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Did the Fall of Man Really Occur?

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The Catholic Church asserts the truth that mankind has suffered a privation of grace as a consequence of disobedience. By the sin of our first parents we are saddled until the end of time with the defect of Original Sin. Man is fallen. To be born into this world is to be burdened with a life of toil, trial and torment. Adam and Eve were in a state of grace in the Garden of Eden before succumbing to temptation. The doctrine of the fall is a most obvious proposition expounded upon by nearly every religious and philosophical tradition in history. To deny man’s fallen nature is an unprecedented narrowness based on implausible pathology grounded in the denial of the most vital attributes that make us fully human.

Man is more than just material, he has an interior and transcendent nature recognizable by his intellect and will. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden for disobedience, God described the consequences of their rebellion in Genesis 23:17-19 when He said “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” This is an obvious statement about the physical difficulties all men have faced throughout the millennia of human existence. What may not be so obvious is that this is analogous to the two other realms of human existence as well, those two dimensions of interiority we know as intellect and will. It is as difficult to cultivate the right use of reason and our moral sensibilities as it is to till hard earth. Agriculture on material soil is like education and spiritual formation on the inner soil.

It is real labor to cultivate the inner landscape. Just as there was no need for agriculture in the Garden of Eden, there was no need for education before the Fall. Education is after all intended to be the cultivation of habits of being most fully expressed by the acquisition of virtue and the deracination of vice. Adam and Eve had preternatural gifts of perception, clear intellectual sight, an acuity of judgment, a precision of the senses, and astounding memory retention. They were also gifted the infused knowledge of things as they pertained to their station in the divine economy. There was no need for virtue because the appetites were properly subordinated to the right use of reason.

The sin of our first parents resulted in the loss of sanctifying and sanitizing grace. We even find ourselves bereft of the original preternatural gifts. Our natures have been corrupted by the original sin and we are left with three wounds of the fall, a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and an inclination towards evil. Our lot in life became dreary, toil against the soil for man and painful childbirth for the woman. Strife, hatred, and enmity now characterize this vale of tears as we struggle to rediscover our purpose when dark shade prevents us from seeing clearly. Although the fall of man is expressed most comprehensively by the Catholic Church, the truth of the doctrine of the fall is by no means exclusive to Christianity.

Many traditions hold myths depicting the fallen nature of man. In Gnosticism, there is gratitude for the snake revealing hidden knowledge to Adam and Eve which liberates them from the “demiurge’s” constricting control. In Islam, Adam and Eve are deceived by Shaitaan who promised them immortality and other delights, but even after having been warned, they gave into Shaitaan’s temptations. In Zoroastrianism and Persian Myths, humankind is created to resist and endure through degradation and decay by cultivating good habits of charitable deeds, the correct use of speech and by the right use of the intellect.

The Hindu tradition has prayers to Varuna, Indra, and Agni which allude to a corrupt human nature by constantly asking forgiveness of their sins and for their offenses against the gods and their neighbors. In Buddhism the predominate theme is suffering and falleness, in the words of the Buddha in the Dhammapada, 147-8 “Behold this painted body, a body full of wounds, put together, diseased, and full of many thoughts in which there is neither permanence nor stability. This body is worn out, a nest of diseases and very frail. This heap of corruption breaks in pieces, life indeed ends in death.” Even Confucius in his Analects stressed the importance and difficulty of cultivating the virtues to live the moral life. He called for men to constantly remind themselves of the inverse golden rule. This is similar to the Ancient Greeks who clearly understood the need to cultivate virtue to combat man’s natural inclination towards evil.

Perhaps the most notable non-Christian tradition to elucidate man’s fallen nature is found in the myth of Pandora. The Titan Prometheus was charged with making man out of dust. Man was a feeble creature with a poor lot in life. Prometheus had pity on man and asked Zeus if he could give them fire. Zeus refused but Prometheus stole fire from Zeus anyway and got caught. Zeus had Prometheus chained to the side of a mountain while he planned revenge on Prometheus’ family.

In the meantime, the gods made beautiful Pandora out of clay. Pandora means “all gifts” and she is named so because Zeus had all the gods and goddesses each give her a gift as he made her a live person. Hera gave Pandora an insatiable curiosity. Zeus offered Pandora as a wife to Prometheus’ dimwitted brother Epimetheus and gave them a box for a wedding present with the instruction that she was never to open it. Of course Zeus knew she wouldn’t be able to resist and when she opened the box and let loose its contents, Zeus’ punishment was complete, for in the box were all the evils, sicknesses, and sins that ushered death irrevocably into the world. Of course, man has lived in this fallen state ever since. There is further corroboration in philosophy.

In book two of The Republic, Plato alludes to man’s fallen nature by having Glaucon assert that it is good to perpetrate injustice for gain but bad to suffer it. Glaucon further proclaims a fallen notion of justice by a compromise between the distorted notion that doing injustice without punishment is a benefit and suffering an injustice without the ability to retaliate is a great evil. Glaucon suggests that conventional laws are asserted to protect victims, “not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honored by reason of the inability of men to do injustice” without interference. Plato has Glaucon further assert that concerning the conventional law, “no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did.” To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the myth of Gyges ring to demonstrate that the just and unjust man alike will find themselves on the same road if only given the right circumstances.

Plato later demonstrates that because of our fallen nature we are called to cultivate virtue and commit to moral formation for excellence if we are going to do the right thing for the right reasons. There is no doubt that most men in Gyges position would take advantage of invisibility for personal gain, even though it is immoral. This is an illustration of man’s fallen nature because our uncultivated inclinations do not square with natural law of goodness and truth.

All the major philosophical and religious traditions in the history of the world acknowledge the fallen nature of man. The obvious incongruity between the natural good and man’s inclination to do evil is a most evident thing. The history books are a record of the strife, sin and death that have plagued all peoples in all lands and at all times. We are in a unique time when a growing number “educated” souls operate in fields that systematically deny the fallen nature of man. Professions such as education, psychology, the social sciences and several more operate as if all of humankind’s strife has its root causes in genetic accidents and material inequalities.

Why such a radical break from the preponderance of history and evidence?

Aristotle said “the least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand fold.” The problems we face today began in the Garden with one bite of the fruit of the forbidden tree. That first deviation is the source of incalculable error multiplying a thousand fold in every subsequent generation. In the modern era, the movement to deny the fallen nature of man is the artifact of another original error. At the end of the period known as the scholastic philosophical tradition, William of Occam (1287-1347) asserted an initial deviation known as nominalism. He used his razor to begin to cut real things off from their real explanations. Universal realities had been severed from their images or signs.

By identifying the contrivance that universal truths revealed by God are mere names, we can observe one initial deviation that serves as the root for countless philosophical errors today. Specifically, the denial of universal truths is the first step to cut the image off from the reality. Since the advent of Occam’s nominalism in the 13th century, the ground was laid for the enlightenment which embodies the thousand fold errors instituted by Occam. In excising reality from images and images from shadows, the Enlightenment ushered in the philosophical age of inversion. Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum inverted Aristotle’s deductive method based on first principles to the inductive method of scientific inquiry grounded in the idea that “man is the measure of all things.” The misapplication of the scientific method to philosophical, moral and educational concerns has made a wasteland of modern notions of interiority.

St. Pope John Paul II said in May of 2003 that the “drama of contemporary culture is the lack of interiority, the absence of contemplation. Without interiority culture has no content; it is like a body that has not yet found its soul. What can humanity do without interiority? Unfortunately, we know the answer very well. When the contemplative spirit is missing, life is not protected and all that is human is denigrated. Without interiority, modern man puts his own integrity at risk.” We risk exponentially expediting societal decay by the denial of man’s fallen nature, but we also risk incalculably more: eternity.

The atheist problem of denying man’s fallen nature is one of denying a proper understanding of the interiority of man. To believe that man is not fallen is also to deny the nature and existence of virtue and vice, which is a denial of the objective standard of truth goodness and beauty. To deny the Fall is also to deny the reality of nearly all of human history as well as to collected wisdom of nearly every philosophical and religious tradition. To deny the fallen nature of man is to arrogate to oneself the possibility of constructing a heaven on earth. The efforts have been made on a massive scale and they have produced catastrophic results sure to proliferate as the foolish rush towards an impossible utopia based on the false assumption of man’s natural goodness. These reductive utopian schemes are picking up even more momentum in this ever darkening age. The only possibility of surviving the denial of man’s fallen nature is for souls to hope to transcend humanity itself, and by the single trick of applied technology, this is a most impossible endeavor.

Steven Rummelsburg

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Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert after 40 years of secular humanism. He is a Catholic writer and speaker on matters of Faith, culture, and education. He teaches, theology, philosophy and Church history at Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta.

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