Nakedness became a problem for Adam and Eve, and it still is for their children. It is not our only problem, but it is (pardon me) revealing.
Then the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, and they realized that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together to make themselves loincloths. They heard God walking in the garden in the evening, and they hid from God among the trees of the garden. But God called out to the man and asked him, “Where are you?” The man replied, “I heard you in the garden and was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked, “Who told you you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I told you not to eat from?” Genesis 3:7-11
One thing to say at the outset: Adam and Eve’s realization that they were naked did not come from an awakening of sexuality, as if by eating fruit from the forbidden tree they reached puberty. Their sexuality was already well in place (2:23-24). The problem of nakedness was a new thing.
And it has become a multifarious thing. We are hung up about nakedness in all sorts of crazy, contradictory ways, some of us more, some less, though we can deceive ourselves about our supposed unhunguppedness as much as we can about anything. We have elaborate rules about what attire is acceptable where. Most of us do not want to be seen in public without our clothes, we have bad dreams about that, and we often do not like it when others impose their naked bodies on our vision.
In those dreams about being unclothed, nakedness is symbolic. Uncovered body parts is not the only issue involved in shame. This is shown by the ineffectiveness of the fig-leaf aprons Adam and Eve fashioned: before God, they still felt naked even with their brand-new clothes. Awareness of God’s close presence had changed: just being there felt like how we regard being naked in public.
Nakedness is about fallen relationality, not about body parts. Some people advocate naturism/nudism as a solution to some of our hang-ups: if we go into a place where all shapes and sizes of human bodies are unashamedly and unlewdly unclothed and we get used to it, that might reduce our linking of nakedness to sex, and that might be a healthy thing. But the nakedness problem dealt with by clothing or by naturism does not include all the deep and horrifying literal and metaphorical body and soul nakedness experienced by Adam and Eve. Even when God gave them their second set of clothes, that was only enough to make it possible to go on living the scary sort of life that we know outside Eden. And there is no better solution. Naturism is just as much a band-aid solution as putting on clothes is. We cannot aim in this part of our behavior, any more than in any other, to get to some kind of original, deculturized humanness. Any “normal” we possess or advocate is post-Fall, and so is confused, fragmented, and unsure.
You claim: “I’m rich, I have acquired wealth, and I don’t need a thing.” But you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire to become rich, white clothes to cover your shameful nakedness, and eye salve so that you can see. (Revelation 3:17-18; cf. Matthew 22:11-13)
It is all metaphorical: the Laodicean church members had no sense of themselves as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” Quite the opposite. But they suffered all those things (metaphorically), and their nakedness would be dealt with neither by some missionary’s imposition of a culture-bound code (the baggy dresses that Pacific island women have worn since the Christians told them to) nor by a reversal to a supposed pristine unclothed state, but by God’s completion of redemption. Along the same line, everyone will be clothed in heaven, though in the biblical passages that refer to that (mainly Revelation 3:4-5), the garments are metaphors for the healthy, honorable, and unashamed state of those who wear them and for the redemption that has made those people so.
Along with whatever reasons, we wear clothes to disguise ourselves, not just from others but each of us from himself or herself. Or we might call it giving ourselves an identity that goes beyond simple naked humanness, perhaps even one that distinguishes me from all the rest of you humans. Mark Twain imagined the Russian czar looking at himself naked in the mirror and seeing there that without his clothes he would be the same as everybody else, that the myths that permit his family’s thieving and brutal rule would be gone. At the end, feeling a bit discouraged about humanity because of the incongruity between the brutality of his reign and the adulation of the Russian people for him, the czar extends what he has said about his royal attire to the clothes of all people:
Is the human race a joke? Was it devised and patched together in a dull time when there was nothing important to do? Has it no respect for itself?…. I think my respect for it is drooping, sinking — and my respect for myself along with it…. There is but one restorative — Clothes! respect-reviving, spirit-uplifting clothes! heaven’s kindliest gift to man, his only protection against finding himself out: they deceive him, they confer dignity upon him; without them he has none. How charitable are clothes, how beneficent, how puissant, how inestimably precious! Mine are able to expand a human cipher into a globe-shadowing portent; they can command the respect of the whole world — including my own [that is, his own self-respect], which is fading. I will put them on.
Václav Havel told of when, during a television weather report, “the sound cut out, though the picture continued as usual”:
The employee of the Meteorological Institute who was explaining the forecast quickly grasped what had happened, but because she was not a professional announcer, she didn’t know what to do. At this point a strange thing happened: the mantle of routine fell away and before us there suddenly stood a confused, unhappy and terribly embarrassed woman; she stopped talking, looked in desperation at us, then somewhere off to the side, but there was no help from that direction. She could scarcely hold back her tears. Exposed to the view of millions, yet desperately alone, thrown into an unfamiliar, unexpected and unresolvable situation, incapable of conveying through mime that she was above it all (by shrugging her shoulders and smiling, for instance), drowning in embarrassment, she stood there in all the primordial nakedness of human helplessness, face-to-face with the big bad world and herself, with the absurdity of her position, and the desperate question of what to do with herself, how to rescue her dignity, how to acquit herself, how to be. Exaggerated as it may seem, I suddenly saw in that event an image of the primal situation of humanity: a situation of separation, of being cast into an alien world and standing there before the question of self.
That wonderful habit of millennia, human self-reliance, does not like to be interrupted. That moment of truth about humanness, of terrified embarrassment, sends us scurrying for cover so that we can again be the czar, the good citizen or good parent, the self-assured professional, the bad girl or bad boy, or whatever self-image we try so hard to live up to so as to protect ourselves from the truth about humanness. The Wizard of Oz commands himself as much as he does Dorothy and her friends: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” That is what the nakedness of Adam and Eve is about. To the degree that the coverings of routine, rules, and roles are taken away, then we experience that confused, fragmented, and unsure post-Fall “normal” and become aware of our naked humanness.
This difficulty with this nakedness is evident in one of the saddest and funniest things about humans. When one of us seeks a spouse, someone he or she will spend the rest of life with in a loving, mutually nurturing, and fruitful relationship, he or she begins by lying. Makeup and clothing are more carefully attended to, the caffeinated or alcoholic personality props are utilized, and the fake hipness (or holiness, if that is appropriate to the context) and fake intellectualism are put on display. A similar procedure is followed if one of us wants (to appear to want) to join a team of people committed to shared goals (what we sometimes call getting a job). In all such settings the layers of metaphorical clothing become endless, to where one might wonder if, as with an onion, there is no core, no ding an sich, to the human except, perhaps, endless embarrassment and perpetual hiding.
Things might be different if Adam and Eve had gone to God and asked him to make clothes for them “so that we can stand to be around each other and, even more, so that we can stand to be around you.” They sought their own solution and found it inadequate. The difference between their fig-leaf loincloths and the animal-skin garments tailored by God (Genesis 3:7, 21) was not the material but the maker. What God gave them could represent grace, provision, and redemption from him. Fig leaves could only call attention to their embarrassment by their attempt to hide it. So we have the choice between self-reliance and sacrament. The fig-leaf shortcut looks attractive only because with it Adam and Eve do not have to ask God for his help. It is not a solution.
There is, in fact, no resolution without redemption. It seems absurd that life should be not only imperfect but unperfectable. I have a sense that my perpetual embarrassment is something I should be able to find a solution for, perhaps even a quick solution. It is, after all, so irrational. The cognitive therapy that begins by acknowledging that irrationality might help, but it does not solve. It does not take me to that imagined “real self” that sheds that feeling as unnecessary. The czar goes back to looking in the mirror only after dressing.
The Twain quotation is from “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” in Life as I Find It, ed. Charles Neider (Garden City: Hanover House, 1961), 272. “[D]evised and patched together in a dull time when there was nothing important to do” in the second sentence calls to mind the casual creation and destruction of a little world by “Satan” (the nephew of the biblical Satan) in chapters 2 and 3 of Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger (the 1916 edition). There is another clothes make the czar story in chapter 9 of Tolstoy’s Ivan the Fool.
The Havel quotation is from his Letters to Olga: June 1979–September 1982 (New York: Holt, 1989), 321-22.
The idea that killing animals for skins, an implied blood-sacrifice, is what made the second set of clothes better (Genesis 3:7, 21) is one of the ways in which Hebrews 9:22b, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” has been overapplied. See Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 192-208 for the meaning in context of Hebrews 9:22. A requirement of sacrifice is not visible in the text of Genesis 3, but the difference in who the tailor was is right there in the story: humans or God.