Monday, November 3, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #4: The Fall

My friend wrote:

Here's a being that knows all: past, present and future.  He creates a universe so large that we can't even wrap our heads around the sheer size of it: billions of galaxies, with billions of solar systems, etc.  But then he only populates one Planet in the whole thing!  And then within a very short time, days maybe weeks, he puts Original Sin on the whole human race forever, because Eve was tricked by a talking snake (presumably the devil) into taking the forbidden fruit. But this is before they have the knowledge of Good / Evil?  How are they supposed to understand these concepts at that point?!  And yet God basically curses the entire human race from thence forward for the very first mistake made by his very recent creation?

With respect to the whole "Garden of Eden" thing, if I understand you correctly, I think there are two problems you're more-or-less trying to work around: (1) How could God make a creation that went bad so quickly? (2) What's up with the snake and all the other details of the story?

I'll tackle the second one first, because it's a lot easier. I'm fairly confident that if you'd had a video camera around some 6000 years ago, you wouldn't have anywhere seen the story that gets told in Genesis 2-3. These are clearly folk tales, a little like the Arthurian legends, and they're not trying to talk history. They're driving at something else. (That doesn't mean they can't be inspired: it just means they're a different [inspired] genre than history.)

Now, I'll confess, I don't know that I can summarize clearly exactly the truth that these chapters are driving at, anymore than I can tell you the exact point of a Flannery O'Connor story like "A Good Man is Hard to Find". But I know that the story rings true to me on a profound level. To understand exactly how it rings true to me, we'll have to step back a moment, and look at the dominant mythological account of morality in our culture, namely, evolutionary psychology. I think there's a truth in evolutionary psychology, and indeed, it may be a fairly accurate account off how we developed a moral sense. But I don't think it's a very good account of whether our moral sense is ever right, or even, whether there's anything for our moral sense to be right about. Evolutionary psychology thus leaves something out, something quite important -- and that something very important is addressed in a profound way by the story of the Fall. I don't know if there was ever a historical Fall, before which things had been going very good, and after which things went very bad -- though at least at the moment, it seems rather unlikely to me. And even if there was, the fossil record seems clear that there couldn't have been the sort of Fall after which there was death and pain and disease, and before which there wasn't. (Indeed, if you read Genesis carefully, you'll notice that it doesn't imply that Adam and Eve would have been immortal before they ate the apple, and in fact, it seems to imply exactly the opposite.) But whether or not there was a historical Fall of some sort, clearly human beings have ended up in a place where they know that they should do certain things, they realize they don't do them, and they feel like they've lost something amazing and profound as a result. I think this sense of loss refers to something very true, and I think the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 phrases that sense dramatically as well as anything could.

In other words, I agree that from a modern perspective, for those of us who imbibe pop psychology with our mothers' milk, there are parts of the story that don't quite make psychological sense. But this is true of any mythological story from the ancient world, whether The Epic of Gilgamesh, or any of the stories in The Golden Ass; and a story can be great mythology, and indeed, inspired mythology, without being a Henry James novel.

It's the first question that's more difficult, how a world from the hands of a good God could have gone so bad. And to be honest, I'm not entirely clear about the answer. This is something that's bugged me for a long time, and it's the one element of evolution and Christian theology that I can't reconcile in a satisfactory manner. If there was an historical fall, then I think the question becomes a bit less pressing, as we can answer it with a standard appeal to "free will". But if there wasn't an historical Fall, and I think that's at least a possibility, the question is more difficult and more problematic.

Here are a few things that I think about when this starts bugging me:

  1. There may actually have been an historical fall. It's quite possible that evidence of a Fall wouldn't show up in the fossil record at all. For instance, imagine that God decided to grace a particular branch of the homo tree with a soul, with the recognition that they were made by a Creator and had an obligation to Him. They could have been granted natively the same sort of control over their bodies (and disease and pain) that you find on occasion in the great yogis of India: though not immortal, their lives would have been dramatically better than ours, and even if they suffered from disease or pain, they would have experienced pain very differently, as an important point of feedback, but not as overpowering, distressing and crippling. This branch could have even developed a very advanced culture (not necessarily an advanced material culture, which is quite different), before making some crucial decision, some critical rejection of the good, which ruined their paradisal world forever. Imagine how difficult it is to live honestly in a country like Mexico, where corruption runs rampant, and how nearly impossible it is to change that culture of corruption. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that, once ruined, a completely honest and loving society would be gone forever. If this happened, that primal rejection is now remembered only through legends and myths, whispers of golden opportunities forever lost and rumors of a shadow embraced, stories of gardens and naked innocence and a serpent coiled around the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You could hunt through the Olduvai Gorge for a thousand years and never once discover a fossil or a potsherd that would confirm or disconfirm that event.
  2. I don't want to discount the possibility of Satan. The Biblical idea that there's a powerful, evil spiritual force at work in this world explains quite a lot. This is very much the case when you look at human history, but I'm at least open to the idea that it could also have been the case during evolution as well. Perhaps God hadn't originally "intended" disease at all, but Satan introduced it – and God let him get away with it, if only because if God exists at all, it's clear that he intends to play by the rules He set up at the beginning.
  3. At any rate, for the sake of this argument, let's assume there was pain and death and disease, well, pretty much from the time the plant and animal kingdoms diverged. If so, how do we explain so much pain and things to be avoided if our world came from the hand of a good God? Part of the answer might be to point out that evolution itself is a very little like the crucifixion. Christians have always believed that Jesus' death and resurrection wasn't an isolated event, but was somehow built into the very nature of reality. And we discover, looking back at the people and animals that were our ancestors, that we are only here because of the pointless, sacrificial death of billions of "hopeful monsters", creatures bearing maladaptive genetic mutations that were all but guaranteed to result in their owners' painful deaths and the extinction of a particular genetic branch. We are here, and our bodies work more-or-less well, because they are not here, and because their bodies did not work well. And when you think about it, that's not a bad picture of the death of Christ. "By his stripes we are healed," as Isaiah put it.
  4. The "problem of evil" (which is what this is) can be summarized by saying that, if God exists, it's very difficult to believe all three of the following propositions simultaneously: (a) God is all good; (b) God is all powerful; (c) shitty things happen. But if God doesn't exist, the "problem of good" is equally troubling. It can be summarized, similarly, by saying that it's very difficult to believe all three of the following propositions simultaneously: (a) Humans derive their moral sense from evolution; (b) evolution is random and not directed towards any goal; (c) humans are obligated to do good things, and avoid bad things, even when they don't want to. If (a) and (b) are true, then (c) certainly is not true. And if (c) isn't true, we're in for a pretty bleak existence: go read some Nietzsche, ponder what he meant by the death of God (see section #125), and get back to me.
  5. Nearly every religion falls down on one of the three "points" of the problem of evil: either they don't insist that God is completely good, or they can't quite acknowledge that He's completely in charge, or they deny that shitty things happen. Christianity, I think, is unique in insisting very, very strongly that all three are fully the case. It doesn't precisely have an answer to this question – but it enframes this mystery at the heart of its proclamation. For at the heart of Christianity stands the cross, the sign and seal that God has entered this broken, shattered world, and taken its pain and suffering on Himself. The story of the cross (which I believe to be true history, as well as a great deal more) doesn't solve the impossible equation by saying, "Ah, yes, it all works if x=5". It's more like saying, "Try to imagine what you could do with this equation if we assumed that x=sqrt(-1)."

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