Monday, March 24, 2014

Thoughts on the Fall of Man: How Low Did We Go?

How low did we go when we blunderwent our primordial calamity, or whatever you want to call it? Probably better not to name it at all, which is what Joyce did(n't) in the Wake. Rather, just describe it empirically and call it what you will, since you will anyway.

But whatever it is, it shadows man all through history, both individually and collectively. It's what causes this nightmare from which we are trying to awaken. Or, it is the net we are attempting to fly through. Apparently it can't be done -- like surpassing the speed of light or kissing your elbow.

Wisdom consists first and foremost in knowing this, for if you don't, you are about to reenact a very old myth or to invent a whole new way of falling on your face -- and thus serve as a cautionary lesson to others. The best you can hope for is to have the myth named after you, like ignominious pratfallers such as Prometheus, Pandora, Narcissus, or Icarus.

"In Christian theology, the fall of man is a term used to describe the transition of the first man and woman from a state of innocent obedience to God to a state of guilty disobedience."

The term, of course -- like Trinity -- is not found in the Bible, and if I am not mistaken, the whole idea of "original sin" is foreign to Judaism. I mean, they accept the wisdom of the myth, but they do not take it to mean that man is so hopelessly corrupted and steeped in sin that he can't get out of his own way.

So there is a range of possible lessons one may derive from the myth, which is proved by the manner in which different Christian denominations interpret it. If we place them in a left-right continuum, reader Nomo would be situated at the extreme right. He maintains that the fall leaves us thoroughly depraved in "all areas of our being, body, soul, spirit, mind, emotions, etc.," and that even the intellect -- which is obviously designed to know truth -- cannot do so, which is "One of the purposes for the revealed truth of scripture." In other words, if you think, then you're wrong.

In support of the latter, he cites Acts 17:11, where Paul is preaching to a group of Jews, reasoning "with them from the Scriptures." So it seems self-evident to me that he is employing his powers of reason in conjunction with revelation (which is the very definition of theology), but we'll let that go. Anyway, it says that Paul succeeded in persuading some of them, presumably based upon the "suffering servant" motif (Christians regard the servant as Jesus, whereas Jews identify the servant as Israel).

Later in the chapter our boys are preaching to another synagogue, where the members again listen to Paul's pitch and search the scriptures to check its plausibility. Some accept it, others reject it. Same scripture, mind you. Verticalisthenics is hardly analogous to math or logic, the latter of which indeed function to test and cleanse our untrustworthy intellect. Rather, there's more than one way to scan a catechesis, or there wouldn't be so many interpretations and denominations.

It seems to me that the fall is primarily located in the will, not the intellect. This would explain how, for example, 20th century man could know so much more than his predecessors, and yet, be an even bigger assoul. Nomo cites Romans 3 in support of the rotten-to-the-core thesis. Paul is pretty fired up, but I would still see it as mainly reproaching the will. I'm no Bible wiz, but it seems to me that you have to appreciate the context, as he's saying that even exact conformity to Jewish law -- right deeds -- won't save you. I doubt that many contemporary Jews believe this anyway. Maybe some ultra-Orthodox.

Let me get back to that Wiki article. It says that "For many Christian denominations the doctrine of the fall is closely related to that of original sin. They believe that the fall brought sin into the world, corrupting the entire natural world, including human nature, causing all humans to be born into original sin..."

This I do not buy -- i.e., that sin is rooted in our DNA, as it were -- unless we take it to mean that there is something about human nature that makes the will -- free will -- problematic.

Situated to the left of Nomo would be Orthodox Christianity, which "accepts the concept of the fall but rejects the idea that the guilt of original sin is passed down through generations, based in part on the passage Ezekiel 18:20 that says a son is not guilty of the sins of his father." I am on board with the these ancient Christians, who never forget that man is still in the image of Creator, even if he does everything in his power to soil the mirror.

Ah, this I can use: "Catholic exegesis of Genesis 3 claims that the fall of man was a 'primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.'"

I can use this because another way of saying it is that history -- whatever that is -- begins with the Fall. Therefore, it is not just an indictment of man, but a metaphysical principle we may use to understand both history and the direction of time (which amount to the same thing).

That is, there is no history in the absence of the will, which is to say, human freedom. Prior to the emergence of freedom, there is only prehistory: physics, or chemistry, or biology. But the first "human" who makes a free choice is the first human, fool stop, and in so doing he initiates this mess called history. Thus, the origin of history is again in the will.

So if we tweak Genesis 3 a bit, it's a theory of historiography, or of historogenesis. You could say that history runs on free willpower, but often degenerates to plain willfulness.

At any rate, if the Fall primarily affects the will, then that is where the cure must lay. I've heard Dennis Prager mention that Jews do not condemn a person for having "evil thoughts," any more than we are guilty for the deeds we do in our dreams. Rather, they focus on outward behavior, on the will. It matters not what you think or how you feel, but what you do.

At antipodes to this is contemporary leftism, in which it only matters how one feels, not what one actually does. Thus, Obama can immiserate the poor, wreck the healthcare system, stick it to blacks, explode the debt, aggravate income inequality, and make us Putin's bitch, so long as his heart is in the right place. However, the rest of us can see that his will is in the wrong place, and that is what counts.

Ironically, there is a parallel between the Obama view and the Nomo view, in that both presume that we do not know -- and cannot know -- what is good for us, so we need outside intervention (as always, leftism is a Christian heresy). (To be clear: I agree that we need outside intervention, but that we must accept it in freedom, i.e., with the will.)

In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin writes of how, for the leftist, it is acceptable to "coerce men in the name of some goal... which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt."

And, "once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies" and to bully or oppress or sic the IRS on them. I do this "on behalf of their 'real' selves," secure in the knowledge that if they weren't in a state of sin, they would behave exactly as I wish them to behave. So, it's good for them.

So, we're back to time, freedom, and history. If we only remove your freedom to choose -- say, your doctor or school or means of self-defense -- we can finally stop this damn thing called history. Or, as the Marxists say, real history can finally get underway.

"In the name of what," asks Berlin, "can I ever be justified in forcing men to do what they have not willed or consented to?" Answer: "Only in the name of some value higher than themselves" -- or in other words, something more precious and valuable than mere human beings. In this view, it is acceptable to treat human beings as means to this higher end, an end which only the elect -- the already saved -- can know.


julie said...

One more time...


I've heard Dennis Prager mention that Jews do not condemn "evil thoughts," any more than we are guilty for the deeds we do in our dreams. Rather, they focus on outward behavior, on the will. It matters not what you think or how you feel, but what you do.

I would agree with this, but only to a point. That is, of course it is the actions that matter, certainly inasmuch as it pertains to our dealings with others, but what goes on the mind also matters, very much.

There was a time, many years ago, when I had convinced myself that thoughts didn't matter. Initially, it was very freeing, but almost inevitably it leads one into some very wrong places. After all, if thoughts don't matter because nobody else sees them, as it were, then what we do when nobody's looking (so long as it doesn't affect anybody else, one might say) can hardly matter, either.

Even if we don't allow our runaway thoughts to cause us to act contrary to the rules of moral behavior, they are often problematic.

Gagdad Bob said...

Concur: "The basic sin, the original sin, is precisely this self-deification, this apotheosizing of the will."

julie said...

Incidentally, speaking of the ineveateapple, it occurred to me to wonder this weekend how things might have turned out if Adam had told her "no" when she offered him a bite...

Gagdad Bob said...

Julie: Prager would agree that our feelings do indeed matter, but only to us, not the rest of the world. The world only cares if we behave ourselves.

julie said...

Then why pray?

julie said...

And granted, I do agree that in our interactions with the world, he's correct as far as that goes. I just don't think it goes very far. Whitewashed tombstones come to mind...

Gagdad Bob said...

Prager is preoccupied with human evil. If people only mastered their lower or evil impulses, this would be close to paradise, even if the impulses remain. It's good to value self-mastery and self-domination, because it is a way of honoring the higher. But the left honors self-expression instead of self-mastery, and we can see where that leads.

Gagdad Bob said...

The left treats the conscience like a foreign invader, a mind parasite.

Gagdad Bob said...

I suppose we could say that to be human is to have a fractured will at odds with itself, if only because different levels of consciousness have different agendas.

julie said...

Fair enough, and of course he's absolutely correct about mastering evil impulses.

But even the law recognizes the importance of thought - for instance, in the distinction between "murder" and "kill". One is a grave evil, the other is more like a terrible consequence.

julie said...

Or here's a more ordinary situation, which I've been struggling with for a while now: potty training.

I had never appreciated just how much a battle of wills it is, and how much an exercise in self-mastery on the part of both the parent and the child; actually, far more on the part of the parent than the child. But it is almost purely a matter of thoughts and perception, and it almost inevitably spills out into other areas of life and behavior.

Gagdad Bob said...

About the latter, that was Freud's point about the anal stage of development. Take it literally or figuratively, but really is a battle of wills over who owns and controls the body, with all sorts of implications.

We tried to let nature take its course with Tristan, but eventually Leslie had to drop the hammer. I remember him sitting on the pot for a couple of hours, in tears, insisting that it was impossible. That is an example of where female strength and stamina exceeds men, because I would have caved. She bribed him with a trip to Toys R Us, so it all worked out in the end... so to speak.

Gagdad Bob said...

He's that way now with food. Very willfully picky eater. No idea why.

julie said...


We've tried the sitting on the toilet for a couple of hours with promises of rewards method. Essentially, there is so far no reward too enticing, and no penalty (that I'm willing to exact; there are days when I fully empathize with my grandmother's practice of making her kids cut their own stick to be beaten with, even though I know how well that worked out for all involved) too great to make him poop on the toilet.

It occurred to me that part of the problem is that with this kid, somehow his thinking on the matter of pooping has to be changed; then and only then will the behavior follow. Unfortunately, I've been (and will of course continue) doing all that it is in my power to do from the outside. The rest has to come from his own mind. Preferably before he becomes a playground pariah.

Re. picky eating, so far we've been able to avoid the food wars, but I suspect that's just a matter of time...

Gagdad Bob said...

I think peer pressure can be important. Once they enter that social world, no kid wants to be the last to be using a diaper, or tie his shoes, or whatever. It's powerful inducement both for better and worse.

julie said...

Re. peer pressure, yes, just so.

And thanks for linking the Barron article; it bangs a gong.

ted said...

On a side note: Robert Barron's series on Catholicism is amazing! Watched slowly over the last few weeks, and it is worth the price of admission.

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, maybe western civilization isn't such a horrible thing after all. I'm sure academia will adjust itself accordingly.

Gandalin said...

Hi Bob,

This is an interesting discussion.

Within the Jewish tradition, it is quite clear from the Prophets, that even the most exacting fulfillment of the commandments is not sufficient unless that fulfillment is infused with the proper intention, the proper spirit as it were. Performance of the commandments, as specified, is a a necessary but not sufficient standard. As Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Jesus goes on to extend the physical performance of the commandments to include very strict teachings on thoughts, feelings, and attitudes: "Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire." And further, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."

This is the work of "building a fence around the Law," which occupied Jesus's rabbinic colleagues for many centuries before and since.

As for having "evil thoughts," and whether we should be condemned for having them, there are different modes of practice that appear quite similarly in a number of different traditions.

When an "evil thought" arises in the mind, there are some who teach that we should fight it, some who teach that we should transform it, and some who teach that we should ignore it and move on. I think you will find teachers of all these ways within the Jewish tradition.

There is no question in my mind, however, that the consequences of actions in the world are of more concern in the Jewish tradition than the consequences of "mere" thoughts - or dreams. But as a (Jewish) poet wrote, in dreams begin responsibilities, and thoughts often lead to actions.

ted said...

The Buddhists take the issue of thought the furthest, as all impressions of the mind have influence. I believe this to be true especially in the subtleties (I can do a nice gesture for someone with an agitated face). Also, the will can take us only so far. When pushed far enough in a stressful situation, it's what is going on internally that is going to be exposed externally.

Gagdad Bob said...

Maybe it's fair to say that one can't stop the thoughts, but one doesn't have to indulge them or make a home for them. That's again where the will comes in.

Gagdad Bob said...

So, just having the thoughts fly through your headspace isn't blameworthy, but, -- as I think I said in the book -- building a giant airport and landing strip for them is. Blameworthy, I mean.

Gandalin said...

Hi Bob

I think you are exactly right about that.

Gagdad Bob said...


While I have your attention, the Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash certainly appears worth having, no? Looks like an endless source of wisdom, but I don't know enough.

julie said...

Bob @ 3:00, agreed.

Or perhaps another way to think of it is the distinction between that which is Caesar's and that which is God's. The two need not be mutually exclusive; rather, ideally, they would be complementary. But while we're in the world, it is our actions which matter to those around us, since our actions are the only way we can be known.

And while we're playing the parable game, there's the one about the two sons, the one who said "I won't," but then did, and the one who said "I will," but then didn't. In that case, clearly the actions took precedence.

Rick said...

It certainly is tempting to not blame myself for my thoughts. That much I know.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Fascinating post and discussion.
Note to self: stop constructing errports.

Rick said...

Don't let the Fokkers get you down.

Gandalin said...

Hi Bob,

You always have my attention, every day, even though you often discuss things about which I feel I have little or nothing to add.

Chaim Nachman Bialik's recension of the aggadic literature is a landmark of modern Hebrew literature and an excellent way to become acquainted with the lore collected over about a millenium of wide-ranging spiritual discussions.