Our Condition in "the Fall"
NOTE: Some Further Comments on Chuck Fager's Response to my Review of "Without Apology" will appear eventually. Meanwhile, I have just finished the following post on an entirely different topic. I had been working on it for some time before Chuck sent me his post.- - Rich A-E
In a comment on my recent post about the Barclay Course at 15th Street Meeting, Marshall Massey says
Rich, I'd have loved to read more details about your Barclay course -- even at the level of my five-part report on the Bible study I led last summer at Baltimore -- so that I too could have learned from the course.I'm afraid I'm not up to a report that thorough, but I do think that perhaps I can share some of the fruit of our discussions of Barclay's Proposition Number Four "On the Condition of the Man in the Fall". These are the things I brought away from the discussion.
I'll start by mentioning that we used the text of Barclay's own 1678 English translation of the Apology, as published by the Quaker Heritage Press. You can find the text of proposition 4 - and Barclay's Discussion of it - at this link: http://www.qhpress.org/texts/barclay/apology/prop4.html. It may be useful to glance at this whole chapter before reading the rest of the current post, but here is the proposition itself:
All Adam's posterity (or mankind), both Jews and Gentiles, as to the first Adam (or earthly man), is fallen, degenerated, and dead; deprived of the sensation (or feeling) of this inward testimony or seed of God; and is subject unto the power, nature, and seed of the serpent, which he soweth in men's hearts, while they abide in this natural and corrupted estate: from whence it comes that not only their words and deeds but all their imaginations are evil perpetually in the sight of God, as proceeding from this depraved and wicked seed. Man therefore, as he is in this state, can know nothing aright; yea his thoughts and conceptions concerning God and things spiritual, until he be disjoined from this evil seed and united to the Divine Light, are unprofitable both to himself and others. Hence are rejected the Socinian and Pelagian errors in exalting a natural light, as also of the Papists and most of Protestants, who affirm that man without the true grace of God may be a true minister of the Gospel. Nevertheless this seed is not imputed to infants until by transgression they actually join themselves therewith: for they are by nature "the children of wrath" who walk according to the "power of the prince of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience," having their conversation in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind (Eph. 2)
Now this is not, on first reading, a terribly congenial proposition. Who wants to be told that he or she is "fallen, degenerate and dead", can "know nothing aright", and that not only his or her "words, and deeds, but all their imaginations are perpetually evil in the sight of God"? The language of the proposition reminds many people of the "original sin" idea so prominent in most of non-Quaker Christianity. For many Quakers it is an article of unofficial dogma that "Quakers don't believe in original sin", and some appear not to believe in "sin" at all. The idea of "the Fall" is closely linked in many people's minds to "original sin", so it may well come as a shock to see a discussion of "the Fall" in an early Quaker writer.
Another difficulty for many is that the whole concept of "the Fall" is centered around the Genesis narrative of what happened in the Garden of Eden. In Barclay's day, this narrative was widely understood as literal history. Today we do not understand it in that literal way, or least I do not, those of us who were studying Barclay at 15th Street Meeting do not, and most educated people do not. This being so, we may have more trouble than Barclay's generation did in accepting the reality of the Fall.
If we study Barclay's supporting argument and consult our own experience, however, several points become clear:
First, The doctrine described above is really quite different from the "original sin" doctrine taught by most other Christian Churches in Barclay's day and even in ours. Barclay himself rejected the term "original sin" and pointed out that it is not a scriptural term. He offers the words "death", "body of death", "old Adam" and "old man" as sounder terms taken from the Bible, and his discussion makes plain that these are not just different words, but words for a different spiritual reality. I will say more about this shortly.
Second, It is true that Barclay refers to and appears to accept the historicity of Adam, Eve, and the Garden, but there are hints in his discussion that the "mystical" significance of this story is more important to him than its supposed factuality. And certainly for us it is entirely possible to see a spiritual truth in the story of the Fall without having to accept its situation in a particular place and time.
Third, the key to understanding what Barclay is saying is to notice his distinction between people in the "natural and corrupted estate" which he describes as fallen and people "disjoined from this evil seed and united to the Divine Light". Indeed, this whole proposition cannot be fully understood until it is read in the context of Propositions 5 and 6 which are given the common title "Concerning the Universal Redemption by Christ, and also the Saving and Spiritual Light wherewith every man is enlightened". This dualism is somewhat problematic for modern people but it isn't for that reason necessarily or completely false. In fact, we really need to come to terms with it somehow, as it underlies much of Quaker practice, including our understanding of spirit-led ministry in worship (treated in Propositions 10 "Concerning Ministry" and 11 "Concerning Worship").
Fourth, Barclay's description of humanity in "the Fall" is - - if we are honest with ouselves - - a highly realistic description of humanity as it is. Our "sophistication" about our historical and biological origins are shallow if because of it we can't see the profoundly broken human condition that Barclay and the Bible call "fallen". Without an appreciation of this spiritual brokenness we are not equipped to receive with joy and gratitude the good news that through Christ's Light and Livign Spirit we are offered redemption from this state.
Let me expand on these points one-by-one.
1. The difference between "original sin" and the "old Adam"
In Barclay's proposition, quoted above, the statement that is perhaps least controversial to Friends of today is also the one that appeared most heretical to non-Quaker Christians of Barclay's day.
Nevertheless this seed is not imputed to infants until by transgression they actually join themselves therewith:...In contrast to this Quaker position, many other Christians of Barclay's day (and all too many of our own) actually believed that infants are born guilty of sin and worthy of eternal punishment unless or until some spiritual sanctuary could be found for them, either through a ceremony like baptism or through a "salvation experience" of accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. This is a transparently cruel and inhuman doctrine. Where it has actually been accepted it has been a source of horrible fear and anguish to countless generations of loving parents. No doubt some people have been attracted to this doctrine precisely because its horror appealed to a streak of sadism, but others have accepted it reluctantly as an odd but inevitable corollary of a more general understanding of sin that in other respects seemed right, necessary, and implied by Scripture.
Barclay explicitly rejected this view. It's true he had just said that in our "natural state", which is presumably the state of the infant, we are subject to the "power,nature and seed of the serpent". But with his clarification that infants are not guilty of sin "until they join themselves therewith", we see that by "the old Adam" in our nature Barclay doesn't mean an inherited guilt for someone else's sin. He means, rather, an inherited natural disposition to commit sins ourselves. As infants we haven't yet acted on this natural disposition, but we all get our chance eventually. Barclay doesn't spell out at what age actual sins might take place, because this is not his interest. He is trying to focus attention on the reader's own spiritual condition, not on when and how a growing child becomes "of age". Barclay is able to argue the case for this doctrine from scripture, and to refute the scriptural arguments for the more conventional view.
It has always struck me that the "I am guilty of Adam's sin" point of view, while it seems so severe, actually lets the individual off the hook psychologically. It can tempt us to focus on Adam's sin in the past, which we can't do anything about, instead of our own conduct int the present. Barclay, in discussing our fallenness, focuses on what our fallenness causes us to actually do. I think this makes God's justice and our own responsibilities more comprehensible.
2. The real Fall, the mythical Garden
A number of otherwise intelligent people have patiently explained to me over the years that it is now impossible to believe in the Fall of man (and woman) because Darwin has demonstrated that we are in fact descended from other animals, not from ancestors who lived in Paradise. Ironically, the converse argument is sometimes used by Biblical literalists who insist that Darwinism can't be true because if it is then there was no Fall of Adam and no need for Christ. What can we make of this? Does all of Christian theology hang on a literalist reading of the story of the Garden?
The fact is that the Christian understanding of Eden was implicitly taken as at least partly metaphorical or symbolic long before Darwin - possibly as long as the story has been told. Consider, for example, the fact that Eden can't be located anyplace on the map of the known world, much less than in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where Genesis puts it. Remember that at the end of the Genesis story the garden isn't destroyed or lifted up to heaven. The man and the woman are expelled from it, angels with a flaming sword are placed at the gate to guard it, but the garden is left right where it is. Yet the "Biblical Literalists" we all presume our ancestors to have been did not go in search of this garden or place it on their maps. George Fox said of a remarkable spiritual experience he had, that he "came up through the flaming sword into the Paradise of God", but he didn't mean that he had travelled to the Middle East and set foot on a particular patch of earth. Barclay himself quotes Genesis about the expulsion of Adam and Eve and has this to say:
The consequence of this fall, besides that which relates to the fruits of the earth, is also expressed (Gen. 3:24), "So he drove out the man, and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubims, and a flaming sword, which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." Now whatsoever literal signification this may have, we may safely ascribe to this paradise a mystical signification, and truly account it that spiritual communion and fellowship, which the saints obtain with God by Jesus Christ; to whom only these cherubims give way, and unto as many as enter by him, who calls himself the Door. So that, though we do not ascribe any whit of Adam's guilt to men, until they make it theirs by the like acts of disobedience; yet we cannot suppose that men, who are come of Adam naturally, can have any good thing in their nature, as belonging to it; which he, from whom they derive their nature, had not himself to communicate unto them.We may accept this teaching or not, but whether we do so does not depend on whether we accept the theory of evolution. What the Garden represents to me is a vision of the world God fundamentally and originally intends for us: a world of harmony among all creatures and between them and their Creator. This is difficult for us to see or imagine because the world as it appears to us now is not like that. There are hints within empirical reality of the beaury and harmony that was and is intended, and sometimes this seems very close to realization. But then, somehow, something always happens. The bravest and most hopeful beginnings seem always subject to some flaw or defect. On the social level, utopian experiments go bad, hopeful movements burn out, revolutions are betrayed, good intentions go sour. In family life and individual life a very similar dynamic operates. Neither the vision of harmony nor the manifold disappointments of experience ever go away. The height and the depth are always with us. The distance between them is what I would call the Fall. The vision of Eden (and also the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem at the other end of the story) is our reminder that it is the height more than the depth that most represents God's intent for us. The expulsion from Eden represents the reality that we can't go back there on our own power. There's that flaming sword to get past - a sword that would separate us from the part of ourselves that has really chosen to leave the Garden's harmony. But more of that in point 4. I'm trying to keep to my outline here!
3. Barclay's dualism.
Is Barclay optimistic or pessimistic about human beings? If we read Proposition 4 without Propositions 5 and 6 he sounds pessimistic, with all of his warnings about our condition in the Fall. If we read propositions 5 and 6 without Proposition 4 he sounds optimistic, stressing as he does that there is a saving and Spiritual Light by which every human being is enlightened, and that the Redemption of Christ is a "universal" redemption. The resolution of this apparent contradiction lies in a recognition of Barclay's dualism. On the one hand there is an "evil seed" which is "natural". On the other hand, there is the "Divine Light" which is saving. Understanding this point of view requires a reshuffling of the thought-categories we are used to. In our vocabulary, "natural" is a positive word. We think of it as describing the-world-as-God-made-it. We contrast it to "un-natural" or "artificial", which we think of as the-world-as-people-spoiled-it. This way of dividing up reality has its own validity, but it does not easily map into Barclay's distinction between "natural" and "spiritual". For Barclay, the "natural" was not the world-as-God-made it, but the world that was fallen. And the opposite of this "nature" wasn't technology or art, it was all that proceeded directly from the Spirit. For George Fox this dualism was - if possible - even more pronounced. In his Journal he wrote:
I found that there were two thirsts in me -- the one after the creatures, to get help and strength there, and the other after the Lord, the Creator, and His Son Jesus Christ. I saw all the world could do me no good; if I had had a king's diet, palace, and attendance, all would have been as nothing; for nothing gave me comfort but the Lord by His power.
Barclay's dualism is somewhat problematic for me. But I am not ready to write it off. It is problematic for me because I cannot fix the line as confidently as Barclay seems to between what is "natural" and what is "spiritual". It occurs to me that whatever I experience of the Spirit is mediated to me through the physical, created universe and through my own senses and body. Even my centering down in worship and my release of self-will is in some way a thing that my "self" does. The inward motions that I feel are from God are nevertheless felt in my natural body and recorded by my natural mind. There are times when I can in fact mistake a notion of my own mind for a motion from God's Spirit. And, on the other hand, there is surely something of God's Spirit at work in anything that I might describe as natural. After all, even the "natural gifts" of intelligence, feeling, and appetite are parts of the world that God created. Perhaps this is related to the difficulty, already discussed, of understanding "the Fall" without envisioning it as a specific event in the past. If I don't see Eden as a particular outward place, and I don't see Adam's life and Eve's life in Eden as an event in history then Adam, Eve, and the Garden are all part of present reality and notwithstanding the Fall they are all part of the created world as I find it now.
Yet the distinction between "nature" and "spirit" is surely still a real distinction, even if it isn't always as clear and sharp for me or you as it seemed to Barclay. Moreover, it is a highly important distinction in Quaker practice as well as Quaker theory. Consider, for example, the Friend who speaks in Meeting. We recognize that in one sense it is always a "creature", an individual human being with blood and breath and brain, who stands in a meeting rooms and utters something. Yet we also believe that what that human being utters can only be "ministry" if is also in some sense from the Spirit. We listen to people all week, and in Meeting we want to listen to God. We think that there is a distinction between merely human voices and the voice of God. We disparage a message if we sense it to be solely from "the creature" or from "the ego" or from "the intellect". Barclay makes explicit the connection between this proposition and the Quaker understanding of ministry: "Hence are rejected the Socinian and Pelagian errors in exalting a natural light," he says, "as also of the Papists and most of Protestants, who affirm that man without the true grace of God may be a true minister of the Gospel".
Moreover, I think that by and large we try to be guided by the Spirit - and not by the resources of the creature alone - when we make the truly consequential decisions in our lives. We pray. We wait. We convene "clearness" committees. Why would this be the case if we didn't understand that the creature without the Spirit truly is "Fallen"?
4. "The Fall" as a Realistic Picture of Humanity.
Even after we free it from a literal reading of Genesis, the idea that humanity is fallen will seem to many a hopelessly outmoded idea, one that it is supposedly impossible for enlightened modern people to affirm. But why is it impossible? Do we have new evidence, unavailable in previous centuries, that people by default are as good as God intended us to be? I would argue, on the contrary that the record of war, prejudice, oppression, misery and cruelty has become longer, more incredibly bloody, and harder to explain away. To argue that there is nothing deeply wrong with the heart of humanity seems like an exercise in massive denial and self-deception. We are, of course, a part of the Creation that the God of Genesis looked at and pronounced to be Good. We are also party to the spoiling of that Creation, and we are capable of evil and destructive acts toward one another - often cloaked with sincerely self-righteous justifications. This is not just a technical problem or political problem or even just a moral problem. It is a spiritual affliction.
Our fallenness doesn't make us loathsome to God, nor does it mean that we merit condemnation and punishment. Our fallenness calls forth the compassion of God, the offer of a helping hand, the promise to breathe new life into us. If we are able to see ourselves as we are and accept God's grace, then we can experience the re-birth mentioned in John's Gospel and receive "...the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." But if we cannot be realistic about ourselves, if we cannot recognize that we are fallen, then we will not accept God's helping hand.