Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 5b, Reinterpretting the Fall

The conventional wisdom about the Christian story of Eden and the Fall is that humanity was created immortal and given a single rule: to not eat from The Tree of Knowledge and Good and Evil, situated in the garden they lived in, the Garden of Eden. The two humans around then broke that one rule, and as a result they were cast out of Eden and would surely die ― become mortal. Regardless of whether it is taken literally, it is taken as the origin story of Evil and suffering and mortality and our own shortcomings.

It almost doesn’t matter whether someone sees this as a literal story or a symbolic one, it is about how humans have brought this on themselves. Peterson disagrees. He sees the story not as one about a near-perfect species somehow having within them a flaw that instead made us the deeply flawed individuals that we are (which is good, because that’s a self-defeating claim), but instead one about what it means to mature and grow old.

Pre-Fall Adam and Eve are essentially naive children. And, because Peterson defines the universe as being what you understand of it, the universe is the immature world; Adam and Eve (and children) are not cognisant of their mortality, because they are children. However, as a child grows and takes risks and hurts themselves occasionally, they become aware of their mortality. Children’s relationships with their parents alter rapidly, as the child becomes increasingly independent and thus takes on responsibility. That knowledge and responsibility is the eating of the Fruit of The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Adam and Eve don’t Fall, they were already fallen, they just didn’t know it yet; they were always destined to become responsible for their own actions and mortality. The eating of the Fruit is the maturation, and thus realisation of their mortality and imperfection.

They also didn’t disobey God by eating the Fruit. The rules parents give their young children simply aren’t adequate for pre-pubescents and teens. And so, they outgrew the rules. Alternatively, they did disobey God ― but it is right that they should have, as the rule not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was no longer appropriate to them; in the same way teens will disobey their childhood bedtime curfews.

Under this interpretation, it is also worth noting that Eve ate the Fruit not because she was disobedient (or ignorant of the difference between right and wrong ― because that knowledge was stored in the Tree), but because she had the self-respect and confidence to believe she was worthy of the knowledge and power that the serpent promised her. Growing up is not disobedience, but the confidence and responsibility to shape your own rules as you leave the tutelage of your parents.

To put Peterson’s interpretation of the Fall into the broad narrative structure Peterson argues all stories fall into, it is this: Eve is our exploratory hero, and God is the Great Father. In the moment that Eve realised that her personal progress relies on eating the fruit, God becomes The Tyrant Father, enforcing a rule that is in the way of Eve’s legitimate progress. The Mother, then, is the Tree ― for it gives. But, the Terrible Mother is mortality and life outside the Garden, for it needs to be conquered.

As has been my recurrent criticism of Maps of Meaning, the relationship between the myth and human behaviour is backwards: if Peterson’s interpretation of the Fall (above) is correct, then it is a reflection of human behaviour, not the reason for it. Children don’t grow into adults because of the story of the Fall; the knowledge that humans are mortal and flawed is not limited to cultures that know of the Fall. Instead, the Fall exists because the people who wrote the story were aware of this fact and put it in symbolic form.

Alternatively, much like I don’t think Shakespeare didn’t mean at least half of what scholars write about him, it’s also possible that we’re looking for meaning in a story beyond what anyone intended ― which raises the question of whether a myth means what it means to the individual, or what is codified in academic books like Peterson’s or by institutions like the Church that claim ownership, or what the author intended ― if, indeed, the author intended much of anything at all. As this is somewhat an aside, so for now I’ll go with this: myths that exist in the collective commons of our imaginations (i.e. we all know the myths) mean what they mean to the individual, and people like Peterson and institutions like the Church can merely speculate about what meaning might resonate with us ― explaining why The Fall is better known than Samson.

2 thoughts on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 5b, Reinterpretting the Fall”

  1. Why is it that people who claim to be interpreting the story of Adam and Eve don’t bother to read the damned story? Of course, there are two versions but they just aren’t that long. Adam and Eve were threatened with death if they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, but they weren’t killed. Yahweh says explicitly (to those offstage apparently) that A & E are banished because they couldn’t be trusted to not also eat from the Tree of Life and become “like us,” that is immortal. The story is clear. Adam and Eve were not immortal. They were never immortal. If they ate from the second tree they would become immortal.

    Petersen is slinging BS again (still?). There are many more interpretations that make much more sense than his. The key thing is this story (not written down until about the sixth century BCE) creates the basis for all that follows (which was why it was dreamed up, later than many other of the books of the Bible). For the Jews, Yahweh is punishing them for their lack of obedience, over and over and over. The OT is about obedience and there has to be a reason and a carrot and a stick. The original disobedience (magically passed down to progeny) explains why all are punished, not just the current sinners. The “carrot” is attaining Heaven. The “stick” for the Jews are the real world punishments exacted by invading armies, oppression by conquerors, etc. For Christians, it is the “Original Sin” from which they can be saved. Without the A&E story, neither religion has a foundational reason to exist. For Christianity, if there is no OS, what need have we of saviors of any stripe?

    The mistaken interpretation that A&E were banned for the act of eating the fruit they did eat is a common one, one that can be corrected by reading the damned story. The mistake comes down to us through many avenues, one of which is the phrase “the wages of sin are death.” It is supported by the desire of the religious to blame others, e.g. “we would all be immortal if you hadn’t fucked up,” etc. Since we never consider ourselves to be the source of our problems, it is those damned atheists, secularists, Jews, Muslims, etc. that are responsible for our problems.

    1. ” For Christians, it is the “Original Sin” from which they can be saved. Without the A&E story, neither religion has a foundational reason to exist. For Christianity, if there is no OS, what need have we of saviors of any stripe?”

      Exactly. That’s why the ‘correct’ interpreting of the myth is taught with this backwards approach: first the myth hangs around for a few thousand years doing the firepit circuit presumably, then the later real world and historical ‘savior’ appears that explains it! Beyond being absurdly stupid, this guilt-trip interpretation renders the the core tenet that defines a myth – to teach wisdom about how to live well – utterly useless. You’d think a few billion people might take notice.

      I think it helps to understand that myth is both a story form (the audience receives it as a form of entertainment) as well as instructive (the audience determines what the symbols represent to them to make it meaningful, to make it insightful, to make it personal). Peterson’s interpretation is just this and it makes good explanatory sense to him with his psychology background. Whereas he identifies ‘angry mother’ for a particular mythological symbol, I identify ‘nature’ and so on, but the story still makes good mythological sense as a stand-alone lesson on why understanding it this way improves one’s lot in teaching how an authentic life must move from dependence to independence (growing up), must include embracing/accepting life and the suffering it naturally entails to achieve this state, and must include accepting the responsibility for the consequence of our actions.

      The whole ‘Christian’ interpretation reverses this lesson and renders the myth of no life-enhancing value. Life is just an obligatory guilt trip and has been ‘designed’ to be this way. I suspect that’s why most believers don’t even read the myth or, if they do, come away with any useful wisdom other than, as you point out Steve, the ‘inheritance’ of original sin to justify the priestly caste who sells this life-denying shit. Peterson, as a raised Catholic, is trying to comport the two interpretations but ends up making the story way, way, way too convoluted to be a useful myth. I think that’s a clue, a red flag…

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