Update: A Facebook friend has reported that I misremembered the Hitchhiker’s guide, writing “Not My Problem” field for “Somebody Else’s Problem” field. Due corrections have been made! I have left the title intact, though, for the sake of the alliteration….
In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as fans well know, the setting is the fictional Southern California city of Sunnydale. Sunnydale just happens to be located on top of the literal gates of Hell–the Hellmouth, as it’s called in the show. Because of this, Sunnydale is chock full of vampires, demons, and monsters of various sorts. The ongoing joke in the series is that everyone in the city is completely oblivious to all of this, attributing supernatural events, murders, and general mayhem to anything but their real causes. The explanation given by Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, is that most people subconsciously block out anything that conflicts with their picture of ordinary reality. They literally can’t see the weirdness.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (consisting actually of five volumes by Douglas Adams and one by Eoin Colfer), there is mention made (in Life, the Universe, and Everything, I believe) of the SEP field. It is explained that invisibility is extremely difficult to produce. Therefore, if someone wants to hide something (in the novel, an invading spaceship), it’s easier to use the Somebody Else’s Problem–SEP–field. Humans have a natural propensity not to want to get involved with anything that is “somebody else’s problem”. The SEP field amplifies this natural tendency, so that while the object to be hidden is perfectly visible and in the open, no one actually notices it.
My contention is that most people who read the Bible are much like the people of Sunnydale; or to change similes, they read the Bible as if under the influence of an SEP field.
Last time I said we need to start our second look at the Fall from the other end; that is, with the Atonement. To do that, I want to begin with what has tended to be the traditional viewpoint (at least in the West), the Penal Substitutionary model of the Atonement. I’ve discussed it a bit before, but I want a narrower focus here, and I want to discuss the issues I see with it. For the purposes here, I’m writing the outline as if the first two chapters of Genesis were literally true.
1. The first human couple, Adam and Eve, are created innocent and free from sin. Humans, like the angels before them, and like all created intelligences, truly have free will.
2. The human race is given a test of obedience: the command to Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
3. Humans fail the test through the abuse of their God-given free will. Tempted by the Serpent (traditionally interpreted as Satan), Eve eats the Forbidden Fruit and gives it to Adam, who does so as well.
4. As a result of this, they and all their descendants are stained with Original Sin both in terms of guilt and of effects. That is to say, all descendants of Adam and Eve inherit the guilt of their sin merely by descent. Even a newborn child has the guilt of Original Sin, as well as the effects thereof. These effects include, among other things, weakness of the will, difficulty in overcoming bodily urges, loss of a direct knowledge of God, a tendency towards sinful actions, and most significantly, mortality. Further, the world itself suffers from this curse, with plagues, disease, and all natural evils being unleashed into the world by Adam’s sin.
5. Though the action of disobediently eating the Forbidden Fruit was finite, the guilt thereby incurred is infinite. This is because the sin was against God, who is infinite. The human race is therefore barred from fellowship with God, and from Heaven after death.
6. God wishes to restore the human race to His fellowship and make Heaven possible for them. However, He cannot merely dismiss Original Sin and allow a “do-over”, since He is all-just, and this would contravene His justice. Through Original Sin, mankind is in “debt”, either to God or to Satan (accounts vary); and since God is perfectly just, this debt must be paid in full. However, from 5, we see the debt is infinite. Therefore, by definition, it can never be paid by mankind, individually or as a race. However, as humankind incurred the debt, humankind must pay the debt; which is impossible. Mankind is up the well-known creek without a paddle.
7. God, however, is not only perfectly just, but perfectly loving. Therefore, He sends His Son, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, to take human form. This is vitally necessary. As a human, Jesus can pay the debt incurred by Adam. As God, Jesus can pay an infinite debt in full. As both human and God, Jesus can represent the entire human race. Therefore, his death on the cross pays the infinite debt of mankind to the Father (or the Devil) in full, thereby satisfying both God’s justice (the debt is legally paid, no chicanery) and his mercy (God in Christ does it for a human race that can’t do it for itself).
8. Though the debt is now paid, individual humans, in order to benefit from it, must accept Christ. How one does this varies in the teaching of different churches, but all agree on this in one way or another.
I think this is a reasonable summary. Now let’s analyze it.
Last time I stated the postulates I’m starting with in order to move forward in considering the Fall. They seem reasonable to me, in light of what has been looked at and discussed in this series over the last nine months. However, I want to look at one alternative (which I reject) in order to elaborate on why I reject it and what I see as being problematic about it.
First, I need to correct something I omitted in my last post. I gave my “postulates” for this discussion, but left out the most obvious and important one, the zeroth postulate, if you will, without which there’s no point in even having written this series to begin with.
0. Science is correct in asserting the vast age of the Earth and universe, and the evolution of humans from lower animals.
Comment: As noted in my update to the previous post, this is not a postulate properly so-called; but it’s solid enough.
Corollary: Any theology which does not take 0. into account is to that extent erroneous, and thus can–and should–be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, for example, young Earth creationism, anti-evolutionism, and so-called Intelligent Design as presented, are non-starters.
Having set the stage, let’s move on to look at an account of the Fall that seems fairly popular in some circles and discuss its ramifications.
Not geometric postulates, though! This is a sort of continuation of my last post in this series, as well as trying to articulate what I’m postulating, what I’m trying to avoid, and why.
First, as I said way back here (allow me the luxury of quoting myself without seeming a total egotist!):
Nasty things–evils–existed long before humans came on the scene. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, tornadoes, predators, disease, pestilence, cancer, and so on have been around for eons. Thus, any system that posits their existence as coming after the Fall of Man is not going to work. [E]vils or Evil can’t be blamed on Eve’s apple.
Without claiming to give knowledge from on high, I suggested a possible (and in my mind, not unreasonable) theory as to the origin of pre-human evil, here.
For reasons that I’ve elaborated on in this series, as well as in the previous post, I think it’s hard to maintain the idea of Original Sin as a discrete, specific transgression by a particular individual or couple at a particular time in history. Therefore, theories of the Atonement that are based on the traditional concept of a literal Adam, Eve, and Fall must be reworked and overhauled, perhaps massively. Summarizing this,
1. The evils in the physical universe are not caused by the Fall of Man,
2. which could not have occurred as a discrete act by a specific person or persons.
I think these are fairly sound postulates, though I want to discuss objections to number 2 in an upcoming post. The following two postulates are more speculative and will be revisited, but I’ll state them simply for now:
3. Man was originally good in intention (metaphysically or from a supra-temporal or aeviternal perspective), if not temporally and/or historically, and this original metaphysical goodness was marred, if not temporally and/or historically (lots here to unpack, but let it be for now).
4. Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection brings atonement to humanity (though how this is done is not yet clear, assuming one rejects the literal Genesis story. Once more, let it be for now).
This is where I’m starting from as I try to pick my way forward on the Fall and what that may or may not mean.
Update: It is Lent, so I will repent of my sins against mathematics. I used the word “postulate” very loosely. In mathematics (my field) a postulate (or axiom) is the most basic point from which one builds a proof or argument. Postulates are not proved because they cannot be proved–they’re self-evident. For example, postulate number one illustrated above (the illustrations show Euclid’s Postulates) is that two points in a plane give a unique line. If one understands what “point”, “plane”, and “line” mean, this postulate is self-evident; it must be true; it can’t not be true. The points above are certainly not like this. None of them are self-evident, and given what we know about the origins of the cosmos, 1 can be reasonably proved (remember, postulates can’t be proved). It would have been better to call these points my starting points or my basic assumptions. Oh, well.
I also realized that I should have added another basic assumption; but I discuss that in the next post in this series.
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.
The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief—call it what you will—than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.
I am a practicing Catholic, so I’m not quoting this as an attack on Christianity or Judaism. I do have ambivalent feelings towards the Old Testament, as I’ve detailed in my series “The Pretty Good Book“. I’d certainly agree with Milne regarding the misuse or simplistic reading of the Old Testament.
I alluded to the following in one of my earlier posts in the series “The Pretty Good Book”. I finally found my copy of C. S. Lewis’s Miracles, and located the quote, which is in a footnote in Chapter 15, “Miracles of the New Creation” (page 218 in the Harper San Francisco/Zondervan paperback edition I’ve got).
A consideration of the Old Testament miracles is beyond the scope of this book and would require many kinds of knowledge which I do not possess. My present view—which is tentative and liable to any amount of correction—would be that just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History. This involves the belief that Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history (as Euhemerus thought) nor diabolical illusion (as some of the Fathers thought) nor priestly lying (as the philosophers of the Enlightenment thought) but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. The Hebrews, like other people, had mythology; but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology—the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step of the process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical. Whether we can ever say with certainty where, in this process of crystallization, any particular Old Testament story falls, is another matter. I take it that the Memoirs of David’s court come at one end of the scale and are scarcely less historical than St. Mark or Acts; and that the Book of Jonah is at the opposite end. It should be noted that on this view (a) Just as God, in becoming Man, is ‘emptied’ of His glory, so the truth, when it comes down from the ‘heaven’ of myth to the ‘earth’ of history, undergoes a certain humiliation. Hence the New Testament is, and ought to be, more prosaic, in some ways less splendid, than the Old; just as the Old Testament is and ought to be less rich in many kinds of imaginative beauty than the Pagan mythologies. (b) Just as God is none the less God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes Fact. The story of Christ demands from us, and repays, not only a religious and historical but also an imaginative response. It is directed to the child, the poet, and the savage in us as well as to the conscience and the intellect. One of its functions is to break down dividing walls.
The boldface is my added emphasis. It touches very felicitously on something I’ve noted (but not as effectively)–that is, that the Old Testament was revealed to a savage, barbarous people in a savage, barbarous time, and that this should always be remembered when we try to figure out what lessons to draw from it. Too many, not realizing this, try to justify atrocity, nastiness, and horrible behavior of every sort because they read the Old Testament literally, with no subtlety, nuance, or recognition of the issues Lewis describes here. I will return to this at a later point on a post I’m planning on a specific Old Testament story.
Back in my post on Marcion, I said the following, with added emphasis:
Reading [the Bible] at the age of forty-eight is very much a different experience. Things such as the plauges and destruction God sent against His own people (Numbers 11:33, Numbers 16:1-35, and Numbers 25:1-4), the (lauded) behavior of Phineas (Numbers 25:5-9) which causes God to stop the last-mentioned plague, the mandates to kill all the men, women, and children in various cities in Canaan when the Jews return from Egypt (Joshua 6:20-27, 8:24-26, and 11:10-15, among others)–and that’s just in the parts I’ve re-read so far. There’s plenty more nastiness to come, too–just for a couple of examples, check out 2 Samuel 24 and 2 Kings 2:23-25. Examples could be multiplied quite a bit.
The point is that I’ve decided that I do not like the Old Testament as a whole very much at all.
I am not a Marcionite. I do, however, find his view more viscerally and emotionally appealing as I read the Bible again after all these years. I’m not quite sure why–perhaps I’ve grown more cynical. Maybe suffering and the general messiness of life have become more real to me and I have thus become less able to blithely tolerate a supposedly loving God who seems not only to be OK with this but who seems actively to perpetrate it with distressing frequency. In many ways it would be very easy for me to just jettison the Old Testament altogether (whether that would entail leaving the Church would be another and even more complex matter) and cast my lot with that of Marcion and the other teachers (mostly, but not exclusively Gnostic) who held similar ideas.
I cannot do that, though. That would be the easy solution.
Having discussed the ultimate basis of my beliefs, I want to go on to see how they concretely affect my understanding of the Bible, of Christian doctrine, and of the teachings of the Church. We’ll start with a look at the New Testament.
Christ, in his Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection, is, as I’ve said, the center, the axis mundi. His life and teaching is most systematically described in the Gospels, so I put them first among all the documents of the Bible. I am aware that they are among the latest parts of the New Testament to be written. I am also aware that they are the culmination of a long process of oral transmission, theological reflection, debate, writing, translating, and editing, over many decades. I am aware that they are not straightforward narratives of the facts as they occurred, and that some of the incidents may have been duplicated (e.g. the miracle of the loaves and fishes or the cleansing of the Temple) or may even have been partially (or completely) theologically motivated fiction (e.g. the Infancy narratives). Finally, I’m aware that not every saying attributed to Jesus may be authentic; and that some non-canonical sources, such as The Gospel of Thomas, may possibly contain authentic sayings. Read the rest of this entry
I had a different post planned on what ramifications, in my view, come from faith in the risen Christ. For various reasons, though, I haven’t felt that the last few posts have satisfactorily clarified some of the issues here. I’ve focused on larger issues and neglected the more individual ones. I hope that I can address that lack here.
There are two kinds of people: those who divide everyone into two kinds, and those who don’t. 😉 I’m in the latter camp, because I have more categories than that. For the purposes of what I’m doing here, I think it will clarify things. In all societies and cultures–or at least all those beyond a certain level of complexity, you have various attitudes toward belief (not necessarily just religious belief, but those of society at large). These are as follows: Read the rest of this entry