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:


  1. I guess in my view is that "the fall" was humans becoming meta aware and developing complex language & getting very sophisticated at thinking and planning things. These tools, when not coupled with compassion, serve only to magnify the forces of nature and bring about suffering, especially of the emotional variety. Before that peeps just went around looking for food and mating and sometimes somebody met a horrible but usually quick end and that was all right.

  2. Your summary is pretty good and clear, in my view. I don’t have any problem with what Murphy O’Connor said and I don’t think anyone else ought to have either. For if you are an atheist then you would expect someone in his position to put you somehow in the wrong. Of course I would not say it myself, but I know what he means to say, that secularists have “an impoverished understanding of what it is to be human”. He is not accusing them of being less than human, but not quite having the full grasp of what they have been given. And I would agree with him that the missing thing is “the search for transcendent meaning”.

    My own position today is probably rather like yours - able to dispense with religion and faith in a God. But still I can understand the theist position easily, and the militant atheist position hardly at all.

    But then I am firmly convinced of strict limits to reason’s ability to hunt out any overarching truth about life, the universe and everything. We unlike other animals need complex reasoning ability to survive and thrive in our human world. But it’s a pretty useless tool for giving meaning to one’s own life. Those who think otherwise are not much less deluded than other kinds of fundamentalist.

    As for the topic of your post, the Fall and the consequent need for redemption, I don’t see the necessity to refute such beliefs unless one is personally escaping from enmeshment in them. But I acknowledge that this escape involves a process of much longer duration than the reasonable mind would estimate. I don’t think reason is our main strength at all, and that is why we are constantly vulnerable to various ideas. Because of this, I would make an equivalence between militant atheists and their adversaries.

  3. While I am so incapable of this kind of philosophical thinking, I appreciate and thank you for this because I live, almost as a guest, in a place where people take their Christianity seriously.

  4. As I read your essay I was reminded of a book I enjoyed some years ago and still have in my possession - The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I wonder if you've ever read it?

    He postulated that until just a few thousand years ago human brains were separated into distinct left and right sections that communicated with each other by means of visual and auditory hallucinations which told them how to behave. These commands, originating in each person's own mind, directed behavior much as our own conscious decision making does today. Jaynes argues that this 'bicameral mind' explains why almost all ancient religions feature human beings directly interacting with 'gods' on a regular basis.

    He believed that modern consciousness is just another form of learned behaviour which arose when human society became more complex, and environmental stresses occurred. I particularly enjoyed reading his description of modern consciousness as being like a flashlight beam in a dark cellar. To the viewer (the conscious mind) only the illuminated part of the cellar is visible while most of it remains dark and unperceived. Jaynes points out that it's impossible to be conscious of that which is not in our consciousness - most of our mind and behaviour. According to his reasoning, ancient humans substituted bicameralism for the flashlight beam and thus actually saw their 'gods'.

    His treatment of early literature (ie, the Bible and the Iliad) as history definitely shows some weak points in his theory but he acknowledges there are holes in his proofs that may be resolved later. Nevertheless, his understanding that self-consciousness and the 'I' emerged only a few thousand years ago provides a fascinating way for us to examine our current beliefs and certainly make me wonder what post-consciousness might be like.

    Perhaps modern religions and superstitions are the simply results of the human desire to relive less uncertain times.

    (I hope I didn't drift too far from your topic as I enjoyed reading it as well as leafing through the book again.)

  5. I am a great fan of Richard Dawkins, not such a fan of Christopher Hitchens, but I think that all human beliefs should be subjected to the scrutiny of reason. Referring to "human transcendance" I don't see how this can be accomplished but through the ultimate triumph of reason and to this end I think religion is the greatest obstacle.

    However, I recognise that I do have a sort of faith - a faith in language. It's a remarkable tool that our ancestors have passed down to us, and I don't think that any phenomenon exists in the Universe that can't eventually be expressed through language as humans further develop it (including the language of mathematics and other tools of communicating ideas). The corollary of this idea is that if something can't be expressed in language it means we don't really understand it. I think this is essentially the real meaning of reason - an understanding of something that can be expressed to others and passed throughout humanity and through the ages. Science is but the most rigourous application of reason to difficult to understand phenomena.

    Having said this I find it interesting the passing comment you made about Christianity's teaching through story-telling. Because as an atheist I too can well appreciate the pathos of the creation tale. Although I rather admire the audacity of Adam and Eve taking the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, rebelling against a cruel creator - the blind indifference of natural selection - and seeking to refashion the world in their, in our, own image.

    Of course, I realise that these ideas are rather old-fashioned, there's a reason why most depictions of the Renaissance - the beginning of the Age of Reason - begin with an image taken from the centre of the Catholic World. The fall of mankind was our greatest ever achievement.

  6. It is time for the creation myth to refocus on the strength of Eve's character, Eve, who,in taking a bite out of life and relishing it, challenged all of us to welcome new experiences, to greet life with humor. But then I guess the fear spinmisters need to live also. I love E.E.Cummings line "I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing then teach 10,000 stars how not to dance".

  7. Another excellent essay Francis. Frankly I doubt I could even come close to the standard of analysis.

    The idea of a golden age to compare with the present happens all the time, although on a smaller scale. How many people look back to a mythical time when all was a lot better with the world, when all coppers were ten feet tall and not afraid to give you a clip around the ear.

    I know it is a simplification but is not the golden age of mythology and religion simply that writ large?

  8. Maybe this is not the place for this comment but I imagine it will make you smile.

    Francis, had you remained a Dominican I can well imagine today you would be lecturing around the world on the greatness of Thomas and Dominic and their relevance in our world.

    And the wise Dominicans would be saying what a fine mind our Francis has.

    A funny old world indeed.

    Just a thought.

  9. I think that most pro or anti Christian arguments tend to confuse theism with a politically motivated power game. Examining theistic arguments in isolation rather than in a socio-political context inevitably forces the individual into a position where personal thought, feelings and actions are continually judged by a set of supposed god-given rules set up not by a 'divine' authority but by a political power base designed to suppress the rights, desires and freedom of the individual and to protect the privileges of the ruling minority who use the mechanism of fear and promises to maintain and augment their authority without themselves being subject to it.

  10. Finally, some time to reply to comments!

    Michael, your comment really made me chuckle - though, even if the precise circumstances had been different, I do not think that I would have remained permanently in the Dominican Order; particularly in view of the way the Catholic Church has gone in the past quarter century.

    More generally (and therefore I won't be referring to every comment in particular, since - reading them together once more - they all seem to touch on a few common themes):

    I like the idea of seeing the "Fall" as the realisation of human potential rather than its perversion. It's not a new idea of course; even the old Christian apologist, John Milton, couldn't avoid making Satan (in many ways) the secret hero of Paradise Lost and his comment about it being better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven still resonates.

    Lisa's and Vincent's comments (as well as Akseli's and Susan's), in particular, got me thinking about the theme of discussion between believers and non-believers. Lisa is particularly unfortunate in living in the Bible belt, where a profession of Christian belief seems to usually include a compulsory lobotomy. But there is another Christian tradition - particularly exemplified by a (now somewhat old-fashioned) intellectual rigour, prevelant in England especially up to around fifty years ago with thinkers such as Ronald Knox, Chesterton or C.S. Lewis. This involved a genuine, generally serious engagement with the arguments of those who professed other views.

    I get so tired of useless debates, where all the participants seem to regard themselves as hammers and their opponents as nails! The "new" atheists, above all Hitchins and Dawkins (but also, on occasion, Dennett - whom I otherwise admire greatly - and Frears) also tend to make use of this methodology, mostly, I think, in reaction to the aggressive inanity of Christian fundamentalists.

    An example: The language used by Murphy O'Connor (even if he claims to have been misinterpreted) goes back to a central straw man, continually trotted out by religious apologists - the statement that those who reject a belief in God are impoverished because "they leave out the search for transcendent meaning."

    This is, in very many cases, patently untrue and, more, it is deeply insulting and wounding. Buddhism, for example is a religion/philosophy of life which is fundamentally agnostic regarding the question of God (if not implicitly atheistic). But to claim that Buddhists do not concern themselves with "transcendent meaning" would generally be seen to be absurd.

    Anyone who reads a few of Vincent's posts will recognise a mystic with a deep sense for the transcendent immanence to be found in nature (and he writes about it beautifully as well), who can get along quite well without "God." In my experience, many non-believers have a
    well-developed sense of the deep complexity of the ordinary and find both beauty and wonder in this, as well as finding immense reservoirs of significance and joy in "things" like love and beauty.

    Why should we (à la Murphy O'Connor and others) have to identify the transcendent with the concept of a personal deity?

  11. Francis, your comment so perfectly states my position on this. While I don't feel the need to worship a god or to call upon a deity in times of need, I leave others to do what they must or will or want to. What I want is to be left to my way and to leave them to theirs and to not have the implied stuff that I'm lacking or living with a void.

    Also, thank you for introducing me to Vincent. The circle grows.

  12. This relationship between the story of Adam and Eve and being redeemed by Jesus is a core reason I lost my own faith. I never really believed in a literal Adam and Eve, but never thought that would impact my faith. It was only when I saw the relationship built within the theology -- that if man never fell, there is no need for Christ's sacrifice -- that things started to crumble.

    You may already be familiar, but I'd refer you to John Shelby Spong's writing. He wrote a couple of books that summarize the same argument (plus many others) that strike to the core of Christain theology. That's where I first heard this argument put forth.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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