Original Sin as Binary Opposition: Genesis 2: 16-17. (03/09/2001)

At the beginning of the long history of Western ideology a point of departure, a point of origin, a point from which it is possible to trace the essence of its perception of reality, like a long road down which everyone has been marching for the past 5,000 years, a single sign, as it were, that has always told everyone where to get on the train, is not all that difficult to identify. It sticks out like a lurid, flashing, neon-festooned door on the darkest street of every major city's worst nightmare-slum. The God of Genesis started the ball rolling when he told Adam that

"You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden. Nevertheless of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die." (Genesis 2: 16-17)

What the human author of that God-speak did not understand was the fact that framing man's future in the binary opposition between good and evil, which is just one example of an infinite number of terms one can use to fracture natural reality into components of this and that, same and other, being and nothingness, ultimately cut him off from ever gaining the capacity of comprehending that the world is a single unified harmonic whole. The second, hidden binary opposition in that statement, and the one that has always given the first its appeal, the one that makes the opposition between good and evil acceptable, is the implication that death is somehow avoidable ("if you do not eat this then you will be granted that") if you only follow a simple commandment to avoid knowledge of a kind reserved to God. The second opposition, then, is the one between life and death, or more precisely in the way this ideology evolved, between eternal life and eternal death. The problem with this second binary opposition, of course, is that it really is not one at all. Life/death, for mortal beings, is not a binary opposition because life always ends in death for anyone or anything that has it. One simply cannot choose life and thereby effectively avoid death. Also true is the fact that by choosing good one does not enter an inevitable progress toward evil. Put differently: to make good/evil the same as life/death, to make them equivalent as binary oppositions, any duration of pursuing only the good must terminate in evil, since any duration of living must always end in death for any mortal being.

The claim that human freedom was the cause of creating binary opposition as an inherent aspect of creatureliness, as so many commentators have done over this passage, is falsely reasoned for the simple fact that no mortal being can choose freely, or otherwise, between having life and dying. At the same time, of course, anyone can choose freely between good and evil. It is this fact alone that makes one pair of terms a binary opposition (good/evil) and the other something else (life/death).

The editors of the Jerusalem Bible, from which this version of the text is quoted, added this explanation to these verses:

"This knowledge is a privilege which God reserves to himself and which man, by sinning, is to lay hands on, 3: 5, 22. Hence it does not mean omniscience, which fallen man does not possess; nor is it moral discrimination, for unfallen man already had it and God could not refuse it to a rational being. It is the power of deciding for himself what is good and what is evil and of acting accordingly, a claim to complete moral independence by which man refuses to recognize his status as a created being. The first sin was an attack on God's sovereignty, a sin of pride. This rebellion is described in concrete terms as the transgression of an express command of God for which the text uses the image of a forbidden fruit." (17, footnote h)

While it is true that this explanation of the meaning and nature of original sin can be accepted on any number of theological grounds, especially in terms of what it may imply about the nature of human freedom to choose between one thing and another, it nevertheless does not express a rational view of the problem of how exactly one should perceive the reality of the human condition. Juxtaposing life/death with good/evil, as this passage inevitably does, creates a false impression that if you behave well you will live and if you behave badly you will die. Raising the ground to a metaphysical level, as Christianity has always done, by suggesting that living well gains you eternal life in an otherworldly utopian heaven and that living badly gets you condemned to eternal death in the darkest street of every urban hell, does nothing to alter the inescapable fact that every mortal being dies without regard to how he/she chooses to live his/her life. The issues at stake in this text, of course, are precisely the ones that have driven my intention to articulate a native American philosophy in contradistinction to the point of view that has always existed in Western civilization from the time this admonition against knowledge was authored. In this particular statement, for instance, the idea of sin and sinfulness as a determining factor in describing the human condition is directly tied to the notion that disobedience to an "express command of God" is also, and at the same time, a rebellion against every person's "status as a created being."

In other words, if you happen to be a person (of color, say) who was not born and bred in the social milieu of Western European ideology and, as a consequence, do not carry a predisposition to creationism around with you like a first and second skin, then you are always deemed to be in rebellion against a God and an ideology of which you have never heard. And it is not just a minor sin or state of sinfulness in which you live either but rather, and by definition, if you do not believe in the God of creation and do not accept your status as a created being, your sin is the worst and most supreme disobedience that any theologian has ever conceived--your sin is original and therefore everlasting; your sin is the one that defines the nature of the human condition itself and for all time.

Since the wages of sin are death, and since that word alone has always been used to signify what will and what should happen to a person taken in sin, even if "death" has been given several different meanings in various kinds of theological musings, any literal minded reading of the text can be taken to mean or imply that a person born, raised, and committed to living her/his life in rebellion against God's first commandment simply does not have any natural right to live. Any ideology that equates sin with death, especially in the context of positing hierarchical structure as a way of defining the essential difference between this and that, same and other, being and nothingness, and so on, must of necessity invite precisely the kind of confrontation that was born in the Western hemisphere when Christians discovered an entire continent of people who were living in rebellion against the God of their deepest belief. Forced conversion to that faith was justified without question or doubt simply because the "sinner-rebels" were the epitome of humankind's first and most destructive disobedience to God's everlasting will.

Native Americans, as well as most other tribal people, do not consider themselves to be created beings who belong by virtue of that fact to the thing, force, or power, that created them. Showing honor and respect, even of the deepest kind, to a creator is not the same thing as bowing down in subjugation to the arbitrary will of a vengeful God who set you up to fail by granting you a mythic freedom but a real opportunity to rebel against His will in the first place. While most tribes recognize the existence of creator spirits of one kind or another, even ones that might be responsible for the existence of human beings in the world, those spirits are generally not credited with having created the universe itself out of nothing. Most creation stories begin with recognition of the fact that materials necessary to the creation of the world already existed and were only waiting for a crafting spirit to come along and make something out of them. People also, like all other animals (with exceptions like Raven, Coyote, Turtle, for instance), were fashioned from elements of that same pre-existing matter. Raven, Coyote, and Turtle, among some tribes, are seen as the creator spirit in themselves, or are considered to be animals that assisted the creator spirits in one way or another to fashion the world. A point to take here is that native people are not obsessed with the idea that we owe some unpayable debt to a judgmental deity who, after creating us badly, turned the blame on us for failing to live up to a standard He created that was impossible for us to achieve. We generally demand more from creator spirits than a willful exercise of vengeance and irrationality in the face of their own shortcomings; while, at the same time, our creator spirits generally demand less from us than any vengeful God has ever done.

We were asked only to praise those who made it possible for us to exist as free and rational creatures. We were told that the best way to do that was to honor and respect all other animate beings without dividing them up into categories of lesser and greater, better and worse, good and evil, and so on and so forth, until we needed vast encyclopedias of classification that no single individual could ever comprehend, much less remember, in ten thousand lifetimes of trying to keep it all straight for the single purpose of annihilating anything that did not measure up to the top of the arbitrary scale that differentiated one thing (good) from the other (evil). In their infinite wisdom, then, our creator spirits, following the inescapable laws of harmony that already existed in the material reality out of which they fashioned the world, with the indispensable help of Raven, Coyote, and Turtle, avoided the original sin of fabricating opposition where none exists and made everything that is with feet that can only stand on the same and equal ground with everything else. Absence of hierarchy, which renders Europeans speechless, because without it they have nothing to say, gives us the words we use to praise the ones who made us this way.