Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Do We Live in a Fallen World?

Here are some late night thoughts from a preacher with insomnia. I have heard it said quite often that we live in a fallen world. Some say that is the basis for the Christian religion. That assumption is rarely challenged even by liberals. Two arguments are presented in favor of this assumption. One is theological and the other is experiential.

The theological argument comes from the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden. This argument is rather weak as everyone (except for hardcore fundamentalists) knows that Adam and Eve are mythological. Not only is this story a myth, but as such it has multiple meanings. One could read the story as the rise of consciousness rather than a "Fall" into sin. Since it is a myth, why base our view of the world on it? One could choose any number of myths if myth is what we are after.

The experiential argument carries a bit more weight. We experience death and suffering. If the world wasn't fallen there would be no death or suffering, so the argument goes.

Let's look at death first. If there was no death there would be no life. Everything that lives, dies. Imagine how Earth would manage if there was no death. If some life-form were able to live indefinitely, it would take over, and then eventually it would die as there would be nothing left to eat. The moon is without death. Nothing dies on the moon. Nothing lives on it either. To say that Earth is Fallen because there is death is to disparage life and Earth itself. Life and death is what is.

Any theology that is anti-death is therefore anti-Earth and anti-Life. Classic Christian theology wants escape from death and therefore Earth. Earth is bad and fallen. Apparently, this view would have us live forever as bodiless spirits on the moon. It is Easter with plastic lilies. I would call that Hell.

The second part of the experiential argument is that Earth is fallen because we suffer. What is suffering? Suffering is a subjective experience in response to the cycle of life and death. Suffering means we have feelings. My computer does not suffer. But I wouldn't want to be it. Certainly there are degrees of suffering. A critical part of our human quest is to be compassionate with those who suffer including ourselves. As conscious human beings we try to alleviate excessive suffering. We also try not to cause suffering to others (ie. through violence). Like death, suffering is part of the package of Life. Without suffering there would be no consciousness, no feeling, no passion. It would not be life as we know it.

Death and suffering is what it means to be alive. Death is a biological necessity for life to occur and suffering is what it means to be conscious of death. Without suffering we are not conscious and without death we are not alive. To say that Earth is fallen because there is suffering, is to disparage consciousness.

Some forms of theology argue that only human beings are fallen. The rest of creation is fine, but human beings are captured by sin. If humanity wasn't "fallen" we would not do bad things or think bad thoughts. What is considered good and bad is subjective as well. What is considered good in one context is considered bad in another and vice versa. We have drives, most of them unconscious. Sometimes our decisions bring ourselves and others greater happiness and blessedness and sometimes not. At times we compete and at other times we cooperate.

To say that we are sinful and fallen is to disparage humanity. We are who we are. We are learning, often the hard way, about what can bring us more blessedness and what does not.

I do not think there is any advantage seeing the world or seeing human beings as fallen. We are evolving. Each day we increase individually and collectively in consciousness.
I think if there is a task for us, it is to enjoy what is and to do what we can so future generations can enjoy it as well. We experience bliss. We suffer. We live. We die. And I wouldn't wish it any different.


15 comments:

Snad said...

Psychic readings aside, I agree with most of what you say, John. People don't really think about nature and what it means to live, die, and survive for other life forms here.

After all, how many seed pods does a maple tree produce in order to ensure that one or two seedlings survive (only to have the Lawn Boy or Weed Eater get those that do sprout)?

How many turtle eggs are eaten by predators in order to ensure that one or two make it back to the water?

Conversely, we humans are seldom eaten alive any more by our preditors the way most animals are. If an animal isn't domesticated it likely ends up being eaten. Talk about suffering!

In other words, nature, life, and survival are all rather violent. and we delightful (and blessed?) humans have managed to evolve away from much of that violence - excepting war and the other violences we exact upon each other (like poverty, slavery, crime), and television (I was going to say "bad" television, but don't want to be redundant).

Speaking of which, in my eyes, it is the cultural situation that makes me most often feel we are a "fallen" race - or at least falling. But these things have their cycles, and we generally sort them out after a while - for a while, at least. I have hope.

Now I have to go to work!

Grace said...

Once when I faced possible death, I sensed God's presence with me, and rejoiced in His love, and the hope of the resurrection.

It all didn't feel like "plastic Easter lilys" to me.

Grace said...

Hey, I want to come back, and share that I don't think we have to neccesarily even come back to Adam and Eve to speak of human fallenness.

I think just about everyone can agree regardless of how we define human morality, that we all fall short of it. To me, there is a paradox, here. It's true we're fearfully and wonderfully made by God either through ID or an evolutionary process. But, at the sametime we're broken, having this propensity toward sin and evil.

We have an alienation from God, and from each other. John, can't you see this even in your own experience? Just look at some of these comments on your own blog from folks on both sides of some of these divides. Look what's happening in the world around us, even in the church.

I know in my own life, I certainly fall far short of expressing the love of Christ. As a matter of fact, I can hurt those I love the most without even trying.

We can't "save ourselves" totally by ourselves as far as I can see. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

Alright, I"m starting to get preachy. (Climbs down off the soapbox.)

Peace.

bill42 said...

Pretty good post for being sleep deprived! Between you and snad my thoughts are now much better crystallized. Thanks snad for helping flesh out John's ponderings for me.

PS There is some good television, just not on the networks.

Mystical Seeker said...

I know that some believe that fallenness is built in to the very fabric of nature itself, but I never saw how this made the slightest bit of sense. It is inconceivable that the last 13.7 billions years of the universe's evolution, starting with the Big Bang and continuing with the evolution of life on Earth (and conscious life in the form of humans) would have been God's little way of saying, "just kidding!"

The laws built into the fabric of nature are what brought humans into being in the first place, and it is this fabric that has been in place since the universe first emerged all those billions of years ago. Life and death are part of that fabric, and it is that fabric that God created and evoked into being in such a way that life could emerge. To claim that the universe is fallen is first to suggest that it "fell"--but from what? As you say, the Adam and Eve story is a myth and has nothing to do with the actual events that took place in the evolution of the universe. And given that the universe has always had its fundamental laws in place this way since the Big Bang, then saying that the universe is "fallen" is really to hold God responsible for its fallen state, since it was God who were there at the Big Bang.

To say that the universe is the way it is for good reason isn't to say that everything that happens in the universe is a good thing. But just because bad things happen, that doesn't make the universe "fallen".

John Shuck said...

Thanks all.

I deleted the psychic spam.


Snad:
Nicely put!

Grace wrote:
**We have an alienation from God, and from each other. John, can't you see this even in your own experience?**

I think God is in all things. I wouldn't say we are ever alienated from God. We are perhaps not aware of God in everything.

Seeker:
Yes, that is what I wanted to say! There was no state of grace from which we fell. The reason I think this is important to talk about is that we often denigrate Earth and humanity when there is no need to do so. There is no place better than the place we are in! We are part of The Great Story as Michael Dowd puts it.

OneSmallStep said...

I know I've mentioned this a few times before, but would the world be "fallen" if we weren't constantly told how evil/sinful we are? It's almost like we're producing the very thing we set out to preach. What if we instead told people that they're a mixture of good and bad, and can do either one? If you constantly tell people that they're inherently sinful, that they can't be good on their own ... are you at all surprised when people then are inherently sinful?

My other response to the whole fallen world idea is "Fallen from what?" There's no way we could look at the universe we're in and conclude that it was originally "perfect." We couldn't look at ourselves, and conclude that we were originally perfect, either. That idea seems to come from religion, not the physical universe itself.

And so if no original perfection, then what are we supposed to be saved from?

Matthew said...

"To say that Earth is fallen because there is suffering, is to disparage consciousness."

Meh. For me, this is a little too close to saying, "Suffering and death really aren't so bad." I think you can affirm the badness of a child's suffering without claiming that the suffering is due to a broken world caused by some heinous original sin. In other words, it's possible to tease apart the ideas of "suffering" and "fallenness" so that we can defy suffering without simultaneously having to affirm that we fell from some perfect edenic state, or even that there was some perfect edenic state for us to fall from.

On the other hand, I think fallenness language expresses something important about the human experience. We have this perception that the world isn't as wonderful as it ought to be, a feeling that probably has some deep psychological roots, and we need a powerful, even apocalyptic way to express that idea. I'm not much interested in creationism, but so far the fallenness language is the most powerful metaphor I've encountered for discussing what's wrong with human existence.

John Shuck said...

Welcome Matthew!

Thanks for visiting and commenting. I looked briefly at your blog. Good stuff!

I think as Onesmallstep put it,

**My other response to the whole fallen world idea is "Fallen from what?" There's no way we could look at the universe we're in and conclude that it was originally "perfect."

Suffering is certainly real. But it isn't because we have fallen from some state of grace or bliss.

I would say that we are instead, "arising." Part of that arising is pain and suffering associated with it. Perhaps a birthing metaphor of "birth pangs" can describe our experience of suffering.

OneSmallStep said...

John,

I tend to take the universe as "it is." It's not perfect, it's not broken, it simply is. It functions as it is designed to do.

Where God or grace (not the person Grace, but the grace of God) come into it for me is that gives me a way of engaging this universe that is. It helps me connect, it helps me find purpose, it helps me see what the end result of creation should be: a kinder, more loving person. It helps me see past the selfishness in some people, and see how God created them. It helps me not get caught up in the little things, or the damaging things.

I'm not perfect. I'm not fallen. Like the universe, I simply am. I just sometimes need help in seeing who the "am" is.

Jodie said...

See now, I'm a "sola scriptura" sorta guy, and I have to say that I find a lot of cool stuff in the Genesis story but I do not find a "fallen world" story.

The story tells us that death and good and evil predate the eating of the fruit. The serpent was right in everything he told Eve.

The story tells us that it is not natural for women to suffer in child birth. Nobody else does, why humans? The story tells us that man has to work for a living. Nobody else does, why man? We were clearly designed to live in paradise.

I knew that.

Yet man is ambitious. We want to be like God more than we want to be like creatures of the field.

Yep, knew that too.

And we are aware of good and evil like God, but not like the creatures of the fields.

At least we want to be.

And we are afraid of God. Or at least we think that we should be. Not like the creatures of the field. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and Adam and Eve displayed a beginning of Wisdom and hid from God. Even if they did not know fig leaves are really unsuited for covering the delicate parts of our bodies. God had to teach them how to make clothing.

And we feel shame. Not like the creatures of the fields.

We are not like God and not like the creatures of the fields, yet we have elements of both, and this haunts us.

But where do we get this notion of a "fallen world" from the Genesis story? It's just not there.

It comes from some place else other than the Scriptures.

Paul talked about it when he was trying to explain original grace. He didn't make it up. The context of the passage often quoted to explain original sin through Adam is supposed to be an explanation about how sin left the world through Jesus Christ. They cancel each other, Paul says. Or maybe they are metaphors for each other.

Whatever.

People still die, though not right away, sin is rampant, evil prevails. At least to the naked eye.

So whatever happened or happens in Christ happens beyond the view of the naked eye, just as whatever happened to Adam also happened beyond the view of the naked eye. It's outside the realm of science.

Neither stories are about biology or physics. If they were, then Paul is wrong by inspection, end of story.

On the other hand, what keeps the sun and moon in the sky is the perpetual falling of the Earth into the Sun and the Moon into the Earth.

The greatest mystery of the Universe, if it is not life, then it is gravity. Everything is always falling and if it weren't for that simple little fact, the Universe would fly apart.

So according to science we >do< live in a Fallen world. Fallen and perpetually falling. But like I said, I'm a "sola scriptura" sorta guy, so no. We do not live in a "Fallen" World. That would be unscriptural.

Mystical Seeker said...

I tend to take the universe as "it is." It's not perfect, it's not broken, it simply is. It functions as it is designed to do.

Where God or grace (not the person Grace, but the grace of God) come into it for me is that gives me a way of engaging this universe that is. It helps me connect, it helps me find purpose, it helps me see what the end result of creation should be: a kinder, more loving person. It helps me see past the selfishness in some people, and see how God created them. It helps me not get caught up in the little things, or the damaging things.


I really like that. I agree with this sentiment.

Chris said...

I agree with most of what you said, John. But the following comments give me pause:

>>To say that we are sinful and fallen is to disparage humanity. We are who we are...I do not think there is any advantage seeing the world or seeing human beings as fallen.

I think the advantage of the myth of "fallen" humanity, even if not literally true, is that it expresses the hope that human beings are capable of ideal behavior. If you believe that there is a fundamental capacity for goodness undergirding all of us, then the failure to realize our potential can be conceived as a "fall" of sorts. But it's an individual fall within each of us, and a fall from an ideal standard rather than from one that has ever really been actualized. To use Neo-Platonic philosophy as a metaphor, our world is an imperfect or "fallen" version of the world of Forms. As Plotinus believed we could ascend back to that ideal world, I hold out the hope that humanity can "ascend" in moral wisdom and political/scientific savvy to the point where we can actualize something like the ideal world on the soil of the real one.

Best,

-Chris

FranIAm said...

Oh John, this is brilliant.

I could go on and one...however I will spare you.

Today I found this quotation and want to use it for my church blog(which i would like for you to see, if your email is on your blog) and it is related...(i think!)

"Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthy.' Hildegard von Bingen

In my understanding my Christian faith is less about being fallen but more about an incarnational faith. God came to earth and incarnated as man. God came here, became like us.

I think it is so much more about synthesis, integration.

That said, many want to split off anything earthly or body, don't want to face death, decay.

Oh so much for a short comment and I myself am sleep deprived so I better quit while ahead.

In parting I will say that you can't have a resurrection if you don't have a crucifixion first.

It's all part of the cycle.

Steve Hayes said...

I think you misrepresent the nature of myth. Myths are not things you go out looking for -- they are closely linked to experience.

But than there is perhaps there is no common ground at all, so common way of seeing things. We live, we die that's cool; the world is not fallen, genocide is normal, torture is normal, it's part of the cycle of life and death. Sorry, but I don't buy it.