In his introduction to today's lead commentary Ian Elmer labels this commentary as a "thought experiment". As editor of Catholica, I think it is both a good one and a successful one. To me it might even rank as one of the most perceptive and valuable commentaries we've yet published on Catholica in the last four years. What Ian explores today is deeply foundational stuff about both the nature of God and the nature of the relationship we human beings are called into by the nature of our being. ...Editor
What was the first Sin?
Following on from last week's commentary on the Genesis story of the creation of the first man and woman, I'd like to explore this story further by addressing the issue of the first sin — more often called "Original Sin". Space does not permit a thorough treatment of the doctrine of "Original Sin", and this short commentary is not intended as exposition of the theology of sin and grace. What follows is a personal reflection on the story of the Fall (Gen 3:1-24) as "narrative theology".
As such, this commentary is a "thought experiment": an attempt to answer objections about the modern relevance and applicability of ancient stories such as those found in Genesis.
I am aware that the term "narrative theology" is tolerant of various meanings; and the term is applied to a variety of views that draw, in one way or another, on theories of literature and/or literary genres for theological reflection. Tracing its inspiration back to biblical scholars and theologians in the early 20th century, such as Karl Barth and Richard Niebuhr, the various strands of narrative theology led by the likes of George Lindbeck and Hans Wilhelm Frei have sought to rediscover the essential character of the Bible as a "story" about the human relationship with God, rather than a repository of propositional truths (Ford, 1985).
Narrative theology is founded on the view that Christian theology's use of the Bible should focus on a narrative representation of the faith rather than the development of a set of propositions reasoned from the Scriptures themselves or what is commonly called a "systematic theology" — which is not intended as an either/or situation. Narrative theology can and does provide the building blocks for both systematic theology and biblical theology — i.e. it is an both/and situation whereby we can view scripture as both story and theology.
Narrative theology recognises that "story" or "stories" are fundamental to our acquisition of "truth"; our "world views" are expressed via story. Before we can begin to "systematically" analyse our beliefs we must examine the "story" of that belief. Moreover, it is also true that "people who come to believe in God in a religiously significant way ordinarily do so as the result of being exposed to teachings from religious communities that convey to them a fundamental orienting story that elaborates a particular understanding of what is real, what is important, and what is meaningful" (Holley, 2010: 18).
One embraces a religious affiliation by accepting that the stories of that particular faith-community are "life-orienting" — i.e. the stories make the world "sensible" and personally meaningful. For the believer these stories contain fundamental "truths" about the nature of the world, the meaning of life in general, and the meaning of his or her life in particular.
Sociologists and philosophers who propose to understand "religion as story" typically understand religion, and hence also story, as a means to understanding people's subjectivity, to illumining particular values, and to giving meaning to people's lives. From this perspective, both religion and story provide a counterbalance to modernity's excessive preoccupation with objectivity and scientific facts. The philosopher, David Holley (2010: 3), puts it this way:
"When someone asks a believer, 'Why do you believe in God?' it may not be easy to know how to answer. The answer is unlikely to be a simple piece of evidence that convinces the believer that her experience should be interpreted in the way she does or that her way of life is fitting. Accepting the existence of God in a religiously significant way won't be like adding a hypothesis that there is a hitherto undiscovered moon of some planet ... [for which one might cite] specific [epistemological] evidence ... [W]hile there may be specific experiences that a believer takes as indicators of divine activity, the idea of God permeates the believer's experience at a fundamental level. To point to the evidence, she would need to point to the kind of intelligible order that using a theistic story makes possible. Reasons for accepting the belief will be bound up with whatever considerations have made the story in which the idea of God functions compelling".
From this perspective, religion is significant in reminding people of the value of stories for human life. It helps people understand their own subjectivity, gives their lives meaning, and thus serves as a therapy for overcoming the obsessions of rationalism.
The pursuit of narrative theology has led to a significant epistemological challenge to the modern understanding of what constitutes "historical" or "objective" truth vis-a-vis our approach to such "subjective" enterprises as faith and theology. Some theologians, such as John Milbank, argue that objects and subjects only exist through the complex relations of a narrative. Hence action, personal identity and even what we claim to know are mediated by particular narratives — which remains true of human "understanding" even in today's overtly rationalist intellectual environment. Stories remain the basic explanatory medium for comprehending our existence.
As noted in last week's commentary, the Genesis' story of the Man and Woman in the Garden (Gen 2:4b-3:24) is a very ancient story that is meant to "explain" human suffering and limitation. It is not meant to be read literally — that God punished our first parents for their sin or that we, their descendants are being punished for their sin. Rather, this story "explains" that when relationships break down (i.e. relationships between God and humans, men and women, humans and nature) things go awry.
The cosmic dimensions of this ancient story were first explored by the second-century Church fathers, such as Irenaeus of Lyon, who saw in this story an explanation for how human beings can be both born into a broken world and yet retain free will. The story of the first man and woman, and their first sin, spoke to the human experience of internal tensions between the tendencies to selfishness and/or altruism.
The Church Fathers made the distinction between Adam's and Eve's personal sin and the collective state of "falleness" that was the consequence of that sin. As the Catechism puts it:
"Original sin is called 'sin' only in an analogical sense: it is a sin 'contracted' and not 'committed' — a state and not an act" (CCC 404).
Original sin is not about "collective guilt". We do not bear either the guilt of, or the responsibility for, the sin of Adam and Eve. The doctrine of original sin does not impute "the sins of the father to his children", but merely states that we inherit from our first parents a "human nature deprived of original holiness and justice", which is "transmitted by propagation to all humankind" (CCC 404).
Behind this doctrine stands the motif of the "fall from innocence", a common theme in many ancient narratives and one which underpins both the particular story of the Fall found in Genesis 3:1-24 and the overarching total story of the Bible.
In the Biblical cosmos, human history begins in innocence and then descends into tragedy, eventually to rise to a happy ending for those who accept God's offer of salvation. Within this overall U-shaped plot, a series of "falls" constitute a powerful witness to the awful depths of moral failure compared to the purity of God manifested in created beings, both angelic and human (Ryken, et al. 2000:262).
In the story of the Man and Woman in the Garden, the human protagonists seek "to be like gods" (Gen 3:5) via the consumption of the fruit from "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" — an act that was expressly forbidden by YHWH (Gen 2:9). The actual "sin" consists of disobedience; but it includes also the aspiration to exceed the bounds God has established for his creatures.
The Fall is immediate upon eating the forbidden tree, as the man and woman realise that they are naked (Gen 3:7) and fear the sound of God walking in the garden (Gen 3:8). The impulse to cover themselves and to hide from God embodies the essential change that has occurred, encompassing shame, self-consciousness, the experience of loss and the awareness of separation from God.
From that point onwards, the authors of the Genesis' primeval history (Gen 1-11) note how the human attempt to be "like gods" leads to entranced social evils, men dominate women, siblings murder each other, humans misuse earth, and nations can no longer communicate with each.
In the New Testament, commentary on the Fall story views the sin of the man and woman as the original and prototypical Fall, the cause of all subsequent falls and, ultimately, the reason why humans are destined to die (Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:21–22). Moreover, the fallen nature of humanity is reflected in the tendency to fall over and over again into "the snare of the devil" (1 Tim 3:7), or to "fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction" (1 Tim 6:9).
In the biblical view, the story of the Fall (and, by extension, the later doctrine of original sin) retains a strong mythic quality that speaks to human inadequacy and limitation — inadequacies and limitations that can, if unchecked by recourse to God, lead to sin, depravity and tragedy. Both the story of the Fall and the concept of original sin evolved out of the shared experience of being limited humans as well as the shared experience of being totally dependent upon God for redemption and salvation from those limitations — which brings us to the issue of redemption.
The stories told by Jesus seem to be built upon the foundation of the Fall. His parables abound with "a veritable gallery of ordinary people who fall from actual or potential grace either in this life or in the life to come: a slothful servant who receives some of his master's property but loses his master's favor through timidity; invitees to a banquet who are rejected by the giver of the banquet when they refuse the invitation; a self-righteous Pharisee who leaves a prayer session condemned; a rich man who ignored the plight of a beggar at his gate and whose fortune is reversed in the afterlife; an enterprising farmer whose complacent plans for retirement are dashed on the eve of the completion of his building project" (Ryken, 2000: 263).
While Jesus' stories are seldom about falls from innocence, but rather falls from prosperity and favour, they speak of the nature of redemption. Inherent to these stories is a worldview that sees the political and social order as skewed and sinful; where humans have overstepped the bounds of divine ordinance and usurped authority from God. In Mark (10:42-45), Jesus critiques the present social structures:
"You know that among the unbelievers those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Jesus' eschatological vision was of a new world order where all previous hierarchies and social relationships would be turned upside-down. Jesus was the ultimate iconoclast, who would challenge all self-made "idols" to empty themselves and become "slaves" (cf. Phil 2:7). As N. T. Wright put it eloquently, Jesus preached a "kingdom of nobodies".
Paul also saw radical egalitarianism as key to the Christian message and proclaimed an "ekklesia" where there would be a whole "new creation", which would destroy all distinctions between "Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Man and Woman" (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; cf. Rom 10:12). What is being perceived here is a reversal of the escalation of sinfulness that came about as a result of the Fall. For Paul, Jesus was the "new Adam".
In Philippians 2:6-11, a passage that is commonly called the "Kenosis Hymn" or the "Carmen Christi", Jesus is presented as the New Adam, the template for the men and women of the new creation, whose self-emptying would be rewarded by resurrection and exaltation.
At the outset of that hymn, Paul exhorts the Philippians to have the "same mind" as Christ "who while he was in the form of God did not consider divinity something to be grasped" (Phil 2:6). Instead, Jesus (and by following his example, we must) "empty" himself (ourselves) so as to be filled with God. Paul saw clearly that the Incarnation cannot be understood apart from redemption and liberation — and neither Incarnation nor redemption can be considered in isolation from the creation story.
The process of the divine kenosis or "self-emptying" is one that begins with creation and reaches its fullest expression in the Incarnation. The omnipotent and omnipresent divine being had to "empty" him or herself to "make way" for the creation, to allow it space and independence to grow and evolve. John Polkinghorne (1994: 104) explores this further by musing:
"God interacts with the world but is not in total control of all its processes. The act of creation involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other, and there is a consequent kenosis of god's omnipotence. The curtailment of divine power...arises from the logic of love, which requires the freedom of the beloved."
God "emptied" the divine being for the beloved so that through the divine kenosis God could call the beloved into a loving relationship, which is both personal and cosmic. Part of Jesus' majesty, his divinity and cosmic significance if you will, was found in his complete kenosis, his total self-emptying so as to be filled utterly with God. He was the perfect empty vessel or unformed potter's clay and, hence, he became the spark to ignite a "new creation" as Paul would have it.
The masterfully artistic, fourth-century Church Father, Ephrem the Syrian, captured this well in his Christological poetry, of which the following is one of my favourite "grabs":
Divinity flew down and descended
In this stanza, the "he" seems to apply to both the Son and the servant, both the Christ and humanity. This reflects the Judeo-Christian interpretation of the Fall, whereby the man and woman in the garden sought to "be like gods" (Gen 3:5; cf. Phil 2:6).
According to traditional understanding of the Genesis story of the fall, the fundamental flaw in the human character is the desire to "be like gods"; to be "idolised" and worshipped"; to have power and wealth. The irony inherent in the wider biblical story, however, is that God redeems us by becoming a limited created being "like us" so that we will become "like God" in a process that the pre-Nicene fathers, like Origen and Athanasius, called theosis or theopoiesis — which are loosely translated as divinisation or "god-making" (better translated by the curious verb "Godding").
The term theopoiesis originally had to do with idol making — making gods. It was also used of Roman Emperors who claimed divinity. So there is an inherent irony in the patristic use of this ancient term to describe the process by which we turn from our false gods to become like the one true God.
For Athanasius it was for the purpose of theosis that God became human in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. In his oft quoted adage, Athanasius claimed that "God became human that humanity might become divine"; or, literally, "God humaned so that humans might God".
Jesus is the product of God "humaning" and we enter into Jesus' relationship with father by "Godding". Theosis is not simply a matter of sharing abstract divine attributes, but about "being" divine through union with God. For this reason, Jesus did not exercise the divine attributes of omnipotence and omniscience; but he was one with God in being. And we too are called to enter into the intimacy of that divine relationship, which effectively re-creates the idyllic relationship that the man and woman of Genesis 2 shared with God in the garden.
Such talk of God "humaning" and humans "godding" seems nonsensical and hardly theological. But I would argue it speaks to our experience of sin and redemption. It sums up eloquently the "life-orienting story" that founds our faith in the God of our Bible stories, who is nothing like the God of the philosophers: absolute and impersonal, omnipotent and omniscient. The biblical stories of God are those of an involved and suffering God who acts in history.
The Hebrew Scriptures present God, not just as a God of inscrutable justice, meting out punishment on the evil doers, but of a God of mercy and compassion, who constantly forgives injustice and disobedience, seeks out the lonely, lost and marginalised, and counsels his people to look after the poor, the widows and orphans, and the strangers. Similarly, the Christian Scriptures speak of a God incarnate, who models goodness, welcomes the poor, alleviates sickness, practices charity, and suffers death because he dares challenge the corruption and evil of the day.
According to this story, the world came forth as a result of the divine kenosis, a self-emptying that allows both the existence and the freedom of "the other" — a "freedom", moreover, that allowed the possibility of the Fall and the advent of evil. God did not create a "perfected" world; but one that could only find fulfilment in union with the divine. On this view, God does not control human history or even the natural world, but enters human history to call and empower humans to achieve higher and better things.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
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©2010Dr Ian Elmer