There has been a fair amount of discussion lately in the Christian blogosphere of the story of Adam and Eve, discussing a.) whether it is scientifically viable to read the story literally, and b.) whether a literal reading is necessary to maintain orthodox Christian theology on the Fall of Man and Original Sin. (The most recent bout of blog posts seem to have been kicked off by this article by John Farrell in Forbes magazine; Mark Shea has a good response from the Catholic perspective.)
My sermon this past Sunday happened to be on that same story from a New Church perspective. I ended up focusing more on the New Church teachings on the internal sense of the story of Adam and Eve, and less on the question of original sin – but the sermon does address the question of what the story is about if it is not a literal story: the way that sin could come into a world that God had created . (For the basics of the New Church teaching on original sin, see True Christian Religion 520-524 – in short, we do not inherit guilt from Adam and Eve, but we inherit from our parents a tendency toward evil.)
THE FALL OF MAN
“And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden eating thou may eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eat of it, dying thou shalt die.” (Genesis 2:16, 17)
We live in a fallen world. When we look around at the violence and poverty, the cruelty that one person inflicts on another, we acknowledge this. We live in a broken world. And we are part of that broken world. We see the same tendencies in ourselves that appal us in others – greed, selfishness, vengeance. We know that our world is broken, and there are two questions that we ask: how can something God created be so full of pain and suffering? And can the world be redeemed?
These questions have been at the heart of many religions for thousands of years. And for thousands of years, Jews and Christians have turned to the story of Adam and Eve for answers. In its basic outlines, the story is clear: in the beginning, God created everything, and it was good. The world was in a state of harmony and peace, and everything was provided for man freely. There was only one law: they were not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But they broke this law – and this first sin spelled the downfall from that state of Eden.
That general outline is clear – but the specific interpretation is anything but. Many Christians take the story literally. Others believe it to be an allegory or a parable – it represents something. But few agree on what it represents.
In the New Church, we’ve been blessed with an explanation of the true meaning of the story of the Fall of Man. The Writings for the New Church show that it is a true story – not that there literally was one man named Adam and one woman named Eve, but that these characters represent a group of people who really did live lives of harmony and peace. Their sin was not the taking of a single fruit – but the story of taking that fruit perfectly represents what their first sin was.
It’s not at all a stretch to say that the story of Adam and Eve is a parable. The name “Adam” simply means “man” or “human” – and so it’s a story of the way that humanity fell. If the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was simply a fruit, and the action was only a sin because it disobeyed God, then why is the tree named “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and not simply “the forbidden tree?” Clearly, that tree represents something to do with the knowledge of good and evil.
So if Adam simply means “man,” and Adam and Eve stand for a group of people rather than just for two individuals, who are they standing for? The Writings for the New Church provide an answer: they stand for the earliest human beings, who were members of what is called the Most Ancient Church. When the Writings use the word “church,” they’re referring to the group of people who have a special revelation from the Lord – and the Most Ancient Church was made of the first people, who worshipped God.
The people who became the members of the Most Ancient Church went through the process of becoming an image and likeness of God that is described in the creation story. The people of that church became even more a likeness of God than we are today. Because the human race had not yet fallen, every person of that age born with a will that was not corrupt. And in fact, the entire structure of their mind was different – their will and their intellect was not divided as it is today. The things that they loved, they thought, and the things that they thought, they loved.
Because they had this will of good, they had a perception that is unknown today. The Lord revealed Himself to them directly, speaking to them as if from person to person. They were able to perceive spiritual realities from a close connection to the spiritual world. And they had perception of the natural world, too. Their ability to perceive things from all different sources is what is meant by all the trees that they were allowed to eat from. Everything they looked at and interacted with contributed to their celestial wisdom; it provided celestial food. And in the centre of the garden was the tree of life: perception from loving the Lord and trusting in Him.
But there was one tree in the garden that they were not allowed to eat from: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree has a specific meaning; but before we look at that, it’s important to look at the different characters in the story as they were before the fall and see what they represent.
In the story of creation, the Lord created all animals on the sixth day, and gave man dominion over all of them. The different animals represent different affections. And the Lord created lower animals like snakes as well as the higher animals. These lower animals represented the sensual level of the mind – our five senses and their desires, as well as the thoughts that spring directly from these. This sensual level was and is necessary – but man, or the internal person, is supposed to have dominion over it. But as it was necessary, there was a snake in the garden.
The second chapter of Genesis describes the creation of woman as being from Adam’s rib. This woman, as she is created from a rib, represents a person’s proprium, or what is a person’s own, made alive by the acknowledgment and perception that what seems to be our own really flows into us from the Lord. We need to have a sense that we live from ourselves – but for it to be living, it needs to include that acknowledgment that life is really from the Lord. That sense of self-life is Eve.
Finally, Adam in this story represents the rational level of the mind, and the internal man – the part of the person that was making decisions, the person himself. So the serpent is the lowest level of the mind, Eve is our sense of life from ourselves, and Adam is the higher, rational part of our mind. With this in mind, we can look again at how the Most Ancient Church fell away.
Remember, that serpent represents the sensuous level of the mind, the operation of the five senses, the knowledge we have from them and the desires we have from them. The ability to do whatever we like is seductive, and appeals to our sensuous desires. And the knowledge we have from the five senses can be seductive too, because it can sometimes seem more real than higher, abstract concepts. And the strongest desire in the lowest part of our minds is the love of self. That is the head of the serpent.
That serpent – desires and thoughts from the lowest part of the mind – appealed to Eve. In a good sense, Eve represents an own, a proprium, a sense of self-life, that has been made living by the acknowledgment that life is from the Lord. But in a negative sense, Eve represents both the sense and the belief that we live from ourselves. That sense is seduced by the serpent, those sensuous things of our mind – because it feels like we live from ourselves.
This is what happened to that generation of the people of the Most Ancient Church. They allowed themselves to be seduced by the lowest level of the mind. They allowed themselves to be seduced by the appearance that they lived from themselves. And they confirmed those things even in their interiors, on the rational level of the mind represented by Adam. This was the fall of mankind, and has been the fall of every church ever since: from a love of self, people believed that they could know good and evil from themselves, from things of the five senses, rather than from the Lord.
It can seem hard to believe that this is the cause of the fall, that this attitude leads to death. The serpent says, “In the day that you eat of it, you shall not surely die!” It seems like people can make decisions based on their own desires and thoughts and still live moral lives. But that morality is just a covering, like those fig leaves Adam and Eve used to try to cover their nakedness. It does not penetrate to the level of the internal man.
But this may seem contrary to the teachings of the New Church. Doesn’t the New Church teach that everyone is saved if they live by what they believe to be right? Well, yes and no. The New Church teaches that anyone who believes in God and lives in charity according to the teachings of their own religion is saved. And it is not bad that different people have different understandings of what the Lord is saying in His Word. Two people can understand the Word completely differently, and still be trying to follow it. But the important thing is still that those people have an attitude that they are taking guidance from the Lord’s Word – not that they are coming up with their own plan of living.
The case is completely different with someone who refuses to believe anything other than what they see with their five senses. Those who refuse to believe anything they cannot see or feel trust in themselves and not in the Lord; they live from and for the love of self. Many even acknowledge this, saying that all humans act from self-love – which extends also to putting one’s own offspring above others – and that this is the only rational way to act.
Now again, it may not seem like this attitude really is the source of all evil. After all, we know atheists who live morally. And we can’t judge anyone’s interiors; some people may believe in a higher power, an absolute morality, even if they don’t call it by the name of God. But anyone who truly believes that there is nothing beyond the realm of the senses cannot believe in an absolute morality. Morality for them is based on “whatever works” to keep society in order. And if there is no absolute morality, then there is nothing inherently wrong in lying or stealing or committing adultery. The laws against them are necessary for society, but there is nothing “wrong” if I break them and no one finds out – even “right” and “wrong” rely on a belief in something higher.
But if this attitude – that we can determine right and wrong for ourselves – is at the root of all evil, then of course it extends far beyond those who have confirmed themselves in atheism. We all are tempted by the love of self – and along with that comes a love of our own intelligence. Even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as particularly smart or learned have a tendency to love our own intelligence more than we love to seek wisdom. We have a tendency to fall in love with our own ideas.
How many of us have our own pet theories about the way the world really works, or what’s really needed to live a life of religion? How many of us find at least one way to make an exception for something that is said in the Word? “Well, yes, I know what the Word says about that; I’ll let the others believe that and I won’t say anything about it, but really I know differently.” Again, this is different from saying, “I sincerely understand the Word differently from the way you do”; it is saying, “I don’t buy that part of the Word.” It is basing our beliefs on what we want to be true or what we feel is true, not on what the Lord says.
It’s hard not to do this, to base our beliefs more on the external evidence of our senses than on what the Word says – that serpent of feelings is powerful. For example, the Word says that it is wrong to act on lust. But many people do it anyway, and when they do, they often say something like, “It doesn’t feel wrong. It doesn’t even feel like a big deal. I don’t feel like it really made any difference.” Our feelings trump our understanding of what the Word says.
But putting our faith in our feelings rather than the Lord’s Word is the path that leads to death. Because by nature, we’re inclined to evils of every kind. And evil feels good. Once a person is able to “move past” whatever hang-ups they have from their upbringing or culture around them, they realize that committing adultery sometimes just feels right. If a person can let go of that old belief that revenge is evil, and just completely destroy someone who’s hurt them – that feels great! When people start to make their own feelings the arbiter of morality, the world begins to collapse.
Have you ever read or heard testimony from people who steal or commit fraud or even murder? Many, many of them continue to justify their actions. There is always a justification readily available, and if we’re free to determine our own morality based on what feels right, there will always be murders and rapists and thieves. There will always be war and violence, because people will always justify the lust for power as the natural way of things – the way human beings are.
We live in a fallen world. But there is hope.
When the Most Ancient people fell, their wills became corrupted. And because their will and their understanding were so closely tied, they could not be revived by a knowledge of what was true. And it may have seemed, then, like the human race was hopeless.
But from the time when the Most Ancient Church began to fall, the Lord provided people with hope, in the form of a prophecy. God told the serpent that he would bruise the heel of the Seed of the woman – but that the woman’s Seed would bruise his head. That Seed of the woman is the Lord. This was the first prophecy of the Lord’s coming – and faith in the Lord to come sustained His church for the next several thousand years.
The will of man would be still be evil from birth. But the Lord would separate the understanding from the will, so that a person could know what was right and choose to live by what was right. That higher perception of the will would be closed off, because the will was evil. But there was a way that the Lord could show himself even to the lowest level of the mind. The Lord would come as a Divine Human, a visible God, and reach even people with fallen wills.
And so there is hope for us today. We still are born with corrupt wills. But we can learn what is true. We can humbly ask the Lord to teach us what is right, then choose to live by that, acknowledging that it is only because the Lord came and conquered the forces of hell that we are able to do so. We can force ourselves to live, not based on our own intelligence, or what we feel like doing, but on our understanding of His Word. And when we do that, the Lord gives us a new heart. When we act in obedience to the Lord’s Word, He creates in us a new, heavenly will, a will to do what we know is right. And He can bring us into the New Jerusalem – where once again we find the tree of life: love to the Lord, and the acknowledgment that our lives come from the Him, and not from ourselves. When we fight against the temptation to live based on our own selfish desires, and instead to live by the Lord’s truth, that serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, is cast down, and we are made free.