Synthesis, Part 3: I want your horror, I want your design

OK, OK, no more Lady Gaga after this–promise!  This post will look at horror and design, though.

We’ve established that the traditional Adam and Eve account fails in terms of requiring a monogensis that is unlikely and unprovable.    We’ve also looked at the near-certainty that, contra orthodox theology, humans were not created immortal, but have always been subject to death (for what we’re discussion here, this latter point is of less importance, but we’ll come back to it at some point).

This is a problem, at least to Western Christian theology, in that it undermines the basis of understanding the work of Christ.  The traditional view is that by sinning, Adam and Eve doomed the whole human race to imperfection and loss of salvation, since they are the progenitors of all subsequent humans.  In the fullness of time, God takes on human nature in Christ (thus becoming himself a descendant of Adam), suffers death on the Cross, is buried, and rises again on the third day.  This has the effect of offering salvation to the whole human race.

The reasons given for why this is effective have varied in the West.  The older take is the Ransom Theory–that Adam’s sin effectively sold mankind to the Devil, and that Christ, by dying, paid off the ransom, earning mankind back.  The later theory, more popular from the Middle Ages onward and especially promoted by St. Anselm of Canterbury, is the Penal Theory, in which Adam’s sin puts all mankind it debt to God, who then comes as a human himself to satisfy the demands of Divine justice by paying the penalty mankind has incurred.

Both theories depend on a monogenetic descent of all mankind from Adam and Eve.  Only this can explain why the sin of one couple affects the whole human race; and why Jesus can save the human race.  By being of the descendants of Adam, he is able to represent the whole human race; and by being God, his sacrifice is of infinite value; and thus his crucifixion is sufficient for the salvation of all humanity. Thus, if monogenesis falls–and it has–so fall these theories.

What to do, then?

First, it would be good to point out that Eastern theologies of the atonement developed along different lines.  There never was a felt need for as much forensic precision as in the West, nor was there as much concern about the how of salvation as there was regarding the fact of salvation.  A good, brief description of one representative Orthodox view, from the link above on Penal Substitution, is this, with my emphasis:

The dominant strain in the writing of the Greek Fathers, such as St. Athanasius, was the so-called “physical” theory that Christ, by becoming man, restored the divine image in us; but blended with this is the conviction that his death was necessary to release us from the curse of sin, and that he offered himself in sacrifice for us. For Athanasius, however, Christ’s substitution is not a payment to God, but rather a fulfillment of the conditions which are necessary to remove death and corruption from humanity; those conditions, he asserts, exist as consequences from sin.

This is more appealing to me than either the Ransom or Penal theories; but I haven’t studied Eastern views on the Atonement in any systematic way; nor am I certain how the issue of monogenesis and the mortality of humans from the start would affect such views; thus, I’m reluctant to pursue this line of argument too far, though it certainly seems to be better than the Western views.  In any case, I’ve been speaking more in terms of Western views of the Fall and Atonement, anyway, so it’s best to continue in that direction for now.

It is in this respect that I want to refer back to what I discussed here about the nature of time, and, on a very different note, to the Heart Sutra.

First, God is totally transcendent.  He is completely above and beyond the material universe as we know it.  In Gnostic models of creation, He in fact has nothing at all to do with it.  Even in the orthodox view where He does, in fact, create the world, He is (at the start, at least) causally independent of it.

It is good to point out here that in the traditional Scholastic view of God and creation (with which I agree, despite my reservations about other aspects of Scholastic thought), God does not create the universe in the way a person makes a chair or a cake or a sculpture.  Rather, He is constantly creating it, holding it in existence instant to instant.  In How to Think About God (which gives a much fuller discussion of this), Mortimer Adler uses the term “exnihilation” (“bringing forth out of nothing”J) for this act.

Thus, a better model for creation is a dream.  As long as I dream, I am constantly holding the dream-world in existence.  Moreover, I am causally unconnected to it–I may make something happen in the dream, but someone in the dream can’t jump out of it and do something to me (I’m aware, of course, that the dream my cause my heart rate to speed up, etc., so I’m not really fully causally disconnected from it; but for the purposes of the illustration, it’s close enough).  Likewise, God “dreams” the world, but it doesn’t affect Him.

The Heart Sutra, though expressed in mythological terms, is, IMO, a valid view of the cosmos.  It essentially is expressing in a compact way the Buddhist doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda, usually translated as “dependent origination”, though Edward Conze’s rendition of it as “conditioned co-production” is probably more precise.  Thich Nhat Hanh translates it in a less precise but probably easier to grasp way as “interbeing”.

In essence, the concept of pratītyasamutpāda, or to use the terms of the Heart Sutra, the interaction between emptiness (śūnyatā) and form, is essentially is that everything in the phenomenal universe is interconnected with everything else.  I could do hundreds of posts solely on this topic, and never exhaust it.  Suffice it to say that “emptiness” isn’t empty.  Rather, all phenomena are empty of individual, separate existence, since everything is interconnected with everything else.  Nothing can be understood without reference to other things–e.g., “non-living” can’t be understood unless you have a concept of “living”, “dark” can’t be understood unless you have a concept of “light”, and so on–and nothing can even exist without everything else.  Obviously, there are closer interdependent connections between some things than between others–the shirt I’m wearing is more directly affected by my actions (sweating, for example) than is Olympus Mons on Mars; but all things are interdependent (for just one example, there is a slight but non-zero gravitational attraction between my body–and my shirt!–and Olympus Mons).

OK, I want to apply this to the Fall.

“Adam” and “Eve” are not the progenitors of everyone who comes after, necessarily, as we’ve discussed.  We may assume an initial population of hominids (specific species or subspecies not relevant for now) which become ensouled by God (specific reason not important at this point, either).  At some point, one–or two, or several–of these first humans becomes estranged from God (the “how” is not yet important).  This estrangement–Original Sin–does not spread genetically.  We don’t know how it spreads, in fact.  Nevertheless, spread it does.  The interconnectedness of everything–and the interconnectedness of all humans with each other–is a sufficient explanation.

I think it’s important to point out that in my view this is true whether or not one is a Buddhist or subscribes to other Buddhist beliefs.  On an intuitive and philosophical level, as well as in light of some aspects of modern physics, this view seems to me to be correct.  That the Heart Sutra, as I said, uses mythological language to express the concept isn’t relevant to its correctness.

Even if one wants to keep it on a down-to-earth level without invoking mystic connections, this isn’t hard to understand.  Anyone who’s worked in corporations or other large institutions (colleges, schools, government agencies, etc.) knows that any organization has a sort of “corporate psyche”.  There will be a certain attitude, certain patterns of behavior, that tend to become pervasive and that tend to “leak” into individuals.  An employee who is very decent in his personal life might do very questionable things at work as a result of influence by the corporate culture.  The opposite is also true.

In the specific case here, if you have a group of (theologically) innocent humans out of which a smaller group have fallen, it’s not too hard to see how the “infection” would rapidly spread horizontally, no need for inherited sin.  No need, even for pratītyasamutpāda!  One can imagine sinless humans inhabiting the imperfect world resulting from the actions of the fallen angels and managing to maintain innocence; but once the first domino falls, so to speak, the jig’s up.  Perhaps this is what is mythologically signified by the apparent ease with which Eve induces Adam to eat the Forbidden Fruit!

Thus, we have an explanation of the pervasiveness and universality of what we’re calling Original Sin or the Fall, without the need to assume monogenesis of all human beings.

Now let’s look at the second half of the equation.  By entering the world and becoming incarnate in Christ, God empties himself to enter the phenomenal universe, taking “the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:-7).  He became enslaved to the mechanisms of the cosmos, becoming causally connected to everything in a way that was not previously the case.  God Himself is now linked with us not only through His creation of us, but directly and metaphysically through the causal and phenomenal channels of the material world.

Given this, his saving action is easy to understand.  He is causally interlinked with all humanity and with all creation, and so his actions can affect the whole human race, even though they are not his descendants.  Some of the influence spreads socially–people who follow Christ and try to emulate him are going to act differently and affect others accordingly–but some of it is metaphysical and invisible.  As God, he lifts up human nature into himself and thereby makes possible the redemption of human nature, and thus of the whole human race.  Humans who explicitly accept this–Christians, in short–are explicitly set on the road to redemption.  All humans, however, are mysteriously affected, and for those who have universalist leanings, just as the Fall affected all humans, so will the redemption, though how it will do so we don’t yet understand.  Thus, the horror of sinful of humanity is erased, ultimately, by God’s design of interdependence and redemption by Christ.

Thus, I think we have the outline of a description of the Fall and Redemption that works in an orthodox context but which makes proper allowance for what we know about human origins.  There are more details to be fleshed out, but we’ll discuss that in upcoming posts.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Also part of the series The Lady Gaga Project.

Posted on 25/06/2012, in Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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