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The Best Laid Plans (Do Not Require a Plan B)

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The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

–Robert Burns, “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”

This is famously misquoted in standard English (as opposed to Burns’s Scots dialect) as “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.”  In any case, the sentiment is true enough.  How often do we plan something only to have events seemingly conspire to screw it all up?  How often does the most meticulous planning crash and burn before our eyes?  It’s not for no reason that we have the American idiom “Plan B”.  This is, of course, what you do–or attempt to do–when your original idea, Plan A, fails.  Sometimes we seem to run through the whole alphabet of plans and still things “gang agley”.  Then again, we’re not God.

The point I’m getting at here is something I’ve alluded to numerous time over the course of this and other series of posts at this blog.  In this post, I want to address the matter in a more direct and explicit manner.  The matter at hand relates to the interpretation of the Fall of Man, as described in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.  My main purpose in “Legends of the Fall” has been to try to find a way to understand the aforementioned Fall given our current understanding of human origins and the impossibility of reconciling that understanding with the Genesis account.  I’m still pretty far out from coming to such an understanding, admittedly.  Nevertheless, I think it is useful to look at issues which, while partially tangential, nevertheless have implications for the course of the main argument.

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Was It…SATAN??!!

The title, of course, refers to the catchphrase of Dana Carvey’s iconic 90’s Saturday Night Live character the Church Lady.  This post, however, is a little more serious than that.

I went to the vigil Mass yesterday, and the first reading, from Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24, struck me (my emphasis, of course):

God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.

That got me to thinking about some of the themes I’ve discussed in this series, and indicated to me an actual Scriptural warrant, slim though it may be, for them.

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Penal Substitution

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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.

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Please Help Me, I’m Falling

But not like that, although it is a classic song.  I’m returning, after a considerable break to the topic of the Fall of Man.  I still don’t have what I consider a definitive answer, and may never have one.  I do want to do some more thinking about it and the related issues, though; so, once more into the breach.

First, I want to draw attention to my summation of where I stood when I took a break from the series almost a year ago:  here and here I discussed what I thought needed to be the basis for further discussion.  I want to take a few things from the latter post and add to them some notes that I think will be necessary as we proceed.

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We Had to Destroy the Bible to Save It

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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.

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Original Sin: Is the Fault in the Manufacturer?

If God created the Body, and the Body is dirty, then the fault lies with the Manufacturer.–Lenny Bruce: Swear to tell the truth 1998, courtesy of Wikiquote.

My second year in high school (34 years past, alas!) the Burt Reynolds movie The End came out.  It is a dark comedy about a relatively shallow and moderately successful man (Reynolds) who is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He tries to come to grips with this, and tries to mend fences with those he’s hurt in the past.  Failing this, he decides to die on his own terms rather than dying slowly of cancer, and resolves to commit suicide.  Over the course of the movie he makes several attempts (all either ineffective or thwarted), is institutionalized, meets a fellow inmate who is a complete nutcase (played by Dom DeLuise) , and breaks out along with the nutcase, who has vowed to help him.

After many misadventures, the Burt Reynolds character decides to take decisive action.  He goes to the beach and swims hundreds of  yards out to sea, where he resolves to sink and drown.  As he starts to do this, he realizes he doesn’t want to die, and would rather cling to whatever life is left to him.  He begins doggedly swimming back to shore, unsure he can make it, and beings bargaining with God (the clip above).  He makes grandiose promises of all the ways he’ll reform his life; but as he gets closer and closer to shore, realizing that he’ll make it, he starts cutting back on the promises.  He goes from promising to  give 50% of his income to charity to 10%; and he similarly whittles away at the other promises.  Realizing what he’d doing, he exclaims, “I know You saved me, Lord; but it was also You who made me sick!”   Read the rest of this entry

Reincarnation: The Disadvantages

Having looked somewhat extensively at the ideas of pre-existence and reincarnation, we must now look at the theological/philosophical downside of these notions–so important in varying degrees to the Evagrian and Gnostic views we’ve discussed–and consider some of the negative implications of these ideas.

I must point out that a belief in the pre-existence of souls does not necessarily imply a belief in reincarnation.  Origen and Evagrius, while accepting the former do not seem to have believed in the latter (though this is disputed).  In modern times, Mormons accept the pre-existence of souls while not teaching reincarnation.  Thus, we are dealing with two separate, though partially related, beliefs here.  The point, though, is that what I’m about to discuss applies to both.   Read the rest of this entry

Polygenesis Revisited: The Theology of Cavemen

Now that we’ve seen what polygenesis–hard polygenesis, specifically–actually is, let’s look at its theological ramifications.  I’m not going to rehash the whole series heretofore, but it will be useful to look at the main issues briefly.

Christianity traditionally has taught that all humans descend from one primal couple, Adam and Eve.  As a result of their sinning in Eden, Adam and Eve  passed Original Sin on to all of their descendants, down to us.  On the other hand, the scientific evidence is that modern humans descend not from a primal couple, but from a primal population.  Thus, there would be several primal lineages, some of whom would not have been descended from Adam and Eve, and thus, presumably, to transmission of Original Sin.  This seems to conflict with traditional Christian theology.

It’s important to point out that this is also closely tied in with the Christian concept of the soul.  Dharmic religions  posit that all sentient beings have souls (Buddhism doesn’t actually posit a soul at all, but that’s a nuance for another time), and that a given soul may incarnate as human, animal, god, demon, etc.  The Abrahamic faiths, however, have traditionally held that only humans have immortal souls, and that only human souls are sapient and in the image of God.  In this perspective, a being, such as an animal, which lacks a soul is not a subject.  In other words, it has no sense of self-awareness, no perception of “I”, no internal monologue.  It is a thing, no different from a machine (at least in the extreme Cartesian conception) except that it’s furry, feathered, or scaled.

A  human–or humanoid–that lacked a soul, even if it were intelligent, even if it seemed exactly like one of us, would also be a thing–in effect, a human-appearing, walking, analogue computer.  It would not be a true human, but what is referred to as a philosophical zombie; or to put it another way, it would be a mere animal that just looked and acted like a human; or perhaps it could be thought of as an organic robot.  As such, it would no more have intrinsic human rights than would a kangaroo or an iPad.  Read the rest of this entry

Polygenism Revisited: Terminology (Updated)

This comment thread is what made me realize that I hadn’t addressed all the I should have issues in the original Legends of the Fall series.  I’ve been laying the groundwork for dealing with these issues, and now we can start that process.

The whole thesis of the original series was that with our knowledge of human origins, it is not possible to maintain the traditional account of the Fall of Man and Original Sin as they have been held in Christian thought.  I attempted, in the original series, to look at different Christian paradigms of the creation of the cosmos and mankind that have surfaced throughout history, and to give some thought to how these paradigms could interact with our scientific knowledge of the world and human origins.  The idea was to find a meaningful way of viewing humans, their relationship to God, and their imperfection in light both of Christian theology and modern science.  I don’t claim to have done so, but I think I was able to suggest some possible directions for theology to take in seeking such a reconciliation.

The main problem that I now realize I failed to address was the issue of hard polygenism.  Read the rest of this entry

Legends of the Fall, Part 7: And on the Seventh Post (actually, the 22nd!) He Rested

Well, after all this time, I had to use an image from the movie eventually!

So we come finally, after almost two months, to the end of the series on the Fall which I’ve been posting here.  I have ideas for several other posts that have come to me during the course of thinking and writing about the issues here, but most of them are tangential.  Not that I haven’t gone off on more than a few tangents in this series, but I think I’ve covered the substance of what I wanted to say on the main issue at hand.  Therefore, this is the “official” last post of my “Legends of the Fall” series, discounting the next post, which will be an index that will give easy, hyperlinked access to all the installments.  The other posts will get their day in the sun in the coming days and weeks, and some may relate back to this series; but they’ll be stand-alones, or perhaps the beginnings of new series.  Time will tell.

What I want to do here now is, as briefly as possible, to recap the basic ideas and insights we’ve discussed over the course of the series. Read the rest of this entry