The early fathers of the Christian faith — not the men and women who flocked to the message of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher named Yeshua, but those men who codified a belief in a being who was once and always both divine and wholly human — were on to something. In very real if unnecessarily complicated way, they were on the right track toward answers to the eternal question: Why are we here? How could it be that everything that is is here?
They were on the right track, but they were looking in the wrong direction.
There were clues that those church fathers didn’t pick up on, chief among them that every time they came to a conclusion about the nature of their belief, it brought a hundred more questions. Every new decision forced them to deny beliefs that many of them had seen as orthodox just a short time before, even to the point of excommunicating those among them who refused to change with the times. In other words, they were trying to narrow down, to pinpoint the nature of the divine when that is its very antithesis.
But we can’t fault them for this. After all, they were only doing what humans have been doing from the first time one of them raised up on two legs, looked around and said holy fuck, wouldja look at this. They were trying to understand how it could be and what was their place in all this glory.
Of course, many Christians today don’t believe that ever happened. They believe that we were made, wholly formed, by a creator god. But let’s cut the bullshit. It happened. We humans are animals, mammals like so many others, the difference being that one day someone looked up and then showed her friends and family what she’d seen. Maybe not in such a sudden way, but more slowly, over time. The rest is prehistory.
It must have been terrifying, those first thoughts beyond pure instinct. Whoever wrote the biblical book of Genesis had some inkling of that. When the first man and the first woman ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, seeking wisdom, what they found instead was that they were naked, and it caused them to be ashamed.
This is a story, made up by humans to explain the inexplicable. By the time it was written down, thousands of years after humans had their first glimpse of the broad world around them, the descendants of those people had long since devised other beings, and great stories about them, to explain the inexplicable. This particular story came about when they had narrowed those beings down to just one, a supreme being who created all things.
Those first humans to become awake in a sense more profound than the other animals did not write down their stories or even tell them, not at first, since they had no real language to do so. But those initial feelings, we’ll call them, still lived within their descendants. It was a primordial sense, a deep knowing that was not-knowing at the same time.
So when they could, they began to tell stories, and eventually to write them down. These great religions of the past — we call dead religions mythology nowadays — were not even really religions the way we understand them now. It was just the way things were. The gods of one group of people correlated with the gods of another group, and no one really cared that they were called by different names in different languages. The creation of the one god changed that, dramatically, but here we have veered into another part of the story. Back to the first man and first woman.
There is no satan in the story of creation in Genesis. There is a god, a man, and a woman. In this story, the god created everything, and then got bored and created humans. He put them on this magnificent planet, and told them to stay away from the one tree. The serpent came along, having been created before the humans, and said that eating from that tree would make the humans like the god, wise and able to tell the difference between good and evil. But as humans, physical beings in this physical world, they did not understand that they were too dense, in the physical sense, to see the difference between good and evil, and so all they saw was that they were naked and ashamed.
This is a story attempting to relate a great truth, not a telling of the literal creation of the world. We know this to be true because we cannot know precisely what happened, and neither could those men who first told this story and later wrote it down. We have no reason to take it as a literal truth, and so should not read it as such.
What if, instead, we look deeper? The first man and the first woman saw that they were naked. Not literally unclothed, but open, vulnerable. This generated a feeling … shame, it says in the English translations. And what is shame but fear? It’s not at all unusual to be afraid when we realize how vulnerable, how fragile we really are.
Before our first understandings of the real world, we instinctually knew it. We knew what sounds were a dead branch falling from a tree and what sounds were a lion stepping on a branch that had already fallen. We knew what smells meant danger and what smells meant food. But we had no language, no words to describe it. There were predators, harsh conditions, and we did what we had to to survive. We might have been afraid, but it was not all-consuming. It was in the moment, at the moment.
But now we have real knowledge of those things. A lion could be anywhere. That river could flood and wash us away at any time. A fire could sweep through in the night and we might not be awake to react in time to save ourselves.
We were, for the first time, deeply and profoundly afraid.
In the story, we were afraid and ashamed of it because the god told us not to do this, but we did and it didn’t work. It made us more confused and afraid, rather than wise. We could tell the difference between good and even all right — so we thought — and it was a big and terrifying world that was out to kill us.
Stepping away from our Genesis story, this is when we began to create superstition and ritual. To protect ourselves. We began to build structures for protection. We created these other beings, these gods, who controlled it all — they had to be there, because how else could it be — and we needed to keep them happy to keep ourselves alive.
We had seen that we were separate from the world around us, and that world was hostile. And this is how it came to be that those early Christian fathers were on the right track but looking in the wrong direction.