The anthropological fact of the Tree of Knowledge – and the consequences of its rejection

Whenever I teach the second creation story to my undergraduates, some of them often express dismay over God’s “decision” to place the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden. For them the Tree represents an unnecessary test of Adam and Eve. God was setting them (and us) up to fail. He knew what was going to happen, but he put the Tree out there anyway. And the reasons go on…

Their responses reveal, among other things, their inability to step outside of a literal/historical hermeneutic. I try to help them approach from a different perspective: what does the tree represent?
It seems to me, that any story attempting to mythically convey the anthropological depth of “original” humanity must necessarily include some similar literary element. After all, the Tree really represents freedom. The presence of the Tree is the presence of the possibility of humanity’s rejection of God. God creates man and woman in his image, with an intellect and with freedom, that is, with the capacity for love.
Humanity is created for love. Love must always be freely given. It cannot be forced or demanded. In order for women and men to have the capacity to freely respond to God’s love with love, they must also have the capacity to respond to God’s generosity with selfishness.
This emphasis on the anthropological fact of freedom resonates with my students. It speaks the language of choice, which is a language they (and we) are familiar with. Furthermore, this approach helps to highlight the gravity of the choice. Augustine explains it as follows: “Everyone knows there is a divine law which  forbids theft, so if I can steal [pears] and get  away with it, this will show that I am not  subject to God or to any divine law. And if I  am not subject to any law which defines  what is good, then the good will simply be  what I say it is. Hence I will be free and  omnipotent. I can do what I want and  what I  want is the good.”
If the tree itself is the anthropological fact of human freedom, the decision to eat from it is the rejection of God a creator and lord. It seeks to decide for oneself what is good and evil. Thus the consequences of eating the fruit of the tree are so grave not merely because the eating of the fruit represents an act of disobedience but because it represents an implicit claim to choose for oneself what is right and wrong, to choose to be one’s own arbiter of the True and the Good, to be one’s own God.
Of course, with the modern rejection of God and nature and the simultaneous elevation of human reason as that than which nothing greater exists, we have philosophically repeated that very act of claiming the fruit for our own on a nearly universal scale.
In the quote above Augustine makes implicit reference to what might now be called the Natural Law: everyone knows it is immoral to steal. As C.S. Lewis points out in the Abolition of Man, this natural law “is not one among a series of possible value judgments.”  The rejection of the recognition that freedom is received as a gift and is given in order to enable us to choose love inevitably means that the capacity to choose has been decapitated and severed from its ground. It now floats freely lacking any anchor, any roots.
Put another way, the reduction of nature to scientific facts means that no moral message or responsibility can come to use from without. Morality has no objective. In practice this inevitably leads to violence.  For, a society cannot long function with some common sense of the moral good. When morality has no objective referent, when each individual can choose for himself or herself what is right or wrong, what is good and evil, then eventually one person’s subjective ethos will come into conflict with another’s. When this happens, might makes right. The majority, whose subjective morality has no greater relation to truth than does the minority’s, get to impose their ethos on the others.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the anthropological structure of our freedom. We have real freedom, which is always given so that we might choose to love.  When this gift is seized for one’s own and systematically perverted into license, then humanity itself becomes in danger of being abolished. This is the world in which we live.
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  • Ronald King

    Josh, you stated, “If the tree itself is the anthropological fact of human freedom, the decision to eat from it is the rejection of God a creator and lord. It seeks to decide for oneself what is good and evil.” From my perspective, that traditional perspective seems to be extremely judgmental and lacking the influence of love which would provide a different perspective based on compassionate understanding as it relates to what we currently know about human development.

    • Joshua B

      care to expand on your alternative perspective?

      • Ronald King

        Joshua, I was hoping that you would take a stab at it. I believe that the interpretation of the story of the man and the woman reveals how we are more or less under the influence of the belief of original sin. I propose that to believe they were disobedient is evidence that one is still influenced by the effects of the original sin of missing the mark which then led to the transmission of a shame based identity from one generation to the next. To begin, this story can be seen as a birth into the beginning of self awareness in relationship to an unknown self, world and Creator. God recognizes the man’s existential isolation which can be interpreted as an internal void that is not alleviated with God’s relationship with the man. Why?

        • A Sinner

          Well, the Church has always called it “felix culpa.” But that doesn’t mean an interpretation of the myth as “disobedience” is outside the realm of truth either. It’s all analogical, anyway, and one possible analogy is the “juridical” analogy. In fact, if the Bible suggests anything, it is that the “legal” analogy has an integral role in the Christian system of understanding. Not necessarily a straightforward endorsement: indeed, Paul in Romans sets Law in clear tension or contrast with Grace. But nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that a legal understanding is part of the system, if only as one pole of a tension.

          • Ronald King

            I had to look up felix culpa. Never heard of it. Why would it even be considered a fault? Why isn’t God enough for the man?

        • Joshua B


          I feel like I am still not getting you. Why isn’t God enough for man? In the context of the tree that is precisely what is at issue. God intends to gift man with a share in divinity, man rejects the givenness of the gift and seeks to grasp it for himself. I think it is fair to read the kenotic hymn of Philippians 2 as a foil to the Genesis myth.

          If your question ” why isn’t God enough for man” refers not strictly to the tree but to the creation of woman, then that is a different question, but I suppose an answer might be something like God is too much for man. Man needs to learn to love by loving through his senses. He is the spiritual animal or the physical spirit. There is no getting around our corporeality. there is no getting around, even by God, our need to give and receive human love.

          • Ronald King

            I am sorry I am not clear with my thoughts. Let’s do a mind meld and then you would know how things connect in my brain. Give me a little time and I will try to be succinct or I could somehow email you what I wrote 6 years ago.

        • Joshua B

          It is often difficult to express ourselves with clarify. I struggle with this as well.
          You are welcome to try to be succinct. It’d be helpful to me. But you can always email us: voxnovablog at gmail

    • A Sinner

      Ah yes, the old “what we know now”! As if empirical inquiry has revealed the secrets of attaining virtue.

      • Ronald King

        Empirical inquiry can help with developing a compassionate understanding of what influences the illness of the soul and inhibits the development of virtue.

        • A Sinner

          It can, yes, that I would fully agree. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t get to say what ideal constitutes illness or virtue. It can definitely tell us, from experiential evidence, what can get people more or less effectively to the destination. It doesn’t get to say what that destination is.

          • Ronald King

            I agree

  • Julia Smucker

    I find this a good faithful and intelligent reading of the creation/fall narrative. But one question is sticking in my mind regarding the statement that “a society cannot long function without some common sense of the moral good.” I’ve heard similar observations made in praise of confessional states, which is not where I see you going with this, but it nevertheless springs to my mind and makes me a little squeamish. So what I’m curious about is this (and it’s an honest question, not a rhetorical one): how do you think a common sense of the moral good can be maintained, alongside full religious freedom, in a pluralistic society? I suppose there must be some underlying consensus, but I’m not sure how fully I can articulate what that is.

    • A Sinner

      Actually Julia, your question is really good I think, as I was going to raise a similar point when I read that.

      Having once been something of a theocrat myself, I’ve wondered a lot whether the various consensi of the past on moral questions were ALWAYS maintained by force/power. Even (and especially) Christendom. To me, now, whichever side I stand on, it feels like there are some major questions to answer among those who seem to think that the preservation of a humane society involves BOTH a “common sense of the moral good” AND that society be absolutely non-coercive regarding people’s vision of it.

      Because in truth, it seems like there might NEVER be agreement without force. Monopolies are only ever maintained by force, and without coercion there will inevitably emerge “competition” even and especially when it comes to values and ideals and ideology.

      When there is a total “free market of ideas,” or one based on only enforcing minimal boundaries of “Rights” (that start at my nose), with the State being seen as only there to maximize freedom in this sense (either negatively, through minimizing rights violations, or positively through trying to secure some measure of equality, since without some sort of economic equality there is de facto slavery of the many by the few) rather than the power of the State being seen as there specifically to be channeled towards inculcating or upholding some vision of virtue, some vision of what constitutes human fulfillment or the Good Life…what does one expect?

      This is why the language of the modern “Vatican II” Church often rings hollow. The world it seems to imagine, the “new springtime” it wants to work for…is a world where everyone spontaneously agrees with them even WITHOUT any sort of broader coercive social or political or economic forces at play. Where people all just choose it on their own because of how much the splendor of truth appeals to them. You hear this when they talk about what they imagine for America. “Well, you don’t have to destroy democracy; if we work to convert the culture, if everyone becomes Catholic personally, then the decisions made in the political sphere will just naturally reflect that too!!” But how terribly naive that is. As if the State has ever not had a role in the ordering of a society towards some collective vision of the Good. And then they get this weird resentful attitude when people, don’t, in fact, agree with them, like, “No fair! We gave you your freedom, and you were supposed to use it to prove that, even without coercion, you’d STILL choose us, because of ‘natural law’ and all that. And you’re not! Unfair! Unfair!”

      Of course, it can be said, the State is ALWAYS coercive as long as it exists. Many have pointed out that even in “secularism,” under the guise of ideological “neutrality,” a particular vision of the good is being promoted (a good something like indifferent lowest-common-denominator hedonism to serve the ends of the 1%).

      So then, others will say (and I used to be of this school myself): well, since it must promote something, we might as well, obviously, fight for it to promote OUR vision of the Good, because it will always be promoting SOME vision of the good.

      But something isn’t quite right about this either, because Christendom could, at it’s worst, be just as atrocious, even if I can’t really judge it in its own historical and geopolitical context and the Church and State were just doing what institutions and States do for their own stability’s sake.

      One has to ask then, are there forms of coercion which aren’t coercive? We might call these “incentives.” We know the government, for example, without “forcing” anyone not to smoke…has some influence in terms of how high it makes the taxes on cigarettes. Broad economic policy certainly “manipulates” people’s decisions collectively, as a demographic matter, even if no single individual as such is individually coerced. I wonder, then, if there aren’t ways to promote a moral vision in society without being absolutely coercive?

      This would seem to be the vision that certain traditionalists advocate when speaking of their confessional states. To “tolerance” for all other beliefs, no negative action taken towards them, but positive support (financially, and in terms of the legitimacy that State-support seems to give ideologies) given only to one.

      I don’t know how I feel about that, it seems to be at least one possible “third way” between coercion and “free market” anarchic indifferentism. But personally I’ve thought a lot recently about yet another way still. I don’t know how it would work in practice, really, but one of the things that promoters of the “free market” idea seem to be convinced of is that something like “the search” is itself the meaning of life or something like that. That only decentralized free markets provide a truly authentic measure of value, because anything else enforced (like a “price ceiling”) is necessarily artificial and will thus cause problems.

      My problem with THIS, is that it seems free markets always wind up manipulated. They aren’t free. Since individuals are NOT, in fact, equally endowed with talents and various forms of social (and literal) capital inherited from their family etc etc…the system will always get gamed. This is what we see in our society today; when it comes to both economics AND ideology, the very system and narrative of “freedom” and “neutrality”…is actually used to serve certain interests.

      My thought, then, is what if instead of giving support to no vision of the good life, the State’s neutrality consisted of taking an active interest in the search itself? A State which supports no god in particular…winds up supporting No-God (which is to say, positive atheism). A state which supports no meaning in particular…winds up supporting No-Meaning (which is to say, positive nihilism). But what if the State positively supported something like the “Maybe-God”?

      Again, I’m not sure what that would mean positively. But society would not promote any one Truth as The Truth, but nevertheless would actively support the search for Truth, whatever it may be or not be. Society should not be indifferent to the question of God or Truth or Goodness. It can’t be, for one. The No God of atheism is also a god, as I’ve said. The No Truth of relativism becomes its own Truth. The No Good or No Meaning of nihilism becomes its own vision of the good or of meaning.

      Rather, society or politics should be about that “freedom for” rather than “freedom from,” and that “freedom for” is freedom for seeking the Maybe-God, the Maybe-Truth, the Maybe-Good, the Maybe-Meaning.

      I think.

      • Julia Smucker

        A Sinner, I am strongly inclined toward that both/and that you mention at the beginning of your comment, as it seeks to hold a common social vision and religious freedom in tension against the pitfalls of theocratic coercion on the one hand and relativism on the other, although I agree that this raises some questions.

        At the very least, we all (except perhaps for the anarchists among us) can agree on the necessity of just laws, but the clash of visions in the public square causes disagreement on what makes laws just and on how they can be justly enforced. It seems like more often than not we keep the debate at a more superficial level, arguing about the laws themselves rather than addressing the competing social visions that shape our views of what they ought to be.

      • Joshua B

        Thank you both for your thoughtful replies.

        My statement referencing the need for a common sense of the moral good comes from my (in some cases cursory) knowledge of thinkers like Tocqueville, Ratzinger …even St. Benedict. Ratzinger and Tocqueville make it quite clear that a democracy cannot function without a shared vision of the common good and shared search for the common good. When this dissolves, civil society itself begins to dissolve. John Courtney Murray also saw this. He saw it as the Catholic Church’s role in America to restore this the knowledge of natural law so that the best course of pursuing the common good could be debated in the public sphere. Presently, the common good is nowhere to be found. Truth is irrelevant. All that matters is spending the most money to literally and figuratively buy enough votes to accomplish what you want to accomplish.

        Getting to you question Julia: in short, I don’t know. I am relatively convinced by C.S. Lewis’ exposition of Tao. As humans, we naturally share fundamental notions of right and wrong. Even when we don’t recognize the relevance of the notions with regard to how we treat others, we recognize it, universally, with regard to ourselves. This fact, call it natural law or something else, has been rejected for two purposes: 1) it implies a nature, it implies a creator; it implies that I am not my own arbiter of the good. 2) it is seen as irrelevant and unnecessary because it has been replaced by “rights” talk. Of course the focus on individual rights has led to the neglect of the common good.

        So, I think a society has to have some common basic grounds on which they, as a society, agree. The U.S. once had that,(I think?) but has since lost it.

        As I understand Catholic social thought, the state plays an important albeit limited role in securing peace, justice, and the common good. Thus, I don’t yet understand how anarchism is compatible with CST (although I am open to be enlightened on this). So I definitely see the state as playing a role. Further, I don’t think all coercion is bad. I coerce my kids all the time. All the same, I am beginning to agree more and more with people like Patrick Deneen and the David Schindlers of the Communio school that liberalism is incompatible with Catholicism. It simply isn’t neutral as it claims to be.

        In one of the books shortly before he was elected pope (Christianity and the crisis of cultures or Without Roots) Ratzinger offers a suggestion. He says the post-Christendom secular have been claiming to operate as if God did not exist, to assure neutrality. He argues that the present state of the world shows this is not working. Human dignity is being trampled. He proposes as version of Pascal’s wager. That state should operate as if God did exist. I think he proposal is not what you suggest in the last paragraph A Sinner.

        It is worth contemplating and thinking about what forms that might take.

        • Dante Aligheri

          The problem seems to be this all boils down to a kind of Deism. Who controls how God is defined? What keeps the “maybe-God” from being merely a projection of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (not unlike Robespierre’s or Jefferson’s God)?

          On the other hand, this might not be a bad thing. What I’m thinking of is this common language and philosophy of God which permeated and interlinked Islamic, Jewish, and Christian elites of the medieval period. St. Francis and Shah could talk about what God was because they agreed about What He was. They were able to converse and agree on what God was like because they all operated from similar perspectives. For the most part, their vision of God was at least as much dependent on natural philosophy (what the One “must” be like if nature operates on these principles – simplicity, aseity, etc.) and were willing to reinterpret their religions in that light.

          What we need to bring about this Pascal’s Wager is a restored confidence in natural philosophy and its ability to investigate the question of God from universal principles. By the late Greco-Roman period, many elite pagan philosophers and their Christian counterparts could agree on the basic outline of what the One was like so that Origen and Hypatia could easily agree on the basics. Is such a concensus possible again or was this merely an aristocratic Greco-Roman hegemony?

          I’m convinced at this point that if the One God is really the greatest which can be conceived then logically natural reason ought to be able to define Him. How to keep this from descending into an updated Deism (yet one more philosophically rigorous form than the facile, anthropomorphic 18th century one) is the question, I suppose.

          Fancifully, I can imagine a modern commission of Hindu, Christian (primarily Orthodox and Catholic?), Jewish, and Islamic scholars and philosophers hashing out a common set of characteristics of the One. Maybe it’s wishful thinking.

        • Julia Smucker

          Josh, thanks for this elucidating response. A couple of points to nuance the discussion further:

          1) I agree that in the US today there is often an overemphasis on individual rights at the expense of the common good. On the other hand, isn’t the concept of human rights essentially based on what we know from natural law about what is due to people by virtue of their humanity, even if “natural law” terminology is avoided?

          2) Some form of legal coercion pertaining to specific actions is necessary and just, as long as the law is enforced nonviolently. Coercion of worldview is both unjust (in terms of profession of belief) and impossible (in terms of actual belief). The complication is that a society’s laws necessarily arise out of some social vision, whether that vision is implicit or explicit and whether or not it is shared by all members of that society.

        • A Sinner

          Right, but that’s where the “both/and” can just sound like a wide-eyed pie-in-the-sky sort of idealism.

          Sure, it would be great if everyone were BOTH free AND assented to the Truth. But that’s describing the eschaton.

          In this world, the more “freedom of religion” you have, the less and less will you have any sort of grounding common vision of the Good and the more and more it will be a “capitalist” system of value based entirely on radically individual, radically subjectivist, radically relative personal utility. Monopolies are only ever enforced artificially by some tactic. Though, as I said, there is a difference between favoring one vision positively (while not forbidding others) and trying to negatively outlaw other visions. One can allow competition without saying that the State can’t provide a huge advantage in terms of positive support to one side.

          Sometimes, then, it feels like the hierarchy is speaking out two sides of their mouth. They pretend to be all for the Liberal vision, democracy, freedom of religion and all that…but then somehow also still express indignation when there isn’t some sort of basic agreement, at least on “natural” morality and theology. Well, what did they expect when the bag was opened? That the cat would just stay in it out of its own free will?

          The problem is, in some sense, with their natural law notions. I’ve said before something like “the natural law is still Catholic.” That is to say, even if it involves propositions derived from Reason rather than Revelation, the fact is that it is still ultimately the Reasoning of one group. It may be correct, but they seem upset that it isn’t just “obvious” to everyone else. As if they think, even if the Church gives up trying to enforce Revealed Religion or supernatural notions on anyway, that it should still get to set the values when it comes to the sphere of the natural. I think partly they’re just upset that what they’ve tried to claim is mere philosophical-anthropology without Revelation…is not as “obvious” or “above sect” or “prior to faith” as they’ve always tried to claim. Once you give up a claim to impose a vision of the supernatural on people…you also give up any claim to expect them to still hold to your vision of the natural.

          Of course, there are various positions they might adopt. “The State should still uphold the Catholic vision of natural law, just not the supernatural propositions.” But at that point, one is left wondering…why draw the line there? If you’re going to be upholding an ideology-specific vision, you might as well uphold the whole thing. But if you’re not upholding the whole thing, then ideological “freedom” has to mean freedom, even for the nihilists.

        • A Sinner

          “The problem seems to be this all boils down to a kind of Deism. Who controls how God is defined? What keeps the ‘maybe-God’ from being merely a projection of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (not unlike Robespierre’s or Jefferson’s God)?”

          I think you misunderstand my notion of the Maybe-God, Dante. It isn’t some sort of Deism. The Maybe-God might not even exist. Rather, the Maybe-God represents something like the question, “God?” It is not defined in any concrete way at all, nor does it either deny or demand the possibility of any further concrete definition.

          “Fancifully, I can imagine a modern commission of Hindu, Christian (primarily Orthodox and Catholic?), Jewish, and Islamic scholars and philosophers hashing out a common set of characteristics of the One. Maybe it’s wishful thinking.”

          Especially since, in any real pluralism, you’d have to include atheists, agnostics, existentialists, and nihilists!

      • Poor Jeremiah

        Hmm, but if the state enshrines the search for Truth as its foundation, wouldn’t that be at the detriment to the Truth itself? I’m just not sure that works as a solution – it sounds like a pseudo-Buddhist, saying “if you find the Church on the road, destroy it.”

        • A Sinner

          Well, Poor Jeremiah, your question, to me, assumes some sort of weird opposition between “Truth” and “The Truth.”

          I’ve spoken before about the notion of The Truth™ or God™.

          In reality, Truth has to be given priority over “THE Truth” and, I’d say with Meister Eckhart, Godhead has to be given priority over God.

          Because THE Truth is only valuable inasmuch as it is Truth, and God is only worthy of our consideration inasmuch as He is divine. The universal, the category, the abstract…has to be prioritized over the concrete, specific, or particular.

          If you are setting Truth and The Truth in opposition, as if a valuation of Truth (and the honest search for it) might undermine “THE Truth” as if it’s more important to artificially uphold a specific vision rather than the meta-principle that there are visions worth upholding…you wind up pulling the rug out from under yourself.

          I would be much more inclined to fight a war for the meta-idea that some ideas are worth fighting for…than I would be to fight a war for any one specific idea.

          God (or, rather God™) can become an idol too. By which I mean, we can make an idol of our human idea or conception OF God. And, here’s the important part: that can be true EVEN IF that conception is true or accurate. Because God is more important than our idea of God, and Truth is more important than our notion of what specifically constitutes THE Truth, even if our notion is actually correct.

        • Poor Jeremiah

          Well, part of that was lazy and inexact grammar usage, but whatever, we’ll do it live! :V
          My concern with the idea of enshrining the search is that if you incentivize the journey, why would people settle down in their home (whatever that might be)? I’m just not sure how different that would be from the no-God worshiping system we have now — to say “search for truth!” but then not go beyond that seems to imply (in my eyes) that one doesn’t care about that truth is, in the end, it’s just the search that matters.

          “The universal, the category, the abstract…has to be prioritized over the concrete, specific, or particular.” — In all things, or a more circumscribed field? But is that the case in the light of the Incarnation? If we take seriously that God became a singular, particular, concrete human being, doesn’t that raise those attributes to the dignity of the former? We don’t just say God became Man, but that God became THAT Man Jesus, son of Mary, who lived in the hamlet of Nazareth as a boy while Augustus and Tiberius ruled Rome.

          “as if it’s more important to artificially uphold a specific vision rather than the meta-principle that there are visions worth upholding” — But a meta-principle is still a principle, it’s still taking a stance saying that there are visions/principles/axioms worth fighting for, to which someone can say “no there aren’t, not even this one I’m saying”(the ultimate apathy!) and we’re back where we started, either to uphold *some* kind of specific principle rather than none, even if it’s a meta-principle.

          “I would be much more inclined to fight a war for the meta-idea that some ideas are worth fighting for…than I would be to fight a war for any one specific idea.” — I think I would be too, psychologically. It requires much less sticking out of my neck to say “there’s something worth fighting for” than “there’s something worth fighting for, and it’s THIS”, for one! Compare Hemingway’s “The world is a fine place, and worth the fighting for” from For Whom the Bell Tolls to the martyrs, who are very specific about what they’re dying for. And as much as I love Papa I think the latter throughout the ages just “got it”.

          “we can make an idol of our human idea or conception OF God.” — Yes, I think you are very correct on that account. It can happen, and we should always be on guard that we are not shutting out the voice of God in favor of our small totalities. But just because that can happen, does that mean we should refrain from saying that, say, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”?

        • A Sinner

          Poor Jeremiah, I think you misunderstand me. I’m talking here about what the State should favor, not what the individual should favor. By all means, of course, as individuals we should advocate what we believe to be the concrete and particular Truth. As you say, what’s the point of the search if you don’t believe there is, in fact, something to search for? (Or, at least, might be.) But a political vision is a different thing.

          As for God becoming particular in Jesus Christ, I had anticipated the objection, but then I think of what Von Balthasar said of the Church: “She enters into the world and becomes for the world one religion among others, one community among others, one doctrine and truth among others- just as Christ became one man among others, outwardly indistinguishable from them.”

    • Joshua B

      Thanks for the questions.
      1) I have studied this in any depth, but it seems to me that the normative concept of human rights in currency today probably originally grew out of “natural law” but now stands on a different ground. Originally, in the Catholic view, it would have been part of a participatory metaphysics or at least some natural recognition of human solidarity. Now it stands on the ground of an atomistic view of Newtonian physics. It lacks any reference to solidarity, to the common good.

      2) Correct. The present problem, I think, is exacerbated by the oft ignored, unrecognized, or hidden fact of the implicit transformative/corruptive power of the liberal state. Stephen Macedo has an article entitled “Transformative Constitutionalism and the Case of Religion: Defending the Moderate Hegemony of Liberalism,” in which he defends the “moderate hegemony of liberalism.” What is striking, to me, is how forthright he is about liberalism’s transformative dimension. The liberal (in the broad classical sense) state through subtle and implicit means (including public education) seeks to transform religious and other belief systems in directions that support the state. In other words, the goal of the liberal state is to make it such that Catholics in America are more American than Catholic.

      In this sense I completed agree with you, A Sinner, when you write “Sometimes, then, it feels like the hierarchy is speaking out two sides of their mouth. They pretend to be all for the Liberal vision, democracy, freedom of religion and all that…but then somehow also still express indignation when there isn’t some sort of basic agreement, at least on “natural” morality and theology. Well, what did they expect when the bag was opened? That the cat would just stay in it out of its own free will?”

      It seems to me they have been duped by liberalism. Thus their responses to the HHS mandate have been couched in the language of liberalism, or the state. They have implicitly recognized the state’s claim to be the catholica, but they are completely unaware of having done so.

      Thus, some -like Patrick Deneen and others – are beginning to ask whether liberalism is compatible with Catholicism at all? With true freedom at all? If not then we must start imagining a new category or the statehood which is truly open to pluralism instead of being only apparently open to pluralism but actually an enforcer of a certain subtle and insidious kind of tyranny.
      (P.S.) I also think the liberal project is joined at the hip with an post-industrial /technological worldview which acts as a vital part of its system of indoctrination, separating people from contact with nature and from true personal experiences with each other, pleasuring them into mindless submission, and training them to see the world as made in man’s image rather than a gifted to man in God’s image

      • Ronald King

        Joshua, The P.S. which you added existed since I became self-aware around the age of 3 which was 63 years ago. Nothing has changed except we have found new ways to protect ourselves from other people and what is in our own minds. One thing good about technology is the potential to have a powerful influence to increase awareness of suffering and provide help.

      • Julia Smucker

        Josh, I’m not following the connection to Newtonian physics as a basis for human rights. Can you explain?

        Your point about being duped by liberalism (which, I would add, applies to much of the US Catholic laity as well as the hierarchy) reminds me of what Gerald Schlabach wrote in Commonweal last October, in reference to the HHS mandate and the Fortnight for Freedom:

        “U.S. Catholic bishops have attempted to articulate a case for their faith’s communal rights and values. They are doing so in the American dialect of individual rights – at best a clumsy idiom for articulating the communitarian nuances of Catholic convictions concerning the deeply social nature of the human person. This kind of public discourse can only take the church so far.”

        And a bit later on:

        “Maybe it is ineed time for our bishops to lead us into life as a remnant church, and to use the Catholic issues listed in the call to a Fortnight for Freedom as a launching pad. It is hard to discern any such strategy, however, when the committee’s letter deploys the language of American exceptionalism, speaking of freedom as ‘our special heritage.’ A remnant church would in fact condemn American exceptionalism as a heresy, one in which the Christian vision of a transnational people of God called by Jesus to be a city on a hill is replaced by America’s competing claim to be that city. It would mean teaching Catholics in this country not to conflate their Christian identity with their American one, but to distinguish it.”

        The way I see it, the social pressure to be more American than Catholic can lead us into the contradiction of trying to articulate certain countercultural values using a culturally dominant idiom. I’m hard pressed to articulate what a more faithful alternative is, but I would think it would be less dependent on political sway, and more kenotic somehow.

        • Joshua B


          You wrote: “, I’m not following the connection to Newtonian physics as a basis for human rights. Can you explain?”

          Not well, and the Newtonian part is not a big part of my argument. As I understand it, the dominant world-view of our society could be describes as techno-cratic individualism. The philosophical currents which led to this cannot really be separated from the scientific climate (Darwin and Newton) prevalent at the time because “science” became the new queen of the sciences. Thus Newtonian physics (i.e. the atom) we get a philosophically atomistic and individualistic view of humanity. Without this liberalism wouldn’t function in nearly the same way.

          I agree wholeheartedly with Schlabach.

          Imagining an alternative first requires that we don’t abandon the political fight. It need not be an either/or. We remain citizens. We continue to have the responsibility to argue/lobby for better policies, but I agree the current rhetoric being used by the USCCB is counter-productive.
          Second, I think, it requires relatively small local communities embodying a different sort of politics, economics, etc. We need intentional and joyful Christian communities bearing witness to and enacting the drama that is the Gospel, the divine comedy — bearing witness with humble a contrite hearts. We, the Church, can no longer claim to be better than the world. Scandal has ruined our credibility. Our witness must be kenotic. We must embody a cruciform ecclesiology, one which is transparent about faults and failures, one which is not self-referential, but concerned with these least brothers of Jesus.

          When the world sees the joy of the Gospel lived in integrity, the world will see hope and will be moved.

          This will take time.It must be organic and cannot be structurally forced from the top down. (see my post on the mission of Benedict).

  • turmarion

    Maybe the late, great Frank Herbert had the right idea.

  • Poor Jeremiah

    (Moving here for more space, A Sinner)
    You may need to explain how it’s different for the State to stand for the Search, when we as individuals should stand for the Destination. Because if it is indifferentism on our individual parts to not care about where people end up, how does the State (which at the end of the day is made up of individuals) get a pass on that? I’m cool with the idea that the state has different responsibilities than individuals, but I’m not seeing it clearly in this case.

    I like the Balthasar quote, buuuuut… how to square that with the Church being the salt of the earth? We’re not meant to be just one sect among others, but to hold our lamps to light up the world? Now I don’t think Balthasar (or you) are claiming we should hide ourselves away, only letting in those few who find us through the trials and tribulations we set on the path, but from the start the Church has had an understanding of her mission as being specially different and privileged among all other religious traditions, and so it seems weird that to work for a state that would at least not hinder the church, we’d have to ignore that?

    • A Sinner

      Yes, Poor Jeremiah, we have an understanding of ourselves as “special.” Just like Christ was actually God. But not really “self-evidently” so. As Von Balthasar said, He became one man among other men, outwardly indistinguishable from them. The Church may hold up Her lamp, of course, but you’ve gotta accept that a hundred other communities and systems will also be holding up their lamps. The Church may be shouting “We’re the Truth!” But so is every other religion. It’s like a scene in a movie where there is a hero and the hero’s clone, and both are pleading with the protagonist with a gun to shoot the other because “I’m the real one!”

  • Kerberos

    “Their responses reveal, among other things, their inability to step outside of a literal/historical hermeneutic. I try to help them approach from a different perspective: what does the tree represent?”

    ## Under one of its aspects, the story is a Jewish version of the taboo story – & the function of the taboo is, to be broken. The inability of people to see anything in the story but a text that is intended to be a diary of the first humans on earth is indescribably depressing – and attacks on the story that assume it is intended to be historically factual are equally crass. The result has been to land the Church with theological monstrosities like “proving” the Resurrection happened as an historical event; that is as crass as the atheistic silliness of trying to disprove the efficacy of intercessory prayer by having a group of patients not being prayed for, and another being prayed for. Fundamentalism is arguably the greatest error of modern times – and the CC is barely aware of it.

    The tree’s function is what is important – it does not “represent” anything. It has the quality of being a tree which bestows universal knowledge – that is the meaning of the polarity of terms “good” and “evil”. This is entirely appropriate to the sort of world to which it belongs: it is the world of primaeval unity “before history”, the unity of experience in which the impossibilities that are part of human history do not exist. In this primaeval world, a snake can debate (doubtless in perfect Hebrew) with a woman, and the eating of fruit can endow the eater with life or knowledge or some other quality. As this takes place in a garden that is “outside” or “before” history – the meaning of “in the east”, which is a distancing device, like “Once upon a time”, or “before the Flood”, or the like – in which God walks, it takes place in a numinous location not accessible to men. Adam does not go to it – he is placed in it. Such locations cannot be found by us who in history; they are found only by those who are not looking for them. The garden in Eden has a significant name – both LXX & Vulgate translate it, as “pleasure[s]” – though there may be a reference to the region Bit-Adini, and even to Sumerian EDIN, “steppe-country”.

    The story is one of several that is informed by the *motif* of disobedience in the midst of abundance; this is found in several of the Exodus stories. The importance of the taboo is emphasised by the near-absence of any mention of the other trees in the garden.

    This story is one variant of the transgression-motif in the Primaeval History. The serpent “crosses boundaries” or (less neutrally) “exceeds the limits” assigned to him, by having the human ability to reason and speak. The man & woman “exceeds the limits” assigned to them, by breaking the taboo. The “sons of G/god[s]” “exceeds the limits” assigned to them, by taking women as their wives. The Flood story shows the waters “above” & “under” doing likewise, to punish “all flesh” for their trans-gressions. The Sodom story reverses that found in Genesis 6.1-4. And the men who build the Tower “exceed the limits” assigned to them. The same motif is found in the “fallen god” myths in Ezekiel 28 & Isaiah 14, & elsewhere in Ezekiel.

    Many of these motifs are found outside Israel, or are reversed in the NT – Acts 14 & the events at Lystra reverses the transgression-motif, and is about men who preach a Christ Who has reversed it. There is a great deal in the story in Gen.2-3, and people lose a lot by focussing on trivia. There is also the issue of what “literal” means – for the word is used to mean two rather different things: (1) the semantic meaning of a text – & (2) whether the text relates an historical event:

    (1) The literal meaning of “Sauron” is “Abhorred”.

    (2) “The Lord of the Rings” is not literally true

    (3) TLOTR must be understood literally, as must the Biblical texts, because the letter of a text is the way to finding out its literary type and what it signifies. Gen. 2-3 is a myth, not history, and it does not need to be history in order to be inexhaustible in meaning. To say it must be history to be true, is a prejudice, based upon – what ?

    (4) Tree, fruit, man, woman, serpent, garden exist in the historical world of human existence – that they should be found in human stories is to be expected, and is no evidence that the stories are historically factual. TLOTR is not about people in human history – but their qualities, virtues & vices are recognisably real. So with Gen.2-3.