The concept of the Fall in Christianity is one of its most notable ideas, codified into doctrine with the understanding of Original Sin which stems from the Fall. We have already examined aspects of the Fall in the thought of St. Augustine in these posts here and here. Now we turn to a more cursory understanding of the Fall in Christianity and what it is communicating in the world of philosophical anthropology.
I. Imago Dei
The doctrine of imago Dei is the “image of God.” This is not necessarily Christian-only, as it is found in Judaism, and also factors prominently in Sufi strands of Islam. Aspects of imago Dei thought are also present in Platonic and Ciceronian-Stoic philosophy. The main concept of imago Dei is that humanity, being in the image of God, is endowed with reason and desire in a unitive harmony that work together. Reason allows humans to know themselves, the world, and their desires, and therefore guides desire to what it seeks to find fulfillment.
Christianity’s unique contribution within the realm of imago Dei was to divinize desire. Platonic and Roman Stoic thought had acknowledge human reason as the “divine spark” that made humans like the gods. As Cicero explains in his treatise On the Laws, Reason is the bridge between man and God – but we may better understand these non-Christian philosophies as more or less saying a “likeness to God” rather than image of God. While later Platonic (middle and late Platonic especially) thought started to move toward an understanding that eros could be a positive force (especially in Plutarch), there was a general aversion to desire in ancient philosophy because of its connotation with becoming “enslaved to one’s passions.” Stoicism, in particular, emphasized the primacy of mind over desire – Epictectus, for instance, argued that true freedom is the tranquility of the mind while true slavery was being subservient to one’s animalistic desires. Christianity, however, took a more paradoxical approach that is often confused and misunderstood – in part, because of the Fall – in which desire is actually something wholly good and, indeed, divine.
While Greek and Roman philosophies of the time either saw the erotic as emerging from something that was lost (see Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium especially), or was something to control if not otherwise eliminate (Stoicism and more radical forms of Stoicism concerning the elimination of desire), Christianity saw desire as something good. This is the result of its theology that God is love and love is God. (Just as it saw Reason as the stamp of God because Reason is God and God is Reason; e.g. “Logos theology.”) Thus, an essential aspect of imago Dei is the idea of a unitive harmony between the transcendentals (rationalism) and phenomenological (bodily). Reason and desire were originally in a harmony.
II. Harmony with Nature
Another aspect of the pre-Fall Christian anthropological portrait is that humans originally shared a harmonious relationship with nature. While this should not be construed to modern environmentalist and holistic (Gaia) ends since there is also an established hierarchy with man as the crowning achievement of the creation story, nevertheless humanity was not estranged or alienated from nature. Humans lived with nature.
St. Augustine, for instance, understood the “man living in a garden” motif to be expressing this idea. After all we find in Genesis 2 Adam (man) in the garden living and naming all the animals. While Adam (man) never found fulfillment from the animals and wildlife, he was neither estranged, alienated, or domineering in his relationship to nature. Humanity was meant to live with, and enjoy, the rest of nature.
Continuing with commentary concerning the imago Dei that Adam had, he walks through the garden and names all of the animals. In Greek this is cata-logon, “according to Reason.” Because humans have the gift of reason, they are able to understand the natural world which is what Adam is doing when he is naming all of the animals according to natural reason – he is able to observe and understand the animals and how they live and work, etc.
III. The Social Animus: Fulfillment with Others
Then comes the next step of this story. The creation of woman. Eve was taken from Adam’s ribs, his side, implying a harmonious co-equality between man and woman. As Augustine again explains, “The woman, then, is the creation of God, just as is the man; but her creation out of man emphasizes the idea of unity between them” (City of God, 22.17).
Since man was alone and unfulfilled God creates woman to bring about human fulfillment. Two are bound as one. In fact, the word “individualism” comes from the Latin word individuum meaning “indivisible” which implies two (or more) coming together in unity. The unity between man and woman implies a social animus in humanity – that humans instinctively desire companionship and togetherness which is what is represented in this part of the story as Augustine said. There is no coercion, no domineering ethos, and no “rupture” between humans as of yet. There is only cooperative and harmonious love between them.
IV. Paradise Lost: Rupture and the Meaning of “The Fall”
The Fall is one of the more confusing ideas in Christianity because, let us be frank, Protestantism’s “everyone his own pope” idea of interpretation has led to a discontinuity in how Christianity (e.g. Catholicism and Orthodoxy) had long understood these stories. And they are stories. Anyone familiar with the first few centuries of Christianity – the Patristic Period – knows that most of the great Church doctors, saints, and bishops tended to take these stories in an allegorical manner. In fact, in Confessions, Augustine credits St. Ambrose for “opening his eyes” to allegorical readings of the Bible and the profundity and deep truths that are contained therein from such readings.
The idea that humans were immortal and lost immorality is a mostly Protestant invention of the 16th century that is foreign to earlier Christian traditions. Prominent Patristic and medieval writers, like Origen, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas all remark that humans were actually created mortal. That “death” which is spoken of refers to the spiritual death of the soul – the rupture between man and God and not the loss of an ontological immorality as often thought.
I’m not going to go into the details of the Fall since I’ve done that in the aforementioned posts linked in the first paragraph. Instead I am to focus on the theme of rupture that is being communicated in the Fall narrative.
1. The Rupture Between Reason and Desire
The Fall in traditional Christianity meant that rupture between reason and desire within the human person. It was, as Augustine wrote about, the corruption of the imago Dei. That corruption is the disintegration of the unity between reason and desire. This leads to an internal death where human desire – which seeks happiness – is unable to derive the ultimate happiness that it seeks because we no longer understand ourselves and our place in the world.
Christianity’s anthropology is teleological. That is, it asserts that there is a nature (or end) to humanity and that that nature is eudemonia (happiness). Because Christianity rejects strict rationalism and strict materialism, it rejects the “mind only” approach of Stoicism and Gnosticism, and the “matter only” hedonism of Epicureanism. Christianity is maintaining that bodily happiness can only be satisfied through knowing the ends of human bodies and what human bodies are made for (Aquinas writes about this at length in the sections on happiness and love in the second volume of the Summa).
According to traditional Christianity, the eating of the fruit was humanity’s attempt to derive greater happiness for themselves out of pure desire. In rejecting Reason, and since Reason is God, that means humans rejected God. And since Christ is understood as pre-incarnate Reason (or Logos) and incarnate Reason (after the incarnation), this also means more specifically that humans rejected Christ. In doing this humans gave themselves entirely over to their desires. It was done, Augustine says, with “good intent” insofar that humans were seeking happiness. But in rejecting reason this caused a destabilized disharmony between human reason and human desire which is corrupted and ruptured. The idea that “I know what I should do, but don’t do it” is an apt phrase to describe this idea.
2. The Rupture Between Humans
The more important aspect of the Fall is the rupture between humans. When God (Reason) confronts Adam and Eve, he turns to Adam and asks why he has done what he has done. In the Genesis story Adam responds by blaming God – “this woman you created,” he barks, gave him the fruit to eat from. Traditional Christian interpretations read this as the “rationalization” of actions. Humans attempt to justify, unjustifiably, their actions. They rationalize their wrong doings so as to not admit their wrong doings.
This moment where Adam essentially blames Eve is the mark of rupture between humans. There no longer exists that harmonious unity between humans that was previously shared. A rupture has occurred between humans where we distrust one another, seek to dominate each other, and lust after others to satisfy our own self-centered desires. Reason (God) tells us that this is not how it should be, but we engage in domineering, coercive, and aggressive actions towards others anyway because we are now entirely selfish (self-centered).
And, of course, by Genesis 4, we see envy and jealousy running rampant in the story of Cain and Abel which leads to a physical death in Cain murdering Abel. So not only is there an internal death that is the result of the disharmony between reason and desire, there is physical death because of humanity’s jealously, self-centered, and anger which is embodied in the person of Cain.
3. The Rupture Between Humans and Nature
The final rupture is between humanity and nature. Augustine comments on what it meant to be “expelled from the garden” and to wander the world. For him this meant the end of that previous harmonious relationship of living in, and with, nature that was communicated in Genesis 2. Humans now see nature as hostile, something to dominate, and something to completely serve them. Nature, in essence, becomes entirely objectified to serve man’s self-seeking ways.
The expulsion from the garden marks the end of humanity’s relationship with nature. It marks the turn to humanity’s domineering attitude toward nature. Rather than be stewards and help nature to flourish – and as nature flourishes we flourish along with it as Sts. Bonaventure and Francis famously explained – humans dominate nature and bring forth nature’s destruction which, consequently, also leads to our own destruction as we cannot truly survive without nature. This is why, as St. Paul writes in Romans, that nature groans for its restoration too.
V. The “Paradise” that was Lost
So in Christianity, the “paradise” that was lost in the Fall was the loss of the harmonious unity that humans shared with one another, with nature, and also the unity of their internal composition concerning the anthropology of imago Dei (the unity of reason and human which would lead to living fulfilled lives). The Fall is not a story about the loss of ‘immortality’ but the loss of the beatific union which itself is situated in a trinitarian manner: the union between God and humanity (anthropologically speaking), the union between man and woman (socially speaking), and the union between humanity and nature (cosmically speaking).
Thus we can say that the theme of the Fall is rupture. Of course, this view takes the assumption that there was a unity and harmony at an earlier state. While there is deep allegory within the Christian tradition, one should not forget that even allegory (at least conceived of in the Patristic and medieval periods) also entailed a certain literalness to it. Rather than living beings being naturally aggressive and domineering, Christianity opts to suggest that such aggressive and domineering attitudes are the result of the Fall. Rupture. Rupture. Rupture. And of course, that means the soteriology of Christianity is the bridging of that rupture – a restoration back to the harmonious unity between God and humanity, between man and woman, and between humanity and nature that was “lost” in the Fall.