Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 2 Nephi 2

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 2 Nephi 2
Hello all! In this post I'm going to focus on the deeper levels of 2 Nephi 2, the famous "opposition in all things" chapter.

This chapter is famous for its theology of the Fall: how it reframes the fall of Adam as a positive event instead of as a negative one. That particular piece of doctrine is one way in which I think Mormons are more spiritually sophisticated than other Christian denominations, for we see the creation-inducing fall not as a mistake but as a blessing. However, this chapter also includes the infamous doctrine that, if Adam hadn't fallen, "all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created." Criticized in the CES Letter and other places, this passage goes against our modern commonsense knowledge that life evolved slowly and painfully over the course of billions of years. But is there another way to understand this passage, one that doesn't conflict with the science behind evolution? I think there is, and I'm going to share it with you here.

This chapter--like all theologies of the Fall--centers around two trees in Eden: of Life and of Knowledge. Eve's and Adam's eating of the Tree of Knowledge made them subject unto death. More accurately, though, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil separated Adam and Eve from God, since the Book of Mormon defines death as separation ("dying unto righteousness," etc). Now, consider this fact: though our doctrine teaches that knowledge actually brings you closer to God, at least originally it was the opposite. Knowledge--from the Tree of Knowledge--separated you from God. How can this be?
I'll suggest a first interpretation of this idea: since you need to be distinct and hence distant from another to know him, knowledge requires separation. I can't know myself, at least not in the same way as I know another. Likewise, the fetus can't really know her mother until she is born, since she needs the separation of their bodies to come into a relationship with her. I then suggest that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil gave Adam and Eve their distinct being, or rather their awareness of that distinct being. By way of the Fall, an originally muddled unity gives way to distinct parts, which later enables those parts to relate to each other as individuals. Naturally, the separation into distinct parts also evokes "the law" mentioned in the chapter, just as the relation of those parts together evokes Christ as "the great Mediator of all men."

But what was this muddled whole or "one body" that existed before the Fall? In at least some sense, that "one body" denotes the union of creator and creature, where God and humanity are not yet separate. I'll go further, though. Since Adam and Eve fell through knowledge, I suggest that the state pre-Fall is simply the same state that would exist post-Fall, only without that knowledge. In other words, perhaps the only difference between pre- and post-Fall humanity is the way they perceived reality. Whereas before they wouldn't have seen themselves as distinct from the "other," they begin seeing themselves as separate "subjects." In other words, the Fall severs the primordial unity of subject-and-object into a subject and object opposed to one another. Or perhaps that unity actually consisted of neither subject nor object but instead of the reality that existed between them.

Here we come into correspondence with how Emanuel Swedenborg understood the Fall story. For him, the Fall of Adam was a symbol of how the "First Church" on the earth fell away from their direct perception of divinity in the world. They originally saw every leaf, mountain, and river as a symbol for God, and instead of paying attention to whatever material thing symbolized Him, they paid attention to the divine attribute they saw through it. The Fall then consisted of the way they began to pay attention to the symbol instead of what it symbolized (i.e. God). Swedenborg likens it to how one can lose the intent of someone's speech if you pay attention to the sounds that person makes with the her mouth instead of what the words mean. As in my speculations above, since this "First Church" was in a state where everything was a window to God, those in it were not separate from Him. Mankind and God--as perceiver and perceived--were simply two sides of the same coin. They existed in a "between" of human and God, creator and creature (not to mention subject and object). They were "one body."

Funnily enough, the philosopher Roberts Avens talks about almost exactly the same process occurring in the psychology of "primitive" civilizations. In his book Imagination is Reality, he writes:
"Mythical images tend to become symbols (gods become diseases...) only when the objects of the outer world, instead of acting directly on the emotions of early man, begin to recede into a distance, when they can be looked at and recognized again whenever they appear. The transformation of images into symbols more or less coincides with our gradual separation from embeddedness in the process of nature. Whereas the primitive lives in the momentary, and spends himself in the momentary, the symboling animal must step twice, in fact, many times into the same Heraclitean flux."
From this perspective, the "Fall of Man" occurred when early humans stopped seeing the tree or the mountain as a spontaneous display of the divine but instead as a mere symbol or representation of God. From there it's only a short step to either worshiping the mountain as a god itself (idolatry) or, since you can't see Him, denying God's existence altogether (atheism). Death then entered the world--not only as separation from God and the ever-present ancestors, but also as a consciousness of finitude, since the finite is just that which has distinct boundaries or "ends."

To put it a slightly different way, I'm suggesting that the Fall of Man involved a "finite-ization" of the human consciousness of the world. Whereas originally everything was endless (see this post to see more of what I mean), the Fall into self-awareness put an end to that endlessness by making everything simply what it appears to be. Originally a rock or a flower could act as a display of Gods and worlds, but since the Fall of Man, it's just a flower, just a rock. The world loses its translucence and becomes opaque; the light shining through nature grows dim.

But if we're to believe 2 Nephi 2, this process was necessary. If we hadn't fallen into the awareness of our and the world's distinct being, we would never have developed writing, culture, or even language. We would have just been another animal, since animals, after all, never left the Garden. However, our destiny is to return to the Garden after we have developed the fruits of our separateness. This happens through Christ's atonement. As the at-one-ment, it unifies us to God even in our separateness from Him. In Swedenborg's terminology, we become "distinguishably one." Through Christ's atonement, the painful effects of our fall into separateness and finitude can be healed: we see unity through separateness, the infinite in the finite. And by doing so, we re-enter Eden and the world again becomes glass.

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