Thursday, September 21, 2006

Quaker Renewal Part III: The Truth of "The Fall"

So what is the truth, in calling ourselves and our world "fallen"?

First of all, none of us ever becomes that ideal person we once thought we were, and might still want to be. All our efforts in that direction collide with what we will want at other moments.

If we make our ideal more "flexible," make "giving ourselves some slack" a source of self-satisfaction, strive for "balance"--we can only teeter.

We can not simply be, like Adam--perfectly unconcerned with whether he might be developing "fruit addiction," or whether he "should be eating more fruit"--or whether that fruit over there on that tree God said he should stay away from would agree with him, or not.

He could not even wonder, was it wrong of him to wonder what it tasted like? Would it be wrong to disobey God? What did "wrong" mean? He was not even capable of criminal intent! As God points out, "I am not punishing Adam and his descendants for the act, but... rather the fruit in question is poisonous in its own right and its effects, unfortunately, last countless generations." [Smullyan, "Is God a Taoist" from The Tao is Silent ,1977, also available in The Mind's I, Douglas Hofstadter & Daniel C. Dennett,1981]

So what was that poisonous tree--that attractive nuisance--doing in the nursery with God's hapless children? Who let the snake loose in there, unsupervised? Whatever this story means, we can't say it caught God by surprise. We might not like the outcome, but it must have been somehow necessary.

In some interpretations, the snake really gave us wisdom. "The Knowledge of Good and Evil." Some wisdom. Adam looked at the perfect body God had made for him, and "saw that he was naked."

Clothing taboos and fashions, they vary with the climate and the age. Guilt doesn't. Adam's body had been nude from the moment he was created; what he wanted to hide was his self, his ego. Adam's soul was showing; he was afraid to let God see or to look at it himself, and he didn't have a thing to put over it--no new accomplishment to brag about, nothing to say, not a thought or a pain or a story to tell, just juice on his chin and a real bad feeling in his stomach.

He said, "The woman You gave me made me do it." She in turn pointed to the snake. The snake just sat there, saying nothing. We should be so wise.

People can take this sort of fiction, work out "the" meaning, and think they've got the whole nourishment of it. Not so, that chewy fictional husk provides fiber and gravel for the digestive process. The wisdom of ancient people went into their stories as simply and naturally as their scientific and historic misconceptions. If there were only one meaning--like "Original Sin," for example, or "Don't blame others!"--we could dispense with the story, as people lately have been inclined to do.

We were given this story--and not a self-help book, or a theological treatise--because what is meant by "The Fall" is all-pervasive, too complex and too simple to figure out. But it is not a fictional condition.

We can live, mentally, in a no-fault, harm-reduction universe. But not naturally. Coercion, punishment and deterrents are the way of our world. Practices based on such concepts masquerade as "justice," but seldom touch the greatest wrongs, nor ever run out of petty criminals to torment.

The Fall is both personal and collective. You are blessed, if you've never treated anyone unforgivably. You may think you haven't, and then wake up remembering, in the middle of some very long night. God has forgiven you; even the person you wronged has forgiven, but she still remembers and so do you.

Maybe you've avoided that sort of affliction. There are still those myriad institutional wrongs, and while you may have worked against them, in every way you knew, on every occasion that presented itself--They still go on; and you can't even buy a loaf of bread without contributing, in some measure, to their perpetration.

There are two basic elements attributed to this "curse." They constitute the basic conditions of human life, in the world we know. We cause, and undergo, suffering and guilt. And we die.

Death, too, can be considered as a principality. In Stringfellow's schema, remember, death is the ruling power of this world, "greater, apart from God himself, than any other reality in existence."[Free, page 69] "...In the epoch of the Fall, as the Bible designates this scene-every value, every goal, every policy, every action, every routine, every enterprise of each and every principality has the elemental significance of death, notwithstanding any contrary appearances. This is eminently so with respect to nations, for nations are, as Revelation indicates, the archetypical principalities. All other assorted, diverse principalities resemble them, imitate them, and substitute for them.

"All virtues which nations elevate and idolize--military prowess, material abundance, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, high culture, racial pride, trade, prosperity, conquest, sport, language or whatever--are ancillary and subservient to the moral presence of death in the nation. And it is the same with the surrogate nations--the other principalities, like the corporations and conglomerates, ideologies and bureaucracies, and authorities and institutions of every name and description." [Stringfellow, _An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land_, 1973, Word Incorporated, pg 67]

Obviously, to make war is to pay tribute to death. Whether or not we would put it in those terms, Quakers and increasingly many others recognize war as a great evil, and work to stop each war we find our nation pursuing. But all these wars are symptomatic of "death incarnate in society, and not the other way around... The notion has been widespread that the death-purpose evident in the war could somehow be undone if the war could be ended. But that is as false as it is naive; this Indochina war did not sponsor the power of death in American society. The war rather expresses, grotesquely, the moral presence of death which has always been in America, as in other principalities. And the end of the war promises no end, no diminishment even, to that presence."[Ethic pg 70]

That lingering 'presence of death' is far more than our habitual national faith in American military power. "With these creatures, as with human beings, it is never quite possible to express either the whole personality or the multiple attributes and abilities of a principality in a name, much less that of the legion of principalities and powers. The biblical practice of invoking many names or of interchanging various names, when speaking of principalities, is a help in grasping the many-faceted character and versatility of these powers. After all, what is being described and designated is a form of life, a creatureliness, which is potent and mobile and diverse, not static or neat or simply defined by what it may now or then be called. So such names as are used for the principalities, either in the biblical witness or in common talk, are necessarily suggestive, intuitive, emphatic." [pg 79]

Thus what Stringfellow calls 'the presence of death' is involved in such seemingly unrelated, universal human preoccupations as personal wealth, social roles, occupations and positions, everything that might conceivably provide material for an obituary. In practice, we've generally been taught: "Seek first your own material and empirical welfare and you will think you are justified in your existence." That if you "make work your monument, make it the reason for your life, ... you will survive your death in some way, until the monument itself is discarded or crumbles in some other way."[Stringfellow, _Instead of Death_, Seabury Press 1963, page 39] And so our familar American success-worship is intrinsically tied to fears for our survival, especially against the forms of social death: low-wage work, unemployment, homelessness and the various forms of madness that feed on personal failure.

This unexpected connection comes directly from the tale of Eden. Harsh labor and death are the specific consequences of the Fall : "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

"The fallenness of work, the broken relationship between men and the rest of creation which work is, involves both the alienation of men from nature and from the rest of creation, including the principalities and powers. In work men lose their dominion over the principalities and are in bondage to the principalities. Instead of men ruling the great institutions--corporations, unions, and so on--men are ruled by the great institutions. And the claim over a man's life that all principalities make is idolatrous, that is, the claim that the significance and destiny of a man depends upon his service to the survival and preservation of the principality." [ page 42] It is no better to be relegated to "prolonged, enforced idleness," as happens to many in our country. And of course, leisure devoted to filling time is "as much an anticipation of death, as much an enslavement to the world, as work is... The burden of work, which is the threat of death, is neither mitigated nor overcome in the choice of work, in the product of work, in the reward for work, in non-work, in the moral vanity of work." [pg 43-44]

The way out, from this seemingly inescapable futility, is through Christ. "The work of God in Christ is God making the world for Himself." [pg 45]

If your experience of the word 'Christ' has been as a stick sanctimonious people have tried to beat you with, this kind of talk may well make you itch. And what, you might ask, does it mean to be "in" Christ? We are offered an exit, but it's not at all clear, how that door opens.

Furthermore, we have arrived at another false dichotomy. Earlier we brought up the traditional notion of an isolated Bad Self, which could only be fixed by Christ aka everything good in us. Now we're talking about an entirely-fallen world, oppressed by the Powers, which can only be fixed by Christ, aka the work of God toward healing its fallen condition.

But there is one world, not two, and only one God at work throughout.

Before the Fall, remember, God looked at what he had made, and saw that it was good. "The Powers are also no less the good creations of a good God than we are, and they are no more fallen than we." [Unmasking the Powers, Walter Wink, 1986, Fortress Press, pg 96] The world is a better place--at the very least, a more interesting one--for the existence of its manifold variety of beings. If tigers, mountains and storms are beautiful, and also can kill us, so it is with powers or principalities. "Angel", after all, is a word for this same kind of entity. And so is "demon," although early Christians made it a word exclusively for evil spirits. But to their contemporary Jews, these "gods" had been merely various "angels" of other nations, and even the Christians came to acknowledge the "daemon" of Socrates as something basically good.

What makes people describe these entities as 'in rebellion against God' is their demand to be worshiped. This demand is not a simple matter of enjoying little rituals of appreciation, or the sacrifice of an occasional child (What else do people sacrifice their children to, anyway, but to some power conceived-of as "their own good"?) It is the powers' perverse appetite--for the "respect, honor, and devotion" appropriate to their creator--that throws them into discord.

But why have these "good creations of a good God" become rebellious and hostile toward us?

We can speak of the principalities as 'living' beings, because they act as if they had "a will of their own," tenaciously resisting human efforts to bring them under our control. But they are said to be subject to the Rumpelstiltskin Effect: if we can name them correctly, we can at least resist being enslaved by them.

Mis-naming has a different kind of power. The child who is told he is "a bad boy" too effectively may never manage to be altogether "good." Misnaming confuses our speech. For an individual, it can impair the ability to identify worthwhile goals or to strive for them effectively. Within a group of people, it must distort communications and disconnect their conscious intentions from whatever effects will actually ensue. To misname a principality--a fluid and half-metaphorical creature by its very nature--must fragment it into a mist of images, all of them trying to pass under the same false i.d. (What, for example, has happened to words like "love"? "Freedom"? "Faith"? If someone were to glimpse the reality behind a label like "Christ"--How could she convey it to people who think "Jesus" just means George Bush's imaginary friend, who tells him to start wars?)

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