In the soft gentleness of October, there is much for which to be thankful even in the midst of the anxieties of our age. Paradoxically, the ‘fall-out’ from the Fall in the Book of Genesis, despite the curses and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, contains the seed, if you will pardon the pun, of thankfulness and blessings. It is found in the 15th verse of Chapter Three and is known, in the Christian understanding, as the Protoevangelium, the first Gospel, understood to point to a Saviour who will overcome all evil.
Gospel means good news. The Protoevangelium is understood to point to Christ the redeemer, the one who overcomes the tempter. Speaking of the serpent, God says to Eve, “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” but only through “her seed,” meaning Christ in a symbolic sense, where Mary is the new Eve. So, while we read about the consequences of humanity’s disobedience, as it were, or, philosophically, of the contradiction between our knowing and our willing, in terms of the curses of the pain of childbirth, and of the necessity of human labour in the sweat of our brow, there is also an intriguing note of good news which is the underlying theme of redemption. A blessing in the curses! Something good comes out of our evil, which does not excuse our evil, I hasten to add!
The story of the Fall endeavours to provide an explanation for human suffering and pain and for our alienation from the paradise of creation. Our humanity “has become like one of us,” God says, “knowing good and evil,” but knowing good and evil, not as God knows good and evil, namely, intellectually and spiritually, but experientially, by way of separation. Our ‘likeness’ to God is not the same as being God, a critical distinction. We are sent forth into the world “to till the ground from which [our humanity] was taken.” Our vocation is to learn about our way back to God through our connection and engagement with the world. Salvation, our being made whole, is not about a flight from the world in some sort of technocratic and rationalistic fantasy. It has altogether to do with the nature of our thinking and doing within the order of creation. We are part of something greater than ourselves.
It has very much to do with how we think about the nature of the good, of God himself, in relation to the created order and in relation to one another. Something redemptive is at work through creation and our labours in the land, even in the sweat of our brow, learning the hard way but learning something about the power and the wisdom of God which are one in God albeit divided in us. That division takes the form of pain and labour and importantly the idea that there is no going back. The Garden of Eden, it turns out, is not our end but only a starting point to a deeper and more profound relation to both God and nature, including ourselves.
It belongs to the long, slow process of education: learning even through suffering about what belongs to the radical truth and dignity of our humanity; learning about the forms of our interdependence over and against the folly of the illusions of the radical autonomy of the individual. We have to learn how to live together and to work together in love. The great truth and wonder of the Jewish Scriptures, as they are taken up into the understanding of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and by extension to other religions and philosophies), is that this is a hard but necessary journey; a labour of love, a labour of learning.
Yet right from the outset, Genesis signals the idea that the power and goodness of God is greater than the beguiling deceptions of the serpent, the devil, and even more, that the conquest of good over evil happens in and through our humanity’s engagement with God. Such is the deep insight of the Protoevangelium understood as a reference to Jesus Christ but as connecting to the metaphysical thinking of Jews and Muslims along with the philosophers of antiquity to the idea that evil has no power in itself. As such we are constantly being turned to God as the One upon whom the being and the knowing of all things radically depends. The journey is about our learning these lessons in the very being of our humanity at once as experienced and as illuminated by the Scriptures which connect us to everything else.
Charles Wesley’s familiar Christmas hymn, ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ (1739), revised by George Whitefield (1758), provides two additional verses that are far less known, if known at all. One refers explicitly to the Protoevangelium and suggests how powerful that idea has been in its resonance down throughout the centuries of prayer and devotion.
Come, Desire of Nations, come,
Fix in us thy heav’nly Home;
Rise the Woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent’s Head.
Such is the good news which we badly need to hear in contrast to all our woes and discontent. Yet it requires our thoughtfulness, our charity, our compassion, and our humility; the very things which connect us to one another. That is our learning and such is our delight as students and teachers in the labour of learning.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English and ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy