Thoughts on The Fall
Earlier this month I finished The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl and Fiona Givens. There’s a lot of good in the book, undoubtedly. However, the third chapter, “We Are that We Might Have Joy”, presents an analysis of The Fall, that strikes me as leaving out certain implications for our understanding and application of the narrative in our own lives.
I’m not interested in thoughts on the literal or metaphorical nature of The Fall (not at this moment anyway—that’s a different discussion for another day), but rather, I’m deeply invested in understanding The Fall as it relates to my experience in mortality. If The Fall is meant to be a template of sorts for all of us, it seems that we should probably have a firm understanding of what the story is and what it means in its totality.
The Givenses write:
“Eve’s and Adam’s decision to eat the fruit of the tree, and thus forsake their paradise, may be an allegory for—or perhaps a counterpart to—our own decision to accept the conditions of mortality, in exchange for a heavenly paradise.” (57)
The Mormon reading of The Fall is a more hopeful one than what is found in most Christian traditions. Mormon feminists in particular have latched onto reclaiming Mother Eve as the decisive actor in the scenario that saw past the limitations of the law to the greatness that awaited them. I understand this impulse as the traditional telling of The Fall has been used to subjugate women for centuries and the reclamation of narratives is important. Yet, I wonder if this reclamation has been sloppy.
There are a few things to unpack here. Perhaps the first is how we understand the two commandments given to Adam and Eve. The Givenses turn to Hegel in their work, noting:
“as the philosopher Hegel argued forcefully, the most tragic predicaments in which we find ourselves are those that require a choice between competing Goods, not Good and Evil.” (57)
This may very well be the case. I find the line of reasoning based on the use of the word “transgression” to describe the action compelling. Elder Oaks distinguishes between transgressions and sins, by their connection to inherently immoral behavior. A transgression is not immoral inherently, but is a violation of some other law that’s been put in place. A law that may be temporary (my reading of The Fall frequently goes back to this idea, suggesting that in time the command to not partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would have been lifted). Anyway, I can see this interpretation in the text.
The Givenses then write about Eve that:
“Her decision is more worthy of admiration for its courage and initiative, than reproach for its rebellion.” (57)
This may very well be true. I find an interpretation of The Fall that empowers women, privileges the choice to move into knowledge, and then suggests that committed, loving personal relationships are worth choosing over exact obedience quite compelling. There’s a lot in that understanding to love.
However, if this is the case, we must deal with Satan’s role in the narrative.
If Eve was meant to partake of the fruit, then Satan enticed her to do the right thing. Given that The Fall is looked to as a counterpart to our mortal experience, the suggestion is clear that sometimes we need to listen to the devil to do what is right. If that’s the world we inhabit, it is a much more complex one than I’ve typically heard described at Church (which, to be honest, I frequently find mortality messier than discussions at Church suggest it is). This makes the already immensely messy business of spiritual promptings far messier.
Perhaps even more troubling than the implication that the devil may lead me to righteousness, is the idea that I could be punished for bringing about God’s purposes, if that happens in some way that displeases God. In the narrative of The Fall, Satan entices Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, Eve does, gets Adam to, the hide, God comes, calls them out, they admit their wrong-doing and describe Satan’s role. At this point, God then punishes Satan, stripping him of power and making him crawl on his belly or something (again, the literal nature of the narrative isn’t the question here, though untangling the metaphorical and literal punishments could shed some light on what’s actually going on). If God wanted Eve to partake of the fruit all along, if that is truly a choice “more worthy of admiration for its courage and initiative, than reproach for its rebellion,” then God seems to be punishing Satan for no other reason than that he’s Satan. Satan helped to bring about God’s purposes and was punished for it. What do we do with that?
One way out of this mess is what I parenthetically referenced earlier—that eating the fruit was a good thing, but that it could have been the best thing under future circumstances. That Adam and Eve prematurely ate the fruit.
Another possibility is to throw out Satan’s scriptural role (or to read the character of “the serpent” some other way). This seems like a fairly weak strategy (at least as far as it relates to Mormon thought broadly, individually that could be a powerful choice), particularly given Satan’s role in the temple ceremony that is pretty clearly meant to serve as a model for our own mortal experience.
Or we just lean in to this added messiness. We embrace that truth must be proved with contraries. We embrace that the devil may lead you to righteousness. I can accept that.
Yet, I don’t know how to embrace a God that seems unjust—rewarding righteousness with punishment. A God that tells me not to do something that He/She/They are actually hoping I do. I don’t know how to reconcile that with the God of love that I worship. The God that pushes me to love others. The God that weeps with my sorrows. The God that laughs with me. The God that wants me to have joy.
I want to own the Fortunate Fall. I want to embrace the strong Eve. I want to believe that Knowledge is worth sacrificing for. I want to believe that Love for each other can trump exact obedience. Yet, the implications for God in that narrative are troubling. How can I reconcile these worlds?