Collins and Chesterton on The Fall

“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness…. Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness. It must also account for such amazing contradictions.”  — Blaise Pascal, Pensees

In his book Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (2011), Dr. C. John “Jack” Collins discusses the various literary, historical, theological, philosophical, and scientific issues that go into answering the titular question. It’s not quite what I was expecting, but it is fascinating, nonetheless. In the course of the discussion, Collins gives some critique of the views of Dr. Leon Kass:

“The recent Genesis commentary of Leon Kass [The Beginning of Wisdom (2003)] regularly advocates that we read Genesis ‘anthropologically’ and ‘philosophically’ (terms that strike me as intentional echoes of Aristotle), rather than ‘historically’: that is, as a record, not of what did happen, but what might happen, and what always happens. This, he contends, gives us a much richer way of reading….

[Kass contends that], ‘Read as history, the text fails to persuade the skeptical reader.’ With all due respect to Kass, if we fail to read the Genesis story as some kind of history, we fail to persuade the perceptive reader, because we fail to do justice to [the feeling of] nostalgia [that Kass himself acknowledges the text evokes].

For me, it is G.K. Chesterton [As I Was Saying, ed. Robert Knille (1985)] who best captures the refreshment that comes from realizing this:

Adam-Eve-SerpentThe Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things; on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind;… on that proverb that says ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,’ which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics: ‘We look before and after, and pine for what is not’; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.

If we say, as I think we should, that there is a level of figurative and symbolic description in Genesis 1-4, we must still allow that the story we find there provides the best explanation for our lives now, and for our hunger for things to be better.”

In other words, Collins’ point (as I understand it) is that a “literal”, historical interpretation (which he holds) must not ignore certain literary considerations, which may include “figurative and symbolic description” (e.g., re the “serpent”). With this acknowledgement, we have in the opening chapters of Genesis a true account of historical events which also explains the simultaneous greatness and wretchedness of Man and his internal yearnings for what was lost.


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