Legends of the Fall: Unraveling the Sweater

When I began this series over five months, forty posts, and (conservatively) 30,000 words ago, it seemed as if it would be a short, straightforward series.  It seemed to me that the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the Fall of Man, given our knowledge of biology, archaeology, anthropology, and so on was obviously  mythical.  It also seemed to me that conservatives who insisted on the literal, historical accuracy of the account were being hysterical and over-the-top when they argued that not just abstruse points of theology but Christianity itself hung on the account being really historical, and not mythical.  The argument was that if you reduce the story of the Fall to myth, all the rest of Christian theology unravels, as when one pulls a bit of yarn from a sweater.  I still think the Genesis account is mythical.  However, I have changed my mind on the second issue.  I have decided that the conservative critics of a mythical genus are actually correct.  Christian theology as we know it–as it has traditionally been understood–actually does depend on a more or less literal Adam/Eve/Fall narrative.  They were right; I was wrong.

Now there are two things this does not mean.  It does not mean that I have embraced Biblical literalism.  Far from it–the more I study the relevant areas, the less likely it seems possible to understand large parts of the Bible–particularly Genesis–in anything like a literal fashion.  If anything, I have reduced the number of things I’m willing to take (or which I think it necessary to take) literally to one–the Resurrection.  I’ve discussed that at much greater length in “The Pretty Good Book“.  On the other hand, all this also does not mean that I have lost faith, rejected Christianity, or even tossed out all concepts of a Fall (of some sort) and Atonement.  I think that the traditional theology on these issues cannot be maintained; therefore, I think we need to adopt a new theology.  I don’t see this happening in official venues any time soon; but that’s no reason not to put in some small effort in that direction here.

 Originally, I thought this project would amount to no more than a tweak.  In short, look at Genesis, see how a mythological reading of it could be reconciled with traditional theology, and then that’s it.  As I did  this, I  had to ramble further and further afield and got off onto more tangents than usual in my tangent-ridden series.  I really saw the sweater unraveling before my own eyes the more I pulled on the thread.  This post is a brief account of that process, of why the sweater unraveled, and how I came to realize that I’d been wrong in thinking it was just a quick fix.  In short, I had thought that a few posts with some minor analyses would show me the way to an obvious solution.  As things unraveled, I saw that this wasn’t possible, and my goal became a moving target.  After discussing here how that came to be, I hope that in the next few posts, I’ll try to come to some sort of conclusion, though it’s sure to be provisional, as I don’t anticipate that the target will stop moving.

First of all, it’s important to point out that while the three major Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all share the Adam and Eve story, only Christianity derives from it the concept of Original Sin and the Fall of Man (concomitant, usually, with the fall or “marring” of the created order).  Judaism teaches that all humans contain an impulse to good (yetzer ha-tobh) and an impulse to evil (yetzer ha-ra`), implanted by God.  The purpose of this is so that humans, through the dialectic of the opposing forces in their nature, can ultimately rise to God by controlling and properly directing the evil inclination while cultivating the good inclination (not unlike the plotline here).  Islam teaches that each human being is born a moral tabula rasa, and is responsible for good and evil choices all his life.  It is thus only Christianity that attaches cosmic significance to the Adam and Eve story.

Now we look at Christianity.  Its key doctrine, in all forms, is the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, said to be the Messiah, or in Greek, Christ.  All forms of Christianity, even the heretical, agree that Jesus is central in the ultimate process of God’s relation to mankind.  Christian orthodoxy specifies that the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ saves mankind, corporately and as individuals, from its sins, reconciles them to God, and brings about the salvation and restoration to Divine favor of the human race and ultimately the cosmos.

That some such reconciliation is necessary is easily observed.  The human race is self-evidently out of harmony with itself and with nature; man’s inhumanity to man is monumental; the last century alone was probably the bloodiest in history; and no matter how much we as a species try to better our lot, it often seems we only make it worse.  Different religions and philosophical systems call this state by different names–Original Sin, the Fall, ignorance, the Wheel of Existence, Maya, illusion, duhkka, just the plain genetic outcome of game theory that favors evil behaviors–but all are agreed on our problematic state.  The Dharmic religions, especially Buddhism, were never much concerned with the reason for this state of affairs.  Their main concern was giving means (the Noble Eightfold Path, the Sanātana Dharma, and so on) for getting out of said state of affairs.  Judaism and Islam had a sort of half-hearted “origin story” for the state of the world in the Garden of Eden, but neither did much with it, putting much more emphasis on deeds (the Halakhah of Judaism or Sharīʿah of Islam) and relegating the actions of Satan/Iblis and the story of the Forbidden Fruit to the background.

Christianity is very much different.  One is put in mind of the Hindu concept of monkey religion vs. cat religion.  This is the old Hindu metaphor–in the way that a baby monkey has to hold on to its mother’s back as she goes about her way, monkey paths (religions) are believer-focused.  You have to follow the rules, do the meditating/praying/whatever, and while God might give you guidelines, it’s up to you to implement them.  Theravada Buddhism and many of the yogic schools of Hinduism are good examples of monkey faiths.  On the other hand, a mother cat carries its kittens in its mouth, with no effort on their part.  Cat paths involve devotion to a god who mercifully saves his followers who are understood as incapable of saving themselves.  There may be prayers or actions on the part of the believer, but the Divine (however conceived) is seen as doing all the work.  Pure Land Buddhism and Vaishnavism (especially of the Gaudiya branch) are examples of cat religions.  From this perspective, Judaism and Islam are more like monkey religions, and Christianity more like a cat religion.

In a monkey religion, the metaphysics and underlying theology are relatively less important–it’s about what you do.  In a cat religion, since it’s about what God does, the theology takes on a much greater significance.  Thus, in Judaism and Islam, actions are more important; therefore the relatively minor role of the Eden story.  On the other hand, Christians teach that God–in Jesus–saves us despite our sins.  This, of course, brings up the logical question, what is God saving us from?  And the further question, how did we get in a situation such that we need to be saved?  This latter question is not necessary in Judaism and Islam, since every individual is responsible for himself/herself.  In Christianity, though, that Christ saves us when we can’t save ourselves implies a collective alienation from God that cannot be remedied regardless of what the individual may do.

This implies a necessity of positing some primal event that produces collective guilt for the human race; hence the interpretation of the Eden story in terms of Original Sin and the Fall.  Thus, working backwards from Christ, the Fall, as classically and literally understood, seems to be necessary to make sense of the action of Christ.  No collective guilt, no need for collective redemption.  Working forward from Christ, the Bible, Tradition, the Sacraments, the Church and all the actions it performs exist for the purpose of making the salvation through Christ available to all.  No Fall, no redemption; no redemption, no Christ; no Christ and redemption, no Church, no Sacraments, no Christianity.  The sweater unravels rapidly!

As I said, it seems as if some sort of collective alienation from God actually is the case.  On the other hand, it seems impossible to accept the Eden story literally.  Thus, as the traditional narrative unravels the faith, we need to find a way to knit it back with a new perspective that does adequate justice to both the theology and the actual origins of humanity.  Even if we can deal with this, there are still certain logical issues that I’ve partially discussed here, here, and here.  From this point I’m going to use the philosophical as a stepping-off point for the historical (that is, how we relate this to the origins of Homo sapiens; and from there I want to see if we can come up with a theory of the Fall and Atonement that will work in light of what we’ve looked at in light of our requirements.  That will be the task of the next several posts.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 23/10/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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