I hope you all appreciated the introduction and first chapter of this work in progress: That Which We Already Know. This installment stands on its own for the most part, but I do hope you’ll check out the previous posts as parts of a more complete whole. Enjoy!
Part I, Chapter 2 – After The Fall
Where did that Eden go? Where did that child go? My fall from grace was so quick and complete that within just a few short years hardly a trace of either remained. Thankfully, I never was called up to fight in that far off war. It ended years before my number might have been drawn. By then, however, my Eden was gone, and the child was nowhere to be found. I could blame it on the war. I could consider myself just one more of its many uncounted casualties. The fact is, though, that I would have fallen anyway. We all end up falling sooner or later. It’s simply part of what it means to be fully human. But what exactly does that mean? In order to answer that question we’ll need to reflect more deeply on what really happened back there in that proverbial Garden of Eden.
According to the legend in the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were put on earth and given dominion over all living things (see NIV 1:28, for instance). Despite having the intellectual capacity necessary for such a position of mastery, however, these first humans were as yet naked and without shame (2:25). Now, we might simply read this as Adam and Eve still being like all other animals, or like little children perhaps, with no conception of the rightness or wrongness of being unclothed. But we might also consider their nakedness in metaphorical terms. They had not yet become clothed with any ideas of separate selfhood. They had enough knowledge to dwell in mastery over all of the other creatures of the natural world, but they did not yet set themselves apart from it.
It is worth pointing out that the only thing that the God of Adam and Eve said to them about eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is that if they ate from it they would die (2:17). It was the serpent, presumably without actually possessing any God-like knowledge himself, who suggested that the fruit could open their eyes and give them knowledge of good and evil (3:5). Unfortunately, what they got instead was self-awareness, and knowledge of their inadequacy – their nakedness – immediately followed. The death that followed was not a physical one. Rather, what Adam and Eve died to was the natural belongingness that they had previously enjoyed. They became separated from the natural order, and instead of being able to rely on the intellectual capacity that had made them master of all creatures – their natural instincts, if you will – they had to rely on their own ideas of right and wrong.
The authors of the Book of Genesis were clearly striving to understand our place in the world and how we got here. We modern humans likewise strive to understand such things, although we're just a bit more likely to invoke the theory of evolution than the Biblical story of creation. Nonetheless, there are some parallels. As stated in Chapter One, we can think of the attainment of the knowledge of good and evil which precipitated humanity’s fall from grace as essentially the evolution of self-awareness. We take it for granted now that we have it, but self-awareness didn’t always exist. It takes a brain of certain complexity, and we didn’t always have it. Somewhere deep in the shadows of prehistory, however, the one who knows became the one who knows that he knows, and it was then that the most resourceful of animals became something altogether different. Suddenly – at least relative to the vast expanse of time since the inception of life on earth – one being stood out from all others. Rising like a third dimension out of the flatness of the more ordinary consciousness that humans share with other animals, self-awareness gave our forebears unprecedented consciousness relative to that of all other beings.
Evidence exists that humans have been burying their dead and caring for their sick and elderly for over fifty thousand years. It makes sense, then, that the emergence of self-awareness must have given rise to at least some rudimentary sense of right and wrong with respect to caring for each other in sickness, old age, and death. But what exactly made something right or wrong in that prehistoric world as yet untouched by law or religion? Was the right thing to do based on that newly emergent self-awareness leading to the recognition of the intrinsic worth of others as well, or was the right thing to do merely a learned behavior that was reinforced by the fact that it enhanced the likelihood of survival?
Certainly patterns of behavior that evolved prior to “the fall” and which persisted over the millennia due to the fact that they enhanced the likelihood of survival must have come to be seen as “right” once the intellectual capacity to reflect upon them finally evolved. The sick, for instance, can get well and return to helping the group once again with its hunting and gathering. Investing in their care might result in a substantial payoff in terms of enhanced future survival. Likewise the old, notwithstanding their waning physical abilities, still carry with them a wealth of knowledge pertinent to the group’s survival – knowledge of animal behavior and the location and use of medicinal plants, for example. Even funerary rites might be thought of in utilitarian terms. They help foster the social cohesion necessary for survival in an exceedingly dangerous world. By showing respect for the dead each individual affirms to others in the group that he or she is a committed member – a display that in turn helps foster the reciprocal commitment of the group to that individual. Thus, what we modern humans might consider civilized social behavior could have come into existence via a process of natural selection prior to the emergence of self-awareness.
But natural selection only goes so far toward explaining the development of ideas regarding right and wrong that occurred between those days when early Neanderthals first began burying their dead and the unprecedented blossoming of religious activity that characterized the Axial Age. Whereas the former might be explained as a reinforced behavior evident amongst groups of individuals who depended upon each other for their very survival, the latter encompasses the recognition of the intrinsic worth of even one’s mortal enemies. We are hard pressed to explain such a new way of thinking about right and wrong within the paradigm of natural selection alone – unless, of course, we consider the emergence of self-awareness.
A perfect example of an Axial Age religious text that grapples with these ideas of self-awareness and right and wrong is the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita – central to both Hinduism and Indian culture in general – tells the story of one despairing warrior, Arjuna, surveying the battlefield upon which his clan and another, each with warriors that he both loves and respects, are preparing to battle each other on the following day. Arjuna’s charioteer, who is actually his Lord Krishna disguised to mortal eyes, then speaks to him consolingly and encouragingly of the various paths to liberation as seen from the perspective of Vedanta.
The existence of such a text is difficult to explain in strictly utilitarian terms. Altruistic ideas related to our shared humanity are clearly present in Arjuna’s despair – ideas that can’t be discounted even if one were to interpret the Gita as a callous exhortation for Arjuna to dispense with his existential dithering and fight for the sake of his genetic progeny. No, the human race had fallen too far from grace. Knowledge of good and evil had become too intrusive. Self-awareness had become too acute for the quandary of Arjuna and others like him to be dismissed so easily. A pack of hyenas does not ponder the ramifications, the rightness or wrongness of its survival instincts. Such torments are the plight of humankind alone.
But we also know that humanity’s recognition of the rightness and wrongness of action does not pertain solely to the interactions amongst human beings alone. Early Native Americans, for instance, considered themselves to be part of a natural order in which they could behave rightly or wrongly. The natural order, as they understood it, was one in which the elk or the bear allowed itself to be taken. However, this compassion shown to humans was not unconditional. The hunt and the people would not be successful unless they acted with respect toward and a sense of shared bond with their prey. Thus, in Native American spirituality there is the acknowledgement of a natural order that one can work with or against, as the case may be. Where would such thinking come from if not from the emergence of self-awareness and the commensurate recognition of the intrinsic worth of other beings as well?
At this point the reader may be wondering about the downside of the emergence of self-awareness. A newfound awareness that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat our fellow tribe members and those with whom we might be in conflict would seem to be a good thing, wouldn’t it? A newfound awareness that we are in relationship with the plants and animals of the earth and that we should treat that relationship with sacred awareness would seem to be a positive development, wouldn’t it? Where is the fall? What is the downside of our banishment from the Garden of Eden? Indeed, it might seem at this point that self-awareness is without a dark side.
The problem is that self-awareness has led over the ages to the ascendancy of the self as the most important of human concerns even as that same self-awareness has helped foster the spiritual recognition of the interrelatedness – even the oneness – of all things. These two conflicting potentialities – that of the ability to act in the most self-serving of ways and that of the ability to act on our recognition of the unity of all things – are now central to the human condition. Self-survival concerns pull us in one direction, and our evolved understanding of right and wrong pulls us in another. From the wandering bands of Neanderthals burying their few dead to the terrible destructive power of modern nation states at war, from the hunter/gatherers striving to feed themselves in harmony with their understanding of the natural order to the factory farming practices of today that treat animals as non-sentient resources to be mined, from the first transcendent recognition of the oneness of all things from which “we” arise to the so-called “rightness” of the barbed-wire fences (both literal and figurative) that we erect between self and other, so the nature of self-awareness, and the knowledge of good and evil, and the fall of humankind have progressed.
To be continued...
National Geographic image of Neanderthal burial via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank