This is quite long and confessional. Feel free to skip it, if you’re not in the mood for either.
I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking, praying and soul-searching of late. While I haven’t focused on this internal evaluation with constant intensity, it has been a major effort of mine for the last few months. It began in earnest back at the beginning of Lent, has continued through Easter and other recent events, and is still ongoing. I don’t know if I’ve come to any real conclusions; perhaps “conclusions” are not what periods of spiritual (self-)testing are all about, anyway. But it has helped me, I think, to understand a little better something about why it is that I so often go so very, very wrong.
The finest Mormon personal essay that I am aware of, Eugene England’s subtle and beautiful “Easter Weekend,” contains a haunting passage in which Gene imagines his pioneer ancestor, George England, as his guardian angel, wearily writing another report on his charge. Referring to him as George (which was Gene’s actual first name), this unseen spirit writes:
“The main problem is that George understands what is right to do but does not do it….Many people praise him for what he says….But he still does terrible things. It is still hard for him to be honest. He covers over his mistakes with lies. He pretends to know things or remembers people or has read books when it is not true. I think he loves to do right, but he has a hard time being honest or kind when the chance to do so is sudden or embarrassing or when he is painful or lonely. If he has time to think, he is very often good, but is not when he is surprised.”
Gene–an academic, an intellectual and occasion critic, like me–put better here (for my purposes at least) than anyone else I have ever read the truism expressed by Paul: “I am carnal, sold under sin….for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:14-15). I hate the fact that I lie (to myself, most frequently, but to many others as well), that I pretend and make excuses and rationalize and cover things up and generate all sorts of strategies and duplicities that, in my better moments, I recognize as nonsense. I wish I would not do those things; I wish I would stop fearing and posing and–especially when confronted, tested, put on the spot–making so much out of what is, quite literally, nothing (see Moses 1:10). I can (and do) do good–when I can clear my head, see through what some part of my brain or heart is throwing up before me, escape the (pretended?) double-mindedness, and remember what it is I know. But still, more often than not, I do all those things I hate. Why?
The most direct answer from Mormon scriptures is King Benjamin’s: “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam” (Mosiah 3:19). In what sense am I–naturally, at least–God’s enemy? President Benson taught that it is our pride which makes us so, enmity–toward God and toward our fellow man–being the “central feature” of pride. But what am I proud of, exactly, and why does my pride take the form of my pitting my will against God’s? There are many ways to answer that question, I’m sure. But an answer I have found, one that has seemed truer and truer to me the longer I’ve reflected upon it, comes from another Easter essay, a longer and more theological one, written by the Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus. In it, he writes about the inherent flaws of theodicy, the presumption that we can judge God: “The philosophical problem of theodicy is that of trying to square God’s ways with our sense of justice. This assumes that we know what justice is, but the entire story the Bible tells begins with the error of that presumption. It is the original error of our wanting to name good and evil.” Or in other words, as he puts it at greater length:
“Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world. Things are out of whack. It is not all our fault, but it is our fault too. We cannot blame our distant parents for that fateful afternoon in the garden, for we were there. We, too, reached for the forbidden fruit–the forbidden fruit by which we know good and evil but, much more fatefully, by which we presume to name good and evil. For most of us, our rebellion did not have about it the gargantuan defiance depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Most of us did not, as some do, stand on a mountain peak and shake a clenched fist against the storming skies, cursing God. [I know I do not. My rebellions are common, sheepish, furtive, full of practiced self-consciousness and role-played deniability. Hardly sounds like pride at all.]
“But then, neither were Adam or Eve so melodramatic. On a perfectly pleasant afternoon in paradise, they did no more than listen to an ever so reasonable voice. ‘Did God really mean that? Surely He wants you to be yourself, to decide for yourself. Would He have made something so very attractive only to forbid it? The truth is He wants you to be like Him, to be like gods.’ The fatal step was not in knowing the difference between good and evil. Before what we call ‘the fall’ they knew the good in the fullest way of knowing, which is to say that they did the good, they lived the good. They knew the good honestly, straightforwardly, simply, uncomplicatedly, without shame….[T]o ‘know good and evil’ is to reach for a universal knowledge, to be unbounded by truth as it is presented to us, to aspire to create our own truth. I say we were there in the garden when humanity aspired to ‘be like gods’ by knowing good and evil, by reaching to know the power to define what is good and what is evil.”
I think that is right. I think my pride, my unwillingness “to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon” me, has little to do with my actually loving or willing wickedness. I’m not a psychopath; thankfully, few of God’s children are. No, my sin begins with a desire for control, for naming, for knowing. I want what I am and what I know to be my own: sufficient, complete, and sovereign (like God). And so when faced mistakes or needs or problems or other people or the world in general, I double-check my answers, survey where I’m standing, insist on making sure all my ducks are in a row. (The needy can wait until I’m sure of what I’m doing…and if I’m not sure, I’m sure as hell not going to let any pathetic supplicant–or worse, anyone whose favor I want to curry–be aware of that. No sir. I am who I am, after all.)
It may be easy to think, given some of the passages in Lehi’s famous sermon, that the whole purpose of life is being your own person: “to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26) I’ve often thought that myself; but now I’m not sure that’s what the text teaches us. In fact we cannot, I think, freely choose to be like God; on the contrary, we cannot “act for [ourselves]” at all, “save it should be that [we are] enticed…[by] the will of his Holy Spirit” (2 Nephi 2:16, 28). Yes, we are to choose the good; but as things now stand, I wonder if we can only choose the good by viture of a context for choice created through the will, the controlling action, the knowledge and power, of God (an “opposition” to the “will of the flesh and the evil which is therein”–2 Nephi 2:29).
All of which makes me think twice about the passage in that sermon which most Mormons treasure most highly: “Adam fell, that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Properly understood, I’ve no doubts about the second half of that scripture. But I find myself increasingly wondering about the first. To quote Neuhaus again:
“Some thinkers have argued that ‘the fall’ was really a fall up rather than a fall down. By the fall our first parents were raised, it is said, to a higher level of consciousness in the knowing of good and evil. Now they know no longer simply and directly but reflexively; now they know in the consciousness of knowing. This, however, is but another conceit of our fallen nature. It is as though a paraplegic, marvelously skilled in the complex maneuvering of his wheelchair, were to despise the healthy as belonging to a lower order because they walk simply, in blithe ignorance of the complexity of movement that the paraplegic knows so well. The conceit is that our complicated way of knowing is superior because it is ours [italics added]….The reflexive mind, the divided soul, the conflicted heart–these many take to be the marks of maturity and growth. To know the good simply, to love the good and do the good because it is self-evidently to be loved and to be done, that is taken to be the mark of those whom we condescendingly call simple. So it is that sin’s injury is declared a benefit, our weakness a strength, and the fall of that dread afternoon a fall up rather than down. Of those who thus confound good and evil, St. Paul says ‘they glory in their shame’. If good would come from eating of the Tree of Knowledge, God would not have forbidden it.”
Everyone knows that much pride is intellectual; that it takes root in thinking we know better, or even best. But perhaps its roots go even deeper than that. For me, at least, I see that I am often false, led inexorably into conniving and rudeness and judmentalism and self-justification, because I want to be something (no: I want to be able to say–to myself, to others–that I am something) that I am not, something that I, in fact, may have no control over at all. And that makes me mad, fills me with enmity, hardens my heart. And maybe that madness–my madness–is all due to thinking that I ought to be able to name what I am to be in the first place. So if it is the case that salvation comes through backing away from such thinking, through becoming a child for whom good and evil are not mediated concepts, but lived realities, then I have to wonder if I ought not mourn Adam’s Fall, and the sin of self which it made most originally my own, after all.