Lately I have been thinking a lot about the nature of spiritual growth and the paradoxes therein contained; of how we only discover our desire for God if he withdraws from us, for instance, or how conversion begins with a gradual awakening to the possibility of sin, and how this relates to our experience of God, which seems to be the sort of thing St Paul is grappling to express in the middle chapters of the Letter to the Romans. I found myself hunting the web for the concept of the ‘upward fall’, and discovering it’s an older idea than I imagined: Christian thinkers arguably from Immanuel Kant onwards have had a tendency to see the ‘Fall’, if it can be called such, as less a moment of decline from an original state of grace than a necessary step in human self-awareness and so, perhaps, not such a disaster after all, even understandable as part of God’s plan. The Christians of the Middle Ages were groping in this direction, aware of the paradox between the awareness of sin and the sweetness of being forgiven. There is Mother Julian declaring ‘it behoved that there was sin, that there might be forgiveness’, and the words of the Exultet, sung on Easter morning, words which take us back to the 9th century at least:
O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
That won for us so great a Redeemer!
And the haunting carol 'Adam lay y-bounden':
Had that apple not been taken
That apple not taken been
Never then would Our Lady
Have been Heaven’s Queen
You can see why this kind of rhetoric can lead in hazardous directions, directions Paul is keen to shut off firmly at the start of Romans 6: ‘Shall we sin so that grace may abound the more? By no means!’ But there is something to it, something to the sense that forgiveness is a greater spiritual gift than a simply sinless being can receive; because then they learn to forgive in turn, and forgiveness takes them to the heart of who God is.
As (most) Christians came to accept that the Biblical account of Creation could not be literally true, this sense fitted in rather well with the new view of human origins at the end of untold millennia of development driven by natural selection: it stressed a sort of progress, a racial coming-to-life which mirrored the progress the individual first makes when they discover their own sinfulness before God. An unconverted soul is in an almost animal state, unaware what sin actually means, and certainly unaware of its implications; the person takes a step towards true personhood as they discover the distance between themselves and God, and you can read the Fall as a parallel process. However such a reading does go against the nature of the Scriptural narrative.
My browsing led me to a piece about CS Lewis’s interpretation of the Fall. Lewis came to believe that it had a real historical basis and insisted on this despite his easy acceptance of the idea of evolution. I too have never seen a problem with believing that the Fall occurred in history. Animals do not know what it is deliberately to do something wrong; we do. Therefore, that there must have been a moment when one of our remote ancestors first committed an act they knew to be wrong is nothing more than logic.
An historical Eden, which Lewis also argued for, is a more of a challenge: it isn’t a logical necessity, as one can make a case for the Fall being. Yet you can imagine a moment in which God makes himself known to our primitive ancestors, when they are finally ready, and their first response is adoration. This would be a step so dramatically away from the consciousness of the animal world that it could be said to amount to a new creation, to humans being taken from the dust of the earth, to their being made in God’s image, him breathing life into them. How long this state might have lasted is another question; it may well have been a very short time indeed; but to fall away from it would mean having to learn, slowly and painfully, how to draw close to God again – to learn by means of our corrupted will and evolutionary biology, by rebellion and its results rather than by obedience, as we were supposed to. Like the resurrection of Jesus, an event of this sort would have left no trace discoverable by scientific means; it’s incapable of proof or disproof. You decide either that the evidence draws you towards it, or it doesn’t (and in the end, the veracity of the Biblical narrative as a whole depends on what you think happened to Jesus).
Though I’d long since imagined an historical Fall, an historical Eden was not something I had ever seriously considered. I’m not sure, yet, what allowing its possibility changes, apart from forcing me to re-examine the ‘blessed fault’ rhetoric I’ve been finding myself moving towards recently. That remains, because our redemption in Christ is not a return to our pre-lapsarian state, but an advance to something else which incorporates and transfigures our heritage of sin. Nevertheless huge questions arise. For instance - the ultimate content of our salvation is what the Orthodox call theosis, becoming like God – or as like God as we are capable of being. How does that differ from bearing the image of God as the creation story insists? If God is eternal, he is always the crucified one who gives up his life for the sheep; that has always been part of his nature. Could we have understood that and taken it into ourselves without an awareness of our capacity for sin?