In two previous posts we have surveyed some key components of existentialist thought, laying out a starting point for further discussion. As a brief survey, existentialism begins with noting the epistemological limitations of our subjective perspectives which call objective, metaphysical knowledge claims into question. Recognizing the inadequacy of such claims, existentialism then looks at how we might live with our subjectivity. With this starting point in mind, I want to turn now toward applying existentialism to some theological questions. To begin with, I want to look at the first three chapters of Genesis, an extremely important section of scripture theologically, and offer what might be an “existentialist reading” of this passage.
It of course needs to be noted that there can be no such thing as a single “existentialist reading” of this or any passage. I am merely offering some suggestions about how some significant pieces of the first three chapters of Genesis might intersect with existentialist ideas. So for instance, God’s creation of the world through speech and following particular patterns shows us something of the desire for order and meaning which drives much of humanity’s endeavors. Much more interesting to me is the endowment of humanity with the “image of God” in 1:26. The most prominent interpretation of this in the tradition that I am aware of has been that this refers to human rationality. However, it seems to me that a more existentialist understanding of this might be the capacity for “willing” or having a will. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian who was clearly influenced by existentialist thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche describes God as “absolute will,” the completely free and self-determining being. Could it be, then, that the image of God is the human capacity to choose itself, to will itself and thereby direct its course of action?
To will oneself one must possess some sort of understanding. Thus, coupled with the ability to will, but perhaps secondary to it, is the desire to understand and find meaning in the world. When God brings the animals to Adam we see this happening. Adam “names” them, in effect giving their existence some meaning in his own mind. He is developing his own understanding of the world. Into this understanding is placed the woman, who is “bone of [his] bones and flesh of [his] flesh.” The statement has always seemed to me to imply fundamental equality of personhood between the two, supported by the fact that both have already been said to bear the image of God and that in the remainder of the story the woman will act (express her will) without the knowledge or consent of the man. They both have a will and they both act out of an understanding of the world which they themselves are formulating. We can see this formulation at work in the woman’s addition of “or even touch it” to God’s prohibition against eating from the tree.
The tree itself, and in particular the serpent’s statements about it, have some interesting intersections with existentialist thought, perhaps putting a particularly theological twist on such thinking. As we have noted, existentialism is extremely skeptical of objective metaphysical claims. Historically, such metaphysical systems have been the basis of systems of universal ethics– universal ways of thinking about what constitutes right and wrong, good and evil. When the serpent tells the woman that humans will become “like gods” when they eat of the fruit because they will know “good from evil” he is suggesting that human understanding will become the “objective” arbiter of good and evil, right and wrong. In other words, individuals will exalt their own subjective understanding to the position of “objective truth.” Once that has been done, disagreement is no longer a matter of two perspectives being different, something Bonhoeffer claims has always existed and always will exist, it is a matter of determining who is “right” and who is “wrong”– a conflict which becomes divisive and often turns violent. We see the effects of just such a conflict in the very next chapter when Cain and Abel’s disagreement regarding what constitutes proper sacrifice turns into the first homicide.
A final intersection occurs at the end of chapter three when Adam names the woman “Eve.” The meaning Adam had given to the animals he is now applying to his wife. Signaled here is the beginning of the dividing of human understanding between “I’s” and “Thou’s,” between “us” and “them.” This kind of divide forms the basis both for social identity and for social conflict, a conflict especially pronounced in human history in the relationship between the sexes.