Recently an atheist, call him "George," on a certain Message board was outraged and alarmed by my habit of looking at the fall from a different perspective than the one he knew as a fundamentalist. In his mind there's only one possibility for view points, that's the one he's into at the moment. Of cousre he sees the fall as a historical event, so he assumes that if the Genesis creation myth is wrong (as in evolutionary) then all of Christianity is wrong becuase then there's no fall, we don't need redemption the point of having a religion is blown. My answer alramebed becuase it wasn't the fundamentalist banter he expected. I discussed. What rally "blew his mind" as we used to say, was the idea I advance that it's actually a coming of age myth. Maybe I'm over the top in calling it that, perhaps I should clarify that I don't mean it in a form sense, but it does have overtones of being a coming of age myth.
First, let me set out exactly how I deal with the fall, how it can still be a valid category even though it's not an event in history. My view was influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr whom I read in seminary; Niebuhr was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, and the more concise and insightful of the Niebuhr boys.* Reinhold Niebuhr sets out his view in his great work The Nature and Destiny of man Volume I. He separates the fall from the historical view derived from the text in Genesis and based that upon Augustine's understanding of the nature of sin. Sin is an inherent aspect of sentient being. Augustine understood sin as a response to anxiety. I wont go into that I merely mark that in the lectures of Dr. Carney this was the frame for the issue. Niebuhr modernizes the concept of anxiety and sin by casting it in terms of self transcendence. We project into the future by remembering the past and extrapolating. So we think "If I don't get my rent paid I'll be on the street, that will be very miserable I know form past experience I don't like pain." So this sense of anxiety leads us to steal to pay the rent. Of course this is a very simplistic example and motives can get much more complex.
The basic sense is that the fall is something that happens in each of us as we grow. That's where the coming of age bit comes in. Rather than see it as a point in time that marks human history the action of one man became part of something like the genetic code the actual real life fall is distributed throughout all of history and marks the lives of each on an individual basis. It can be described as a fall in the sense that it represnts the loss innocence. We move form the state of being blameless due to youth to being blameworthy because we have come of age (or the "age of accountability"). We can pull back from seeking to resolve the anxiety through injustice ot others and and seek to resolve it through faith. That's the hard part because faith requires confidence to be placed in God, and that is much easier to come by once we have already experienced God's grace. So that's where redemption comes in.
By this account falling from Grace is just a natural part of life. It comes with the territory of growing up, thus I call it a "coming of age myth."Of course this outraged George the atheist. I'm not quite sure why. He produced a quote saying that all modern scholars are sure the authors of Genesis understood it as literal history. The quote actually spoke about six day creation not the fall. It did not say "there is no mythology in Genesis." It's pretty clear the redactors of the text were working form pagan myth such as the Sumerian and Babylonian/ Akkadian creation myth. Cornfled shows that the outlines are the exactly same event for event (see Genesis). It has all the ear makrs of mythology including non specific mythical time frame ("in the begining") an enchanted world (talking serpent--God Walks with man in the cool of evening). Clelarly we are dealing with a mythological text. According to Campbell mythology is a technique o dealing subconscious truth through archetypes. The selection of archetypes need not be conscious.
Tom Collin's Interview
Tom: What does myth do for us? Why is it so important?
Joseph: It puts you in touch with a plane of reference that goes past your mind and into your very being, into your very gut. The ultimate mystery of being and nonbeing transcends all categories of knowledge and thought. Yet that which transcends all talk is the very essence of your own being, so you’re resting on it and you know it. The function of mythological symbols is to give you a sense of "Aha! Yes. I know what it is, it’s myself." This is what it’s all about, and then you feel a kind of centering, centering, centering all the time. And whatever you do can be discussed in relationship to this ground of truth. Though to talk about it as truth is a little bit deceptive because when we think of truth we think of something that can be conceptualized. It goes past that.
It doesn't matter that the redactors thought the events in the Genesis story really happened. Myth functions at a psychological level and the symbols are not necessarily chosen knowingly.
Joseph Campbell: from Interview
with Bill Moyers on Myths-Dream-
Experience of life. The mind has to do with meaning. What's the meaning of a flower. There's the Zen story about a sermon of the Buddha in which he simply lifeted a flower. There was only one man who gave him a sign with his eyes that he understood what was said. Now, the Buddha himself is called "the one thus come". There's no meaning. What's the meaning of the universe? What's the meaning of a flea? It's just there. We're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it's all about....Read the myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols.
There is no statement in chruch council that the events of the Genesis creation myth are literal history.There is no chruch council that mandates that we believe Genesis literally as history. The only we have this feeling that it's some kind of holy law that we must understand it this way is because it's been drummed into the culture since the nineteenth century by the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists largely exist today because they represent a visceral reaction to the modern world and resistance to Darwin. It's only because they drummed it into our heads that we think we have to support it as literal history.
*see H Richard Niebuhr
see Reinhold Niebuhr