Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Having Their Cake

Many modern Christians want to have their cake and eat it too, believing they can somehow reconcile pseudo-science with the miraculous events they find in their Bibles. They do this by mythologizing the early chapters of Genesis and anything else they find inconvenient to the secularized mind, often including Job, David and Goliath, Jonah and the big fish, and so on.

The point at which accommodationists believe Genesis moves from myth to history may vary from one to the next, but the intellectual contortions required for mythologizing scripture are the same wherever one draws the line.

The Failure Point

All attempts to make myths of the Old Testament stories fail at precisely the same point: the point at which Christ and the apostles quote or refer to them as if they actually happened, which is the case with Adam and Eve, the Flood, Jonah, Job and almost every Bible story considered mythical by liberal Christians. All these create the same conflict for the accommodationist in that they require him to view the Lord Jesus and the writers of scripture as either ignorant of the mythical nature of the passages to which they refer (which presents a major problem for orthodox Christology), or else engaged in deceptive rhetoric by pretending to view them as authentically historical.

For example, if the book of Jonah is merely a fish story, how could the Lord Jesus say in good faith that “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah”? Men who did not exist could neither repent at the time nor rise up at some future date to condemn anyone. Did the Holy Spirit lead the writer to the Hebrews to pen the words “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain” with tongue firmly in cheek? Did Peter snicker at the gullibility of his readers when he wrote that God “did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly”, or was he merely blissfully ignorant that the Genesis flood account was intended to be read as some sort of deep spiritual allegory?

The only way for an accommodationist to maintain any confidence in the inspiration of scripture in the face of such questions is to ensure they are never raised.

Treating Scripture Coherently

Further, if Christian mythologists expect us to read their books and take anything they say seriously, they need to be a little more coherent about how they treat the text of scripture.

There is no question that Stephen G. Fowler, author of Probing the Mind to Free the Soul, believes the early chapters of Genesis are non-factual. He bluntly refers to the Bible’s “mythical account of creation” early in his book, defining myths as “stories told in ways that reflect the time, context and idiom of the story-teller, and of the listener, but convey some abiding truth”. Fowler doesn’t overtly espouse evolutionary theory in his book, but it’s hard to see how his mythologizing of Genesis serves any purpose other than the forlorn attempt to reconcile with the materialistic assumptions of Sigmund Freud, whom Fowler quotes extensively and whose influence on Probing the Mind is almost limitless.

Fowler’s mythologizing of Adam and Eve would not pose a major coherence problem if his definition of “myth” didn’t include the unnecessary concession that a myth reflects the “time, context and idiom of the story-teller”. According to Fowler’s own definition, then, we should find the early chapters of Genesis framed in the normal cultural and religious perspective of an ancient Hebrew (for the sake of brevity I will assume the perspective was that of Moses), without the slightest hint of post-Freudian analytical fodder anywhere to be seen. Of course, that is not what Fowler finds at all.

Another Layer

But there is a second layer to this problem, and that is that the story of Adam and Eve almost surely didn’t originate in the mind of Moses. Far more likely it was preserved in oral or written form for generations before Moses ever included it in Genesis. That would make most of the creation/fall of mankind story a product of an even earlier, less self-aware culture, and therefore even less likely to contain modern psychoanalytical insights than an allegory written by a man who grew up in the comparative intellectual sophistication of Egypt.

At this point, Stephen Fowler might point out that he is not discounting the ability of the Holy Spirit to package “abiding truth” within the ancient myth to which he refers — this product of a primitive culture — without the man who wrote it having had the slightest idea the Spirit was using him to seed deep psychoanalytical truths for a future generation. This sort of thing does happen. But if that is what is happening in this case, how is it that we require post-Freudian theorizing to unpack this truth for our fellow believers? How is it that the Oedipus Complex, the stages of psychosexual development, life and death instincts, ids, egos, superegos, or the (entirely unconfirmed and unconfirmable) notion that all psychic energy is generated by libido shed such needed light on ancient texts? Might not the Holy Spirit have been more considerate, and taken into account the need for these insights among the faithful for the last several thousand years? Truly, we moderns are exceptionally blessed.

That, or possibly these “truths” are not abiding at all, being the product of a way of thinking that surfaced only a century and a half ago, with the great likelihood that those of Freud’s ideas not already revised by his apologists will be modified or chucked out altogether by the next generation of theorists and dabblers.

Psychoanalyzing the First Couple

Still, mythologizing the story of Adam and Eve would have little implication for the coherence of Fowler’s later arguments in Probing if he had simply exercised the self-discipline to avoid referring to the first couple at all. Why open Pandora’s Box by asking the question “What might we make of the story of Adam and Eve?” Since Fowler believes Adam and Eve to be a product of the mind of some devout Hebrew writer, he would have been a whole lot safer to just leave them alone.

Naturally, he does the exact opposite. Fowler can’t stop talking about this couple he doesn’t believe ever existed, and whose story was written by a man of his time wholly ignorant of the “science” of psychoanalysis. As a result, we get a seemingly endless series of quotations like the following:

“Would we have to presume, if original sin had to do with concupiscence, that before the fall, Adam and Eve would have somehow procreated without any desire for one another and yet have had sexual intercourse?”

What could we possibly learn from considering what people who didn’t exist or procreate might have felt about it had they existed and procreated? It’s like speculating about the speculations of speculations.

“Adam and Eve were up against the serpent, as naive innocents, without an unconscious, the deck is stacked, asymmetrical such that Eve could in no way have been able to ‘translate’ the enigmatic elements within the serpent’s suggestive discourse. Clearly Satan’s approach was malicious i.e. evil, but was it also pregnant with sexual overtones? It was at least seductive. He desired to possess her, to have her (and Adam) dominated by his perspective, and under his control. In effect, he was seducing her to burn with desire for him, or at least for what he offered.”

But in Fowler’s view of scripture, Adam and Eve weren’t up against anybody. Moses is using these fictions as a way of conveying timeless truth about how sin transformed the human race. Fowler has already conceded that the writer of Genesis hadn’t the knowledge base to insert some sly subtextual inference about Eve’s ability to “translate the enigmatic elements within the serpent’s suggestive discourse” or whether Satan’s approach was “pregnant with sexual overtones”. Even if he had, both these notions would have been entirely foreign to the writer’s purpose in telling his story, so it is hard to see what the purpose is of trying to dredge concepts out of his parable that can’t possibly be there.

Intentionality and Accidental Insight

There is more. Of course there is more:

“Rather than the Adam and Eve story serving to portray sexuality as ground for sinfulness, I see it as portraying sexuality as the victim of traumatic psychological processes. Eve, and then Adam, succumbed to the persuasive, seductive temptations of Satan, who appears in the material form of a serpent, and manifests his specifically satanic quality of deceiver, but does not tempt them with specifically sexual possibilities.”

To portray something is to describe or depict it, both of which verbs presume intentionality on the part of the one doing the describing or depicting. How is it legitimate to say an ancient story portrays things its writer could not possibly have intended it to portray if myths reflect the time, context and idiom of the story-teller? If Moses wrote about people who lived and events that actually occurred, such an account might well contain facts that could give future readers some important-but-accidental psychological insight. However, if, as Fowler contends, the writer made the story up within the rigid limitations of his own primitive cultural perspective, any points of connection to Freudian psychoanalytical principles we might find there must be wholly conjectural. If we find them there, it is only because we are “projecting”, as the analysts say.

“Adam and Eve, unable to mentally organize what had happened in their realization of having disobeyed, yet knowing themselves to now be subject to death (whatever that might have meant to them, since presumably death would at that point in the creation story not be known) subsumed the trauma into their bodies, and enacted their shame and guilt, by concealing. Did they conceal the entire body, or only as it has always been presumed, the especially excitable bits, those which possess the particular capacity to respond with such pleasurable sensations, the genitals?”

Who cares what naughty bits our favorite fictions covered or didn’t? If we are reading a very early parable, of course the details of the story matter. By the same token, details the writer did not include are irrelevant to his purposes. How can we possibly gain any insight at all from things the author never said and apparently didn’t contemplate?

Fictions and Human Beings

If, rather than being story elements in an early parable, Adam and Eve had been flesh and blood people with real cognitive processes who really sinned, then we might reasonably consider the nature of their trauma, the various elements involved in Eve’s deception and how she and her husband related to one another before and after the fall of mankind. But if Adam and Eve were fictions — even well-intended, instructive fictions — all they can really tell us about are the inner workings of the mind of Moses.

Trying to have one’s cake and eat it too has always been a recipe for failure. You can either keep the cake intact, enjoy how elegantly the baker applied the icing rosettes, take pictures of it for your friends on Facebook, and go hungry … or else you can cut yourself a slice and enjoy the taste while losing any further potential for taking pretty pictures.

You can’t have both. And you can’t psychoanalyze people who never existed doing something that never took place.

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