Christian Views of the Soul

Note 3: Tertullian: Reason and Soul. 2/21/99

Tertullian accounts for rationality in the human soul by referring to the fact that it was created in man by an act of God when He breathed the breath of life into the handful of dirt out of which man was fashioned. God, according to Tertullian, was "essentially rational," and therefore it falls to His creature to be rational as well. God's creation of man, the idea of creationism itself, brought the concept of hierarchy into being simultaneously with its production of the human soul and the human body. This is inescapable because the creature must be less than the thing that creates it and in this case we are also told that human reality started out as a handful of dirt. Tertullian also argues that the "rational element" of the soul is its "natural condition" but that, due to the "instigation of the serpent," an irrational element was added to the structure of the human soul. Tertullian goes on to assert that the irrational element entered the human soul from

"the very achievement of (the first) transgression--which thenceforward became inherent in the soul, and grew with its growth, assuming the manner by this time of a natural development, happening as it did immediately at the beginning of nature."

In other words, from the beginning of time itself, at least according to creationist belief, (wo)man's soul has been tainted by an element of irrationality that entered it at the "instigation" of the devil (Satan as Serpent in the Garden of Eden). That element, furthermore, has existed in the human soul for so long a time that it has over-ridden the original intention of God, that the human soul be at least as rational as God was Himself, and has become, so to speak, a "natural development" in its own right and must now be taken to be as much a part of nature as is anything else which came into existence at the beginning.

In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala, the story is told of the first attempt of the creators to fashion a being capable of praising them. They constructed their first attempt out of mud and earth but the creatures were incapable of speaking clearly, continually collapsed into pools of water and mud, and required constant attention to be maintained in their crude form. The creator-spirits finally grew tired of the constant attention required of them and destroyed their first attempt to create a new form of life.

There is some possibility that the story told about the creation of man in the Popol Vuh was written after the Quiche Maya first encountered Europeans and learned the creation story in Genesis. If the story is taken to be post-Columbian, an interesting interpretation can be derived for the story of the mud-people from that context. Since Europeans presented a creation story to the Maya which included the fact that human beings were fashioned from a handful of dirt by God's breathing life into it, one can almost see them conspiring together to fashion a myth of their own out of essentially the same elements that was meant to be a critical and parodic response to the story they were being forced to assimilate in place of the ones that belonged to their own cultural heritage. One must remember that the Catholic priests in Guatemala and the rest of Central America were practicing "soldiers of the cross" who did not shy away from punishing persistent heathenism at the stake. A people who are continually brutalized in their own homeland by foreign invaders interested only in stealing their land and exploiting their environment find ways to retaliate against their oppressors that leave them free of renewed and ever more brutal assaults.

Making fun of your worst enemy's creation myth seems like a suitable response to the rise of Eurocentric ideology in the first decades of the colonial occupation of the Mayan homeland. Consider the story of the mud-people. On the one hand, the Europeans presented themselves as a people who had been created by their God from a handful of dirt. What honor is there in that? Mud and dirt are things that you wipe off your feet before you enter your house. At the same time, of course, the Mayas venerated the earth as their mother, as the source of all life, all goodness, all bounty, all power and all grace. They could see, however, that the Europeans disdained the earth, held it with no respect whatsoever, defiled it, hated it, and punished indigenous for their veneration of it. Fabricating a story about the creation of mud-people, in that context, was an insiders joke against the arrogance and hypocrisy of the Europeans who did not venerate their own source of origin in the earth their God used to create them. Europeans were mud-people by their own admission, by virtue of the absolute truth of their own sacred written account of it in Genesis, and did not themselves pay any proper respect to their own creation myth. The Mayas must have thought them fools for being so blindly stupid to their own beliefs.

The fact that these mud-people who invaded Mesoamerica could not speak properly, in such a way that their creator-spirits could understand them, simply testifies to the fact that the Spanish priests, who could not be understood by any Mayan-speaker initially, also insisted, at the point of the sword and with the fire at the stake, that the Mayas learn the barbaric tongue of the foreigners, with never any thought given to the invader learning the language of the native-speakers, only underscores and intensifies the dark parody of the Popol Vuh account. This is true because the creator-spirits eventually destroyed the mud-people because they could neither learn to stand erect nor learn to speak well enough to praise their creators. This is more than a subtle criticism of the fact that after the Christian God created his mud-people they were corrupted by the serpent into an irredeemable sin that caused their expulsion from paradise but not a better, more valid response like the one the Mayan creator-spirits employed to correct their initial mistakes in creating new life. This is another significant difference between native American and European creators: native views of that kind of event always show that the creator is not infallible but is always willing to do what is necessary to correct his errors. That the Christian God cannot be conceived as fallible makes no sense to native ways of thinking, in the first place, especially in light of the fact that He apparently allowed His own mud-people to survive in their essentially flawed and damned condition for a long enough period of time to find the Mayas and begin the systematic destruction of native culture and, in the second, seems senseless as well because the only lasting solution He could find to correct His first mistake was to sacrifice His own Son, who was also God, to save the mud-people from their own incapacity to avoid sin and stupidity.

The subversive nature of parody works through this mythic context by constantly reminding native people that their recently arrived overlords are in fact the foolish and ridiculous offspring of a creator-god not even capable of managing his own flawed attempts to bring new life into existence. That he created mud-people in the first place shows his lack of imagination. That he did not, or could not, destroy them effectively (the Noah flood accomplished little of lasting significance) after they were corrupted by an alien and outside force (serpent) is further evidence of his unsuitability as an object of veneration, not just by his own creatures, but by anyone at all who is brought into contact with them and him.

Hail to the mud-people! We mock you and your ridiculous creator.

To return to Index click X in the upper right-hand corner of the page.

To view Myth of Eden Index click here.