Navel-Gazing

Adam and Eve (detail) by Peter Paul Rubens

Adam and Eve (detail) by Peter Paul Rubens

During the past week I have been doing a bit of “navel-gazing.” Not the reflexive kind of navel-gazing, but real navel gazing – gazing at navels. Let me explain.

I recently was working on a project that included viewing some paintings of the great European painters who worked during the period roughly 1300-1830. In the process of this viewing, I chanced upon some paintings depicting the creation and especially of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I noticed that in just about every painting the couple had navels. Hence my reference to navel-gazing. You might be somewhat surprised, if not stunned, to learn that the human navel, perhaps better known to most of us as the “belly button,” has been the cause of tremendous theological debate for centuries. Specifically, the question that has led to such scholarly reflection is: “Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?” I know, I know. It sounds ridiculous. It is almost as bad as the theologians of the Middle Ages arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. And, yes, they did debate that point (pun intended). Although such debates sound frivolous at best, nevertheless there is some merit to this question. The great belly button debate is worthy of our attention and further reflection, as it raises some serious questions that challenge a few of the very foundations of our faith. I assure you, it is far from frivolous. Indeed, how a person responds to the question – “Did God create Adam and Eve with navels?” – can have tremendous bearing on one’s conclusions as to the nature of God and of this marvelous universe.

Before we jump into the heart of this debate, let me take a few sentences to take note of the purpose of this scar on our human anatomy. The umbilicus (aka: belly button or navel) is the indention or protrusion that eventually forms as the result of the removal of the umbilical cord from a newborn child. As a fetus develops within the mother’s womb, it is suspended in amniotic fluid and connected to the mother via a life-line known as the umbilical cord. This is a flexible tube that carries oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus from the mother, and carries waste products away from the baby so that the mother’s body might eliminate them. At birth, when the baby now assumes these functions for itself, the tube is removed. The belly button marks the spot where one was previously attached to one’s mother, and is a visible testimony to the fact that one was a product of a natural birth. The navel is a fascinating bit of symbolic anatomy – and I say “symbolic” because the belly button in all its forms is little more than a scar, a bodily opening to nowhere and a collector of lint!

But as interesting as this biology lesson is, let me get back to the theological debate concerning the navel.

The traditional biblical or theological answer to the question “Did Adam have a belly-button?” is this: “No – Adam did not and neither did Eve.”

Why? Because, as I stated above, your belly-button (navel) is a sign that you were once attached to your mother.  You depended on that life-line – the umbilical cord – for your nourishment from her body as you developed inside her. But, according to the Bible, our first parents, Adam and Eve, did not develop that way. According to the biblical record in Genesis, Adam was molded from spit and clay and Eve from Adam’s rib. They were not born of woman, so how could they have navels?

What is more, so the argument goes, this lack of a belly button would be a tremendous testimony to God’s creativity. Ken Ham, president and founder of the creationist organization, Answers in Genesis, once put it this way: “Lack of a belly-button on Adam and Eve would be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the pre-Flood world, as the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren would come up and say, ‘Why don’t you have a belly-button?’ And they could recount again and again, to generation after generation, how God had created them special by completed supernatural acts, and yet had designed them to multiply and fill the earth in natural ways that are equally a part of God’s continuing care for what He created.”

Lest one think this is all rather frivolous and trivial, and that no one really ever gave this matter much serious thought, it should be noted that the question as to whether Adam and Eve ever possessed such a distinguishing mark as a belly button not only generated debate in the religious world for centuries, but also even reached into the United States Congress! In 1944, a subcommittee of the United States House of Representatives Military Committee refused to authorize a little thirty-page booklet entitled Races of Man, that was to be handed out to our soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting in World War II because this little booklet had a drawing that depicted Adam and Eve with belly buttons! The members of this subcommittee ruled that showing Adam and Eve with navels “would be misleading to gullible American soldiers.”

And the navel was, of course, the subject of the long-running television show, I Dream of Jeannie. In the series, Jeannie (Barbara Eden) wore her trademark “Jeannie costume.” During the second season, reporters visiting the set would joke that Eden had no navel, as it was almost never visible when in costume. The story picked up momentum and as it did, the network censors began to insist that her navel remain hidden. In the fourth season, George Schlatter, the creator of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, expressed a desire to premiere Jeannie’s (Eden’s)  navel on his show. As soon as his intentions were revealed, the network held a meeting of executives to discuss his idea and it was deemed inappropriate to do so. Eden writes of the whole episode: “And, George [Schlatter] told me in later years, ‘I walked into this meeting and I have never seen so many suits sitting around an oak conference table talking about your belly button.’ He said it was the silliest thing he had ever seen, and of course they said no. Then it really became the cause célèbre, and I was just an outsider looking on that whole thing and giggling.” However, Jeannie’s navel was glimpsed in a few season-four and season-five episodes, much to the dislike of the censors.

Some of the world’s greatest artists also wrestled with this problem, as did the Roman Catholic Church. In 1646, Sir Thomas Browne, a doctor and philosopher of the church, published a work entitled Pseudodoxia Epidemica in which he sought to expose some of the “vulgar errors” then present in society. He devoted an entire chapter to “Pictures of Adam and Eve with Navels.” He declared that to paint Adam and Eve with belly buttons would be to suggest that “the Creator affected superfluities, or ordained parts without use or office.” For the most part, the Roman Catholic Church was against artists depicting Adam and Eve with navels in their paintings, so this posed quite a problem for a number of these artists who did not want to antagonize their sponsor – the church. According to the biblical record in Genesis, Adam was molded from spit and clay and Eve from Adam’s rib. They were not born of woman, so how could they have navels? Yet they would look pretty silly without them. Artists wanted to present the scene, but they had no first-hand knowledge so they took poetic license. Adam and Eve represented all men and women of the artists’ time. The forbidden fruit was often depicted as an apple; the deceiver was depicted as an unassuming garden snake. Also, in the pre-scientific era, such paintings were not meant to be literal truth, but allegorical truth. So the artists drew naked people as they knew people – with belly buttons. The great Michelangelo, for instance, dared to paint Adam with a navel and to place it right there on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel! A good many of the artists, however, chose to take the safer path and simply painted the couple with strategically placed foliage, long hair, or forearms blocking the abdomen.

But this silly question about Adam’s navel paved the way for evolution. The question took on huge significance in the 19th century. Just before Darwin, geologists began seeing a world far older than Adam and Eve written in fossils and geologic structures. Suddenly, there was all this history before the creation! Navels suggested only that Adam had a history before he was created. Now these geologic remains suggested that Earth itself existed – alive and changing – long before the biblical creation.

In 1857, a fundamentalist scientist (now there is an oxymoron for you!), Philip Henry Gosse, addressed the matter. He published a great treatise entitled Ompholos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. (This was only two years before Darwin completely changed the conversation about biblical literalism with his illustrious opus, On the Origin of Species.) Ompholos, I should add, is Greek for navel. Did Adam have a navel, asked Gosse? Sure he did, was his answer.

Gosse looked at the fossil record. It proclaimed a world with a very long history – much older than Adam and Eve. Gosse said that God had created a world with a built-in history – just plopped it down, history and all. But it was history that had not happened – yet.

Still, Gosse said, that history is worth studying and understanding because God put it there. Naturally, logic like that cooked Gosse’s goose. (Sorry about that) He left us with a huge looping blunder. His deep error occurred when he wrote that the question of history made no practical difference. Gosse plainly said that a created world and an evolved world would both look exactly the same.

In the end, Gosse had made the scientific search for reality into a great cosmic joke. At best, God had deceived us. At worst, nothing was worth knowing anyway. After that, humans were ready to quit messing with baseless logic and to take the fossil record seriously. People were ready to allow that Adam had a navel after all, along with all his forbears. After Philip Gosse, the world was ready for Charles Darwin.

In our post-Darwinian world, it is understood that Adam and Eve are literary archetypes, not real people. Adam simply means “man” in Hebrew. Adam was formed out of the “adamah,” which is Hebrew for ground. (See the word play?) Eve simply means “source of life.” Modern biblical scholars regard both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as conveying theological and existential truths, not historical and scientific truths about who created the world (God), how we were meant to live in peace and harmony (Garden of Eden), yet how we continually make selfish and short sighted choices (eating the fruit of the tree of life) that throw us out of synch with each other, God and creation (being expelled from the perfect harmony of the Garden and the resulting pain, toil, death, etc.) The Genesis stories are not meant to be a historical narrative. These stories contain mythic truths, rather than conveying factual truth.

Thus we embark on a voyage through time and space, starting with the big bang some fourteen billion years ago and ending with the evolution of Homo sapiens some four billion years later. The book of Genesis covers that time in just seven hundred words (The Bible is really not much of a textbook) and focuses primarily on the importance of humans as God’s handiwork.

By contrast, science gives us a very different picture of our cosmic relevance, a point summed up with delicate irony by Steve Jones, former Head of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College, London: “It reminds us that mankind lives in a minor solar system at the edge of a suburban galaxy, is in his physical frame scarcely distinguishable from the creatures that surround him, and – most of all – that he still understands rather little about his place in nature.”

And so it goes, with science continuing to chip away at humanity’s vision of its own exalted importance. As Jones puts it: “Scientists have gained insights into the physical world rather more dependable than those of the Scriptures. Science has, in its brief history, lived up to most of its promises.” We may not like end result, depending upon where we find ourselves on the theological spectrum, but in this matter, there is no denying the supremacy of science over scripture. It remains to be seen which one will outlast its rival.

In the meantime, I am going to continue to do some gazing at navels of a beautiful babe like the one below. . .

navel3

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