The Clash of Civilizations

October 2, 2012

in Some Things to Think About

In the 21st century, we don’t think we need the ancient religious myth about Adam and Eve anymore. Science has basically explained human origins. Isn’t that right? [1] No. In a way, the story of Adam and Eve is more relevant today than most other biblical stories. Let me explain.

A clash of civilizations

The story of Adam and Eve was written by a Jewish thinker who wasn’t describing anthropology or the psychological basis for human behaviour. He was wrestling with the difficult question of human evil. After describing how everything began – that God made everything and it was “good” (and humans were “very good”) — the author of Genesis was faced with a dilemma. How had the world and human beings gone so badly off-track after God created them? Other civilizations in ancient times had solved the problem of good and evil by saying that there wasn’t one good God but a whole host of gods, some good and some bad, who were at war. The Hebrew writer believed that there was only one God and He was good. His solution, therefore, was that God had created both man and angels and had given them freedom — and that some angels had misused this freedom, been condemned for their disobedience, and now were intent on persuading God’s newest creatures, human beings, to do what they had done — use their freedom to rebel against God. A war in the supernatural realm had spilled over into the natural realm. The serpent (a fallen angel) persuaded Eve to ignore God’s admonition “not to eat of the fruit of that tree.” She disobeyed God, and she and Adam, our ancestors, laid the groundwork for a continuing clash here on Earth — God’s kingdom versus the human rebels spurred on by the rebellious angels – that has been going on since pre-historical times.

Why is the story of Adam and Eve so relevant today?

It is obvious today to most people that there is a clash of civilizations on our planet in the 21st century.  Terrorists versus the west. Traditional cultures versus modern ones. Have-nots versus haves. Industrialized nations versus non-industrialized. The list goes on. Even more disturbing is that our human hopes of progress in resolving these clashes seem more dim today than ever before. Read this summary.

In the twentieth century, when human beings have already killed well over one hundred million of their kind, disenchantment [with an optimistic view of human nature] has set in. Two world wars, the Gulags, the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, the nuclear and ecological threats form a somber litany that makes the optimism of the liberals ring hollow and naïve. Despite technological progress, evil, far from vanishing, has only become more powerful and more fiendish. . . . And artists like Conrad, Camus, Beckett, Golding, and Murdoch contend that because of our hearts of darkness there may be countless nice men and women but few if any genuinely good ones. In all these perspectives evil is held to be inherent, somehow structural, ingrained. And its terrible power defies explanation and solution. Paradoxically, the silver wings of science and technology, on which soared the hopes of the industrialized societies, carry the ultimate menace to the human prospect. [Steven Duffy, 1988 article in Theological Studies]

The persistance of the struggle between good and evil, and the inability of human institutions to resolve it and create peace and tranquility, points toward some deeper cause. The myth of Adam and Eve reveals a supernatural dimension to the problem.

The need for mythic solutions

In our modern world, we have lost the sense that myth is important. Science and political enlightenment hold the answers for us. Yet,  when these approaches seem incapable of dealing with the global situation, myth holds out hope. Adam and Eve is not the end of the Judeo-Christian story about life but the beginning. If, as that story says, the clash between good and evil has a supernatural dimension, then our hope lies in a supernatural solution. St Paul summaries that hope in his Letter to the Romans.  ”For, if by the trespass of the one man [Adam], death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provsion of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” [Romans 5:17]

Many Christians listen to these words and fail to appreciate the powerful mythic meaning of the story-arc from Adam and Eve to Jesus — and worse, we fail to apply it to how we understand the context for our lives in the 21st century. The clash between good and evil does not just need men and women of good will, although that is important. It doesn’t only need UN peace-keeping forces, foreign aid, and economic development, although those are also important. It needs Christians who understand that the battleline for the clash between good and evil runs right through their heart and their local church community. We Christians are on the front-lines of this struggle, as Jesus’s brothers and sisters. And grace is our secret weapon and our hope. If these words don’t ring true for you, I suggest you read Romans again. And read my post Anger and Mercy again.

[1] My friend Brendam Purcell, author of From Big Bang to Big Mystery quotes Paleontologist Chris Stringer. With recent advances in understanding the Human Genome,  “The realisation that humans are biologically highly homogeneous has one straightforward implication: that mankind has only recently evolved from one tight little group of human ancestors.” The probability that all of us have two prehistorical parents has increased.

© 2012, James Harlow Brown. All rights reserved.

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