English 233:   Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Synthesizing the results
of our explication of Genesis 1-3

A shift in perspective and method.

In explicating the biblical stories of the Creation of the Universe and the Fall of Mankind, we went through the story from beginning to end, stopping from time to time to draw out what we thought might be the implications carried by the explicit details that together make up "the letter of the text." That is, the order we followed in generating our thoughts about the story was dictated by the order of happenings in the narrative:  the notes we took thus relate to each other in a chronological fashion.  Now it is time to review what we came up with to see if we can detect patterns of relationship among the connotations we have spelled out.  In doing this, we will have to devise some suitable logical pattern:  our aim is to sketch the outline of a systematic body of doctrine presumably authorized by the text.  That is, we want to move from doing a running commentary on the subtext of the text to fashioning the theology it supposedly sponsors.


The central themes

In class we went about this by constructing a conception of THE CONDITIONS OF RIGHT ORDER implicit in the narrative.  As we developed this notion, we continually clarified it by developing its foil, the corresponding concept of "disorder."

We noted that the conception of order we had been dealing with was a social (and incipiently political) one:  that is, even the natural order, in the Genesis narrative, is conceived in social terms.  Further, the social conception we found was of a very particular sort:  it is based not on equality but on hierarchy:  the cosmos or creation is internally and externally organized in a system of subordinations, in which inferiors are governed by, and serve, their appointed superiors.  That is, it boils down to a set of relationships between MASTERS and SERVANTS.  This discovery means that the question of the nature of right order gets translated into the question of what must be the proper relationship between masters and servants.

But it turns out that, at the same time, social relationships are, in this story, implicitly thought of in organic terms - i.e., as if the social unit (master/servant) were a kind of living organism.  The idea of "right order" thus translates into a notion of health.

Disorder is thus imagined as "sickness," and its remedy as "medicine." The extremity of sickness, if not remedied, is "death." (Hence:  "the wages of sin is death.")

Health, in turn, is thought of in a way that, as it happens, is reflected in the etymology of the English terms "heal," "well," "wealth," and "whole":  the basic idea is one of unity.  

Sickness (on whatever level - cosmic, social, bodily, spiritual) is thus a form of internal breaking or fracture.  Hence the implicit emergence and association, at crucial points in the narrative of the Fall, of the concepts of duplicity (divorce between proffered appearance and reserved realty) / loss of integrity / corruption / disintegration / "gap." (Here, too, we unpacked the metaphors archeologically embedded, as it were, in the Latin etymologies of these now abstract terms.) This shows up in, for example, in the various ways in which the consequence of sin (its punishment) is understood as a reflection (literally "bending back") of sin itself upon its agent.

The idea of disrupting a whole by introducing a gap expresses itself not only in the First Parents' invention of clothing and the resort to hiding among the trees in the garden, but (most emphatically) in the expulsion from the Garden itself.

And this idea of the alienation between servant and master as "distance" to be overcome is the basis for one of the central metaphors in the Christian repertoire:  the idea that life is a pilgrimage to "get back to" God.  This figure of thought serves as the organizing principle for two of the most famous Christian allegories of the soul's advancement in understanding and inner reformation:  Dante's Divina Commedia and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

The role of medicine, correspondingly, is "to heal" in the sense of "to make whole." Hence the role, under the Christian conception of Original Sin, of atonement ("at-one-ment," or reconciliation:  the bringing together of parties who have become estranged or "distanced" from each other).  Hence the idiom according to which the divine grace "poured out upon" individuals by way of the sacraments is spoken of as a kind of "healing balm." In musical terms:  the atonement makes possible the re-establishment of concord from dissonance and disharmony.  In political terms:  it makes possible the replacement of war by peace.


The conditions of Right Order:  a closer look at the nature of Original Creation

Right Order, remember, is not only what humanity has fallen from.  It is also the condition which the divine plan aims to see restored.  Hence the conception of it importantly determines the conception not only of what has been lost but of what is to be restored, and hence of the means by which the restoration can or must be accomplished.  In Christianity, this means it will affect discussion of the atonement.  (The complementary determining factor, of course, will be the conception of the nature of sin, as the condition of the falleness which is to be overcome.)

(1) The first condition we found ourselves having to specify was that servants and masters be correctly distributed with respect to each other.  That is,

For the rest, cosmic/social/psychological/bodily health requires that masters and servants fulfil their mutual obligations to each other.  These are:

the MASTER  (2) must be worthy of trust.  This entails, at least, that he be

hence a good servant to his own master, (if any); and

straightforward with his servants (not a deceiver)

the SERVANT (3) must trust the master -- that is,

representations of what is the case (his descriptions of the state of affairs)

(4) must be worthy of the master's trust -- that is,

commands, orders (his prescriptions of what should or should not be the case)


Implications of the parallel terminologies

The several equivalent descriptions (trust/trustworthiness; authority of the word to be believed and obeyed; credit; faith) above are important to keep severally in mind.  That is, they are not just "different ways of saying the same things." If that were so, it would not matter which of them one bothered to remember.  Rather, by bringing different elements of whole idea into the foreground of explicitness, they lend themselves to being brought to mind in different contexts.  And by being understood as equivalent to their alternatives, they offer to bring those others (with their different range of explicit relations) into those contexts.  In other words, they fan out (in virtue of their distinctness) into other important themes, and (in virtue of their equivalence) serve to unify these.

A.  The trust/trustworthiness language is most apt when we want to bring into focus the mutuality of the proper relationship between master and servant:  though it is an asymmetrical relationship of governance and subordination, it is from another point of view a reciprocal one.  Trust-based-upon-trustworthiness is THE FUNDAMENTAL "GLUE" that makes possible the wholeness (health) of the whole.

B.  The language of believing/obeying the master's word lends itself to clarifying connections with some important issues that might otherwise strike us as puzzling.  

1.  It ties in, for example, with the whole complex theology of the Word (or "Logos") that developed when Christian thinkers sought to put the New Testament message in the language of Greek philosophy (Greek Logos = "word").  According to the doctrine that resulted from this "translation," the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son or Jesus) is not merely First Person's (the Father's) chosen instrument for the atonement, but the formative power by which the creation of the world was accomplished in the first place (Genesis 1:12:4), by God's "saying" or pronouncements.  

As we are reminded by its appearance in the word "logic" and in the family of terms ending in "ology" ("biology," e.g., means the "disciplined understanding of" life forms), the term logos carried a strong connotation of "principle:  law:  stable pattern of behavior reflecting a defined essence." Hence the characterization of Christ as "law-giver" (at the Creation) and "judge" (in the Last Judgment) - the "Alpha and Omega" of History, the institutor and dissolver of Time.  This is a step that represents an emphatic break with Judaism, in which Christianity is so in many other respects so firmly rooted.

2.  Moreover, recall that the Bible itself is, in the traditional Christian picture of things, regarded as pre-eminently the Word of God.  Then consider that one of the Words we are commanded therein to obey is to believe that comprehensive Word itself - on pain of suffering the death penalty.  These reflections help bring into relief a remarkable feature of the world-picture we are considering:  it contains within itself, for any mentality that operates from within it, a powerful incentive not to step outside it.  That is:  insofar as "willingness to imagine that what one believes might be false" is a necessary ingredient of "having an open mind," and insofar as this willingness amounts to "suspending belief" (or at least to "suspending disbelief" in what Scripture appears to deny), the prospect of risking doubt comes forward under the guise of a temptation-to-be-refused - and one to which is attached something that, if we were to be open-minded about it, we would be inclined to characterize as a terroristic threat.  If skepticism is a sin, and sin is damnable, can we afford even to hear out the heretic, apostate or unbeliever?

a.  This is a feature that can help us to appreciate why the history of the three monotheisms presents such striking episodes of fanaticism.

b.  It also represents a potential obstacle in dealing with the issues raised in this course, for students on both sides of the divide of belief.  Those who are convinced of the correctness of the reading we have been elaborating, may feel trepidation at the prospect of "looking at it critically from outside its postulates."  Yet this will be necessary if we are to hope to understand the work of Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, and Voltaire.  At the same time, those who find the picture we are elaborating to be "weird" from the outset may be restrained from trying to see "how it might make sense from the inside" by the fear that, were one to succeed in doing this, one might not be able to "exit back to sanity." As we shall see, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed as the motto for the Enlightenment the maxim sapere aude! - "Dare to know!" Yet it is difficult to undertake this daring if one is convinced in advance that it is fatal to do so.

C.  The language of credit is useful in contexts in which sin is spoken of as "putting man in debt," debts being something that "must be paid." Since right order requires that master and servant reciprocally extend credit to each other, the refusal on the part of the servant to do so leaves him "in debt."

D. The language of faith lends itself best to several important pieces of work, too.

1.  To begin with, it stresses the dependence, in the servant, of loyalty (faithfulness to the master) upon willingness to take the master's picture of the situation "on faith." The complementarity of these two acts of faith is summed up, in English, in the phrase "keeping the faith."

2.  Since sin correspondingly appears as "breach of faith," this language puts us on a footing to understand why so much emphasis gets laid, in the Reformation period, on issues connected with the doctrine of "justification by faith." Are we (as Luther maintained) saved "by faith alone"? Or are we, as the Council of Trent insisted, saved by faith and works? Whatever the answer, the centrality of "faith" in the various Christian theologies of redemption cannot be made sense of if one does not appreciate that the condition it is understood to be the remedy for (i.e., sin) is understood as a breaking of faith.  If lack of faith is what put God and man asunder, it is not to be wondered at that faith would be looked to as the bonding agent by which, from the human side, they might be brought back together.

3.  Thinking of the fundamental obligation of man as "keeping faith" highlights an important fact about the Christian picture of history and morality:  the centrality of the will in the Christian conception of the human constitution and of the nature of God.  God's commands are, from this point of view, regarded as having the character of Law - i.e., being binding, obligatory to be obeyed - because they express the Creator's will for His creation.  And part of what it is traditionally understood to mean to say that man is made "in the image of" God is that human beings, uniquely among other creatures (with the possible exception of angels, if there are such) possess a capacity of choice, or will.  Indeed, even belief is seen as rooted in choice, or will, rather than in the intellect.

Hence the centrality, among Christians, of the debate over "freedom of the will." There are many aspects of this.

a.  One dispute concerns whether faith in the Christian picture of Divine Providence can be squared with Adam and Eve's freedom to avoid Original Sin itself:  how could they have helped sinning if the purpose of the creation itself, under God's chosen (i.e., willed) plan, was to bring forth a world (a history) in which a fallen creature is redeemed by the free sacrifice of the Divine Being Himself, in the person of the Son?

b.  Even more direct, because it is independent of God's willing such a history, is the argument that Adam and Eve's freedom of will is inconsistent with the postulate of God's omniscience:  how could Adam and Eve not have sinned if God had foreknowledge of what they would do, as he must if he is omniscient? That is:  how can we speak of foreknowledge of their act if it were not necessary, before their act, that they in fact eventually act as they did?

c.  These controversies focus on the question of pre-lapsarian freedom of the will.  A different set of disputes has to do with the freedom of fallen humanity.  Specifically, the question has to do with the role of divine grace in making possible the necessary "act of faith" incumbent upon individuals who aim at repairing the breach between God and man, wrought by sin (original and individual).  Are fallen servants, at least after baptism, capable of extending this act of faith on their own? Can they, by their own efforts, accomplish believing in God's word (Jesus' promise), and adhering to it (where it expresses God's will)? Or must everything be done by God Himself?

4.  Finally, that the second aspect of "keeping faith" translates into "being loyal" may be useful in helping some of us imagine why sin was thought so abominable as to be justly punishable by torture (in childbirth and earning one's living) and death.  Those of us who find it difficult to "enter into" the traditional Christian picture of history on this point may find that this language offers a serviceable gate.  Disloyalty is betrayal; betrayal is treason; and treason is a concept to which we may find it easier to attach strong feelings about the justice of strong punishment.


The concept of sin

The foil concept to "right order" is, of course, FALLENESS.  All along we have been working in bits and pieces of its description.  To summarize, let's stress its comprehensiveness, in the traditional Christian picture, by spelling out its parallel symptoms on four levels.  Together these make the picture of a thoroughly broken world.  This brokenness is a symptom of the fact that, since Original Sin, REBELLION is the general condition of the universe:  in every domain, the servant seeks either to overthrow or to ignore its master.

A.  Nature, ordained to man as its end, is in perpetual insurrection against him.

B.  Society is plagued by discord:  brother rises against brother (Cain murders Abel); fraud is rampant; usurpation and insubordination abound; foreign and civil war breaks out continually.

C.  The human constitution is wracked by "internal insurrection."

In childbirth, the lower body opposes the operation of the higher, which itself remains directed to the ordained end of the process.

In everyone, the appetites and passions can no longer be commanded by the will, but go their own autonomous way.  The will, in turn, refuses to be guided by what the intellect informs it to be the Law (when it does so inform it, since the corrupt will can pervert the intellect itself, making the latter say what the passions insist on hearing).  In other words, the "flesh" tends to have its way with the "spirit." This is the inherent tendency towards sin (turning away from God to the [lower] self) that Augustine calls "concupiscence."

D.  Man is "locked into" a posture of rebellion against God.


What does all this have to do with the rest of our course?

It sets the stage for theologians discussions about what God's plan is for reclaiming humanity from the condition of sin.   As we shall see, it is a controversy over this question - the technical term is "justification" - that was the theological occasion for the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation.   There was much more to the Reformation than even the gamut theological issues that eventually came to divide Catholics and Protestants.   But these issues are important for our course, because they are an especially crucial site of the crises in authority in the early modern period.

Moreover, the social violence unleashed by controversies over the specifics of God's plan for human salvation was an important factor in convincing many that some other basis than religious faith had to be found as the basis for social peace.  And -- as we shall see in our study of the 17th-century Enlightenment -- the success of natural human reason, acting on the evidence of the senses, in convincingly discovering certain impressive truths about the world of Nature -- and against vehement objections grounded in traditional religious belief -- suggested to many that Reason, shared by all human beings, regardless of the "accident" of their particular religious upbringing, might afford such a basis.  But this meant, in turn, that an essential feature of the common denominator between Protestant and Catholic versions of Christianity came into question.  If natural reason and the evidence of the physical senses to be competent to convict both tradition and faith of serious error about the natural world requires that a fundamental tenet of traditional Christianity to be rethought.  Can reason and the bodily (the seat of the senses) be reliable, and the doctrine of the innate depravity of "all the parts of the soul" (reason, will, appetites, senses) be true?  And what becomes of traditional Christianity if the doctrine of Original Sin is abandoned?


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      Contents copyright 1997 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 23 August 1997.