Novatian: An Immortality of Guilt. (7/2/99)

Reading through Novatian's Treatise Concerning the Trinity, I came across one of those rare moments in time when an early church Father manages to say something so truly incredible that it almost makes me believe in the concept of divine inspiration, if not in the idea that God Himself took up pen and paper (quill and parchment), or even a keyboard and a scanner, if you can picture God booting-up a computer, and I have to wonder whether He would lower Himself to using a Microsoft program, since so many people are convinced Billy Gates is the high-tech version of Satan, and, having gotten pen or quill or keyboard firmly in hand, began to scratch messages on the heart of the soon-to-be-declared heretic. Novatian's statement is incredible because he has tried so hard to soften the view of God favored by many Christians then and now which describes Him as an avenging sociopath bent on cutting the throat, and sending to eternal hell-fire, anyone who dares cross, or even question, the validity of His divine and omnipotent will.

Novatian claims that God "indulgently tempered" humanity's punishment for breaking the prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden by "cursing" human "labours upon earth" and not by cursing humanity itself. What this implies, of course, is that any human activity, any human labor, while always difficult to accomplish, is also doomed to fail, at least in terms of ever reaching a state of goodness. Whatever people do is cursed by God. Novatian also suggests that the curse itself is not without some opportunity for remedy because God "shows forth man's hope of future discovery and salvation in Christ." Novatian then explains that God's condemnation of humanity to a mortal existence of hard labor, where before people were immortal and did not have to work for a living, was not done out of "the malignant poison of envy" on God's part, as some people in Novatian's day must have thought, since why else would he bother to refute the idea if no one had it in the first place, but was actually the result of God's infinite grace "lest, living for ever without Christ's previous pardon of his sins, he should always bear about with him for his punishment an immortality of guilt" (Chapter 1). In other words, I suppose, if (wo)man were allowed to touch the wood of the Tree of Life after her/his original sin, then she/he would be condemned to live forever in a state of profound guilt over having disobeyed God's only command to remain forever ignorant of good and evil. The reference to the possibility of God's envy in this context is probably meant, as well, to turn attention away from the Biblical notion that God's punishment was directed at (wo)man's attempt to become too much like God in her/his being by acquiring that forbidden knowledge which was apparently reserved for God alone to have and possess. God's jealousy in the face of (wo)man's attempt to become like God her/himself would be the source of the envy here denied as a motivating force behind God's condemnation.

An aspect of the Biblical myth that has always bothered me, and does so now, is the notion that a moral philosophy can be established on the ground that it is better to have no knowledge of good and evil than it is to know the difference between the two. When precisely in time, historically speaking, one can say that (wo)man existed in a pure state of not knowing the difference between good and evil, in a perfect state of innocence, as it were, is one question that the myth cannot address, of course, because no such state of being has ever occurred in the real history of human culture and existence. There has never been a time in human history, outside of a mythic context, when (wo)man did not know the difference between good and evil, or was not aware of the fact that certain kinds of inequalities of desire, and the power to fulfill or satisfy them, especially in hierarchically structured circumstances, existed in between and among the various creatures God was said to have created. Even beyond the hierarchical structures favored by Western ideology, and in circumstances of human existence that came before such philosophical refinements entered human thought, when even Europeans were themselves living in primitive and savage circumstances, surely people noticed that good things happened to bad people, and bad things befell the good among them. The point I make here is a simple one: (wo)man was never innocent of the knowledge of good and evil if those categories can be filled with the historically real things that can happen to you when you are an inferior creature scavenging and hunting for food among more powerful beasts on the savannas of East Africa.

Recognizing the difference between a mythic story which expresses an ideal of human experience that never happened, and is never likely to occur, and the real history that underlies that fantasy, especially when the ideal tends toward the absurd but nevertheless is put forth as a ground upon which all perceptions of morality are said to rest, necessarily creates a conflict between precepts of good and evil which can never be reasonably comprehended nor resolved. The problem with the ideology expressed by the Myth of Eden is that it creates, through an appeal to the divine Word of God, a perception of (wo)man's nature, that she/he once existed in a pure state of absolute innocence, without any knowledge of good and evil, and through an act of disobedience against God's direct prohibition fell from that grace into a state of original sinfulness, which then afflicts and affects all future generations, with a prohibited knowledge that in and of itself establishes the only criterion there is for determining how one can live morally in a condition characterized as depraved on the basis of gaining the very knowledge that reduces (wo)man to a state where such knowledge is indispensable in the first place. Being moral, and living righteously, therefore, depends on having a knowledge of the difference between good and evil, a knowledge which, while it was prohibited made you innocence and without need for it, but that, when it became yours by an act of sin also and simultaneously created the need for having it at all and in the first place. In other words, if you have a knowledge of good and evil, then you can live morally. But, if you have that knowledge, you are in a state of being sinfully disobedient to God and cannot be said to live morally at all. Hence, or so it seems, having the knowledge you need to live morally condemns you to a life of immorality.

God, apparently after deep and serious contemplation of the basic illogic He had created in the circumstances that establish the terms of His creation, came to the conclusion that He had to sacrifice His only begotten Son to save (wo)man from the mess He had created with His fuzzy moral prescriptions when she/he lived in the non-existent and purely imaginary world of the Garden. As Novatian points out, that remedy was meant to save us all from having to live out an immortality of guilt. The problem with the remedy is that it saves one from being (wo)man, as (wo)man actually is, by claiming to restore her/him to a state of existence which does not and cannot exist in reality at all, that is, to a pure state of innocence where no knowledge of the difference between good and evil can be said to exist. Once a person has received this blessing of being restored to innocence, through the sacrament of baptism, as it were, and no longer possesses the ability to distinguish between good and evil, he/she, by preeminent definition, cannot determine whether any contemplated act will be deemed good or evil by whatever agency, divine or human, comes to judge that behavior. But not to worry, of course, because if you decide to commit genocide against a group of non-believers on the strength of some word or another that has the sanctioned authority of a saint or a martyr, or anyone else who claims to hear the voice of God, and it ultimately turns out that the action was not really moral, that God did not actually approve of the act, then all you need to do is be contrite, repent, perform an act or two of penance, and you will be restored to your previous condition of innocence where you are free to start the process of sublime ignorance all over again.

At a different level, what this reasoning has created in the real history of Christianity is a complex of ideological concepts that privileges the validity of seeking out forgiveness for an original sin, breaking God's prohibition against gaining a knowledge of good and evil, a sin which cannot really be said to exist in any reasonable sense at all, and since possession of that knowledge is considered to be a manifestation of an original evil in and of itself, the absence of the power to discern the difference between good and evil becomes a sign of the highest virtue one in the faith can attain, which condition then grants the right to commit acts against the other which are never questioned or evaluated as being potentially sinful or atrocious. Genocide itself, on the rare occasions it is recognized as such, can be fully justified on the strength of arguing that it has been carried out by individuals living fully in a state of grace who are only acting on behalf of others of their kind under divine guidance, protection, and approval of the one and only true God. Acts of genocide against the unbeliever never rise to the level of moral scrutiny because failing to accept Christianity as the guiding principle of one's behavior has always been defined as a sin punishable by eternal death and damnation. Making a distinction between divine (always good) and human (mostly evil) judgment in a context where the other, the unbeliever, possesses, or seems to possess, something good Christians desire for themselves is not just unnecessary but also literally impossible, because to disobey God, who has already judged the unbeliever absolutely, by not delivering her/him to eternal death by committing the real one, is the same as placing your own eternity in jeopardy. No true believer can ever be expected to do that prior to the act and would see no reason to question it after the fact.

Novatian, who managed quite well to articulate many of the ideological positions under scrutiny here, was himself declared a heretic by the church, not because he misspoke the creed, but because he abandoned the church in the face of persecution for his faith. That was an unforgivable sin in the early days of the church which was duly noted and expressed by an anonymous Bishop of North Africa when he compared Novatian to the raven Noah sent out after the flood to see if any land had resurfaced from the receding waters that destroyed the world. The Bishop says that

"From the ark there were loosed two birds, a raven and a dove; and this raven truly bore the figure or type of impure men, and men who would be in perpetual darkness through the world's broad road, and of apostates who should arise, feeding on unclean things, and not turning themselves eventually to the Church; and, as we find, it was sent forth, and returned no more." (Chapter 2)

What I find curious here is a tendency to pre-judge the behavior of a mere animal by insisting that it bears the burden of being "the figure or type of impure men," that it and they must necessarily live in a "perpetual darkness through the world's broad road," that it and they necessarily feed on "unclean things," and do not have the capacity or will to return to the sanctity and haven of the church. What this statement exemplifies is the same kind of arrogance of differentiation between higher and lower orders of things and people and animals inherent in all hierarchical systems that inevitably justify the eradication of that which is perceived as being dangerously inferior to the high place in God's order and plan that the speaking judge holds out for him/herself. The Bishop is perfectly secure in the knowledge that he, and not Novatian, is the one that God has chosen to say who and what is, or is not, a member of the class of the truly pure and righteous. If Novatian, a few ravens, and countless native Americans have to die to keep the distinction alive and functional over time, then so be it. Whatever happens as a result of keeping these kinds of mindless comparisons and judgments in place and before a public of believers is all part of God's plan for the future return of His chosen people to the Garden from which He had to expel them because they over-reached their intended place in His grand design. To promote, or do, otherwise would be the same as denying God's will and disobeying His command to punish the unbelievers, the serpents, the ravens, for only being what they are and not what the anonymous Bishop believes they ought to be instead. Promoting the idea that you have already been forgiven for a sin that does not actually exist by the virtue of the blood-sacrifice of God's only Son, and that all other lapses from moral behavior will also be forgiven by simply believing in that Savior, opens the way for removing a sense of guilt for things that do not matter (if you cannot distinguish between good and evil what role can guilt play in shaping your behavior in the first place?), while making it possible at the same time to ignore or deny the ones that do (committing acts of genocide against the other because she/he is an unbeliever).

And so, as we see, the raven flew away and never came back. In this or any other context, no one can ever accuse a crow of being stupid.

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