Alan Watts on the Fall and Redemption
Today the Western world is post-Christian. The Churches are huge, prosperous organizations, and, aside from expanding their memberships and building new plants, their chief concern is the preservation of family ties and sexual mores. Their influence on major problems of domestic and international politics is minimal. Outside Quaker meetings and Catholic monasteries, there is hardly the slightest concern for the inner life, for the raising of human consciousness to union with God - supposedly the main work of religion. Their politicking and lobbying is largely preoccupied with the maintenance of idiotic sumptuary laws against gambling, drinking, whoring, selling contraceptives, procuring abortions, dancing on Sundays, getting divorced or practicing homosexuality... But all this is irrelevant to the peculiar predicament of mankind in this century. Or any century.
If this sounds like a prophetic tirade, it is not meant to be. Everyone is at liberty to enjoy being irrelevant to make sexuality the plum in involved competitive games, to goose themselves with the fear of the dreadful temptations of the flesh, and to wallow in being lovingly chastised by our Heavenly Father. My point is that if Christians want to stick to these irrelevancies, the Church will shortly become a museum, and an exotic game of being the innest in-group. Would it be merely sentimental to regret this?
It is not simply that I do not want Canterbury, Chartres, Vézelay, and San Marco to become museums, like Santa Sophia in Constantinople and Sainte-Chappelle in Paris. My regret is rather that we shall never see the rich potentialities of this way of life fulfilled, nor realize that the Christian mythos has the possibility of blossoming into the most joyously exuberant, swinging, colorful, and liberated religion there ever was. Heaven need not wait for the grave.
But to reach the point of even seeing such a possibility, the basic design of traditional Christianity must first become clear; only in terms of this design can the particular dogmas, doctrines and symbols be related together. I would like, then, to begin by trying to straighten out the symbolism of the First Adam and the Second Adam, of the Fall of Man and its relation to the central Christian idea of the Incarnation.
However one interprets the story of the Fall of Man, literally or figuratively, or whether one feels that its immediate cause was a deed of willful malice or the forgetting of man’s divine nature – the theologians are almost unanimous in feeling that it flung humanity into a vicious circle. Let me repeat the essential characteristics of this predicament.
The Fall was the acquisition of technique and self-awareness. It led man to mistrust their immediate impulses and to try to rely on conscious rationality. But they could not fully trust rationality, for they knew it was based upon deeper and still unknown reaches of the mind. They knew, too, that rationality could most easily become rationalization. To mistrust oneself leads, in due course, to mistrusting mistrust, and thus to being very mixed up indeed.
It led to the “curse of work.” That is to say, once a process of deliberate interference with the natural environment has been started, it cannot be stopped. Technology leads to the necessity for more and more technology, for it is a battle with the Hydra monster: for every head chopped off, seven new ones appear.
It led to the infinite regressions of moral duplicity, generated by the oscillating echo phenomena of a self-awareness that, being combined with self-awareness that, being combined with self-mistrust, is too sensitive. This manifests itself variously as anxiety and guilt, and a terrible inability to be genuine and innocent, especially in the love of other people. The more penetrating one’s self-awareness, the more it seems that life is a desperately elaborate game of one-upmanship, in which one pursues one’s own selfish purposes under the many disguises of duty, love, public-spiritedness, and devotion to ideals.
Christianity presents itself as the response of God to this predicament, which is an “everlasting damnation”just because it is a vicious circle from which man cannot escape by his own efforts. And it presents itself in the form of a history – a history of those “mighty acts of God” which are recorded in the Bible. To summarize this history very briefly – it began with a covenant between the Lord and an elect people, the Hebrews. No one really knows why, and perhaps the last word on this mystery remains, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” However, it was through this people and this culture, endowed, perhaps, with a peculiar genius for religion, that the Lord first revealed himself to the world through the Law and the Prophets…
However, the Prophets did not help anyone to get out of the vicious circle. Indeed, they made it much worse. For they showed that it was not enough to correct one’s outward behavior; what God really demanded was the correction of the inner man, the conversion of the heart. And this is exactly what no one can do…
According to Christianity, the solution of the problem lies in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Atonement – the birth, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. The Law and the Prophets had achieved self-knowledge. The time was therefore ripe for a completely different kind of revelation, in the form, not of words, but of an event that would effect a radical change in human nature. The event was that God the Son, the archetypal pattern of the universe, became man, and the man was the historical Jesus of Nazareth. This is the absolute crux of all traditional Christianity: the faith that Jesus was infinitely more than a prophet, moralist, and exemplar – that he was God himself become human. The point was to bring into the world a Second Adam. The First Adam had, by his Fall, tainted all humanity with sin. The Second Adam would, by assuming man’s birth, suffering, death, and burial, unite all humanity and all phases of human life with the divine nature…
He comes down and actually participates in all the limitations and sufferings of his own creatures, including death by torture. Thereupon, the extreme point of human humiliation – death – is peculiarly linked with the Godhead, and the vicious circle of man’s bondage is broken for all who will accept the gift.
- Alan Watts, 1964