Reconsidering the Fall

I have been thinking recently about the Fall – no, not the leaves falling off the trees, in American parlance. I mean the story in the book of Genesis of the Bible, about how Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, then were expelled from the Garden of Eden by God. Just mentioning this story may raise the  hackles of secularists, who associate it with metaphysical dogma. However, I think there is an important distinction to be made between metaphysical claims, which are dogmatic, and stories and symbols, which are not. To make a claim like “Adam and Eve made all humans sinful” is metaphysical, and we can see the negative effects of the Christian dogma of Original Sin in terms of psychological conflict. However, to tell and re-interpret the myth of the Fall so as to relate it more usefully to experience is a different matter.Masaccio expulsion from Eden

The myth is a potent one. Take this very famous picture by Masaccio of the expulsion from Eden.  For me this communicates a very basic experience of suffering and links it powerfully to a sense of exclusion. The story is exploring the meaning of human suffering  through creating a story about its causes. Obviously, the way these causes are symbolised is to some extent dependent on the culture of the early Hebrews in which the story developed. However, one would also expect it to tap into more universal human experiences. How we interpret the story in terms of these is something we can play around with. I’m going to offer an interpretation which I think helps to relate the story to universal human experience. That doesn’t mean that I think that’s what the story is “really” about (the “really” would take us back into metaphysics). Rather it’s an interpretation, which I take responsibility for as such.

Let’s think about the basic elements of the story. It divides roughly into three: (1)God creates the Garden of Eden, (2) Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, and (3) then they are expelled.

If we take a Jungian interpretation of God and his meaning, he represents the integrated psyche, just as a Buddhist mandala does. God is a represented idealised form of how we would be if we were entirely free of conflict, internal or external, and we may associate this symbol with people we know or have heard of who may have got further on this road than we have – Wise Old Men and Wise Old Women. The Garden of Eden, said to be created by God, bears a similar interpretation. It is an idealised symbol of complete contentment through full integration.

However, this garden-mandala contains the seeds of conflict – the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I think one helpful way of interpreting this would be as the ego, or the obsessive function of a detached left hemisphere of the brain. When we eat the fruit (develop the representational functions of the left hemisphere) we gain power and insight because we are able to manipulate the world to our own ends far better than we were before. We can use language to make plans, instructions, warnings etc and communicate them to others. We are capable of gaining an increasingly coherent view of the world in which we act. However, this ability also comes at a price – the tendency of the left hemisphere to absolutise, to believe that it has the whole picture, and to turn its beliefs into metaphysical ones. This might be thought of as ‘knowledge of good and evil’ because of the ego’s tendency to accept and reject things dualistically, thinking of what it happens to like at the moment as ‘good’ and what it dislikes as ‘evil’.

By eating this forbidden fruit, then, we create suffering as well as power, because we exclude ourselves from the degree of integration between the hemispheres we might have otherwise. We emerge from an undifferentiated and implicit awareness into a world of concepts – a process that can be disorientating and alienating. We have been thrown out of the garden because we no longer feel whole in the sense that we might, and yearn for a missing integration.

One of the early church fathers, Irenaeus, described the sin of Adam and Eve as felix culpa, a ‘happy sin’. This suggests that he was getting to grips with the contradictions involved in the Fall. We feel shut out, but we also feel empowered by the ego and its associated conceptualisations. He perhaps implicitly recognised that the ego is not a bad thing to be destroyed, but the basis on which we can develop further. However, stretching the ego so as to gradually dilute its weaknesses requires effort and practice: we can’t rely on a  salvation from the effects of the Fall from Christ, as the metaphysical doctrines of Christianity have it.

The story of the Fall is such a basic part of Western culture, that it would be a great shame to merely shut it out by dismissing it as ‘untrue’, as some secularists appear to do. ‘Truth’ is really not a relevant test to apply in understanding what this story – or any story – has to offer. I would suggest that the Middle Way here involves finding creative ways to engage with it and harness its power – whether that is through the kind of interpretation I am suggesting or some other way. Even if we also recognise its limitations, every myth can speak to us in some way.


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

6 thoughts on “Reconsidering the Fall

  1. This is a very interesting interpretation of a story that I have struggled with, as I have struggled with much of the Bible- especially the OT. Your reading helped make sense of this particular myth, the meaning of which, for me, has always been obscured by its authoritarian and misogynistic overtones.

    Some thoughts: I wonder if one might shift things around slightly and get a similar but slightly different interpretation.

    I would agree that God is a symbol of perfect integration, but I personally don’t feel that the Garden of Eden represents the same. Perhaps it is my own anti-authoritarian bias shining through here- but I feel that Eden is not integrated really but rather represents the pre-trans fallacy. The innocent bliss that I see Adam and Eve experiencing in the Garden seems to me to be a pre ego state. It is fully right hemisphere functioning, childlike, and not integrated, with ego banished and concentrated to the tree of knowledge.

    One could view this as a classic division of good and evil where God is fully good and tried to protect us from evil but then we went and brought it upon ourselves anyway. But to take a truly integrated approach, I feel we should reject the good-evil binary.

    God supposedly created Adam and Eve in his image but he treats them protectively and condescending – they are under his wing and shielded from ego. What is he protecting them from? Darkness and sin. But is ego the equivalent of darkness and sin? Only if it is not integrated, but- humans are not God, even if they are the likeness of God. If God is perfect integration and balance of ego, as opposed to absence of ego, then why would he keep them in a pre- ego state? Because it isn’t ego in itself he was trying to protect them from, but ego-identification. The story could be read as a warning to us about the seductiveness of the ego, and the risk of being ruled by it at the expense of our sense of whole.

    We might say that in the Fall, Eve and Adam follow their curiosity and eat the apple. They thereby acquire ego, and they immediately fall prey to the familiar trap of becoming fully ego identified. In my interpretation, this is what constitutes the actual Fall; not that they acquired ego but that they succumbed to it, that they allowed the Master to be usurped by the Emissary. God in the story knew they would be ill equipped to keep the Master in control. But he lets it happen because if he didn’t, we would not have a chance to become integrated. Like any parent, God struggled with the conflicting desire of protecting your child and the necessity of letting them try their wings and make mistakes in order to become adult and mature. As Augustine of Hippo wrote “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.” The story of the Fall then illustrates Gods agony as he allowed humans the free will they needed to grow, and possess actual wholeness for themselves – as opposed to being under the umbrella of God’s wholeness.

    Also, I had the thought that this story could be seen as a description of how, or perhaps why, western culture became so independent rather than interdependent. After reading Barry’s blog on this site, I checked out the TED talk by Kathryn Schulz “On being wrong”. She speaks about all of our different perspectives and that none of them represent the actual picture, we are all “off” somehow – but that the ways in which they differ creates this beautiful diversity that can enrich us all. In the Garden of Eden, there were no interpretations, there was just perfection and bliss. By eating the apple, Eve and Adam acquired separateness, and thus individualism. She mentions another quote by Augustine of Hippo “ I err, therefor I am”. That quote in itself could be seen as summing up the whole story of the Fall.

    1. Hi Emilie,
      This is excellent. I agree with you completely. You’ve fully understood the spirit of what I was trying to say, and improved on it considerably by thinking further. This is exactly the kind of collaborative thinking that I most hoped the society could create!

  2. Hi Emilie,
    I was really quite excited this morning when I read your comment. It was wonderful to see someone complementing and developing an idea of Robert’s with such insight and eloquence. It bodes well!

  3. Hi Emilie, I found your thread, in reply to Robert’s take on the Fall, very interesting, as I did his explanation – I will think of the Fall in a new way and hope that other stories/myths will surface, that are given the same philosophical attention in a non-dogmatic way. I look forward to reading more of your views on this site. I have begun to read The Master and His Emissary, as I hope to have a better understanding of the brain and how it functions.

  4. Hi Barry and Norma, I am so glad you found this discussion interesting. I was really happy to read Robert’s post as well because I recently started reading the Bible, properly, for the first time. I have looked at it before but always through a sort of filter where I had running through my mind all the atrocities of religion over the course of history. I just kept thinking “this book did that”, and I couldn’t get past that. Of course, now I see that it did not do those things, dogmatic metaphysical belief is what is dangerous – the Bible is a book. I found quite a lot of wisdom in it actually. The book of Genesis however, has been challenging. I couldn’t make sense of it. Roberts interpretation helped me see that there was something to be learned, and made me think of it in a whole new way. It is really cool whenever that happens! I am looking forward to future discussions and exchange of ideas!

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