Monday, 30 May 2011

The Fall from Grace: Paradise Lost?

Though I have not considered myself to be a Christian – or a theist – for about a decade now, I do not belong to that category of non-believers who regard it as necessary to attack belief in God on every possible occasion by any means available. This does not mean that I am not prepared to respond robustly to any attacks made on atheists by believers; there was a particularly nasty one made by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor in 2009, when he suggested that atheists “are not fully human,” and, sadly, he is not alone in making this kind of assertion[i]. I will also become engaged on particular issues when I have the impression that – in the secular society in which I live – people try to impose facets of their religious beliefs on society in general; attempts, for example, to teach “creationism” in some form or another as being scientifically based, or attempts to impose particular religious interpretations on the civil commitment to a life together between two adults known as marriage. But generally, I believe that tolerance for the views of others and their rights to express those views are at the basis of any kind of modern civilised society and I would never claim to regard myself as infallible with regard to the positions I take on most issues, having experienced in my own life how such personal views can develop and change.

What follows is not intended to be an attack on Christian belief, with the goal of making a “killer” argument in a debating sense. Rather it is a kind of questioning reflection on a pretty basic aspect of Christian teaching with which I see some major problems.

Michaelangelo: Temptation and Fall (Sistine Chapel)
The basic Christian view of humanity sees us as having been created by God in a “state of grace,” a fundamental situation in which everything was good – perfect, even. God created human beings “in his own image and likeness,” and in this original state, those human beings were without “sin.” However, humanity chose to sin, to disobey God’s commandments, to turn away from that which God wanted and reject his vision of how they should live in favour of their own. As a result of this action, humanity became “flawed,” defiled by sin; sin, suffering and death entered the world and became the general lot of everyone. So humanity finds itself in a situation in which life is fundamentally determined by imperfection, pain, injustice, suffering and death; all consequences of the rejection of God’s love – original sin. In a state, in other words, in which it is in desperate need of redemption. And because God’s love is so great, this redemption was forthcoming, in the salvific event of the incarnation, birth, life, death and resurrection of God’s only son, who is God himself, Jesus Christ.

I do not think that I am misrepresenting the Christian position here. I can completely accept the view of most discerning, thinking, non-fundamentalist Christians, who argue that this basic vision of the story of the human condition is not dependent on a literal reading of the first chapters of the book of Genesis, but rather that the story of creation, the garden and the “fall” of Adam and Eve can be read as metaphorical tales, recounting the deeper truth expressed in the paragraph above. I will even recognise that there is a lot of sense in the telling of this as a story – for stories allow us to pack all sorts of ideas, insights and inspirations into a dramatic form which touches and reaches us in many ways not open to a theoretical exposition. Indeed, this is one of the great strengths of Christianity; its propensity to express the truths it sees as being the deepest and most essential about life, the world and all beyond it in the form of profoundly dramatic, moving, exciting stories, capable of containing meaning and being interpreted on multiple levels.

Furthermore, I have no intention of going into the fine points of the narrative of the creation and the fall; fine points which turn on the degree to which humanity was cut off from God’s grace through original sin, whether we can, of ourselves, play any part in the rectifying of this sad situation and to what extent the acceptance of particular interpretations of the basic message and these fine points is obligatory for salvation. Such questions have been the subject of enough controversy within Christianity, leading to disputes, tracts, anathemas, condemnations, reformations and mutual persecution and killing – not to mention the persecution and killing of others.

No, my question is a more basic one. Is it reasonable to accept the basic Christian postulate of a humanity which somehow drastically deteriorated from the nature which God had planned for it, thus “forcing” him to take flesh and be put to death as a sign of his love for humanity and his reconciliation with them?

For the sake of a certain simplicity I will also leave aside the various questions regarding God’s omnipotence and, above all, omniscience – subjects which have occupied many Christian thinkers, most notably perhaps Augustine and John Calvin, leading, among others, to the whole vexed question of predestination. My concern is the fundamental picture of a humanity which was initially created/designed to be perfect, through its own fault lost this state of perfection and thus had to be restored to this state so as to be capable of being reconciled with God.

The idea of a Golden Age, a lost era of perfection, goes far beyond Christianity. It can be encountered in Hinduism, for example, under the idea of the Satya or Krita Yuga. According to the Mahabharata

[...] there were no poor and no rich; there was no need to labour, because all that men required was obtained by the power of will; the chief virtue was the abandonment of all worldly desires. The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening with the years; there was no hatred or vanity, or evil thought; no sorrow, no fear. All mankind could attain to supreme blessedness. [...]

One of the most familiar expressions of the Golden Age occurs in Greek mythology, formally defined by Hesiod (fl. ca. 700 B.C.E.). In a series of ages, each worse than the previous, the first was the Golden Age, in which 

[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.

The same theme is taken up by Plato, Virgil and Ovid. According to Hesiod, the Golden Age came to an end with Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods and Pandora’s opening of her fateful box. Others (most famously Virgil and Ovid), developing this theme, placed the location of the Golden Age in the Greek region of Arcadia – an idea which retains some of its linguistic symbolism even today.

Lucas Cranach the Elder: The Golden Age
The ideas concerning the lives of the original humans contained in these accounts are very similar to those lived by Adam and Eve in Eden, before the temptation by the serpent, the eating of the fruit and the expulsion from the Garden. Many have the theme of this perfect existence being ended by a calamitous mistake on the part of one or more human individuals, though sometimes the jealousy of or strife among the gods is the cause.

Beautiful as many of the stories, and particularly their literary expressions are (I love, for example, the image of God walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening [Gen. 3:8]), they have absolutely no basis whatsoever in anything which we can call historical fact. Not only did Eden not exist, historical anthropology presents us with no evidence which would in any way support a thesis that humans at any stage in their development were any more noble, peaceful, altruistic, etc. than they are today. On the contrary, they lived for shorter periods, suffered more illnesses and were much more likely to die younger – and as a result of violence perpetrated by their fellows.

Apart from creationist fundamentalists, who take the Old Testament as literal history, hardly anyone today – and this includes the vast majority of thinking Christians – seriously questions the general scientific explanation of the gradual evolution of humans from primate stock in Africa through various species up to the emergence of homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago, reaching full behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago (though, of course, most of the more detailed accounts of particular developments are hotly discussed among scholars). The archaeological evidence – as well as all of the earliest accounts of historical developments – strongly suggest that, behaviourally, humans have always been generally the way they still are today; a mixture of kindness and cruelty, egoism and altruism, selfishness and solidarity, tenderness and brutality. We have always been subject to pain, illness, suffering and death.

In short, I can see no reason for positing a vision of pre-fall humanity, a perfect, sinless community of early humans, behaving the way God had originally created them to be and thus not subject to all the miseries, the grounds for which can be found in some kind of “original” sin.

But if this is the case, then a major part of the foundation for conventional Christian theology falls away. For if humanity did not fall, then how can it be re-deemed? The very idea of redemption (including the Latin root re + emere, to purchase back) implies that something or someone is reclaimed, ransomed out of a negative situation in which it was not originally but into which it had, for some particular reason, been transported. And this idea is central to the concept of Christianity from its very origins, including the whole theology of Paul – who formulates the centre of the meaning of the “Christ-event” in the letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Sin is that which separates humanity from its loving creator. And if the loving God had created humanity for ultimate unity with him, then the circumstances which obstruct this destiny must be the responsibility of humanity – sin and all its negative results cannot be the work of God. On the contrary, the life, suffering, death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God serve as an unparalleled signal of the unconditional greatness of divine love and forgiveness, despite the clear guilt of humanity before the tribunal of divine justice.

This view of the redemptive role of Christ is most central in the Christian notion of the crucifixion as sacrifice, the Lamb of God offering himself freely as propitiation on the altar of divine justice to take away the sins of the world and thus ransom fallen humanity.

But there is no evidence that humanity ever fell. The myths of the Golden Age, the ideas of us once having enjoyed a “perfect” existence have no basis in historical fact; rather, I would suggest, they are results of a conceptual generalisation of a very human psychological tendency; to edit our memories so as to remember the high points, our tendency to idealise the past through nostalgia, to hearken back to “the Good Old Days.”

It may well be possible to find other wells of human meaning within the Christ-event – it has proved a fertile mine of themes for all sorts of human inspiration (positive and negative) over two thousand years. Jesus (or Christ) can perhaps be seen as a signal for the future, for human possibility, as the ultimate destiny of human nature. And such themes and memes are also present within Christianity. But the central pillar of a sinful humanity – ultimately responsible, even if only through some kind of genetic inheritance, for its own erring from the way God planned for it – does not hold up. We “sin” because we are “imperfect,” because we are a mixture of positive and negative impulses; and this is our basic nature and always has been since our earliest emergence as a species. It is, in fact, the necessary consequence of the very freedom we have to choose, which is the basis for any theory of moral responsibility we care to put forward. And because we are not perfect – because our whole universe, in this sense, is not perfect – it is inevitable that the results of such freedom to choose will often be negative (“sinful”) rather than positive.

Without the “Fall,” then, one of the integral arguments regarding the meaning of the Christ-event collapses. In this case, Christianity stands before a radical intellectual challenge to theologically redefine itself.

Paradise is here was made famous by Tina Turner, but the song was composed by the Irish singer-songwriter, Paul Brady - and his version is well worth listening to:

[i] It can, of course, be argued that militant anti-theists like Richard Dawkins are also not particularly polite when dealing with issues of religious belief and I accept that there is some truth in this. There is also frequently legitimacy in many of the claims that that some of the aspects of religion attacked by “aggressive” atheists can be rejected as parodies of that which many Christians, particularly thinking ones, believe – often positions taken by fundamentalists of one stripe or another. Yet this does not, in my view, excuse Christian apologists using the same sort of tactics, though this mutual lobbing of grenades from well defended ideological trenches is all too frequently a characteristic of debates between believers and non-believers.

The original video of the interview in which Murphy O’Connor made this statement is no longer available on YouTube, having been removed because it “violated YouTube’s Terms of Service,” whatever that means. The transcript goes as follows:

Roger Bolton – a lot of church leaders speaking on national matters sound rather defensive but you’ve gone on the attack because you’ve talked about secularists having an “impoverished understanding of what it is to be human” they might find that quite offensive mightn’t they?

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor – I think what I said was true, of course whether a person is atheist or any other...there is in fact, in my view, something not totally human, if they leave out the transcendent. If they leave out an aspect of what I believe everyone was made for, which is, uh, a search for transcendent meaning, we call it God. Now if you say that has no place, then I feel that it is a diminishment of what it is to be a human, because to be human in the sense I believe humanity is directed because made by God, I think if you leave that out then you are not fully human.

There is a lot of discussion as to what exactly the Cardinal meant to say about atheists here – I think everyone can agree that his choice of wording was, to say the least, unfortunate.

Pictures retrieved from:


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