Reflections on Original Blessing, Part 2

In his introduction to Christianity series Jesus the Forgiving Victim (and probably before that, but this was where I first encountered it), James Alison begins with a discussion of what he calls "the Social Other." (you can see him talk about it in a short video here).  Alison defines "the Social Other" as "everything that is other than us on the social level--the people, geography, buildings, politics, weather, climate, food--everything that is."  Except, critically, for God--God is the "Other Other," and represents the only outside force that influences us that is not part of the Social Other.  Alison insists that the Social Other is both prior to us (it existed before we existed, and is thus not "created" by us in any sense) and is in every sense constitutive of us.  Our very sense of self is created by the Social Other, as we grow and develop and interact with the outside world.  And yet, we are not merely passive receptors of the Social Other, but we participate in the Social Other, changing it (and thus changing others) as we move and grow and develop ourselves.

It is here, in the Social Other, where I think the problem of sin ultimately lies.  I think that there is something about the Social Other that is broken.  The way we relate to each other, the matrix in which we do the relating, is messed up in a systemic way.  And, because the Social Other forms us, we get swept up in the brokenness--we become both carriers of the brokenness to others and recipients of that brokenness from others.  But, contrary to the Augustinian understanding that I talked about in the last post, the brokenness is conceptually distinct from us as individuals--it's not that we are broken so much as we become broken; it's not that we are wicked so much as we become wicked.  [Plus, contrary to Augustine, it has little or nothing to do with our physicality, and has no more to do with sex than it does any other human activity in which two or more people are involved].

I've used this analogy before, but we might think of the brokenness being like a virus.  Viruses invade healthy cells and hijack them, turning them essentially into virus factories.  A cell that has been invaded is a clear and present danger to other cells, and is capable of doing enormous harm to the cells surrounding it.  But the cell is not the same thing as the virus.  The cell was not "born" to do bad things in some essential way--something from outside of it has changed it such that it spreads its sickness to other cells.  The virus is endemic to our environment, and we are all at least a little bit infected.

But, it's weirdly more complicated than that.  Probably the most provocative part of the Girardian view of humanity is the claim that the very thing that makes us human is the thing causing all of the problems.  At some point in our evolutionary development, we became creatures capable of essentially unlimited imitation.  This faculty opened the door to knowledge and technology and language and culture, because it allowed us to transmit new developments from one person to another, creating iterative feedback loops.  But this faculty of imitation brings with it the potential for violence and self-destruction, in the form of memetic rivalry.  But human ingenuity had a solution for that, in the form of the "social technology" of scapegoating and the Sacred.  But the cure is almost worse than the disease--the very virus that makes all of our relationships a bit broken (and, in some cases, very broken).

All of the above is how I have come to think about the basic question raised both by Augustine and Rev. Shroyer in Original Blessing.  I support of this view, I'd like to take a look at two "texts" traditionally used to support the Augustinian understanding--Genesis 3 (and also Genesis 4, which I think should be read together) and Augustine's biography.  I'll talk about Augustine's story in the next post, but let's begin with Genesis 3, and the question of what do we see when we look at Adam and Eve in the Garden before eating the apple.

First, we must insist on understanding this story in purely allegorical and symbolic terms--there is no actual apple, no actual Garden, no actual Adam and Eve.  Our ancestors (at least our homo sapiens ancestors) came to be over a long period of time in the Great Rift valley of Africa.  What Genesis 3 gives us is a metaphor to help us understand the human experience, not a concrete sequence of events being reported as if it were a newspaper article.  To do otherwise is to put faith and science on an unavoidable collision course, which if we take the idea of Christian Realism seriously we cannot do.

So, if the pre-Fall Adam and Eve are an allegory, of what are they an allegory?  Shroyer suggests that Adam and Eve represent a kind of childhood innocence, and I think that is an important dimension to the allegory.  But I would also say, along the lines suggested by Girard, that pre-Fall Adam and Eve represent on some level our pre-human primate ancestors.  If you go to the zoo and look at the primate exhibits, especially the chimpanzees (which are not our direct ancestors--more like our close cousins--but close enough for these purposes), you see behaviors and facial expressions that make it very clear that they are indeed very closely related to us--they do things that we do but almost no other animals do.  But yet, there is a difference between us and the higher primates.  We have something that they don't.  There was some point in our evolution where something changed, causing us to cross over from our (admittedly highly advanced) proto-human progenitors into our fully human ancestors.

I want to come back to that (because I think it says a lot about what makes us human), but let's now turn to the Biblical text.  Where do we find Adam and Eve at the beginning of Genesis 3?  Genesis 2 tells us that Eve was created by God as a helpmate and companion for Adam, as a way to assuage his loneliness.  Now, that text has been used in some deeply patriarchal ways, but I think we can take a number of basic lessons from what we see in Genesis 2, without having to traffic in female subordination:

  • Humans are fundamentally social creatures.  God recognizes that "It is not good that the man should be alone. . . ." (Genesis 2:18).
  •  There is a pre-Fall social harmony between Adam and Eve (which, I think, can stand for all people)--they live together in the Garden in a kind of natural companionship.
  • They are naked (Genesis 2:25).  It makes sense to me to think of this nakedness as standing for a kind of uncomplicated vulnerability--there is no need to be defensive or afraid of being exposed.

God also gives a command (at least to Adam)--do not eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest you die.  This I think is the most interesting part of Genesis 2--why is it a problem to know what is Good and what is Evil?  And why would this knowledge cause you to die?  The Augustinian approach to the story treats this essentially as a MacGuffin--it doesn't matter what the Tree is, only that God told them not to eat it.  God's rule becomes essentially arbitrary, even somewhat jealous (especially combined with the Genesis 3 quote that God is afraid that eating from the Tree of Life will make Adam and Eve "be like us" and live forever (Genesis 3:22)).

But I think the idea of "Knowledge of Good and Evil" is important and relevant to the story.  Whatever "Knowledge of Good and Evil" means, the serpent tells Eve that eating from the Tree will give her this knowledge, and that with this knowledge she will be like God (Genesis 3:5).  So, she eats it, and she gives it to Adam and he eats it.  What is the first thing that happens?  They realize they are naked (Genesis 3:7).  A fear of vulnerability has entered into the human equation.  What is the next thing that happens?  They hide from God (Genesis 3:8), and they hide from God because they are afraid of vulnerability (Genesis 3:10), and they are afraid of God stemming in some manner from that vulnerability.  God immediately knows that Knowledge of Good and Evil makes them aware of, and concerned for, their vulnerability.  (Genesis 3:11--"He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’")

So, the lesson here is that having "Knowledge of Good and Evil" makes you aware of your vulnerability, and that awareness causes you to get into a kind of defensive crouch.  Why would that be?  Here, I would like to go out on a limb in a bit of an experimental direction, and suggest that God tells Adam and Eve to avoid eating from the Tree not because God is jealous of us actually having that knowledge, but because God knows that we won't actually have true knowledge of Good and Evil.  Eating from the Tree will only make us think we understand Good and Evil.  We might read "Knowledge" with scare quotes around it--by eating of the Tree, we become aware of a system for understanding what is Good and what is Evil, whether or not that system reflects what is Good or what is Evil in an ultimate sense.

The serpent (who, unlike Shroyer, I would associate with Satan, at least in a Girardian sense) is lying to Eve when he tells her that the knowledge she will gain will make her like God (see, e.g., John 8:44--"[Satan] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.")  Gaining knowledge of Good and Evil makes you think you are like God, or think you understand God, even if you don't.

But why does that make us vulnerable, and why would we be afraid of that?  We see the reason for that in Genesis 4, which I think needs to be seen as an integral part of the Fall story.  Cain's belief in his own righteousness--his own knowledge of Good and Evil--leads to jealousy when that righteousness isn't rewarded, which causes him to murder his brother Abel.  This "knowledge" of Good and Evil makes us a threat to each other.  And because we believe our own sense of righteousness to be co-terminal with God's righteousness, then God becomes a threat to us (or, more accurately, people who believe they are acting according to the will of God).

This all becomes particularly clear when you situate the Cain and Abel story in the context of the myriad of similar stories in other mythological traditions (Romulus and Remus in Roman mythology is the clearest example, though there are others).  In those other stories, the Cain figure kills Abel consistent with the will of the gods, and is rewarded for his faithfulness.  The Genesis version subverts that reading, making it absolutely clear that Cain and all of the similar Cain figures are acting out of a self-centered, as opposed to God-centered, vision of Good and Evil.  "Knowledge" of Good and Evil makes us vulnerable because we understand that "Good" and "Evil" are systems that can be used as weapons, and those weapons can always be pointed at us.  This is what Girard calls "the Sacred," in all of its varied forms.

The seeds of this fear of each other can be seen back in Genesis 3.  What does Adam do when confronted with eating from the Tree?  Blame Eve, but also in a sense blame God by making a point of mentioning that Eve is "the woman whom you gave to be with me" (Genesis 3:12).  What does Eve do when faced with this accusation?  Blame the serpent or Satan, which in Girard's telling is really a kind of personification of human sociality generally (Genesis 3:13).  A fundamental wound is created in the primeval social harmony of the human family, a wound that has its origins in the knowledge of Good and Evil.  Here, in the finger-pointing and suspicion of Adam and Eve toward each other, I think Genesis 3 is naming the fundamental brokenness of our social interactions, while being clear to state that it is not, ultimately, God's intention for humanity.  

But it is important to finish reading Genesis 4.  Genesis 4 tells us that this arc of bitterness and recrimination and ultimately violence leads to the founding of the city of Enoch, which I would take as standing for human civilization and culture generally.  Everything we have, and I would say everything that makes us truly human, is on some level derived from this brokenness described in Genesis 3 and 4.  If we take a step back from the story and look at the big picture, the overarching message of the Fall story is that our Social Other is both a blessing and curse--a blessing in that it brings with it all of the legitimately wonderful things that human beings have accomplished, both on a macro and micro level, but also a curse in that the Social Other has a dimension of oppression and violence that is woven into its very fabric.

At the greatest level of remove, the project of Christianity (and Judaism, for that matter) is to try to tease out the blessings from the curses--how to live with one another in fullness, but without the darkness that is endemic to living with one another.  It's not about going back to the old Garden, because going back to the old Garden would involve giving up the things that make us fully adult humans, but being about the project of creating a new Garden, one with the blessings but without the curses.  For Christians, the model of how to do that is Jesus, who came from God to demonstrate through his life that there is a way to live without the darkness that most of us assume is just "the way things are."  From a Girardian perspective, the Christian project is about re-wiring the Social Other so that it is purged of the Sacred and its violence.

One last aside.  Probably the most talked about and problematic dimension of Augustine's understanding of Original Sin is the idea that we somehow "inherit" Adam and Eve's sin, especially as Augustine associates the transmission of sin through sex.  As stated, I think this is nonsense.  But I think we can re-formulate this into the idea that the brokenness of the Social Other, understood allegorically to begin with Adam and Eve, creates a kind of negative feedback loop.  Because the Social Other is broken, we become broken; because we are broken, we tend inflict our brokenness on others, who in turn inflict their brokenness on others.  The early chapters of Genesis lay this out pretty clearly--we go from Adam and Eve to Cain to the wickedness of humanity in the time of Noah, in an escalating arc.  So, there is a way of saying that Adam and Eve's "sin" affects all of us down to the present, without having to postulate some sort of hereditary wickedness or requiring us to be held responsible for things we didn't do.

Taking all of this together, here would be my take-aways from the idea of the Fall:

  • Human beings are inherently social; we influence and are influenced by everyone around us.
  • God's original and abiding intention for us is to live in harmony with each other and with Godself.
  • That harmony does not exist fully; our Social Other is woven through with threads of divisiveness and violence.
  • Those threads cause us to be broken, and cause us to damage others, in a way that is conceptually distinct from our ontological nature as loved and blessed by God, and contrary to God's intention and desire for us.
  • Nevertheless, the brokenness in the Social Other is interwoven with the blessing of humanity and human culture, such that we cannot ever simply "reset" ourselves to some original state.
  • The Fall stories, seen as not just Genesis 3 but also Genesis 4, are best understood as allegorical ways of talking about this paradoxical situation humans find themselves.
  • God never abandons us in our current state, but is constantly working to bring us and guide us to a new place of harmony, as manifest most fully in the person and ministry of Jesus.  
So, with that in mind, I think I am finally set up to talk about all of the good in Shroyer's book, and the places where I disagree with her.  Along with that, I want to talk a little bit about how Augustine's story seems to me to be a perfect example of the very model of human brokenness discussed here.  All of that in the next post.


Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Just Say No to Forced Emotional Labor for Clergy

The Cavalry is Not Coming and Other Moments of Clarity