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To Be Like God: Quintessence of Sin or Promise for Salvation?
(Mimetic reflections on the Fall of Man.)

Autor:Sandler Willibald
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Kategorieartikel
Abstrakt:"You will be like God." This promise is considered to be the central temptation in the biblical narrative of the Fall of Man. But few verses earlier the bible tells us that man is created in God?s image. The Psalms proclaim, that man is made "a little lower than God" (cf. Ps 8), and in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demands that we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. For the early Church Fathers our salvation culminates in the promise of our deification. Why, in view of these statements, can the desire for being like God be the quintessence of all evil, as it is stated in the narrative of the Fall of Man and also in a long theological tradition? Obviously the wish to be like God can be based on completely different attitudes: the thankful acceptance of the gift and promise to be like God on the one hand and the autocratic claim to be a God on the other hand. How can the former attitude slip down into the latter? That's the question, the narrative of the Fall of Man deals with. Analyzing the biblical narrative in this way leads us to interesting answers on fundamental questions: How can sin and evil root in a good creation made by a good and almighty God. Or in the metaphoric of the narrative: Why did God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil into the Garden of Eden, when his fruits were forbidden anyway?
Publiziert in:# Vortrag auf der Jahrestagung des "Colloquium on Violence & Religion" in Koblenz, 5.-9. Juli 2005.
Datum:2005-08-04

Inhalt

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1. The Ambiguity of the Imitation of God in the Work of René Girard

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1.1 Jesus Christ as liberator from mimetic violence by uncovering and as a positive model

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In „Things hidden“ Girard shows: The liberating potential of Christianity consists in the uncovering of the scapegoat-mechanism. This concept yielded a problem which Girard by himself has worked out clearly: Mere uncovering of the hidden violence does not improve the situation of man but on the contrary aggravates it, because the peacemaking potential of the scapegoat mechanism will be weakened. There has to be a positive alternative for overcoming the accumulated potential of violence in society and in man. According to this Girard has increasingly emphasized the natural goodness of mimesis. So there exists a positive alternative to casting out violence by violence: the reactivating of peaceful mimesis. Man can reactivate a good mimesis by orientating their desire towards God. And this can be realized by imitating Jesus Christ.

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1.2 Problem: A good model does not guarantee good imitation

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Relating to God Girard has shown, that the imitation of a good model does not guarantee good imitation. According to Girard Satan is also an imitator of God, and Girard must assume that to prevent the consequence of dualism. So there exist to completely contrary ways of imitating God and the salvation of man depends on finding the right form of imitating God. But how to find? Girards answer: We can find an realize the good form of imitating God by imitating Jesus who by himself is imitating God in a good way. According to Girards „anthropological soteriology“ the salvation of man ultimately depends on the imitation of Christ being the good model for imitating God in the way of a peaceful and peacemaking mimesis.

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Though Girards solution is not sufficient, because there are also two ways of imitating Jesus. This is the case, although Jesus by himself never becomes involved in mimetic rivalry. But his opponents systematically misunderstand the demand of Jesus. Though Jesus only refers to his Father they are convinced that he wants to make himself God (cf. Joh 10,33). So they increasingly get entangled in a mimetic escalation. Jesus functions as a skandalon for them, precisely in the way Girard has analyzed the Satanic. As Raymund Schwager has shown, Satan is present in the mechanisms of accusation. Maybe that Jesus by himself cannot be imitated in a negative way, but as a result of entanglement in conflictual mimesis Jesus will be mixed up with Satan.

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So the reference to imitation of Jesus in fact cannot be the ultimate solution for overcoming the violent chains of a mimetically entangled world. The really crucial point is the distinction of a good way of imitating Christ. For the bible this distinction is the work of the Holy Spirit, and Girard agrees with that. But how and where can we achieve this Holy spirit, on which now the salvation from mimetic violence ultimately depends? According to the bible the true spirit of God will be found exactly there, where Jesus is confessed as having come into the flesh. The search for the Holy spirit refers us to concrete situations where Jesus is confessed and followed in an authentic way, and that again means: concrete situations where true reconciliation and true peace without excluding of scapegoats is realized.

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So there is no easy answer, no „mechanism“ for overcoming our mimetic entanglement in violence. we are driven back to study the ambiguities between good and bad mimesis, between good and perverted imitation of God.

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There is a fundamental place where this ambiguity is dealed with in Christian theology and – as a basis – in the prehistoric narratives of the bible: This is the speaking of „man being like God“ which is kept in two completely different meanings: as highest gift of grace and as worst sin.

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2. The Ambiguity of Being Like God in Bible and Theology

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2.1 „To be like God“ as the quintessence of sin

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In the narrative of the fall of man the promise of the serpent is crucial: „"You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen 3,4). Later this text was received in the way that the diabolic core of sin consists in a proud claim to be like God. Early Judaism identified the serpent with the devil and – for to prevent dualism – developed the legend of the Fall of Angels which is based on the „non serviam“ of the arrogant archangel Lucifer. Traces of this legend can be found in the bible (cf. 2 Petr 2,4; Jud 6). Under the influence of the narratives of Fall of Man and Fall of Angels the church fathers claimed, that the core of all sins consist in proudness.

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Modern age has emphasized man as an autonomous subject and repeatedly has sharpened this qualification to a prometheic claim of man being like God, as has been criticized by theologists like Balthasar and Ratzinger. Girard has sharpened this criticism by showing that society is driven by mechanisms which can be analyzed as satanic.

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2.2 „To be like God“ as highest gift from God

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On the other hand the biblical narrations of creation tell that God has created man as being like God. „Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness“ (Gen 1:26). According to Psalms 8 God has made human beings „a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.“ The New Testament emphasizes the being-like-God of Jesus, and according to it man is destined to be image of God by becoming similar to Jesus Christ. Important for ecclesiastical reception is 2 Peter 1:4: „ Thus he [Jesus] has given us, through these things [e.g. the divine power of Jesus], his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.“

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For the Greek Church Fathers deification becomes a key term to express the salvation of humankind, that has already begun with Jesus Christ and will be completed echatologically. Though deification is a controversial term for modern Christian theology, it serves still as a crucial idea within the catholic theology of 20th century, especially in the concept of God̓s self communication by grace.

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For Girard assimilation of man to God in the sense of 2 Petr as quoted above is absolutely central.

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3. Conditions of origin and effects regarding the biblical narratives of creation and fall of man.

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As we have seen, the idea of man being like God passes through Christian theology in two completely opposite ways. Both trajectories meat in the biblical narratives of creation and Fall of Man. There they produce serious tensions that break through in the later history of reception. So for a proper estimation of these tensions it is helpful to regard the conditions of origin and reception regarding these biblical narratives.

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3.1 Monotheistic universalism as a generic condition for biblical creation narratives

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In many points the creation narratives are similar to myths of creation in environmental religions. Though there is something completely new, which breaks through in the biblical texts.

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„In the beginning ... God created the heavens and the earth ...“ This plain statement is caused on a monotheism and on a universalism of creation which contrast totally with environmental myths. Myths of creation describe the building of a limited world. Creation means the selection of a cultural space by driving back an outer space – mostly described as chaos – which is of no further interest to the myth. This obscure outer space is indispensable for the logic of the myth. Essential elements like primal matter the world is made of or the Evil which is told to break into the well-ordered world – can be described as coming from this outer space without necessity for further explanation of their origin. In the same way elements or actors of the creation drama can be told to leave the world without any necessity to explain where to this elements would leave (compare Girards theory of mythic expulsion).

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the logic of myth can bear an expansion of the space of creation as long as there is still an obscure outer space left for the mythical economy. contrary to this presupposition biblical monotheism und universalism doesn‘t leave any outer space not reached by the almighty God. And so the mythical logic is to break.

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What were the conditions suitable to cause biblical monotheism and creational universalism? There‘s a broad consensus in biblical research that the Judean experience of the Babylonian exile was decisive for that. In foreign parts under conditions of great difficulties and distress the conviction arose to the exiled people that there is no space in the world where ‚God can do nothing more for you‘. It was this existential and confidential experience that shaped the belief, that the one and true and good God has created and is dominating all things being without exception, and that therefore all things being are – like the good and almighty God – essentially good. This optimistic conviction is extremely opposed to the everyday experience of an imperfect and evil world. Myths of creation had no problems to deal with that by using patterns of cultural decline. But within the framework of a monotheistic universalism the problem arose, how and from where the germ of Evil could affect a world, that was created intrisically good. Though one admits that this problem became acute only in later reflexions, the biblical texts were already confronted with it in the bud. They coped with this challenge by altering traditional mythical motives. Within the radical decline from beginning of creation, qualified by God as very good, to the disqualifying of the world as „corrupt“ and „filled with violence“ (Gen 6,11f) the first penetration of the evil is most difficult to explain. At this point the biblical editor cannot fall back on an obscure outer space. He uses the motif of the serpent. Though the serpent has connotations of coming form outwards – alluding to seductive cults of other religions – it is definitely marked as part of creation, and therefore – intrinsically good. It is qualified as crafty, not as wicked. All things the temptating snake is referring to are originally good. It‘s only subtle shifts of the original good and true that will cause the Fall of Man and by that the breakthrough of the evil.

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3.2 A precarious history of reception: two types of sliding into dualism

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The biblical narratives succeed in combining the statement of a very good created world with a realistic awareness of a violently corrupted world, and this without deviating form a monotheistic und universalistic view of creation. The later reception of creation and Fall narratives was hard put to cope with this difficult mediation. The danger of a relapse into mythical patterns was threatening. But such a relapse would not simply repeat mythical logic, because the achieved universal perspective could no more be drawn back. So a relapse into mythical patterns caused the more radical form of creational dualism. In contrast to mythological logic dualistic logic doesn‘t assume outer spaces as being obscure but qualifies them as reigned by a bad counter-God. Dualistic receptions of the biblical narratives of creation and Fall solve the tensions of these narratives by splitting the monotheistic unity. This was realized in two different ways.

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3.2.1 First type of dualism: The serpent as manifestation of a dibaolic principle

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The first type of dualism kept the attribute „good“ for the creator-God and dropped the attribute „almighty“. The serpent was seen as manifestation of counter-divine, diabolic mights. We can understand the legends of the Fall of angels as last non-dualistic way-out of this way of thinking.

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3.2.2 Second type of Dualism: The serpent as manifestation of a redeemer-God

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The second, even more radical type of dualism abandoned both attributes of the creator-God: „good“ and „almighty“. The Gnostic Testimony of Truth (1) agreed with the objections of the serpent, discredited the creator-God and hailed the serpent as pre-representation of the good redeemer-God. This inversion of the biblical narrative of human fall was broadly adapted in a secular shape by philosophers of German Idealism like Kant, Hegel or also Schiller. They hailed the Fall of Man as the happy event of human maturity and therefore as perfection of the creation of man.

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3.2.3 The violent drive of dualistic world-views

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The deficiency of dualistic interpretations turns out in its violent consequences. Dualism identifies parts of the world as being intrinsically bad and so inevitably lead to a soteriology of violence. Dualism bears the idea to realize the good by erasing the bad. (It is precisely this dualistic logic, that most hollywood blockbusters serve successfully.)

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Therefore it is of fundamental interest to find coherent interpretations of the biblical narratives of creation and fall of man, that dispel objections, that resort to dualistic interpretations.

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4. A coherent model for interpreting the narratives of Fall of Man within the biblical framework

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So let us now look in detail at the tensions, which lead to dualistic misinterpretations of the biblical narratives of creation and Fall of Man in detail.

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According to the narratives of creation God has created man as good, without shortage and as participating in the divine glory. Nevertheless the narratives mention a limit, a seeming lack, an obstacle which is built into this original perfect world: „And the Lord God commanded the man, ‚You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.‘“ (Gen 2:16f).

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This is exactly the point where the serpent can start its temptation not by lieing but by smoothly shifting the facts to an image of God that in consequence will totally pervert the caring divine being outlined by the narratives of creation. The tree becomes the bone of contention and the trigger for an increasing distrust of God. Maybe that God holds back which he promised to give. Maybe he kept something back to keep his sovereignity. Maybe the serpent is right.

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So the question becomes ardent: Why for heaven‘s sake did God put a tree in the Garden made for humans, when its fruits would be forbidden to man. Did God want to put humans to the test? Then God was the first to be mistrustful. Or did he even want to set a trap for man, to lure man into a trap? This suspicion strengthens when we take into account, that God before destined man to be in His Image. And hardly had man begun to realize this he stumbles into the obstacle God has built for him.

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Here an impression of the creator-God arises, that is completely similar to the way Girard describes Satan: (2) First he offers to serve as a model and at the same time he promises liberty and privileges. And hardly man follows the trace of this model he hits obstacles and gets caught into mimetic rivalry.

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If we want to prevent dualistic consequences we must find an interpretation of the forbidden tree, which does not undermine the goodness and ungrudging generosity of the creator-God. The tree must represent something, that God was not able to give. But this „being-not-able“ must not attract God‘s omnipotence. So this „being-not-able-to-give“ must be based in the nature of the given thing.

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In fact there is such a thing: Even if God would give to man everything at his disposal, so that man would become a perfect image of God, there would still remain one deciding difference between man and God: God would be the giver and man would be the recipient. God cannot give to man, that man would also be – like God – the giver of all God has given.

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To this intrinsic limit of the possibility of giving corresponds a fundamental warning. If man should try to be like God in this way, that he need not receive anything gratefully, then he will cut himself off the abundance which God opened to him. In this case man will be thrown back to that what he is and can realize out of himself alone, and this is really nothing.

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In this way we can interpret the tree of the knowledge of good and bad and the relating prohibition. So this probition is evidently no arbitrary ban only in order to test man‘s loyalty or even to set a trap for man. On the contrary it is the expression of God‘s care, just in the line of God‘s former and even later care.

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This interpretation opens up a surprisingly consistent interpretation of different elements of the narrative of Fall of Man. We will only mention a few one, that are especially important for the context of our topic:

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>̊ First the name of the tree has to be explained: the tree of the knowledge of god and evil. In accordance with a wide-spread exegesis we can point out that knowledge in Hebrew language means a very active and creative performance. So the knowledge of good and evil means the claim of an autocratic fixing of what is good and what is bad. This explanation completely corresponds with our interpretation.

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>̊ The threatened punishment of death is not an arbitrary imposed penalty but the inner consequence of man‘s self-detachment from God who is the only source of life.

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>̊ That in fact man did not die immediately (as the serpent had predicted) is therefore not the proof for a false threat of God but the effect of God‘s mercy who – against the will of man did not – withdraw totally from him.

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>̊ The immediate consequence of the Fall of Man was his cognition of being naked. For man owes everything to God, all what he is by himself is radical nothingness. Man detached from God cannot find his own divinity but in contrary he will only find his own vanity. According to the bible this means recognition of nakedness, but to an abysmal extent. And, according to the bible the recognition of the nakedness causes an out and out feeling of shame, which immediately bears social consequences. What the bible addresses as man and woman covering themselves with fig-leaves, can now be interpreted as a vicious circle of self-disguising. Ashamed by the recognition of his own existential nakedness man cannot help but by pretending to be a God in a self-sufficient way. And so he contributes to the shame of others, who, comparing themselves with others, experience their own inadequacy more strictly. So a circle of deception and self-deception is moved off, which can excellently interpret the ecclesiastical dogma of original sin and which in its violent consequences has best been expounded by René Girard.

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5. Interpretation of Man being created in God‘s image

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Unlike dualistic interpretations the biblical narratives elaborate a subtly differentiated view of the evil in the sense of a perversion of the good. Man is created in the image of God, and when he abandons himself to the evil, the result won‘t be extinction but distortion of the image of God. Indelibly human beings bear the claim to be like God. They can find salvation in being like God with God by representing Him transparently and in a thankful way. And they will struggle desperately and endlessly when they try to realize this indelible desire to be like God without God in an autocratic way. Perversion of the image of God means more than mere weakening. The full power of the vocation to be like God remains unbroken and turns in a destructive direction. (3) But so even for the most wicked person the fundamental possibility remains that the distorted image of God may be adjusted again. That opens up the hope to a way of salvation by re-adjusting the perverted being-like-God. This way has been strided through by Jesus Christ about whom Paul confessed that „though he was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.“ – But this is another topic to reflect on.

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Anmerkungen:  

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 1.

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Cf. G. P. Luttikhuizen, A Resistant Interpretation of the Paradise Story in the Gnostic "Testimony of Truth" (Nag Hamm. Cod. IX.3) 45-50, in: Paradise interpreted. Representations of Biblical Paradise in Judaism and Christianity (Themes in Biblical narrative 2). Ed. Gerard P. Luttikhuizen, Leiden: Brill 1999, 140-152.

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2.

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Cf. Girard, René: Ich sah den Satan vom Himmel fallen wie einen Blitz. Eine kritische Apologie des Christentums. München/Wien: Hanser 2002, 50f.

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3.

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So the abysmal destructiveness of the evil can be perceived more adequately than by traditional privatio-boni-theories.

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