I’m no theology expert, so you should take my observations on theology with reservation. I’m also not a proselytizer or apologist, only a guy with ideas. If you’re okay with that, then keep reading.
I don’t intend for this to be a blog about religion, but I’ve attracted enough argument that now I’ve started, I need to address at least one more thing that keeps coming up, the Fall. To me the Fall of Adam and Eve — a story I do not take literally! — is the advent of conscious language manipulation, which brought knowledge, the ego, and abstractions like Good and Evil into the world. The Fall made humans approach God as Logos — Greek for “Word,” more or less, and referenced in John’s gospel where he describes Jesus as “the Word made flesh.”
The advent of language creates a problem between the divine and humanity. Once you have this concept of Good and Evil, all your actions may involve you in evil. I have friends who are vegans because they don’t want to hurt animals, but there is no food cultivation that does not hurt so-called “pest” animals. Also, animals will overpopulate and die in misery unless they are humanely killed or sterilized, so they will need to be inconvenienced somehow. Veganism may be more compassionate than being carnivorous, at least factory-farm carnivorous, but it isn’t free of evil. I’m choosing one example at random here. I know some contrarian will try to dodge this by submitting a perfect act, like saving a baby, but while I agree that saving a baby is good and you’re probably a monster if you don’t, even saving a baby may involve compromise.
How can God be all good if he permits evil to exist? St. Augustine tried to dodge this question by suggesting that evil is the suppression of a higher order of God’s good, and therefore really doesn’t exist, which strikes me as a word game. No, thanks to Adam’s defiance, which opened his eyes to abstraction and his own moral agency, every action involves humans in moral tradeoffs.
As Christians like to say, we are Fallen creatures.
Admittedly, God talks to Adam in Genesis before the Fall, and Adam names the animals, which seems to hurt my case. But Genesis is not logically consistent. For instance, Eve makes value judgments about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before she has her eyes opened by its fruit. Also, it is possible that God first spoke before the Fall and that to hear was to obey, that the Fall was the point at which language gave rise to the linear information processing necessary to manipulate ideas and form a conception of the self and our moral agency. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes posits a God Voice originating in the right hemisphere’s redundant lateral speech center that corresponds to Wernicke’s area, which is in the left hemisphere of the brain. He suggests that before true consciousness humans heard and took direction from this voice without reflection. When stimulated with electricity, the region opposite Wernicke’s area gives rise to voices of authority telling a person what to do, and in a similar way psychotics hear voices directing their actions. As the ego coalesced and people owned their thoughts, the gods would seem to speak less and less, and thus people became responsible for their own actions. The preconscious were not culpable, for the same reason we judge people today not guilty by reason of insanity.
Jaynes set ego development on an implausibly short and recent timeline, but overall, he may be right.
In any case, language and abstractions go together. The perfect Word that came from God is now fraught with contradiction as we use language for ourselves to form judgments. Before we mastered language and developed ego, we were blameless. Now we’re not.
Since God created us and got us into this mess, how can God be good, especially if you consider that blaming Adam for doing evil before evil existed is kind of unfair? Enter the Avatar. The avatar is the earthly incarnation of a god, at once both Logos and flesh. The avatar resolves this contradiction. Sometimes the avatar arrives to the flesh through immanence, a mere mortal who awakens to his divine nature, like the Buddha; sometimes the avatar comes down from above, transcendent and miraculous, born of a virgin, or possibly appearing out of thin air. The avatar represents the junction of head logic, which is a function of language, with animal instinct, at the level of the chest or heart. (This metaphor may be clearer if you read my post “Born Religious.”) Instead of simply following the Word in a book and getting it wrong all the time, humans enter a relationship with the avatar. Christ is the avatar that continues to live in hearts, helping us to walk the path that least involves us in evil, and offering us reconciliation with the Logos when we inevitably sin.
The avatar is a movement away from abstraction, away from mere language, to engagement with the messy physical world. The Christ avatar is the living Word, the spirit of the law rather than its letter. Therefore, fundamentalism and Biblical literalism strike me as a contradiction for Christians, the veneration of Logos above the Word Made Flesh. Catholics are often falsely accused of idolatry. They do not worship idols. Their icons and corpus-crucifixes are reminders of the physicality of Christ, and the paradox of the Logos being flesh. Christ was big on paradox. “Love your enemies”? That’s nonsensical. You hate your enemies by definition. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” but no one is without sin, so how can anyone pass judgment? These pronouncements are like Zen koans, stopping thought and short-circuiting language to promote our compassion.
Not all religions have avatars, and not all religious sects that do have them seem to respect them as much as their holy book. If the Logos is not held provisionally, like it is in Taoism (“The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao“), and does not uphold an avatar through which the Logos can be flexibly engaged, then it will set itself against progress.
My friend Jonathan Tweet just reminded me of an excellent essay he wrote some time ago, considering the Fall from an evolutionary viewpoint.