The Fall of the Fall: A Brief Political History
The Fall of the Fall: A Brief Political History
William T. Cavanaugh
There is a general cultural assumption in our society that any antagonism between science and theology is inherent in scientific method. The great secularizer is science, it is often thought, because the fancy or sheer unprovability of theological belief eventually runs into scientific fact. We can no longer take the Fall story seriously, for example, because it is just a story. So the story goes.
For those who are invested in a more fruitful dialogue between science and theology, however, it is helpful to know that secularization is not the inevitable result of science. And one way of loosening the grip of the story told above is to show that secularization—including the secularization of science—has causes that are non- scientific. The eclipse of the Fall has roots that are political, not scientific; it contributes to the rise of the modern state and to the divorce between theology and political science and between theology and natural science.
In pre-modern Western society, the Fall marked the difference between the way things are and the way things are meant to be. The biblical narrative of the Fall occupied a foundational place in traditional Christian political theory. The Fall was seen as either the reason that coercive government was necessary or a significant factor affecting what was possible in human government. This emphasis on the Fall should not be misunderstood, however, as an example of Christian pessimism about human nature that has been overcome in more secular, Enlightenment-influenced societies. In traditional Christian political theory, the primary referent of human nature is a pre-Fall phenomenon; human nature consists of the capacities instilled by God in humans at creation. The clear consensus among patristic and medieval commentators was that human beings are by nature sociable creatures that are inclined to love their fellows. Augustine, for example, writes that “since every person is a part of the human race, and human nature is social, each person also has a great and natural good, the power of friendship.”
As Augustine also says, however, “The human race is, more than any other species, at once social by nature and quarrelsome by perversion.” The distinction between nature and the perversion of that nature is crucial for Augustine and for the Christian tradition as a whole. In the story of Adam, God teaches us both what we ought to be and what we have come to be because of human choice. The story of the Fall, therefore, is not simply a claim about the evil that lurks in human souls and the necessity of coercive government to make human social life possible. The Fall is also a lesson about the way humans ought to be and behave, based on the way that humans really are, the way that they were created by God. The Fall is not a pessimistic doctrine, but, on the contrary, gives humans hope that the evil that people do to one another is not natural, that is, is not simply inscribed in the way things are from creation, and is therefore not simply inevitable. Though Christian thinkers saw human coercive government as instituted by God, the consensus was that that coercive government is not natural, but rather a divine response to human sin.
The eclipse of the idea of a Fall of humankind did not have to await the rise of evolution and the prestige of the natural sciences; it was eclipsed in the early modern attempts to create a new naturalistic science of politics. Niccolò Machiavelli is often considered the first modern European thinker to attempt to establish politics on some basis other than theology. Machiavelli was not only contemptuous of the influence of Christianity on politics; more broadly he sought to establish politics on an empirical basis, that is, on what is rather than on what should be. The Fall is simply absent from Machiavelli’s political theory. The English tradition of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke—who had a much more direct influence on the American political system—tended to replace the Fall with a story about the “state of nature.” Hobbes famously founded the legitimacy of his sovereign on a state of nature that was said to be a war of all against all; surrendering our natural liberty to the government was necessary to keep people from killing one another. Locke had a somewhat more optimistic view of human nature, but he too had no room for the Fall in his political theory. Nature was simply the way things are, and coercive government was a natural institution.
Hobbes and Locke are rightly considered founding fathers of modern political theory because both paved the way for the public authority of the Bible to be supplemented, and eventually replaced, by Nature as the secure foundation of knowledge. The eclipse of the Fall in early modern political theory coincides with a new, unitary conception of nature. The Fall marks a division between two kinds of nature, the way we are and the way we are meant to be. The Fall is therefore crucial to an eschatological concept of nature; nature is not simply there, inert, its constant properties to be investigated and codified into constant laws. The Fall marks the fact that nature has a goal, a telos; there is nature as it is and nature as it will become, the latter of which is revealed by reflection on the original, prelapsarian condition in which God placed us, which in turn reveals God’s intention for us. Modern science often rejects teleology, believing the nature of matter to include only the way things are, and not the way things ought to be. The new “science” of politics also collapses the two natures into one; the way things are is revealed by the state of nature, which politics can ameliorate but not essentially alter. The Fall is “naturalized,” and many of the features of fallenness now simply coincide with creaturehood.
The important point is that there was nothing inevitable or “natural” about this process of naturalization. The eclipse of the biblical Fall story was not simply the putting away of childish stories in favor of hard data; the eclipse of the Fall was at least in part political, not scientific. The fall of the Fall is part of the secularization of politics, but secularization is neither inevitable nor the simple subtraction of a supernatural worldview from some more basic, natural residue. The “state of nature” upon which Hobbes and Locke built their political theories is based not on any empirical testing, but rather on prior political decisions about what kind of government and political economy needs justification. The state of nature replaced the Fall with a story of human origins that is no more empirically-based and no less susceptible to being labeled “mythological” than the Genesis story. The claim to know “nature” and what is “natural” is, for Hobbes and Locke, a political move that, no less than medieval appeals to Scripture, attempts to invest political authority with authority that comes from a non-political source.
The eclipse of the biblical Fall had significant advantages for the justification of the authority of the nascent modern state, which was busily freeing itself from ecclesiastical influence and appropriating land, judicial powers, rights of appointment to ecclesiastical offices and benefices, and tax powers and revenues from the church. The movement of politics from a scriptural to a “natural” basis meant less reliance on the church for its expertise in biblical interpretation. More importantly, the eclipse of the Fall removes the eschatological proviso that the medieval commentators read in the Genesis story. The Fall meant that coercive political authority, for Augustine and the tradition that followed him, was not natural or permanent but a temporary remedy for sin until Christ, the true ruler’s, return. Political authority, though instituted by God, lived always under the judgment of the way things were meant to be, which was, of course, also God’s judgment. In contrast, the state that emerges from the “state of nature” is simply a response to the way things are, and therefore a natural, permanent, institution.
In the long run, much of what comes to be called “science” will follow the path that “political science” followed: divorced from theology and from the church, and tasked with investigating a reduced nature that has been stripped of any eschatological or teleological reference. The Fall will be discarded as a quaint myth, and evolution will appear to be guided by purely immanent processes. I suggest, however, that the divorce of science and theology in the West has been promoted, at least in part, by non-scientific factors. There is a political history of science in the West that needs to be told.
[div id=”blockquote”]This study asks a pressing question: If humanity emerged from non-human primates—as genetic, biological, and archaeological evidence seems to suggest—then what are the implications for Christian theology’s traditional account of origins, including both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin? The integrity of the church’s witness requires that it constructively address this difficult question. This three-year project, funded by BioLogos, is designed to help the church wrestle with the theological implications of contemporary scientific models. The starting point for this project is not one of advocacy for a particular position, but a respectful engagement of scientific research, while maintaining the primacy of a profound commitment to theological orthodoxy. [end-div]