Cookie Permissions

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Trouble in the Garden

The story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden which is rehearsed in the Orthodox Church on Cheesefare Sunday just before the beginning of Great Lent raises the issue again of how we make sense in Christian terms of the Fall in the light of what we know now about hominid evolution. I believe that the Fathers can shed some useful light on these issues which may be an unusual insight for some since these teachers lived in an age that knew nothing of Darwin and microbiology!

Eden is about immortality and its loss or rather we should say that the Fathers of the Church held that the potentiality for immortality could have been fulfilled in Eden through obedience, (which in this context means loving fellowship with God, not craven submission but the responsibility of intimacy), but in fact this potential was tragically not realised. That's the post-fall point about the skins to cover the couples' nakedness and their need to hide from from God.

So the Orthodox insist, contrary to much Christian teaching elsewhere, that there WOULD have been a time when humanity matured through intimacy with God to the point when the fruit of both trees could be eaten .... which in Orthodox terms is deification. Satanic temptation always works with a TRUTH (you will be like God) upon which the lie (from the Liar - the Devil) is parasitic ... "take a short cut instead ... cut Him (that is God) out." The expulsion from Eden was actually for human protection, not imposed as a punishment, so that the curse of this alienation and loss from God would not have become embedded for all eternity in death. Christ, undoes that curse through his death and resurrection and so now, through repentance, we may obtain the blessing .... that is to EAT of both fruits .... which of course is the Eucharist. There is ample patristic evidence for all of this.

Listen to St. Irenaeus:-

"Man was a little one, and his discretion still undeveloped, wherefore also he was easily misled by the deceiver."

Listen to St. John Chrysostom:-

"Partaking of the tree, the man and woman became liable to death and subject to the future needs of the body. Adam was no longer permitted to remain in the Garden, and was bidden to leave, a move by which God showed His love for him … he had become mortal, and lest he presume to eat further from the tree which promised an endless life of continuous sinning, he was expelled from the Garden as a mark of divine solicitude, not of necessity."

[Hom. in Gen XVIII, 3 PG 53 151]

Listen to St. Cyril of Alexandria :-

"Adam had heard: ‘Earth thou art and to the earth shalt thou return,’ and from being incorruptible he became corruptible and was made subject to the bonds of death. But since he produced children after falling into this state, we his descendents are corruptible coming from a corruptible source. Thus it is that we are heirs of Adam’s curse."

[Doctrinal Questions and Answers, IX, 6 in Cyril of Alexandria, Selected Letters]

St. Irenaeus again ...

"God the Son became Man in order to regather in Himself the ancient creation, so that He might slay sin and destroy the power of death, and give life to all men."

[Against the Heresies, III, xix 6 ANF]

and finally the fruit of redemption in St. Macarius ...

"the inner being of believers who through perfect faith are born of the Spirit shall reflect as in a mirror the Glory of the Lord, and are transfigured into the same image from Glory to Glory."

The patristic witness to the truth of the Incarnation and its attestation in Scripture is clear. We were created neither to be dumb, nor infantile, not repressed by guilt, nor fearing punishment, nor oppressed by the devil or anything dark. We were created to achieve the fullness of Christ, the maturity of the Lord of Glory .... yes, knowing both good and evil and partaking in eternal life .... BUT NOT WITHOUT GOD. THAT's Hell.

Finally, how is this all compatible with what we know about the evolution of life and the human species in particular?

Let us consider how myth works:-

(1) Myth is not falsehood. It is a way of telling a truth.
(2) The myth may reference a key event or events from which this truth is itself extracted.
(3) The mythological overlay is the imaginative "wrapping" ... it has no necessary permanence as a vehicle for telling that truth.

So, in the myth of the Minotaur we probably have an historical place, (Knossos Palace, Crete) and geopolitical historicity, (the breaking of Athenian-Minoan tributary relations) ... but the mythic story itself is not historical, albeit that it references a historical events and truths.

Applying the same genre logic to Genesis in the light of hominid evolution we may legitimately and gainfully speculate that at some point in the development of our species conscious moral agency became a critical aspect of human social and spiritual relations. THAT is when the realisation dawned in the human psyche that things were not as they should have been.

This is often characterised in human mythology as the loss of a Golden Age (approximating to Augustinian Christian theodicy) or the inability of humans to ascend to the gods (approximating to the Irenaean Christian theodicy). The persistence of this sense of loss and restoration (fall and redemption) in many different religions (perhaps persisting in the Jungian collective subconscious) underscores the universal importance of the truth(s).

The difference the Incarnation makes is that God does something about it! He comes and unites the human to the divine and offers the possibility again of immortality .... but we still have to repent and we still have to grow in Him. Now, however, the curse of death is removed and by the Cross we have access to eternal life (the Resurrection).


James the Thickheaded said...

I've never been interested enough in Evolution to do much reading there. The misuse of it through time by the Nazis and others... is enough to dampen most folks enthusiasm. So I know just enough to be dangerous.

In that event, I would wonder whether you can address the extent to which Revelation and Evolution agree that man as a species changes, but that the first is focused on the spiritual while the latter on the physical. And perhaps then the key distinction lies in Evolution's insistence that personal change is not seen, or at least doesn't matter... unless it is transmitted from generation to generation by blood or other transmission. Here, Revelation makes clear there are "no Grandchildren in Christ" so it isn't DNA.. and yet it is transmitted by a different means. This transmission is transformation...something it'd probably be helpful to distinguish from physical birth. Funny how this really does put you closer to the two... so that the layout of evolution without the background of Christianity seems virtually impossible as a concept.

There is agreement of a sort and yet many difference. Spiritual conditions do ensue both from the Fall and the Incarnation. In this sense, Revelation's "change" is overtly personal... something the individual's will plays a unique role in accomplishing through its participation by Grace (precise technical phrasing probably needs some clean-up here)... and in this way, it stands apart from the changes of Evolution in which the human will plays no part... only the physical genetics matter.

And yet the Incarnation has physical ramifications and is not intended to be strictly spiritual. These ramifications include those attested to by relics, as well as "changes" whereby the soul which lives in Christ changes the physical appearance of the body... just as surely as someone's face "lights up" when they see their beloved. But I think there's much more that could be developed here if one had the time and the care to not rush past key elements I've obviously left out, but this is at least a toe-hold.

So I wonder that in fact the Christian is a "new man", a new species... but one for which the instrumentation of measured change is for the most part beyond our ken in the sense that the scientist is interested when studying Evolution. We, too, have our "rules of evidence" that we use in ascertaining whether someone may or may not have been a saint, but these are necessarily exclusive rather than inclusive... and gather only the "obvious" subset. The fuller sample is known only to God... as to that which by Grace is transformed.

You've taken a step here, so I wondered whether, if poked and prodded, someone with your background might push it further into a way of developing and understanding the differences so as to might remove some of the traditional animosities many still seem to feel lie within the discussion of the two disciplines... and restore a balance between them which could better illuminate our condition. Maybe there's a good book on this? If nothing else, it would certainly help to know whether your experience supports the notion that this sort of vector could afford a better dialog when the question comes up.

Thanks! My apologies for the long response to your excellent post. Thank you for writing.

Father Gregory said...

This is a very useful contribution James and I would share your perspective. I think that evolution cannot simply and only be described in terms of genetics because arguably now "homo sapiens" is steering its own destiny through a conscious desire not only to fiddle with the genome but also in our environmentally conditioned evolutionary push towards different and enahnced mental capabilities, (the brain being an organ driven by its own use more rapidly I suspect than, say genetic selection for high blood oxygen absorption at higher altitudes). (Sorry for the long sentence!)

So I suspect that human spiritual development will have a physical component both naturally and grace induced. The two trajectories are perhaps now revealed for what they are ... distinct but interactive.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. I thought that you might be able to address this question: How are we to understand death? It seems that according to Genesis, the fathers, and subsequently reflected in our liturgical texts that death is seen as the enemy. It is a result of the fall. Yet for those who do not look at the book of Genesis in a strictly historical way, it seems that there must have been death before humans ever arrived on the seen. So if death existed before "the fall" how can we say that death is the enemey and the result of the fall? I would appreciate your thoughts.
- Father Alex

Father Gregory said...

Dear Father Alex

I have addressed this important question more extensively here ...

Fr. Gregory

Rkbrookescyp said...

Have rally appreciated this post - will be quting chunks in my sermon tonight. Will be in MAnchester in a couple of weeks - I hope to drop by and at least try to find the church - we shall be in Longsight or Gorton

Popular Posts