Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Compass and the Fall

In recent days, renewed interest in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series of books has provided some skeptics an opportunity to opine on the Biblical story of the Fall, in which Adam and Eve disobey God and partake of the tree of knowledge. Primordial Blogger Brian Larnder writes

It makes no sense that Adam and Eve were punished for acquiring knowledge and if god was trying to keep humanity trapped in ignorance then maybe he's not really the good guy after all. As I've written before, today's fundamentalists thrive on ignorance - it's apparent in every stand they take whether it be sex education or stem cells, science or history. Ignorance is the leading cause of many of the world's biggest problems and much of human suffering, but christians and other religious people would prefer to take us back to the good old days of the dark ages.

Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon.com, puts forward her interpretation:

At the end of "The Golden Compass," the witch Serafina foretells of a coming war, one that will affect everyone. The stakes, she says, are nothing less than our free will. Coincidentally, not long ago Lucy came home from Sunday school, bursting to tell me the story of Adam and Eve. "The snake made the woman eat an apple," she said cheerfully, "and that's why it hurts when we have babies."

"Yeah, maybe," I replied, with all the restraint in my arsenal. "But maybe the story is about something else." Maybe, I told her, it's about the point in our evolution when we got our souls. When we started using reason as well as instinct. Because you know what makes us human? Our ability to make our own choices. I told her that I don't believe in a God who kicked us out of paradise to punish us. I believe in one who put us in a world of wonders, to challenge us to figure it out.

I admit that I find the secular perspective on this passage both puzzling and superficial. I understand that these authors have disdain for the source material, but fear that it has made them blind to better interpretations. Genesis can't be handled so flippantly. It really is an amazing piece of literature: the more one considers it seriously, delving into its historico-poetic literary structure, the interaction with Ancient Near Eastern religions, the unique overlap with modern science (e.g. Big Bang theory), and the way it connects with other portions of Scripture and theology, the more one appreciates its genius. In light of this, perhaps there is a more charitable way to approach this text.

Was God unwilling to challenge humanity to think and to make our own choices, as Ms. Williams suggests? That's an odd reading simply because the forbidden Tree was placed within the garden, affording Adam and Eve the opportunity to make their own choice about whether to obey their Creator or not. We even get a glimpse of Eve's deliberations in Genesis 3:6. The whole story of the Fall of Man depends upon this opportunity; the first couple did, after all, make their own choice, and had to face the consequences. But if they had refrained from eating the forbidden fruit, it would have been their choice as well.

And with regard to Mr. Larnder's assertions that God "was trying to keep humanity trapped in ignorance" and that He "punished [them] for acquiring knowledge", the thoughts of Irenaeus (2nd century theologian, disciple of Polycarp, disciple of John the Apostle) and those of contemporary theologian Don Carson will be helpful.

To begin, God's omnipotence does, in fact, have reasonable logical and metaphysical limits. God cannot make a square circle, or a married bachelor. And He cannot create an uncreated thing. Similarly, argues Irenaeus in Book IV of his Against Heresies, God cannot create a rational creature with a mature character from the moment of its creation (ab initio). Maturity requires the actual subjective experience of living and reasoning through moral choices, experiences which such a creature -- man in this case -- cannot have had in the newness of his existence. As such, when God created the first human beings, they necessarily were immature. (See Carl Mosser's related paper on this subject.)

In light of Irenaeus' adept reasoning, God's prohibition was for the good of humanity, a temporary measure providing an opportunity for moral formation with greater enlightenment on the horizon. The tree might well have been made available to them after such formation had been realized, once they were ready to handle it. Jack Nicholson's stunning line from A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!" is sometimes correct.

One aspect of the disjunction between maturity of character and knowledge of good and evil is the fact that we are sometimes haunted by knowing the mere possibilities of evil. We know of the wrongs we could do, we know of the fear of what might happen, and we suffer in significant ways from it. In particular, loss of community and unnecessary anxiety come to mind. A woman in our "civilized society", walking to her car at night and being followed by a man, knows full well that the man might attack her and attempt to rape and kill her. She justifiably worries about this. The man, in many cases, just happens to be going the same way. But he, too, knows the evil men have done in situations like these (one need only tune into the 11 o'clock news), knows by reason that he could do the same (even if repulsed by it), and knows that the woman will be glad to reach her car (and home) safely simply because of his presence coupled with the possibilities of evil. How sad that we are plagued with this burden! This knowledge of evil haunts them and robs them of the peace and security that could be theirs.

If moral maturity had been reached when our first parents took and ate of the Tree, the knowledge of what could be done for evil would not haunt us because we would know for sure that it wouldn't be done. Instead, we would experience the depth of peace and community that the Hebrew shalom is meant to signify. As a result of the Fall, we became aware of those possibilities and took it upon ourselves to explore them, whatever the consequences. It is to those consequences, in relation to knowledge, that we now turn.

Carson's understanding (mp3) of the "knowledge of good and evil" relies on exegesis of the phrase as it is found in other passages in the Old Testament. His argument is that it has the connotation of man as arbiter over good and evil; that is, self-appointment to be the sole and final judges over what is right and wrong -- something which is God's prerogative. When Adam and Eve took of the fruit in opposition to God's prohibition, they made themselves like God in this sense. "Playing God" (e.g., the scientifically-conducted Tuskegee experiments) is something we still rail against today, with good reason.

Importantly, Carson also points out that humanity came to acquire knowledge of good and evil in a disordered way. Specifically, we came to know evil from the inside: subjectively, experientially. God's knowledge of sin is not like that. He knows its seriousness, its self-destructiveness, its folly, and its tragedy. But we, unlike God, are the perpetrators of sin and suffer its effects. It is one thing to know that X is wrong. It is another to know it intimately by committing that wrong and suffering from its effects first-hand. Had humanity obeyed God, we could have had the former knowledge without the latter. We might have known that men and women could be unfaithful; instead, men and women know what it is to be unfaithful to one another, know what it is to be lied to and cheated on, know what it is like to split up families and divide the hearts of their children. Similarly, we might only have known that tissue growth could go terribly wrong; instead, we endure cancer and know the pain and even death it causes.

It seems to me that our secular friends have dismissed the Genesis story of the Fall without plumbing its depths. They write as if knowledge -- no matter how it is secured, or what character one brings to the table in achieving it -- is all that matters. But a little reflection indicates that the details can make all the difference.


Brian said...

Hi Steve, Brian from Primordial Blog here. I noticed you on my technorati.

This is a thoughtful and well written response, although I obviously disagree with your conclusions. I especially liked the part about god not being able to create a mature person because we have to experience life in order to gain maturity. Great point!

If we are discussing Genesis as a Near Eastern mythological construct then I agree it is wonderful - ranks right up there with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the cuneiform tablets found in the ruins of ancient Sumer. However, for someone to treat the story of Adam and Eve like an actual transcript of real events is kind of silly - though you don't strike me as the hard-core fundamentalist type.

Even as a metaphor for human conciousness though, I think it still fails because if what you say is true about god wanting to give them the fruit in the proper time, he should have withheld it from them until they were ready and then presented it to the couple. If they didn't know the difference between right and wrong then they couldn't have made a real choice. It would be like putting posion pills in front of a toddler and telling them not to put it in their mouth, then blaming them for killing themselves.

And what kind of a parent would do that and then punish their children by kicking them out on the street and making sure that they suffered in pain and struggled to survive for the rest of their miserable lives?

Pain in childbirth and weeds? Instead, why not take them gently and teach them what they had done wrong and raise them to proper maturity with instruction and guidance rather than turfing them out?

You seem to be making the point that Adam and Eve messed up god's perfect plan for their lives, but if god had this wonderful plan and if he is omniscient, then he should have foreseen it all and taken steps to prevent it. The fact that he didn't is very telling.

Steve Thomas said...

Dear Brian,

I'm very glad you stopped by. I was planning on dropping you a note about this post, but I was hoping to clean up the site a bit before you stopped by... You are quite welcome in any case. Thank you for your kind words and also for the further inquiries/challenges you've made. Let me turn to address some of your comments.

If we are discussing Genesis as a Near Eastern mythological construct then I agree it is wonderful - ranks right up there with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the cuneiform tablets found in the ruins of ancient Sumer. However, for someone to treat the story of Adam and Eve like an actual transcript of real events is kind of silly - though you don't strike me as the hard-core fundamentalist type.

What its exact nature is as a text, is a good question. In the same lecture I cited, Carson suggests that we need not take it as a detailed historic account, and yet it can still convey essential truths - not unlike Nathan's parable of the sheep owner in confronting David about his sexual sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:1-15). Once confronted, David saw the analogy as strikingly relevant to his own case. Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen has communicated a similar viewpoint in an essay on theodicy:

To allay the possible curiosity of some readers, I will mention that I regard the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis as a myth, in the sense that, in my view, it is not a story that has come down to us via a long historical chain of tellings and retellings that originated with the testimony of participants in the events it describes... I believe, however, that the development of this myth in the ancient Middle East and its eventual literary embodiment in Genesis took place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and I believe that, within certain limits, Genesis can be used as a guide to what actually happened. The key to observing these limits is to concentrate on the spiritually relevant features of the story, and to remember that the Bible is addressed equally to the people of all epochs and cultures and that a story of those remote events that satisfied modern standards of historical accuracy would probably have to involve concepts and facts that would render it inaccessible to the people of most epochs and cultures.

[From Inwagen, "The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy"]

I'm open to either historical or mythical (in the narrow sense above) readings, but I would argue that it can be historical -- and report on real events fairly accurately -- without taking the form of "an actual transcript". Requiring that level of precision sounds a bit anachronistic. Does it capture the essence of the events, even if some of the details have been told differently? That's the question. I believe it does. I understand how it can be strange to the modern mind, but if we contemplate that original situation, long, long ago when the first man and woman made their appearance, so far removed from the accoutrements of modern times, I find it entirely plausible.

Even as a metaphor for human conciousness though, I think it still fails because if what you say is true about god wanting to give them the fruit in the proper time, he should have withheld it from them until they were ready and then presented it to the couple. If they didn't know the difference between right and wrong then they couldn't have made a real choice. It would be like putting posion pills in front of a toddler and telling them not to put it in their mouth, then blaming them for killing themselves.

This is an entirely fair question. A Christian friend of mine raised the very same point this morning. What I suggested to him (though there may be other approaches to this) was that we take into account the situation in the garden, where the Temptation occurs. A persistent theme in assessments of the Fall is the overwhelming goodness and beauty in the garden, where the needs of the first couple were met in abundance. As Milton puts it in the opening chapter of Paradise Lost,

Say first...what cause
Moved our grand parents, in that happy state
Favored of Heaven so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the World besides?

(You may assume that the emphasis is mine above and in the following quotes...)

Augustine (who is often wrong on sexual matters, but right on many other things) made the same point in prose (see his City of God, Book XIV). He writes of Eden as "a paradise both material and spiritual" in order to satisfy fully both body and soul. He then argues the following, contrasting man's creation and situation in Eden with the one requirement God gave:

Man took no heed of the command of God who had created him, who had made him in his own image, who had set him above the other animals, who had established him in paradise, who had supplied him with abundance of all things for his well-being, who had not burdened him with a large number of oppressive and difficult rules, but had given him one very short and easy commandment to support him in healthy obedience.

Augustine concludes with this assessment (extracted from a larger paragraph):

[T]he disobedience in paradise was all the greater inasmuch as the command was one of no difficulty at all. The obedience of the second man [i.e. Christ] is the more worthy of renown in that 'he became obedient unto death.' By the same token, the disobedience of the first man was the more abominable in that he became disobedient unto death. For where the penalty set for disobedience is great, and it is an easy thing which has been ordered by the Creator, who can adequately describe the enormity of the evil in a refusal to obey in a matter so easy, when the command comes from so great a power, and the punishment that threatens is so grave?

The point of these quotes being that Adam and Eve had been given everything -- their needs were completely met -- and prohibited only one thing. There was no conflict of interest, no complicated moral calculus to discern. It was a test suited to a child, to one with a vibrant mind and a rudimentary understanding of right and wrong, but a relatively unformed character, and backed with a stern warning (my own view is that they had seen death, perhaps even violent death, at least outside the garden). The text gives no indication that they did not understand the prohibition, and at least the physical consequences. It was, as Augustine said, a "short and easy commandment," an "easy thing". They could have walked away and prospered in the garden; they had that potential. They were not in any way pressed beyond their limits (nearly the opposite), and had an easy escape available to them. Yet they failed, and in light of their potential, were held responsible for their sin.

Your other questions regarding the nature of the consequences and the event in light of God's omniscience are very good as well and thought provoking. They deserve an answer. But they will have to wait for another time, I'm afraid, due to this being one of several late nights for me recently. I will return to them at some point, so please stop back and join in the conversation. I appreciate your feedback and the opportunity to dialogue with you. Indeed, I find that I learn the most in civil but spirited conversations with thoughtful people.

Until next time, take care.


Peter Lupu said...


I think the central question you address here (and the people you comment upon attempt to explain) is this:
What could be the rationale for God to prohibit Adam and Eve from eating the fruit and thereby acquiring moral knowledge?
Your interlocutors take a dim view on the prohibition thus portraying God's rationale in somewhat negative terms.
Your account, by contrast, explains the prohibition as a temporary measure; Adam and Eve were not ready to acquire such knowledge until a later time.
The problem here is why then God gave them free will which they can exercise with respect to the prohibition.
Here is an alternative. Perhaps God had a plan, a purpose, that required him to place them in this situation, a situation God knew will eventuate in their transgression. Perhaps, God wanted them to disobey and then be tested.

ST said...

Hi, Peter. That is one option. I do think that God foreknew that Adam and Eve would freely disobey Him from the beginning. I will have more to say on this in a future post, I think in a different direction than you are going. In the meantime, you might find Carl Mosser's paper interesting, if you haven't read it already.

Take care,