The Fall

Since the advent of modern evolutionary theory, it’s become increasingly clear that the initial condition of “paradise” cannot have existed. The biggest problem is that death supposedly only entered into the world through sin, yet obviously evolution proceeds over successive generations of a struggle for survival, etc. Within this perspective, humanity as it currently exists isn’t the fallen version of a perfect antecedent humanity — this just is what humanity is like, for better or for worse. Pannenberg claims that because we can no longer believe in the original perfect state, we need to ditch the whole idea of the fall, even a modern “formalized” version of the fall that still logically presupposes that original state.

I disagree with Pannenberg. I obviously don’t care about “saving” the Garden of Eden story or the supposed infallibility of scripture, nor do I think that evolutionary theory as such inculcates something like Social Darwinism (though it has of course been used in that way from time to time). My problem with dispensing with the idea of some kind of historical “fall” is that it makes the specifically human forms of evil — the gratuitous malice that goes far beyond simple carnivorous behavior — seem to be something natural and inevitable, when I think they need to be understood as historical and therefore reversible.

So an idea that I have been kicking around is that early humans were basically like the bonobos. That was the Garden of Eden. The fall occurred when someone got it into his head to rule over and own everyone else, that is, had a desire for possession that goes beyond the simple needs of survival and acted on it. This moment does not at all have to coincide with the emergence of human consciousness as such or with the emergence of human activities detached from the imperative of survival (i.e., with some kind of rebellion against “natural law”) — the bonobos already appear to have sex for pleasure, etc.

The value of this theory is that it makes sin into something specific, something obviously undesirable, and something that does not seem to be simply “built-in” to human nature (as, for instance, sensuality is): the attempt to rule, to possess, to exploit, to oppress. It fits in neatly with the concept of han as a replacement for original sin. I think it also makes sense of what Agamben is doing in The Open and perhaps in the entire Homo Sacer saga, if we understand the act of the messiah as the suspension of “rule” as such.

10 thoughts on “The Fall

  1. I think Chris Knight’s great Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture is highly pertinent to what you’re talking about. The time “when someone got it into his head to rule over and own everyone else”: in the theory outlined by Knight, this is likely men endeavored to claim control over women, who he argues–persuasively–had previously initiated the cultural revolution via collective control of access to sex. (I wrote about the book here.)

  2. “Humanity as it currently exists isn’t the fallen version of a perfect antecedent humanity — this just is what humanity is like, for better or for worse.”

    Is the antecedent-ness particularly important? If the point is to demonstrate the contingency of the evils contemporary humanity, I don’t know that we need to be able to point to an actual historical alternative. Actually, pointing to a historical alternative might undermine the claim that our current state is contingent. As Marx says somewhere, giving as an alternative something that no longer exists is more likely to show that an alternative was once, but is no longer, possible; that is, it reinforces the necessity of the present, not the contingency.

    Couldn’t your bonobo example do just that: unlike bonobos, our bonobo-like ancestors were evidently capable of sin; and I think it may be difficult to hold the line between “people are naturally capable of sin” to “people are sinful by nature.”

  3. I’ve gotten the same question before from a conference paper, where I mentioned that it should be encouraging that the early Christians managed to pull off, at least for a while, some of the things that are most desired and most elusive in our present-day social bodies. It may simply be a case of me being too Christian for my own good, but it seems to make more intuitive sense to me to be encouraged that something has actually happened before — rather than taking its eclipse as a sign that it can never come back.

    I don’t know how to adjudicate between the two positions.

  4. Adam, do you think this idea is similar at all to Girard’s idea of the fall? I remember him noting that his theory necessitated a “fall” that concerned solely the advent of mimetic violence.

  5. It seems to me that you could try to reconcile your two positions in at least a couple of potentially interesting ways:

    1) Through Zizek. Here, “the perfect antecedent,” even if it is probably closer to being to an indivisible remainder (esp. in the example of the early Church), morphs into the position of Big Other for those who have “fallen” from the ideal antecedent. If the antecedent is robbed of its oppression via contrast, perhaps then the fallen are redeemed and allowed finally & freely to aspire to the antecedent without the sense that it is unattainable.

    2) Through Benjamin. Here, the unfolding of, say, Christian history might be regarded as a critique of an antecedent work — and thus, in the process, is the actual continued existence of the work. Without “critique” / history, and thus without “fallenness,” the truth of of the work / antecedent is not manifest at all. The key being that the greatest or truest work is the one that has fallen the most.

    In each case, the need for mimicry & guilt is avoided, and the potential for a kind of creative reparation is opened.

  6. I think that’s interesting. In a sense, you have to admit that the antecedent state really is unattainable, in that it can never simply be “the same” in light of the intervening fall. The key is to make that distance productive rather than defeating (i.e., to get rid of the “big Other” aspect of it, or what Butler would call the “theological” aspect) — the distance becomes an incitement to recapture that vanished moment in a fresh way, a way that will even be “better” insofar as it is responding to the concrete present situation rather than simply lamenting it.

  7. It might be that I missing the nuance here, but I thought that Kierkegaard put the lie to the orthodox notion of original sin and all types of lapsarianism. OTOH, I think that THE notion of original sin that makes most sense is the idea that humans like to do evil things. This is the conundrum that breaks the back of most ethics, to K’s mind. Kant also seemed to think so.

    Stephen Mulhall has taken this up in his book, “Philosophical Myths of the Fall,” where he seeks to show that Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Heidegger present various ways of redemption in the face of this “fact” of human nature.

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