Read an ExcerptWho Are We?
Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities
By Jean Bethke Elshtain Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2004 Jean Bethke Elshtain
All right reserved.
How Far Have We Fallen?
As we reach the end of this bloodiest of centuries, we find ourselves taking stock. Where have we been? Where are we going? What are our prospects? Who are we? Human beings have long been preoccupied with these questions. In the dark 1982 film Bladerunner (loosely based on science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick's book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), a bladerunner a man given a license to hunt down and to kill advanced androids called replicants comes up against the most advanced replicant model. This particular model is extraordinarily precise, very intelligent, very powerful, and capable of great violence. The only way to distinguish a replicant from a human being is to put the replicant through a series of tests that monitor pupil dilation as the respondent answers queries like: "You are walking along on a hot day. The sun is beating down. You see a turtle lying upside down, unable to turn over. What do you do?"
A human being will register something on the empathy scale discernible through pupil change to such a query, but the replicant, being deficient in this quality, will not. Forreplicants are manufactured, not begotten. They have an "incept date" rather than a birthday. They have not gone through a process of education of the moral faculties. As well, they are programmed to die or to wear out on another foreordained date determined by their manufacturer. They have no families, but their manufacturer has implanted memories. So they believe they had families and childhoods like other human beings. But this, too, proves to be false. When the replicants finally realize this deception, they come to hate their manufacturer. Replicants also know they are being hunted as the flaw in their design the failure on the empathic scale makes them quite dangerous. So they live in perpetual fear. The dilemma is that by being implanted with a past, however fraudulent, the replicants have come closer and closer to us or at least to what we once believed we were until we decided that we might actually be history-less, by which I mean undetermined by anything that went before. But I jump ahead of the story.
The bladerunner, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is assigned to hunt down and kill a renegade band of replicants who have escaped from interplanetary servitude. He does so systematically and bloodily, one by one. Rachel, an advanced replicant who never left the office of her manufacturer and works there as an assistant in a dying and decaying Earth, who is not, therefore, a member of the replicant rebel band, seems way too close to us for comfort. Deckard tests her and realizes that she is a replicant; and this knowledge torments him. For Rachel, too, is in the danger zone, as Deckard can kill any and all replicants, whether they are marauding or not. Learning from Deckard that her implanted memories are false, Rachel weeps. What is this? Replicants are not supposed to have feelings. Has she somehow transcended replicant-being to join human-being? Deckard, recognizing at one point that he cannot kill her because she has helped to save him when one of the horrifically violent renegade replicants was preparing to gouge his eyes out and because he has fallen in love with her, plunges into dark self-doubt. What about Rachel? Rachel weeping, weeping not for her children but for her own nonchildhood, her nonhuman-being.
There is a final encounter with the head of the outlaw replicant band, Roy. Roy is dying, or, in replicant-being, wearing out. His expiration day is upon him. He howls at the universe and at his manufacturer, howls as he feels himself inexorably, inevitably running down. He pierces a palm with a nail, a kind of crucifixion, because the pain helps him to feel life until the very end. In the terrible struggle with Deckard, Roy gets the better of Deckard, who clings to the ledge of a building and, as he loses his grip and will surely plunge to an awful death, Roy, the replicant with no feeling, reaches out, from his great if waning strength, and pulls Deckard to the safety of the building top on which their deadly pas de deux now reaches its denouement in the year of our Lord, 2019. Roy tells Deckard his story: about what it is like to be a slave and to live in fear. About all the sights he has seen, moments that will "be lost in time like tears in the rain. Time to die." He expires and a white dove he has captured is released and flutters into the besmirched, acid-rain-filled sky.
A soul freed? We do not know. Deckard offers up a commentary. He tries to understand why this violent, nonfeeling entity has spared him. "Maybe he loved life more in these last moments, anybody's life, my life." He concludes: "All he wanted is what we all want. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?" Transformed through this experience, Deckard abandons his terrible profession and flees with Rachel. The film ends with this voice-over: "I didn't know how long we'd have together. Who does?" Few of us can live with such uncertainty. But all of us must. Or at least we used to believe that we must. But increasingly we want guarantees, even warranties, on life itself. We resist indeed resent the notion that we are up against any limit, beginning with our natures, the central theme of Chapter Three.
The Christian tradition teaches us that we cannot transcend that which we are through our own unaided efforts. But, with Roy the replicant, we want to know and we want to escape our condition. Where did I come from? Where am I going? Peering into the future inevitably folds back to become a concern with the past, indeed with our origins. We know we cannot recapture that origin. But we also know that our evaluation of what is possible and desirable for human beings turns on a set of assumptions about who and what we are as creatures. Many contenders have offered accounts of our origins. We have Darwinian and paleontological offerings called scientific. Political theory presents states of nature, some more horrific than others (Hobbes springs readily to mind), whose only cure is a social contract. Jews and Christians share an account the Genesis story but how are we to interpret that account at present, to distill its meaning and its hold on us at this late date? This is by no means simple. We can, of course, simply abandon the creation story as so much archaic nonsense. But that is to abandon the ground of our own tradition and to deny that it yet offers us anything.
So let us look again. As an exercise in the theological, political, and ethical imagination, I am going to work through two competing interpretations that suggest rather different orientations to human nature and human possibility. The thinkers involved are two of the great Christian teachers of this century, both philosophical theologians, who emphasize or stress contrasting features of the narrative each shares. The names of these thinkers will be familiar to everyone: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. Why them? Because their lives intersect with the searing events that have tortured and tormented our century Nazism, Stalinism, World War II and, for Pope John Paul II, continuing Soviet domination and a lingering Cold War followed by that extraordinary outbreak of hope and freedom marked by Solidarity in Poland, Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, and other freedom movements leading up to the end of the Cold War. Bonhoeffer died a martyr for his anti-Nazism. Karol Wojtyla, studying for the priesthood underground, participating in illegal theatrical productions at the risk of his life, witnessed the reduction of his country to rubble, the killing of much of the Polish intelligentsia and priesthood (as high as 50 percent of priests in some regions of Poland), and the indescribable horrors of the Shoah set up by the Nazi aggressors on Polish land. Each, then, saw the worst. But each calls us to the best to courage and to Christian hope. "Be not afraid!" were the first words of Karol Wojtyla's pontificate. Whatever a person's views on the positions taken or upheld by this extraordinary pope, all credit him with exceptional moral and physical courage. Bonhoeffer, as readers of this volume will know, might have lived out his life all those years beckoning him in safety on foreign shores, as a student and teacher at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but he chose to return to the site of greatest danger and there he met his martyrdom. I have, then, consciously selected as exemplary figures two men who enacted the Christian life and witness in the most dangerous and deadly of circumstances fighting totalitarianism. Given my own interest in political life and thought, this is reason enough. But there is more that should be noted.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II are forbiddingly complex writers who never shirk at tackling the most difficult questions. I realize that, at first glance, pairing up Bonhoeffer and Pope John Paul II in a consideration of the fall the theme of this chapter may seem to invite a foreordained conclusion that falls rather predictably along Lutheran/ Catholic lines. But anyone familiar with the work of these two extraordinary figures will discern upon examination that things are by no means that simple. My first task, therefore, is to offer up an expository version of Bonhoeffer's and John Paul's accounts of creation and fall with textual commentary as I go. I will conclude with direct points of comparison and contrast that help to launch us into the subsequent discussions of what it means to forget that we are fallen.
What a treat it is to read Bonhoeffer and John Paul! This reading implicates us in the full weight of twentieth-century Western philosophy. Bonhoeffer worked his way through Nietzsche and Heidegger as well as the history of theology, primarily though not exclusively German. He was, as well, a generous and audacious reader of German literature novels, poetry, drama. Readers of Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison will recognize this characterization immediately, of course, given the sprinkling of requests for texts to be sent him that peppered Bonhoeffer's letters to his family. His Creation and Fall is a taut, closely argued exegetical study, and the references are largely internal to the scriptural text. By contrast, John Paul's catechesis on the book of Genesis affords a glimpse into his wide-ranging, complex encounter with philosophy generally, twentieth-century thought in particular. He references Lévy-Bruhl, Eliade, Tillich, Ricoeur, Levinas, Freud, Jung, dozens of Hebrew exegetical works, semioticians and etymologists, books in analytic philosophy and anthropology as well as classical Latin poets, Plato, Kant, Scheler, on and on. This in addition to the usual suspects Augustine and Aquinas first and foremost. We are not dealing with hermetically sealed-off, pious thinkers. These men were, and one still is, in the arena, embracing or challenging that whole complex of features and factors we call modernity.
LET'S BEGIN with Bonhoeffer, who is committed to the view that human beings are in rebellion against God. Who is this God? He is "wholly Creator, completely the Lord, and his creature remains totally the submissive, obedient creature, praising and worshipping him as the Lord. He [God] is never the creation. He is always the Creator. He is not the substance of nature; there is no continuum that binds or unites him with his work. There is only his Word." God speaks and God is "never in the world in any way except in his absolute transcendence of it": this, for Bonhoeffer, is the God of Genesis 1. The portion of Genesis before the creation of man is a story, first, of remoteness. Eternal, unchangeable laws come into being. This world is fixed consider mathematical symbols that are identical even today in every culture and constitute perhaps the only transparent universal "language."
But then something new appears. The Creator wills that his creation "should affirm and continue his work, he wills that created things should live and create further life." Vegetation springs up; the seas swarm; trees bear fruit; birds fly above the earth; creeping things begin their migration across the face of the earth. Bonhoeffer presents this as a kind of magical moment. Then we get to man. God creates man in his own image: "male and female created he them" (Gen. 1:27). Bonhoeffer does not make too much of the them at this point the plural that suggests a simultaneity in creation of male/female that the textually later but chronologically earlier Yahwist account (Gen. 2:24) undermines with its fashioning of Eve from Adam's rib. For Bonhoeffer, the plural in Hebrew is a way of "showing the significance and sublimity of the Creator's action." Man (and Bonhoeffer's language does not limit his exposition to the male) is the "new, free, undetermined work of God." But, as we shall see, his exegesis requires that Adam precede Eve in time, if not in ontological equality and dignity.
A great divide separates us from this point of origin. We cannot leap back "into the world of lost beginning. It is hopeless to want to know for ourselves what man was originally, to identify here man's ideal with the creational reality of God, not to understand that we can know about the man of the beginning only if we start from Christ." This new being, this free man, is not free as such. "Freedom is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability ... freedom is not a quality which can be revealed it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence but a relationship and nothing else. In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means 'being free for the other,' because the other has bound me to him. In relationship with the other am I free. No substantial or individualistic concept of freedom can conceive of freedom." Here Bonhoeffer strikes one of his key themes, namely, that the individual exists only for "the other." Insofar as the person is a concrete "I," the other must be a concrete "Thou."
This relationship in freedom is something hard won after the fall, as we shall learn. But at the moment of "created he them," man is dependent on another, and it is "in this dependence on the other that his creatureliness consists." Man and woman are for Bonhoeffer "man in duality" given dominion from God over God's creation. Man belongs to the world completely in and through the relational recognition that gives him dominion over that which nourishes and sustains him. In his freedom he is bound. Bonhoeffer does not make much of the male/female aspect of "them" at this point save to speak of dependence on God and on the rest of creation even as man in his "duality" is primus inter pares among created beings. Consider the themes thus far: freedom is a relationship, and our creatureliness consists in the dependence that is the ground of our freedom.
Moving to the second account of human creation in Genesis 2:24, Bonhoeffer notes that "everything takes place in a very earthly way. The language is extremely childlike, and shocking for those to want to 'understand,' to know anything." We moderns are likely to find the anthropomorphisms "intolerable": forming and shaping clay; breathing life into dust and the like. Darwin and Feuerbach "could not speak any more strongly. Man's origin is in a piece of earth." We do not have a body. We simply are body and soul, ensouled bodies. "Man in the beginning is really his body." And this human existence binds the creature to "mother earth." Man and apparently Bonhoeffer construes man as singular, not plural at this point is "naked and unashamed." He "speaks and walks with God." These are "ancient, magical," yet powerful pictures. But something stands in the middle of the garden the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam does not know what death is, what good and evil are; he does not know a limit, living as he does in unbroken obedience. His creatureliness marks a limit but he does not yet know this. God, to be sure, tries to convey it by forbidding eating of the tree. But Adam, in freedom, does not acknowledge that the limit lies at the heart the middle of existence, not on the extreme, not at some periphery. "Adam knows neither what is good nor what is evil; in the most particular sense he lives beyond good and evil, beyond tob and ra."
I cannot here resist a sidebar comment, namely, that by locating "beyond good and evil" in a prelapsarian realm we can neither recapture nor reclaim, Bonhoeffer is surely taking a sturdy swipe at Nietzsche. To seek to move beyond good and evil once the point of origin is lost is to stake out far too much territory for oneself for the creature and against the Creator. For tob and ra good and evil "are the categories for the deepest division of human life in every aspect." Man as sicut deus the "creator-man" through the fall cannot recreate himself as man before the fall. For he now knows good and evil, and he cannot pretend that he is unaware of this knowledge. Even with the "utmost endeavor of our imagination and all the other powers of our souls," human beings "are simply not in a position to remove ourselves to this paradise 'beyond good and evil.'" Back to the main story.
Adam is alone. Adam finds no real companion among the animals. He loves them as brothers but they are "strange." Eve, there when Adam awakens from his deep sleep, is unique. He feels gratitude. He is "connected in a completely new way to this Eve, who derives her existence from him." They are two, yet one; one, yet two. This other person "derives from" yet "limits" Adam in the form of a "bodily representation" as the "limit placed upon me by God." It is unclear at this juncture from what point of view Bonhoeffer is speaking. Can Adam recognize Eve as presenting a "limit" when he does not yet have knowledge of good and evil? Man remains naked and unashamed. This surely means that the limit Bonhoeffer here adumbrates is "objective," an evaluation deriving from the account itself rather than from what was epistemologically available to Adam at that juncture. In other words, the word objective, that which is simply given, part of the order of things, does not require a moment of recognition to exist. Bonhoeffer is here outside the account, so to speak, noting an objective limit yet to be recognized by Adam.
If man hates his limit, it destroys community; if he only "wants to possess or deny the other person without limit," he has placed himself in a Hegelian master/slave dialectic rather than in a different sort of narrative wherein the loving recognition of the other cannot be used to underwrite a struggle unto death. The other person is a helper, and the grace of this helper helps us to bear our limit and to live before God. If we deny the other person, what we should have "received humbly now becomes the occasion for glorification and revolt." Sexuality, becoming one flesh, is our realization of belonging to another. We are not yet ashamed, for shame exists "as a result of the knowledge of the division of man, of the division of the world in general.... Shame is the expression of the fact that we no longer accept the other person as the gift of God." So: knowledge, death, sexuality, these three "primaeval words of life" come into existence in a world of division. To pretend at that juncture at our juncture that we are prelapsarians is, for Bonhoeffer, arrogant madness.
For when we fell, it was a long, hard fall indeed. Woman becomes a seducer. The serpent, one of God's creatures, becomes an instrument of evil. But the Bible is not concerned to cast aspersions, Bonhoeffer argues. We cannot reproduce the moment. We can, however, say that God's truth points to a limit, while the serpent's truth points to limitlessness that we might have knowledge as unto God's and that both of these enter into the post-fall imago dei, or our understanding of what it means to be created in God's image. Imago dei "the creature living in the unity of obedience; sicut deus the creature living out of the division of good and evil." It is not until the Incarnation that the image of God is fully restored, according to Bonhoeffer (not until agnus dei the One who was sacrificed).
The fall "really makes a creator, the sicut deus man, out of the creature, the imago dei man." Eve falls first as the weaker. But the culmination is the fall of Adam; indeed, "Eve only falls totally when Adam falls, for the two are one. Adam falls because of Eve, Eve falls because of Adam, the two are one. In their guilt too they are two and yet one. They fall together as one and each one carries all the guilt alone. Male and female he created them and man fell away from him male and female." Interestingly, Bonhoeffer returns to the textually first but chronologically later, or Elohist, account of creation at this juncture in the form of a partial indictment. Created he them and they are responsible for the fall; they are together in guilt. This defection is dire, described by Bonhoeffer as a "continual falling, a plunging into bottomless depths, a being relinquished, a withdrawal even farther and deeper. And in all this it is not simply a moral lapse but the destruction of creation by the creature." Bonhoeffer tells us that he is not very interested in why evil exists: that is not, for him, a "theological question, for it assumes that it is possible to go beyond the existence forced upon us by sinners." No, the theological question does not arise here but only with "the real overcoming of evil on the Cross; it asks for forgiveness of guilt, for the reconciliation of the fallen world."
Post-fall we are in a world of troubles. Man and woman are divided. Sexuality transgresses limits in "avid passion of man for the other person.... Sexuality is the passionate hatred of every limit, it is arbitrariness to the highest degree, it is self-will, it is avid, impotent will for unity in the divided world.... Sexuality desires the destruction of the other person as creature.... Man without a limit, hating, avidly passionate, does not show himself in his nakedness." Covering himself assures that the world is rent and torn into tob and ra. Henceforth man lives in a "peculiar dialectic," hating the limit, as one divided. Shame, or covering and concealment, and the vocation of the "restrained community of marriage in the Church" alone structure restraint. Man's creatureliness is now corrupted. No wonder man is ashamed. The tree of knowledge brought on Adam and Eve "shame and passion." Shame requires that we wear a mask. But from beneath "the mask there is the longing for the restoration of the lost unity." This forces its way toward fulfillment in the partnership of two human beings in marriage; shame, at that point, reveals its "deepest secrecy," the yearning for a world without the need for shame.
Eve, fallen, is nonetheless "the mother of all living," or is called such by Adam from a stance of "wild exultation, defiance, insolence, and victory." Eve is our first and sullied beginning. Mary, "the innocent, unknowing mother of God this is the second beginning." The earth awaits Mary's motherhood and Christ's incarnation. It all gets worse before anything better is intimated. Cain and murder are yet to come. But Christ on the cross is the "end of the story of Cain," and the cross on Golgotha offers us a "strange paradise ... this blood, this broken body! What a strange tree of life, this tree on which God himself must suffer and die.... The tree of life, the Cross of Christ, the middle of the fallen and preserved world of God, for us that is the end of the story of paradise." Humans can achieve nothing by their own efforts. The cross and God's free gift of grace alone redeem us: here Bonhoeffer calls to mind Luther's "On the Bondage of the Will," perhaps the most bleak of Luther's assessments of our fallen condition. Only this abyss, this utter forlornness, helps us to recognize by contrast the unwarranted bounty of God's free gift of grace. Our hope and yearning must be marked by the sign of the cross lest we fall into the arrogant presumption that we are meritorious. With Luther, it is the whole person who falls and the whole person who must be redeemed: "If we believe that Christ has redeemed men by his blood, we are bound to confess that the whole man was lost; otherwise, we should make Christ either superfluous or the redeemer of only the lowest part of man, which would be blasphemy and sacrilege." If the Bonhoeffer/Luther account offers a low anthropology do not expect too much from creatures who have fallen so far there is joyous anticipation in the high Christology. Relinquishment and redemption are twins, not opposites.
IT IS John Paul II's turn to lead us into and out of the Garden. The gravamen of John Paul's narrative is very different from that of Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, remember, is at pains to occlude the point of origin or, perhaps better put, to teach us that that point forever eludes us and is not, in any case, interesting theologically. The fall inaugurates the story that really interests Bonhoeffer. John Paul, however, is far more engaged with "from the beginning," with the sorts of creatures we were and have remained given that beginning. He knows, of course, that we cannot penetrate to the beginning in a historical sense, but he argues that we can offer intimations in an anthropological sense. Thus, in Jesus' exchange with the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3ff., Jesus recalls the ancient truth: "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?" John Paul segues from this moment to the "beginning" Jesus has in mind, namely, Genesis 1:27, "In the beginning the Creator made them male and female." This passage means not only that God created "them" in his image but also that God did so "in the beginning." So Jesus himself lifts up the Elohist account.
What sorts of creatures were these? First and foremost, they are creatures created for communion, to be in communio. But there is that second account of creation, from Genesis 2:24, an account that, according to John Paul, "forms a conceptual and stylistic unity with the description of original innocence, man's happiness, and also his first fall." Then John Paul kicks into italics in the text with these words: "From the point of view of biblical criticism, it is necessary to mention immediately that the first account of man's creation is chronologically later than the second. The origin of this latter is much more remote. This more ancient text is defined as 'Yahwist' because the term 'Yahweh' is used to denominate God." By comparison with this second but earlier account, the first and chronologically later "is much more mature both as regards the image of God, and as regards the formulation of the essential truths about man. This account derives from the priestly and 'elohist' tradition, from 'Elohim,' the term used in that account for God." Very interesting, some might murmur, but what is the import of this? John Paul gets straight to the point. The textually earlier but chronologically later account is clear that man is "male and female" always was, always will be. The ontological equality and essential relationality of male and female is given as a corporeal reality. This is the "essential truth" male and female created he them. This account, according to John Paul, is "free from any trace whatsoever of subjectivism. It contains only the objective facts and defines the objective reality, both when it speaks of man's creation, male and female, in the image of God, and when it adds a little later the words of the first blessing: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth; subdue it and have dominion over it'" (Gen. 1:28).
This leads John Paul directly into the heart of his theology of the body. He turns next to the "subjective definition of man" he finds embedded in the second account (Gen. 2:24). John Paul makes much of these two distinct accounts; Bonhoeffer blurs them and discusses them interchangeably at points. But John Paul clearly wants to put the heavy theological, philosophical, and anthropological weight on Genesis 1:27 "created he them." So how does he deal with Genesis 2:24? He speaks rather like a cultural and philosophical anthropologist. "The second chapter of Genesis constitutes, in a certain manner, the most ancient description and record of man's self-knowledge." The narrative is archaic, manifesting a primitive mythical character. Its various elements have become clearer to us given the work of contemporary philosophical anthropology. Thus it "could be said that Genesis 2 presents the creation of man especially in its subjective aspect." The pope brings a bit of his etymological armamentarium to bear at this point, telling us that "the first human being the Bible calls 'Man (adam)" but very briefly. For "from the moment of the creation of the first woman, it begins to call him 'man' (ish), in relation to ishshah ('woman')."
Thus we find two human persons, ish and ishshah, in the Garden. And there is that mysterious tree. This tree of the knowledge of good and evil "is the line of demarcation between the two original situations of which the Book of Genesis speaks." Here too there is a significant difference from Bonhoeffer, who locates the tree not at any boundary or liminal divide but at the very center. Bonhoeffer's Garden of Eden foreshadows his theologia crucis, so to speak. John Paul's Adam is innocent in a not terribly interesting way, a kind of naif. Indeed, the first situation is one of original innocence innocent because "man (male and female) is, as it were, outside the sphere of knowledge of good and evil." But the second situation is fast upon us in which man (male and female), "after having disobeyed the Creator's command ... finds himself, in a certain way, within the sphere of the knowledge of good and evil. This second situation determines the state of human sinfulness, in contrast to the state of primitive innocence." John Paul concludes that the Yahwist text shows that there are "two original situations," and "systematic theology" must "discern in these two antithetical situations two different states of human nature: the state of integral nature and the state of fallen nature." After the fall, we can no longer "read" signs correctly, so to speak, for a rupture has been effected between reality and our capacity to know that reality through the use of signs. We can only read signs correctly if we understand the realities to which these signs refer. But our ability to do this is deeply disturbed post-fall. So a fully integral nature must elude us.
Excerpted from Who Are We? by Jean Bethke Elshtain Copyright © 2004 by Jean Bethke Elshtain. Excerpted by permission.
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