I figured something out. I’m not sure of the theology, so don’t call me on the terms I use or on the methodology I employ. Still, I’m fairly certain of the result. As such, I rise Archimedes-like from the bath, feverish with my solution and eager for its impartation (I won’t run buck naked down the street shouting about it like he did, but I’m pretty pleased nonetheless).
The scriptural passage above—in that lovely Jacobean English—was spoken by our first friend, our bosom pal, the most subtle of all the friendly beasts in the neighborhood (when it was still fresh and new and unfenced): the wily serpent of ancient lore. In the creation story, this line is the point at which the tension builds. Deceit is being worked here—the apple, offered; the trap, laid. The rest of the story needs no rehearsing, and it’s merely ancillary to my discovery anyhow. For I’m interested in the language set out above, in particular, the phrase “and ye shall be as gods.”
That’s the part where, historically, I’ve absolved myself of at least some portion of original sin, the fallen state that we’ve inherited like a leopard does his spots, as C. S. Lewis would say. This business of being as a god seemed only hyperbole before, just part of the ruse the serpent in the story played to secure our first parents’ disobedience.
There now; disobedience—that was the stuff of sin for me. I could see my way to owning a part of that. Rejecting the good, accepting the bad; that sounded very familiar. I could even concede that I fooled myself most of the time when it came to the good and the bad. As Aristotle predicted, like a true son of my race, I would tell myself that the bad is the good, so that I could permit myself to have it. After all, no one chooses what he thinks is bad, said the Stagyrite, he simply rationalizes it into a semblance of the good.
But see, that was my problem. I thought that sin was just a matter of disobedience. A matter of doing what you were told not to do or not doing what you should—of choosing the wrong instead of the right. Now I spot my folly. That was just the means by which the great sin was achieved. I disobeyed, yes, but only as the vehicle to get what I really wanted: to be God.
This thought struck me like one of those epiphanies that both surprise and repulse: the kind of startlingly unpleasant experience of thinking someone reflected in a store window is particularly unattractive, right before you realize that the particularly unattractive person is you.
And as with all such repulsions, I started to reject it: When have I thought myself God? When have I usurped God’s place?
But again, the grace of intellectual honesty made me concede that the experience of such a thing is common, though not in some melodramatic fashion. That is, the usurpation occurs not by way of ceremony or statement, but by action and consequence: I act as though I am my own creation, my own autonomous state, eternally begotten of my own fiat. Yes, it leads me to disobey, but only because I have first pronounced that I am entitled to—I can, because I am (pace Descartes).
“This is my realm,” I say, as a god feels its scope, “and all is permitted me here,” as a god tests it.
I posit that humanity’s great sin amounts to the staking of a claim, the planting of a banner. This corner becomes a private sphere—a strike-free zone, as it were—off limits—self-governing—a country unto itself. There is but one crown, and no dominion can bear two masters.
At first, there are terms of peace. “This one little area is all I claim,” we say to God. “I make no war with you. Just this one modest plot.”
Then we bear our teeth.
“But it is mine. And you must stay out of it. Here I have my say. All else is yours, but this. I retain dominion, power, over this.”
Except, of course, they grow, these borders do; they never remain so small. I have revanchist tendencies. I spoil for empire. More and more of my heart must be ceded.
And when that happens, the world shrinks—I become all eyes—wet tongue—greased lips—hands slippery, sweaty, sly. There is only my will and its object then. From my sovereign throne, I bestow the fullness of my magnanimity upon myself, and speak in the native language of my land:
Have all that you see before you, my good and faithful servant. You have not toiled, nor have you reaped. You have made no promises, sworn no vows; you have pledged no part of yourself to what you would have. But take it anyway; use it; drain it; plunder and plow, pillage and sack—grow full upon it and shove it aside when you are done. Prosper long upon this earth, this realm, your kingdom.
So we who are not God clamber upon the throne clumsily, sharp elbows and skinned knees, like a child acceding to a place too high—fumbling into a masquerade glory, a Mardi Gras fraudulence we eventually start to believe in.
God has spoken in fire: “I am.” But how often we repeat those words, reflexively, with the referent for the great pronoun changed, and the voice of the speaker so subtle that it is hard to recognize it as our own.
A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.