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27th August 2014

Fallen ... but HOW?

by Norman Walford   

Last week on the golf course, we encountered a troop of monkeys whose members
had picked out one of their number and seemed to be trying to drown him/her in
one of the large ponds that are scattered along the course. We scared them away.
The victim was left standing alone by the water, staring around him disconsolately.
He didn’t even have the motivation to move away to a safer place. Primates are
generally highly social animals, and the psychological effects of ostracism by their
fellows can be devastating. I don’t know if they came back to finish the job when we
were gone, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Fallenness, it seems, is not the prerogative of the human race. Other primates have
it too. Perhaps where we differ is in having eaten from the tree that gives knowledge
of good and evil which may explain we would take the trouble to scare off that pack
of bullying, malevolent monkeys who apparently had no conscience at all about their
brutal behaviour.

I’ve noticed this fallenness before, in other species. When I lived in Saudi Arabia we
often encountered troops of baboons hanging round the lay-bys on the highways,
hoping for a free meal. Watching the utter selfishness of their ‘might is right’
behaviour towards one another, I often found myself thinking, “This must be what it’
s like in Hell.”

The Bible actually has two accounts of what is often referred to as "the Fall". There's
one in Genesis, and there's one in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and they are
substantially different. We tend to overlook the differences. What happens is, we
take Paul’s account—and the interpretation popularised by large segments of the
church over hundreds of years, including such notables as Augustine—and we read it
back into the Genesis narrative, without realizing what we are doing.

If you blank out Paul's later commentary, forget everything he said about it (which is
not that easy to do) and just take the Genesis 3 account on its own, it seems to me
to be addressing a slightly different issue to the one that Paul deals with. The
question addressed in Genesis 3 is not "How did we get to be so utterly cut off from
God?" Or "How did death come into our lives?" But rather, "Why is everyday life so
damned HARD??"

The story opens with Adam and Eve in the garden. (Eden in Hebrew means delight by
the way). It had a pretty nice climate, requiring only a limited amount of agricultural
effort to produce abundant food. Childbirth was painless, and probably a few other
benefits. After they eat the fruit, Adam and Eve—as well as everyone who came
after—find themselves booted out of this congenial environment into a rather more
harsh and unforgiving place. Now they have to slave from morning to night to eke out
a basic survival in the face of droughts, floods and pestilence. Childbirth is no longer
painless, and life is generally a whole lot tougher and more challenging. We may
even see a gradual, generation-by-generation drift further away from God. But what
we don’t see here is a once-and-for-all sudden dramatic shutting off of the
relationship with God.

All this is not really surprising. After all, the story was written originally to be read by
Jews, and Jews didn't (and still don’t) see themselves as being spiritually dead or
spiritually cut off from God. They saw themselves as being God's chosen people, and
very much spiritually alive. They were however very aware of the hardness of the
struggle for every day survival. They knew all about the frequently hostile climate,
famines, precarious food supply, not to mention disease, war, oppressive rulers, and
all the other problems that afflicted mankind in those the ancient times. So a story
that comes across as saying something like, The reason your lives are so hard is
because you have disobeyed God, would have made a lot of sense to them.

Probably a lot of Christians have no real interest in understanding Genesis in isolation
from Paul. They take the view that St. Paul has explained to us what the story really
means, and that's all that really matters.

For myself, since I've moved away from the "magic book" approach to biblical
interpretation, and prefer now to approach it more according to the principle of
“original intent", I'm very interested. I'm actually interested in both—what the writer
of Genesis was trying to convey, and also how Paul used the story to convey his own
understanding of the human predicament. I think they are both important.

When we come to St Paul, it's perhaps worth bearing in mind his context. Paul’s
primary objective in Romans is to convey a message about the extraordinary
greatness and magnificence of the salvation that is on offer. And in order to make
this meaningful he needs to spend the first few chapters building up on just how bad
we really are, and the dire predicament that the human race is in. Unless he can
demonstrate our total lostness, it’s hard to demonstrate to us our need for a saviour.
This is why Adam comes in for such a hammering. St Paul knows existentially from
his own experience that the human race is lost. I think most of us when we are born
again go through that existential process of understanding: if I've been "saved" then
presumably before it happened I must have been "not saved"; and if I was "not
saved" before, then presumably others must also be in that same situation. I
certainly did. It was probably my first thought after I became a Christian.

So we know it empirically, by common sense and logic, but—for a first century letter-
writer—it’s actually quite difficult to prove theologically. The reason it's difficult to
prove theologically is that it's not a very active Old Testament concept. As I've said,
the Jews didn't see themselves as lost and in need of a saviour; and their sacred
writings reflect that. Probably they still don't, which is why a lot of them are
unimpressed with Christianity and Jesus Christ.

So Paul is looking around for ways to make his point that we are indeed hopelessly
lost and that without Christ there’s just no hope. He talks a bit about the realities of
human behaviour that we can all observe; he finds a few helpful Old Testament
quotes; and then he comes to Adam who makes a convenient scapegoat. He’s not
disagreeing with the Genesis account, he’s just taking it a whole lot further, making it
somewhat more extreme than the original story portrays.

This doesn’t make Paul wrong of course. The story in Genesis is probably a symbolic
rather than a literal one, so Paul is entirely at liberty to reinterpret the symbols as he
feels fit. A parable can be looked at in many ways, that’s the whole point of a parable,
it speaks on many levels. I’m just suggesting that his perspective is a little different
from what most people might think. He's trying to emphasize the lostness of
humanity by whatever means he can in order to magnify the greatness of our
salvation through Jesus Christ.

For myself, I don’t really need Paul's understanding of Genesis 3 to make the point. I
can see how lost we are just by opening my eyes and looking around. I can see it in
our human world, just as I can see it among the murderous monkeys on the golf
course and among the brutalized baboons. That, tells me all I need to know about the
lostness of the human race. The primary issue is not in how we got here, but in what
we are, that we are indeed lost. How we got to be what we are, what is the actual
origin of that lostness and sinfulness, is a different question. And for that question i
don't have to look much further than the monkeys and baboons to see a fairly
obvious answer

nd I think that the monkeys and baboons give me a pretty good answer to that
question also.

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Februrary 2014

Oh Juno! ... What Have You Done??

January 2014

A Tale of Two Churches: St

Universalism - Did Paul Believe in Hell?    

Universalism - Did Jesus Really Believe in

A New Beginning - Is it REALLY That

November 2013

The Green eyed Monster  

One Church or Two - How Many do I

If I'd known how difficult it was going
to be, I don't think I would ever have
become a Christian, but I didn't so I did,
That was in November 1969.

I've not had too many problems with
God, once I understood what it was
about, but with the church I've had
plenty. Its the community you can't live
within and you can't live without. It
was the struggle to resolve this
paradox that led me to write my book
How To Survive in the Pharisee Church
in 2009.

Now in my blog I write about issues of
practical Christianity  in general,
including most recently a satirical bent
as in
The Chronicles of the Pharisee
Church of St Gregory-the-Try-Harder
, a
semi-mythical (but mostly real)
Anglican church on the island of
Singapore, where I live.