Monday, March 2, 2009

Narrative Discontinuity? Lenten Integrity? (Feedback Requested!)

Speaking as freshly fallen Adam, the hymnographer laments the human condition:
"I was once clothed in the glory of immortality,
Now I must wrap myself in the skins of mortality...
Woe is me! Who will share my sorrow with me?
But, Lord and Lover of mankind,
Thou hast fashioned me from the earth and art clothed with compassion;
Call me back from the bondage of the enemy and save me!"
If this is the foundational story of the faith, either literal or symbolic (a metaphor of the human condition, the "story we find ourselves in"; or a metaphor for 1. the shift from a hunter/gatherer existence to agricultural societal structure 2. some kind of group murder/lynching of an Abel-figure, an act that by eliminating the "other" brought/bought a false peace to the community), I don't think I believe it.
What evidence is there that there was ever a time on earth without death or suffering? What evidence is there that there is ever a time in any human's life in which that person is not subject to mortality with of all its implications?
I've been researching (reading in Fr. Deacon Ezra's These Things We Believe; The Rev. Dr. John Behr's The Mystery of Christ, and Fr. John Romanides' The Ancestral Curse) and talking to people about this, and have come across some interesting and edifying stuff which I will paste in the following paragraphs, but haven't found anything that addresses the above questions. I want to sing the Lenten hymns with integrity. I welcome all feedback! (By the way, I'm not addressing here the Western/Eastern differences re. theological understandings of the Fall--but rather, that on which there seems to be agreement.)
Research results:
Apparently, "the fall" is not the foundational story of the faith. Salvation history is wonkier than it might seem to be from a simple sequential cause/effect perspective. Fr. John Behr speaks of this eloquently, and the Episcopal priest Fr. Charles Hefling elaborates on this in a review of James Alison's book The Joy of Being Wrong:
The methodological priority of the resurrection as the eschatological event explains in part the seemingly roundabout route that Alison takes towards an understanding of original sin, for it closes off the more straightforward option of following the Bible's own narrative sequence. Such has been the usual procedure, in catechesis and hymnography and not a little systematic theology. First comes creation, then the fall, then Christ, and finally the life of the world to come. Transposed into metaphysical terms, the route from Genesis to the Apocalypse begins with human "nature" as such, goes on to discuss original sin's effect on that nature, and moves from there to consider atonement, grace, and finally the beatific vision.
In contrast with this logic, Alison arranges his ideas according to what he calls an order of discovery. Knowledge of both "beginnings" and "endings," protology and eschatology, became possible only when Jesus was raised from the dead. Similarly, we know ourselves only at the point of transition from what we have been (but are ceasing to be) to what we are not yet (but have begun to be) - Thus Alison's procedure, broadly speaking, is to begin in medias res and move alternately "forwards" and "backwards," with the prospective movement at the fore in Raising Abel and the retrospective one in *The Joy of Being Wrong*.
***Important insert: Hefling includes in his review a kind of synopsis of his and some others' thinking about Original Sin. Note, by the way, the hilarious synonym (worth the whole essay, I think!) with which he begins it: its traditional form it does a number of things at once, like a pocket knife with several blades for different purposes. in the present context it will be useful to distinguish five functional connections comprised in the way original sin has most often been conceived.

(1) Non-dualism. The doctrine of original sin excludes dualism in the most serious sense.
Human sinfulness cannot be traced to any power or principle that is either "within" or "alongside" the one God.

(2) Universality. To affirm original sin has been to affirm a solidarity in sin that pertains to humankind without exception. The doctrine asserts a vitium, an impotence with respect to righteousness, which belongs to humans, each and all, jointly and severally, and which affects the whole of everyone's life.
(3) Non-necessity. At the same time, original sin as it has usually been conceived is contingent, not necessary. It is in some sense a disturbance or distortion of human reality, not an intrinsic feature. The human condition could have been other than it is.
Traditional statements of original sin draw these first three assertions into an intelligible unity by giving an account of how it is that a situation which, although it is no part of the universe as God created it (point 1), is nevertheless all-pervasive (point 2), and which need not have existed (point 3) yet exists nevertheless. Such an account commonly involves two further points that I shall call a remote and a proximate explanation. The remote explanation tells how the human plight began; the proximate explanation, how it continues. The former is original sin as originating, the latter original sin as originated. For reasons that will appear presently, distinguishing between these is by no means splitting hairs.
(4) Remote explanation. Commonly though not invariably Christian tradition has asserted that the situation characterized by original sin began, and began only once. In the Augustinian tradition, its beginning and origin is the "fall," generally associated with the story in Genesis 3.
(5) Proximate explanation. What the fall originated has been extended from its originators to everyone else. To the question of how the extending or originating happens, different answers have been advanced. One proximate explanation is "seminal identity," the idea that the whole race was "in," and so fell with, the originator of the originating sin. The other and more usual explanation, and the only one that is relevant here, is that human solidarity in sin is accounted for by the fact that everyone is descended from original sin's originator.
***End of insert
As I interpret Hefling, Alison himself would not approve of my question:
But *The Joy of Being Wrong* has a long polemical passage against explaining in general and against explaining original sin in particular (Joy 261-265). It may be that Alison's aim is to forestall "explaining" in the sense of explaining away-reducing human evil to something less, and less mysterious, than original sin. However, when he goes on to say that Christians have no explanation of anything at all, that they have only a revelation, he is saying more, and what he says sounds very much like fideism. Again, it would seem that a hypothesis about origins would be a causal hypothesis. But Alison is as reluctant to speak of original sin in terms of causation as he is to speak of explaining it. Here too there may be only a problem of definition. Identifying a cause can mean identifying someone to blame or accuse-Adam, Eve, the snake-and accusation and blame are irrelevant, since the whole effort in The Joy of Being Wrong is to see original sin as a state of affairs that is being forgiven.

That is either really spectacular wisdom or a complete side-stepping of the issue of actual history.

Continuing with the passage:

As for what explication might look like positively, Alison's views are not easy to pin down. He does refer repeatedly to the example of Paul in Romans by way of suggesting what a hypothesis about origins is and does. But Paul's support for a project such as Alison's is ambivalent at best. On the one hand, Romans is undoubtedly the classical precedent for tracing human sinfulness to an origin "in the beginning." But on the other, Paul does not trace it to a founding murder, of which he gives hardly a hint, but to Adam. That, however, in Alison's judgment, does not signify (joy 130). It was from revelation in Christ that Paul came to know about the universality of sin; in Adam he found "a useful way of illustrating" what he knew (joy 155). The universality must have begun somewhere, and Adam was "a more convenient way of talking about this than any other" (joy 241). Formally, Alison's own reasoning is similar. Grant that there is a futility, an impotence, coextensive with human history and culture; grant further that this condition is not necessary but contingent; and the conclusion that the state of affairs known as original sin had an origin is unavoidable. Adam is optional, to some extent, but a functionally equivalent story about our earliest ancestors is not. Explication demands one beginning for all human sin and, to quote Humani Generis as Alison does, "it does not appear how" such a beginning is compatible with anything other than monogenism (joy 244).

But do the conditions of the problem as stated demand positing one beginning-or any beginning? The nub of the matter, I should say, is the second condition: original sin is contingent. So it is. Now, contingent realities, of whatever kind, do not account for themselves. That is true by definition. To account for them is to find out and articulate how they depend on something else. Whether we call the accounting-for "explanation," and whether we call the something else a source or a cause or an origin or a reason why, is not very important; the fact is that our minds do from time to time get hold of an intelligible relationship between a contingent thing or event, and something else, some other that answers the question, "Why is this so?"

Now, on the assumption that every contingent reality-everything, that is, except God-has a cause or origin or reason why, it does follow that human sin in the most radical sense has a cause or origin or reason why. Alison makes just this assumption, performatively, by asking for the origin that original sin "must" have had. But is there any legitimate a priori justification for thinking that every "why?" question has an answer? Is asking "why?" of original sin perhaps asking the wrong question? Is there,consequently, no answer?

In some sense Alison's answer is no more satisfactory than was the old storytale answer. Why is there original sin? Because Adam sinned? Then why did Adam sin? If it was because of the serpent, why did the serpent sin? If the serpent is supposed to have been a fallen angel, why did the angel sin? And so on. My point is that there is really not much to choose between Adam and a group of anthropoids, considered as candidates for the job of explaining the origin of human sin, except that it may be easier to believe in the anthropoids' existence than in Adam's. Either way there is no final "because." Why did the anthropoids sin?
...if this last question never gets asked explicitly in *The Joy of Being Wrong*, the reason may be that Alison hedges a bit on whether the founding murderers did sin. The scene of historical origin that he paints is a scene of change; that much is clear. Such a change requires something that is constant, and something that is different afterwards as compared with before..

Hefling points out,

How any, theologian explicates original sin depends, knowingly or otherwise, on what that theologian thinks sin is and what it would be to explicate it. A few paragraphs back I suggested that to ask "why?" of original sin might be to ask the wrong question; otherwise stated, that original sin cannot be explicated in the way that other contingent realities allow of being explicated. The suggestion is not new. Thomas Aquinas held that nothing whatever can or does depart from the plan of the divine intelligence that organizes the universe of finite beings-nothing, with one exception. The exception is sin in the radical sense: not this deed or that, but irrational failure to will the good, a failure that is the origin of human evil (Summa theologia 1.17.1). In this remarkable statement Thomas is making the first of the five points listed above: neither directly nor indirectly does God will, create, or cause sin. Why did Adam (or the anthropoids) sin? If there were a reason why, Thomas might say, it would not be sin but something else, something intelligible, something given by God. I suspect that Alison would find unsuitable the metaphysical terms in which Thomas frames his position, and certainly they cannot speak to the condition of readers such as The Joy of Being Wrong is meant for. But it does not follow that the insight so framed is wrong or that it cannot be framed differently. It amounts to saying that to ask "why?" of radical sin is to pay it a compliment, by supposing that it is something in its own right, that it can be grasped and understood, that as such it participates participates in the universal intelligibility of creation. None of this, for Thomas, is true of sin. Sin is radically unintelligible. It has no cause, explanation, source, origin, or reason why. It does exist. But it exists with the horrible mind-defeating reality of a false fact, a surd.

Coming up against that surd, I think, is what drives Alison to say at one point that at the origin of sin "desire distorted itself" (joy 151). It is hard to fathom what such a statement could mean-and that in itself is suggestive. We are dealing with an absence of meaning. Had Alison said "desire failed to desire, failed to be itself," he would have been moving towards Thomas's teaching on the human will. Nor, in the long run, would he have been moving away from his own understanding either of original sin or of God. Rightly he maintains that original sin is known in its being forgiven and that it should be defined as that which can be forgiven; rightly he says that the point of knowing it at all-the purpose of a doctrine of original sin-is to keep those who are privileged to participate in the forgiving sociality that God has established in Christ, the risen victim, from misremembering their own complicity in victimization...
...I mentioned at the outset that a decision to take the resurrection as a methodological point of departure upsets the customary narrative sequence by which Christian doctrines have been organized. It may be that to follow through on that decision would mean abandoning narrative sequence entirely, as a way to explicate doctrine. Adam and Eve make perfect sense as a way to say why there is original sin-so long as we are telling stories, and provided we do not ask too many questions. A Girardian "original scene" makes the same kind of sense-narrative sense and is subject -to the same proviso.

Well. The only thing they can come up with is the abandonment of narrative sequence?

I don't know what to make of this. It completely makes sense to see the past through the transforming and transfiguring events of Christ's life and work--His victory. It completely makes sense that narrative sequence would be shattered, subverted, and recreated. It helps me to see that the foundational story of the faith is Christ's story, not the first few chapters of Genesis.

But still...I can't help but feel that a huge question is being begged, the one with which I began this entry--was there ever a "time" or condition of sinlessness and deathlessness in collective or individual history? Was there ever some kind of actual choice-against-God that broufht sin and death into the world? Our priest said yesterday that when humanity fell, creation fell with it--was there a time when there was no mortality whatsoever? I have huge trouble with this!

Can anyone help with this?


orrologion said...

I can't solve this, obviously, as I (especially) see only through a glass darkly. I think things like this are why the highest spiritual state in Orthodoxy is seeing (theoria) and not speaking (dogmatizing) - a picture is worth a thousand words; a vision is worth even more. :)

The first thing I would note is that time is a creation. God is not subject to time. God does not exist in time and is not subject to it. In the Kingdom, in eternity, there is only the present, Now. In that state, the fact that the lamb was slain before the foundation of the world is not nonsensical; in that state, the Cross and Resurrection being the center is not nonsensical; in each Liturgy we - in one of the priestly prayers - are 'remembering' an event that has not yet happened (the second coming).

Two, there was a quote from St. Makarios of Egypt that gets at the fullest meaning of the biblical events and images. What is most important to the Fathers is that Adam is a prophecy of me, now. What he did, I do and will do; same with the rest of the persons in the Scriptures. The Bible works on multiple levels all at once, levels not easily compartmentalized and handled and 'owned' to a certain end with a certain purpose in mind. I am Adam, I am Cain, I am Noah, Abraham, Lot, his wife, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Joseph, etc. Their sins are prophesies of my own, as too, hopefully, will be their repentance and salvation.

To the quote from St. Makarios:

"When you hear that Christ descended into hell in order to deliver the souls dwelling there, do not think that what happens now is very different. The heart is a tomb and there our thoughts and our intellect are buried, imprisoned in heavy darkness. And so Christ comes to the souls in hell that call upon him, descending, that is to say, into the depths of the heart; and there he commands death to release the imprisoned souls that call upon him, for he has power to deliver us. Then, lifting up the heavy stone that oppresses the soul, and opening the tomb, he resurrects us--for we were truly dead--and releases our imprisoned soul from its lightless prison."

This is a very different way of thinking about the 'reality' of Hades and what Christ did on Holy Saturday. I think this additional, fuller, fullest understanding of the reality of things in Scripture is related to your (my own) question regarding the 'historicity' and 'reality' of Old Testament persons and events as narrated to us in Scripture.

Anonymous said...

Orrologion, thank you for your thoughts. Part of me can kind of go along with what you're saying, but another part of me suspects that your position on this is not unlike that of people who speak of the resurrection of Christ as "the Easter Event," meaning that its significance is not in the fact that Jesus' body was raised by the Father, but rather, in the fact that humans can always hope in new beginnings, etc.
Wow, I don't mean to insult you--please don't take this amiss--I'm hitting hard here because these matters are important and I want to gain understanding.
And even if you're right, and Adam/Eve are a prophecy of my daily experience, then where is the unfallen part?

orrologion said...

Not hard hitting at all. You're right to ask the questions. Unfortunately, I have to run, so I will try and write something more later or tomorrow. Blessed fast to you.

timeless said...

The answer to your question "was there a time when there was no mortality whatsoever?" I believe is yes. God describes it as the time before mankind chose to go against His will. Whether you believe it literally (Adam) or figuratively (mankind),the concept is still there.

orrologion said...

What has been helpful to me in thinking about this sort of 'stuff' is that the Fathers didn't seem to have our more modern preoccupations about historicity. They seemed to effortlessly move between the story and the 'real meaning', 'higher meaning', etc. Of course, they usually assumed the literal to be historical (those two concepts are different, or should be), but that doesn't erase the fact that they thought the real and most important aspects of the text in question had nothing to do with the literal and historical.

I think there is also a slipper slope fear in Westerners that doesn't want to accept the idea that the Tradition of the Church is unambiguous about the reality and historicity of the Resurrection while never having much worried about the historicity of Adam and Eve or the Flood since their real import was something other than as 'history'.

I come from a creationist background, so I understand the issues you are afraid of. I think too many Orthodox are too willing to play with strange fire they don't understand. I think many don't think through the pastoral, apologetic and catechetical implications of their position re historicity and the tradition of the Church. At the same time, I think it is interesting that Orthodoxy has been exposed to this same Western stuff for some time, has absorbed a decent amount of it, but that it has not affected Her in any deep way. Could be lots of positive and negative reasons for why this is, but I find it interesting that it hasn't been the kind of bomb it was in Protestant circles, or even to the lesser degree in RC circles. I think this points at something 'unique' in the Orthodox way of doing theology, thinking about history, etc. that is important to explore and understand. The quote from St. Makarios gets at that difference pointing to what is most important without making a related statement about whether Hades is 'real' or 'symbolic' - and this from a saint of long, long ago. I think there is also something about our own, modern preoccupation with understanding history as fact and measurability that is different than the 'reality' of the world of the Fathers who were not so interested in measurability (proof as is found in so much Reformed apologetics) as in visions of things beyond the ken of man and our terrestrial words. I put much of this in the same box as the tollhouses Fr. Seraphim Rose has taken so much heat for. They aren't physically 'real', but they are visions given to the saints, like the visions in the OT prophets, that explain and describe and foretell a reality that is true and real, but beyond us - hidden from us, unknowable fully by us, now. No one expected Jesus to be the Messiah from reading the OT until he revealed himself in it. I find a great mystery in the Bible, too, and am more and more fine accepting that I don't understand. I have become more and more fine accepting that 'A Virgin will give birth' and the fact that I know it is not naturally possible - until it happens. I am fine knowing that I will not understand forwards, but only backwards through hindsight, likely in the eschaton. That doesn't make me right or wrong, or some other scholar or scientist or monk that disagrees with me right or wrong - it just means I don't understand, or maybe I do. All I need to do is save my soul, pray, fast, and sing the tradition handed on to me. There were all kinds of things I didn't understand before I was Orthodox that I do now; there were similar hidden things when I became Orthodox, and there are still more, but over the years those hidden things have become clear while yet other questions have arisen - I expect they will be answered at some point in the future. I expect my understanding of historicity, allegory, typology, etc. will grow. I don't need to know it all, now, to know that Orthodoxy is the Church and in Her is salvation - that I know by experience having been on the outside.

That was an unnecessary ramble. I'm sorry. I'm trying to be churchy since I can't get to the first night of the Canon, now, due to work and family. Forgive me.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your comment!
So are you saying that nothing and no one died before whatever it was that happened? Not even animals, etc.?


Anonymous said...


Well, I don't like it, but I see no other alternative to what you wrote--and I thank you for sharing your thinking and struggle on this.
I think that what you said will help me not just with this but with other stuff, Lenten and beyond.

Can you elaborate on this comment? You wrote, "I think too many Orthodox are too willing to play with strange fire they don't understand. I think many don't think through the pastoral, apologetic and catechetical implications of their position re historicity and the tradition of the Church."

Thank you,

orrologion said...

"I think too many Orthodox are too willing to play with strange fire they don't understand. I think many don't think through the pastoral, apologetic and catechetical implications of their position re historicity and the tradition of the Church."

Sorry, that wasn't clear - rather, this was even less clear than all the other stuff I wrote that wasn't clear.

I don't like any of it, either, and it is not really an answer I am happy with, yet, either. It needs more work, more study, more prayer for proper formulation. Take it for what it's worth, which is not much more than a fumbling after something over my head.

What I know is that the Bible and salvation are far deeper things than I thought they were as a Protestant. I thought I had the schema of Christianity and all its pivot points systematized and described. I have found I was wrong, I have found that what I knew was a man-made creation, which was why it fit so well in my man's head.

The above comment was a critique of the ease with which some/many Orthodox accept the historical critical method, a 'true myth' view of events in the OT, etc. They don't really know what they are playing with and have often compartmentalized it from the spiritual and pastoral life of the Church. They haven't thought through the interaction of these various compartments, I think.

But, there is something different in how these modern methods are received and used in Orthodoxy that points to something else. I don't know what that is exactly, but it is an understanding more in line with quotes like that from St Makarios rather than in the views of those people who speak of the resurrection of Christ as simply the Easter 'Event' - i.e., not histroical or 'real'. This is not right.

Anonymous God-blogger said...

Orrologian, Thank you. I am not wondering about this for myself alone, but in regard to apologetics as well, re. conversations with people who are not currently believers.

I am glad you're wondering about this too, and please do keep me posted about your discoveries, and I will do the same!

timeless said...

Before mankind sinned there was no death. God created us with free will and an ability to choose to stay in God's will or go against it and sin.

Anonymous God-blogger said...


So you're saying that all the animal and human bodies instantly morphed from immortal to mortal, and that all of a sudden natural disasters started occuring when before, there were none?

Your skeptical friend,

timeless said...

Before sin came into this world and with it death,who knows what the world looked like. In the same vein, who knows what heaven looks like where we believe there is no sin and no death?

Anonymous said...


Yes, but heaven is invisible, and earth is visible, so one would think there'd be some evidence of a big transformation...

Or did it all melt away like a snowman??


orrologion said...

There is a poorly translated, pro-evolution essay written by a Russian deacon that makes an argument (as near I can tell, did I mention it is poorly translated?) that the Bible is careful to distinguish things that we tend not to: Paradise, Eden, the world before the Fall. I think his case is something along the lines of, in the Garden of Eden there was no death, and this is where Adam and Eve were. Outside the Garden the world was growing and developing who knows what way. The Fall resulted in Adam and Eve's expulsion from the deathless Garden, into the world.

You can read the piece yourself here:

It falls apart in some of its particulars (e.g., conflating Orthodox “anti-evolutionism” with Protestant creationists), but the broad argument is interesting. Not sure if I agree, but it is better than the unconsciously pro-evolution Orthodox line Fr. Seraphim Rose was fighting against in the 70s.

anonymous god-blogger said...

Orrologion, Thank you! Where did you find this essay? What else has this person written? His thesis is, of course, nonprovable and nonfalsifiable, but nevertheless, it's very intriguing! It's an interesting way of dealing w/ Biblical narrative--kind of like those folks who specify that the Flood was local, he is positing that the protected and somehow mortality-free environment of Eden was local.


timeless said...

No one knows what heaven or a deathless world looks like so we have no basis of what to look for to compare or contrast with our present world as we percieve it.

Roland said...

That title, The Joy of Being Wrong, sounds like a reference to the idea of the felix culpa - the "happy fault." My favorite expression of this idea is the Advent hymn, Adam Lay Ybounden.

Adam was not created inherently immortal, but with the potential for immortality. One could say that in the fall Adam lost an immortality that he did not yet possess, as he had not yet eaten of the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22). Unless other creatures in Eden had eaten of the Tree of Life, they would not have been immortal either.

I don't like the fifth blade on Hefling's pocket knife. Both of his proximate explanations (which are really pretty much the same explanation) are Western/Augustinian. I do not believe that original sin is conveyed from parent to child through conception, as if it were a genetic disorder. That would imply that Adam and Eve's human nature was mutated by the fall. Rather, I believe (as do many Orthodox) that Adam's sin continues to echo through the world in a chain reaction that causes ever more sins. The fall affects all of creation, not just Adam's descendants.

Anonymous God-blogger said...


So you're saying that there never was a time when death did not occur, because they never ate of the tree of life? Interesting...

So if everything already died, how did the rest of creation (animals, etc.) fall with Adam?

How do you reconcile the whole story w/ evolutionary history?

Anonymous God-blogger said...


But shouldn't there be some evidence of there having been a deathless world?

Anonymous God-blogger said...


I just went to your blog and saw this:

Thank you!

And also for the links you provide in your blog.

orrologion said...

Fr. Stephen Freeman has (another) post on a topic quite similar to this:

anonymous god-blogger said...

Thank you, Orrologion!!