Philosophy: ah – ha. The big story

I feel like a child who has been playing in the woods not far from home, who has suddenly stumbled upon a giant, abandoned candy store. Something grand, from the 1950s perhaps, with tall, white-washed wooden walls and glimmering glass through which the delicacies within could not only be enticingly seen, but also smelled.

I’ve always read Genesis as an archaic myth, a story about humanity which is so out of date as to have lost all value. “People didn’t understand history then, so they made this up,” I thought. “It’s nice, but so are all of the other myths. And like them, it is false.”


Then this winter I took a course on the Philosophy of Religion, wherein our professor reacquainted us with Genesis, not as a myth of origins, but as a coming-of-age story. It was the story of any young man, at first living under the word and law of his father. The young boy would have been acquainted with women, or rather girls, as well, but would have made no notice of them – they would have just been other people. Then, one day, something would change in the boy – a pain in his abdomen would signify that things had changed. That pain would feel of loss, an absence that could only be filled by this newly arrived creature: woman.

It is poetic genius then to suggest that woman is made out of man’s rib. The coming-of-age significance is all the same: before the pain there had been no woman as opposed to man, just the two sexes, together made in the image of the heavenly ones.

With the appearance of woman comes a longing, but more importantly it brings an ‘Other’ to whom allegiance and love may be bestowed. Now it is no longer just God and Man. Man and woman both realize that their love for one-another is greater than their love for God in just the way we as adolescents begin to dissolve our exclusive devotion to our parents. The result is predictable: children disobey the Father and set out on their own, facing the inevitable consequences – the pains of childbirth and the toil of working the fields for one’s own food.

But it’s not all bad: they have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they are no longer the ignorant children of Eden. By their own will they have asserted themselves against the father, and by their own will they are left to make it in the world, our world.

The moral of the story? We all must emerge from the law of our father and make it on our own. If we do well enough, we then will become the father/mother and watch our children follow the same pattern. It’s difficult. “Life is no Eden,” our professor instructed us. But it is this way for us all, and as such it is up to each of us to make the very best of our pains and toils.

Today I’m reading Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit for yet another class dealing with religion. The story, which is beautifully written (a must-read), gives me reason to ponder yet another meaning to Genesis: as a Paleontology, a long history of humankind. Eden, in this story, is humankind before agriculture, when we had no control over nature, no manipulative powers. Then, we lived just like the tiger and the wombat, at the mercy of and part of the natural world. This is the bulk of human history, and, to quote Genesis, “it was very good.

But something fundamentally changed with the onset of agriculture. We became dissatisfied with wandering in the world and wanted to just settle down. We categorized the world around us, we gave names to every living creature encountered. But this did not satiate our urge for dominion. To do this we needed total control, command over the fields and beasts around us. For this, we needed agriculture. With agriculture, rather than being on par with nature, we played as lords over it. With this the world became ‘for us’, as if all of creation was ours, is ours.

This shift is the story of our civilization today. The premise that the world is ‘for us’ and that we are separate somehow from the rest of creation is the premise of our culture. It is the story we tell our children before bed, but also the story we hear on the evening news and on the corporate billboards, in the academic curricula and in the novels we read. And, according to Ishmael at least, it is the premise of a dying culture. It is a myth gone bad.

Ah-ha. That is the big story. The story we tell ourselves without even knowing it. It is the paradigm we live unconsciously. This is our mythology, and it’s not just in Genesis, but everywhere in our society. Can you see it? And what now?

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm… An interesting take on Genesis, highly personalized, and probably thoroughly modern rather than derived from its original context. I teach American Indian literature at a university, and we discuss the Genesis creation story along with several American Indian creation stories. One of the things that comes out in a discussion of an oral literature, which is how the Jewish sacred texts originated, is that it is generally is communal rather than individualized. Characters in a story frequently serve as symbols of a community rather than (or rather than primarily as) individuals. And when the characters are individualized, they teach listeners/readers how to integrate successfully into their community and their environment. (In my class we tend to contrast the personality of the creation figure in Genesis with the creation figures in Crow and Pueblo creation stories — the Crow creator is very human, the Pueblo creators are female.)I wonder if a Buddhist take on Genesis would emphasize the eating of the fruit as Adam and Eve’s “descent” into conditioned behavior? That is when they start with things such as shame. Before that they practice pure being?Ishmael…. I had a student who wrote her master’s thesis on this novel and the ecocritical movement. Some of the ideas in the book are interesting, but I would have liked for the book to be better fiction-wise. Doesn’t it seem odd that the gorilla teaches his student things he learned from HUMAN BOOKS? Why make the teacher a gorilla then, if he isn’t going to provide some essential perspective that is derived from his non-human experiences? The book would have functioned just as well if Ishmael had been a human…. But it does introduce students to ideas that challenge many of their assumptions. So that is worthwhile.

  • Jayarava

    It is an old story. Michael Witzel, in Origins of the World’s Mythologies, puts the rise of concerns with the creation of the cosmos at ca. 40,000-45,000 years ago. It is mirrored by myths all over Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

    • justinwhitaker

      That makes sense, though I’d think such accurate dating would be tough. As far as I know he would be basing this on burial techniques alone, right? I wonder, do the mirrored myths arise coinciding with agricultural advances in each society?

      • Jayarava

        Witzel’s primary method is comparative mythology, but it is backed up by comparative linguistics, genetics, and archaeology. The myths of Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia and Sub-Saharan Africa are all similar in their overall narrative – the mythic structures into which all the individual myths occur. Since Australia has only been in contact with New Guinea and to a much lesser extent Melanesia for the best part of 45,000 years they must have taken the stories with them. These places have no concern with the creation of the world.

        However the common creation stories must have been in place before the migrations into America began ca. 20,000 years ago since they mythic structures of Europe, Asia and the Americas are strikingly similar. Witzel ties the emergence of the stories of creation to burials, but also to cave paintings, and the migration of modern humans into Europe, Central Asia and China

        For more detail I’ve reviewed the book here:

        • justinwhitaker

          Fascinating. Thanks for the link and for your extensive review (and summary here). I’ll put it, and the book, on my to-read list. To be honest I haven’t heard of Witzel before, but your review and his wiki page have piqued my interest! Thanks again.

          • Jayarava

            Great. Witzel is a very prolific Indologist and has written extensively on the history of Indo-aryan languages, the geography of the Vedas, and the Indus civilisation. My article on the Śākyas being from Iran was based on informal comments he made on the Indology mailing list. I will be interested to see if and how Witzel filters into your writing now :-)