Reading Genesis in Second Corinthians, with Leon Kass

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. … [Adam said to God,] “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Gen 3:7, 10)

Thus Adam became aware of his nakedness. Here is the comment of Leon Kass in The Beginning of Wisdom, a philosophical reading of the book of Genesis:

Finally, all this noticing is itself problematic. For in turning our attention inward, we manifest a further difficulty, the difficulty of self-consciousness itself. For a peculiarly  human doubleness is present in the soul, through which we self-consciously scrutinize ourselves, seeing ourselves as others see us. We are no longer assured of the spontaneous, immediate, unself-conscious participation in life, experienced with a whole heart and soul undivided against itself. Worse, self-consciousness is not only corrosive and obstructive; it is also judgmental. Because we are now beings with a nascent sense of pride (which can easily be wounded), we care about whether we measure up to our own idealized self-image and we look anxiously to others for their assessment of our worthiness. When we see ourselves being seen by the other, we cannot hide from ourselves the painful awareness of our own inadequacies and weaknesses. We are ashamed.

Leon Kass’s philosophical reflection on Genesis nakedness shows how shame and self-appraisal come from being able to take others’ perspective. Existential self-awareness, inward-looking as it may seem, is a socially learned skill. In the Genesis 2-3 story, higher knowledge really is obtained by the humans, and awareness of nakedness is the evidence of it. Self-awareness, or “noticing,” is a higher good, albeit one that the primal humans were not ready for (or allowed).

Kass fails to comment, though, on a crucial fact: Adam is ashamed of his nakedness before God. Probably also ashamed of his sin, he furthermore understood himself to be unpresentable (in moral dignity) while physically exposed. His awareness of his fleshly body was enhanced, as he saw a part of his body as “reserved” or “special.” Or, as the apostle Paul said, “our unpresentable parts have greater modesty … But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it.”

Being unpresentable before God could mean different things for a Christian than a Jew, though. While the Jew would stress the holiness of God, in 2 Corinthians Paul sees the complement of unpresentability – being clothed in Christ.

For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be clothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. (2 Cor 4:2-4)

As far as justification is concerned, this is familiar enough. On a philosophical point, it might help to stretch Kass’s reflections into the New Testament for further elucidation. Does nakedness before God confer a different kind of self-awareness, different than the self-awareness generated when we see the perspective of another human? Can we say that, in confronting God for the first time as a sinner, Adam in his barely concealed nudity could see himself as God saw him? This seems to be implied by the text, since the knowledge of good and evil was the fruit of transgression.

In sin, then, Adam knew separation from God, by gaining a new perspective. A new perspective is jarring because it de-privileges the perspective that we had taken for granted. Adam, then, learned humility.

The “painful awareness of our own inadequacies and weaknesses” that Kass refers to cannot be seen simply by coming to grips with our failure, because we can justify ourselves anew on different terms. The Other Perspective gives us pain, because, like Adam, we realize the inadequacy of self-justification primarily when we have to say it to another. This, though, is Kass’s limit; and this is where St. Paul proceeds from in 2 Corinthians.

Paul says we will be further clothed – in an appropriate covering of nakedness. If the spiritual clothing of Christ were to become a sham, and we were still naked, that would be a supreme embarrassment. What then is the clothing? Is it merely the correct self-awareness, which Adam had the first (incomplete) glimpse of? Does the Redemption simply answer the yearning of our questions? No! The clothing is not a mere answer, but a new home, and the next reality (2 Cor 5:1). We walk by faith in anticipation of the next “tent” (vv. 2, 4, 8).

So nakedness is pedagogical, but clothing is life. Being exposed begets self-awareness by revealing the perspective of others, but covering is to “be present with the Lord.” The negative experience is partial, but the positive is the fulfillment and the necessary complement. Knowledge is the prerequisite, and the receiving of a gift is the fulfillment of time. Philosophy asks questions, but they are answered in experience. The question is eternal and metaphysical, but the answer is given in time and space.

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