Interpreting Eden

Venus Cassandra quoted yesterday this passage from Bakunin’s God and the State:

Jehovah had just created Adam and Eve, to satisfy we know not what caprice; no doubt to while away his time, which must weigh heavy on his hands in his eternal egoistic solitude, or that he might have some new slaves. He generously placed at their disposal the whole earth, with all its fruits and animals, and set but a single limit to this complete enjoyment. He expressly forbade them from touching the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He wished, therefore, that man, destitute of all understanding of himself, should remain an eternal beast, ever on all-fours before the eternal God, his creator and his master. But here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. He makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him, stamps upon his brow the seal of liberty and humanity, in urging him to disobey and eat of the fruit of knowledge.

Mikhail Bakunin and Ayn Rand This reminded me of a passage from that other Russian radical, Ayn Rand:

What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge – he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil – he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by labor – he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire – he acquired the capacity for sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy – all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was – that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love – he was not man. (Atlas Shrugged, III.7)

Gnostic manuscript Incidentally, many Gnostic sects had a very similar view of the matter. Noticing the contrast between the Bible’s first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1-2:2, in which a god named Elohim creates a perfect universe) and its second creation narrative (Genesis 2:3-3:24, in which a god named Yahweh creates, in somewhat difference chronological sequence, a rather more flawed universe), the Gnostics concluded that Elohim was the true God while Yahweh was the devil – in which case the serpent, bringing the knowledge of their true divine nature to Adam and Eve, was a Christlike emissary of the true God and a Prometheus-like benefactor of humankind. (See, for example, the Nag Hammadi texts Testimony of Truth and Hypostasis of the Archons.)

The move is less odd than it seems, because the parallelism between Christ and the serpent is already present in mainstream Christianity – except that in mainstream Christianity it’s a negative parallelism, with Christ reversing the story of the fall by offering in reality what the serpent offered only a fake version of. If we consider the serpent’s offer – “Ye shall not surely die; for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5) – the similarity to Christ’s offer is apparent:

Adam and Eve get the flaming boot But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God. (John 1:12)

Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life. (John 6:54)

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)

We are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:16-17)

When he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2)

In short, Christ’s message is presented in the New Testament as similar to the serpent’s message except for being genuine. So in taking the connection one step further, the Gnostics weren’t wandering off as strangely as they might seem.

Within contemporary Christianity, the two most interesting takes on the Eden story seem to come from those two quintessentially American denominations, Christian Science and Mormonism. The Christian Science account of Eden strikes me as occupying a position halfway between the mainstream and Gnostic accounts. According to this view the Bible’s first creation narrative represents the “truth of the divine creation,” while the second creation narrative “contains a statement of this material view of God and the universe, a statement which is the exact opposite of scientific truth as before recorded.”

Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian ScienceBut by contrast with both the Gnostic account (which identifies Elohim with God and Yahweh with Satan) and the mainstream account (which takes Elohim and Yahweh to be unproblematically identical), the Christian Science account treats Yahweh as a false or limited conception of Elohim, a “physical sense of God as finite and corporeal” – but still a conception of Elohim. Rather than simply representing a different point of view by a different author (which is what most Bible scholars infer), this second narrative, according to the C.S. interpretation, represents an “allegory … to depict the falsity of error and the effects of error.” So the serpent still represents evil rather than good – an erroneous belief that “God was not omnipotent and that there was another power, named evil, which was as real and eternal as God”; and hence the “knowledge of good and evil” offered by the serpent represents not genuine knowledge but a confused belief that within the divine creation truth and error are equal in reality and power. In short, Jehovah represents a false conception of the divine reality as flawed, while the serpent, together with the spurious knowledge it offers, represents the conception of the flaw itself.

The Mormon view of Eden, by contrast, seems interestingly close to the Randian view, in which physicality, joy, and knowledge of good and evil are benefits that humankind would have lacked had it not been for the fall:

And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.

And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient. (Moses 5:10-11)

In this version, God apparently wants Adam and Eve to disobey him, and his instruction to them regarding the tree is thus curiously equivocal: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Which in turn reminds me irresistibly both of the proverb “God said: ‘Take what you want and pay for it’” (incidentally one of Rand’s favourite sayings) and of Kafka’s “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. And now, I am going to shut it.”

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3 Responses to Interpreting Eden

  1. John Markley January 16, 2008 at 12:39 pm #

    Interesting stuff. I knew some of this, Gnosticism being an interest of mine, but I never knew about the Mormon or Christian Science interpretation.

    I’ve long been struck by how much the prelapsarian state resembles very early childhood, or at least childhood as people often idealize it. Ignorance of morality, sexuality, sorrow, toil, and death. Being taken care of and provided for, without the need for work. A sense of being carefree in your actions that comes from not having a developed concept of shame.

    As a small child, like any kid, I needed a lot of important aspects of life explained to me, and it occurs to me that most of the big ones related to the conditions brought on by the Fall- why I should be nice to people, why dad had to go to work every day instead of staying home and playing with me, why it wasn’t acceptable to wonder around the house with no clothes on when company was over, and that when my goldfish died, it wasn’t coming back.

    Perhaps the story of Eden resonates with people in part because it echoes the course of our lives- we are all born into Eden (or at least people often feel that way when they nostalgically look back), and we all Fall when we gain the often harsh knowledge that comes with starting to grow up. Maybe that’s part of the reason so many cultures and religions have the idea of a lost paradise- Eden, the Satya Yuga, the Golden Age of the Greeks.

    I find your thoughts on religion really interesting. I’m glad you’ve been posting on it lately.

  2. Administrator January 16, 2008 at 1:41 pm #

    Perhaps the story of Eden resonates with people in part because it echoes the course of our lives- we are all born into Eden (or at least people often feel that way when they nostalgically look back), and we all Fall when we gain the often harsh knowledge that comes with starting to grow up. Maybe that’s part of the reason so many cultures and religions have the idea of a lost paradise- Eden, the Satya Yuga, the Golden Age of the Greeks.

    Actually a similar idea occurs in Rand, in the very same chapter I quoted above (though this conception of Eden seems almost the opposite of her other one):

    “Observe the persistence, in mankind’s mythologies, of the legend about a paradise that men had once possessed, the city of Atlantis or the garden of Eden or some kingdom of perfection, always behind us. The root of that legend exists, not in the past of the race, but in the past of every man. You still retain a sense – not as firm as a memory, but diffused like the pain of hopeless longing – that somewhere in the starting years of your childhood, before you had learned to submit, to absorb the terror of unreason and to doubt the value of your mind, you had known a radiant state of existence, you had known the independence of a rational consciousness facing an open universe. That is the paradise which you have lost, which you seek – which is yours for the taking.”

  3. Anna Morgenstern January 16, 2008 at 2:18 pm #

    To further the ideas in these comments, some friends of mine and I posit a “Poison Mythos” which has been constructed by the State, in which the Modern Corporate State substitutes for God, and everything is somewhat reversed:
    The old, mythic age ends at the Great Depression. At this point, FDR, the savior figure, inaugurates the new age of Knowledge. (which would be roughly analogous to Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit” or constructivist rationalism)

    This relates to why Hillary Clinton can say something like “The Democratic Party has always been at the forefront of civil rights and women’s rights.”
    In her mind, history begins with WWII. Even though if questioned, obviously, she would acknowledge that things happened prior to that, mythically, in her deep structures, she’s been programmed to view the world as basically operating according to the Poison Mythos.

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