shame I think this makes even more sense. Finally, God points out that Cain can master sin by not allowing himself to live with the shame mindset. I imagine a Buddhist might similarly interpret this passage.
Of course Cain does not understand what God is saying here (as a shame-based person would tend not to be able to do) and when God is not looking he takes Abel out into the field and kills him. This is another shame based reaction because Cain is really angry with God for not favoring his offering. Since he cannot lash out at God he lashes out at a weaker target. Then when God asks him where his brother is he responds sarcastically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is all shame based. Shame cannot admit guilt, in extreme cases, not even to itself and it deflects with sarcasm.
God knows what Cain has done and banishes him from this original place of banishment. Cain protests saying that now other people will kill him. It is unclear who these other people would be assuming the only people on earth at this point are Adam, Eve, Cain and his wife (where ever she came from). But God marks him as a warning to anyone who might try to kill him. Cain then moves east of Eden. It seems that every time man betrays himself with shame he moves further from God (i.e, his true self).
When I read the first few chapters of Genesis dealing with the creation, I always think about consciousness. What is the difference between something with consciousness and something without it? “Let there be light.” (Gen 1:3). This phrase (perhaps) describes the moment when consciousness is turned on. The moment prior there was a void. (Gen 1:2). The moment after there was something. This something was a blank slate, unexperienced and blameless and God existed along side it. Then God started making his creation more and more complicated, separating the light from the dark, the land from the water and then filling it with living things. This, in a sense describes the evolution of consciousness. It suddenly appears out of a void. It starts out pure awareness and gradually takes in information, becoming more and more complex.
Then God creates Adam and Eve (in the second creation story) and places them in an idyllic world called Eden. He tells them they can eat from any tree in Eden except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before they eat the fruit God tells them not to eat it because they would die. God later tells himself they cannot eat it because then they will become like him. Before they eat the fruit the text specifically says they were both “naked” and “without shame.” (Gen 2:25).
Once they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge their “eyes were opened,” (Gen 3:7) they became embarrassed (ashamed) and hid themselves from God. When one walks down the path of shame he actually hides himself from himself in that he subordinates his true desires to what he perceives are the desires of others. In the context of this story I see God as the true self that Adam and Eve are hiding themselves from. When God confronts them they attempt to avoid blame by blaming each other. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the Serpent. This is all shame oriented behavior; feeling not good enough, feeling embarrassed about self-appearance, avoiding blame, blaming other people.
In my own experience shame is passed from one person to another. Parents humiliate their children then their children humiliate their peers and ultimately their own kids. This feeling of being humiliated brings forth all these other shame oriented feelings and the desire to make other people feel the same way. But it is always an endless chain. As such, children cannot blame their parents for acting out this cycle because they are just re-acting the cycle their parents modeled for them. What Genesis is doing is explaining the origin of this process.
It seems to me (reading this story through the lens of shame) that the book of Genesis is depicting the origin of this endless chain of shame. First of all, shame is a corruption from the original blank slate of consciousness. The idea that the self is bad and wrong entered consciousness as one of the many pieces of information it took in. When that happened it took over to the point where man was irrevocably altered and had to be removed from paradise. In a sense man removed himself from paradise by becoming ashamed. But also shame came from the Serpent who is perhaps shame incarnate.