In the beginning was creation. First there was existence created out of nothing, then form out of the formless void, then light and darkness, the waters and the land, the stars and living creatures, and finally humanity, who carries the image of their creator. So begins the creation story in Genesis. In this picture, everything is created in splendor for greater glory of all.
This creation account differed from that of other creation stories in the Near East by virtue of its peacefulness. In the Babylonian creation myth, the world is created by a violent struggle between the god Marduk and chaos dragon Tiamat. In Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat, order achieved victory over chaos. In contrast to this creation out of violence, the Genesis account speaks of creation by Word.
The Word is not the spoken word nor the written word, but the primordial self-expression of the divine mind. It is this divine intellect becoming manifest as substantial existence. It is God writing a story through history. This Word, also known as the Logos, is a kind of grammar of existence – the logic by which all things live and move and have their Being. Through the Word, creation partakes of the nature of its creator.
Blessed by this divine inheritance, humanity finds itself immersed in this beautiful garden of plenty. In this paradise, humanity exists naked and innocent, naming all the creatures, and living in communion with their creator. All of creation sings the praises of its divine origin. Creation is enchanted – a vibrant, ensouled landscape teeming with purpose and inner life.
Then, there is trouble in paradise. Humans are tempted with the forbidden fruit. We are taught that this fruit will make us “as God” by giving us knowledge of good and evil. In eating of the fruit, we saw our own nakedness – the vulnerability of our own existence. We attained self-awareness, and with that became responsible for our actions. No longer subject to sheer instinct, we became rational beings, cursed with the burden of knowing our own mortality and finitude.
What does it mean to be fallen? Was there some point in time that we could designate as the Fall? There are several. The rise of civilization could be one of them, introducing the subjugation of humanity to authoritarian rule. We could go back further and say it was the rise of agriculture, in which we ceased to be wild and sought to control nature for our benefit. Going back further, one could point to the beginning of language, in which we broke out of our subconsious state and began to conceptualize our existence. One could go all the way back to the Big Bang, when the primordial atom split and became differentiated, introducing duality into the world.
One could also apply later falls in human history. The rise of capitalism is a common culprit in leftist discourse. Christians often see a fall from the early church into what the faith has become. People in the Renaissance bemoaned the fall from antiquity. In some sense, we are always falling.
This view of a fallen world is hardly unique to Christianity. Hinduism teaches that there was once a time called the Satya Yuga, in which humanity was governed by the gods, virtue and altruism are abundant, and people reach enlightenment easily. This gave way to the Treta Yuga, then the Dvapara Yuga, and finally the Kali Yuga, in which we currently find ourselves. With each Yuga, humanity becomes more corrupt, ignorance spreads, the gods become more distant, and enlightenment becomes harder to reach. Time itself accelerates, with each Yuga being shorter than the previous one, and human lifespan becoming shorter along with it. At the end of the Kali Yuga, the world will be cleansed of evil, and the cycle will start anew.
This myth can no more be literally true than the account of Genesis, but its essential meaning is a similar one: we have fallen from a great height, and the wisdom of our forebears has been lost to us. We live in a time of greater struggle and hardship, of tyranny and corruption, of base materialism and greed. We have lost our way, and must struggle against the ways of this world in order to find it once again.
This sentiment finds its way into Buddhism, where the time in which the Buddha taught is seen as a golden age, but the teaching of the Dharma has been corrupted since then, and must be sought after with greater effort. Buddhists teach that one day the Dharma will be entirely forgotten, until another Buddha named Maitreya will come and restore it.
As time goes on and the world becomes more corrupt, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach enlightenment. Sins such as avarice, lust, and wrath, and greed will increase. Rulers will no longer care for the spiritual well-being of their subjects, but seek only power for themselves. Religion, spirituality, truth, tolerance, mercy, and kindness will all diminish. Life will become more and more about the increase pursuit of fleeting pleasure at the expense of inner cultivation.
What are we to make of this? Does not much of this ring true in our own time? We must be wary of nostalgia: selfish and power-hungry rulers are hardly new, and our ancestors committed any number of sins, including all kinds of interpersonal violence from which many of us in the developed world are mercifully shielded from today. Lynching was once commonplace here in the United States, and slavery was once a fact of life.
Yet there is a sense in which things do seem to have descended. If we have indeed become more “tolerant” (despite the recent backlash against this trend), is it not in part because we have become more indifferent? The idol of consumerism keeps us numb and complacent, like the lotus eaters of the Odyssey. The promise of limitless economic growth and technological expansion has been promising us broader horizons and expanding opportunity. Under such circumstances, what does it matter that another person doesn’t look, act, or believe as you do? Durkheim described this state as “organic solidarity,” in which the increasing economic integration of society diminishes our need to enforce social uniformity among others. Yet this only so long as we hold out for the promises of Mammon.
We now live in a time when these promises of limitless growth are revealed as the malicious lies they always were. The global recession of 2008 toppled world markets and undermined confidence in global markets more than any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Neoliberals had sold the idea that globalization would lift all boats, that freeing up the flow of capital would help overcome the instability of the markets. It all came toppling down. The economists who had served as priestly oracles had been exposed as false prophets. Yet rather than be run out of town, the capitalist order simply went on without the façade. Rather than hold up the high-minded ideal that we could grow our way to prosperity, the ruling class has simply resorted to naked plunder, seizing whatever they can from a world that is no longer growing, but shrinking before our very eyes. The old language of growth and “job providers” still persists, but the rhetoric has become paper-thin. The “rising tide that lifts all boats” is dead rhetoric. This ship is capsizing, and everyone knows it.
As this scramble for the remains of a crumbling system progresses, is it any wonder that this new scarcity has filtered its way down and ignited all these animosities that had been just beneath the surface all this time? The myth of infinite growth had held people’s hostilities at bay, all while continuing to siphon money and resources to the top, so that when the whole façade came crashing down, people were left more desperate than ever. This is to say nothing of what all that growth had entailed: the systemic looting of natural resources from the developing world, the overhauling of their economy to suit the needs of global capital under the coercive apparatus of debt peonage, meddling with elections, political assassinations, and a long list of other crimes, all to keep the expansion of capital going.
By directing our spiritual energies toward the false promises of Mammon, upon whose altar so many lives have been sacrificed, we have lost all sense of community, of higher purpose, and of the common good. That this descent into base materialism was perceived as already occurring centuries ago, long before the birth of capitalism, tells us how long the dangers of these tendencies have been known, and how foolishly we have failed to heed the warnings.
The idea of a lost Golden Age captivated the minds of ancient civilizations. This often goes hand-in-hand with certain technical advances. This is because such advancements often tend to overturn previous ways of life. What was lost when Neolithic farmers abandoned their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and spent their days in the field planting and harvesting? What was lost when civilization arose and people began to live in cities ruled by kings who demanded strict obedience? People may not be consciously aware of what exactly they are missing, but it finds its way into their dreams, especially those public dreams we call myth.
When innovations create major changes in society, they disrupt older ways of life, and in the process, something is lost. This is the point so often missed by apologists for capitalism who post upward-pointing graphs proving how it has lifted people up out of poverty. The “poverty” they speak of is generally one of subsistence farming, living in tight-knit communities providing food for their own survival, sharing the burdens of work, and the bounty of the harvest, stories and laughs and shared memories. Under such conditions, they may have lacked television, internet, even electricity or public sanitation grid, but they had community, family, and all a sense of togetherness that is all too lacking in the bustling high-tech world we now inhabit.
From this simple way of life, they were uprooted, first by colonial European powers, then by their successors in international financial institutions. Their small communal farms were privatized and incorporated into large corporate farms where they grow cash crops for export, exposing themselves to international competition and shifts in global demand for their products. Under such circumstances, crops continue to be exported even in times of famine. Where their land was once passed down from generation to generation, now they must pay a landlord for their right to the land, who can evict them if they can no longer pay the rent, which can be increased as the market demands. Now properly assimilated into the market economy, the capitalist congratulates themselves for lifting them out of a “poverty” that is deliberately so defined in capitalist terms. Is it any wonder that such “poverty” is deliberately sought by monastic orders of various faiths, or by Anabaptist groups such as the Amish or Hutterites?
Such upheavals did not begin with capitalism. Ancient empires subdued such self-sufficient farming communities by military conquest. Following the conquest, they would demand tribute from the conquered colonies, as a kind of protection racket. According to David Graeber, this may have been the origin of coinage. The empire would find it costly to keep sending soldiers out to the conquered territories to put down rebellions, so they kept troops there as occupying armies. The places they were stationed would have operated on systems of mutual aid, but would be extremely hesitant to offer their goods and services to their conquerors.
In response, these empires would mint coins, often with the image of the emperor, and use them to pay their soldiers. In turn, they would demand a certain amount of these coins back as tribute. This meant that farmers and artisans would have reason to exchange their goods and services for a certain amount of such coins. The coins would then circulate among the people, seeking to ensure that they had enough to pay the tribute expected from them, thus creating markets. In this way, markets and policing have always gone hand-in-hand.
Markets in turn allowed for new ways of accumulating power. In the past, power required vast armies and the means to feed and pay them. One’s power extended as far as one’s army, which had to be able to defeat others’ armies. However, with capitalism, one can build economic power that transcends national borders, and have it defended by the armed forces of others without having to raise one’s own army. The spread of markets allowed things to be commodified, turned into property with exchange value.
Commodification in turn allows for capitalization. Capitalization is the process whereby a commodity’s present value is discounted in expectation of future profit. Every commodity becomes a means of profit, which in turn provides the means to buy more commodities and generate more profit, and so on, leading toward monopolizing tendencies. Firms themselves are subject to this process, leading to a system of mergers and acquisitions in which one firm can devour another and increase total power without having to add any new production. This has allowed for concentrations of power that Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great could only dream of.
With each of these steps, we have become increasingly alienated from a primordial communion with nature and with one another. This is not to say these innovations have not brought with them advances that improved people’s lives in measurable ways. Infant mortality across the globe has plummeted, hunger and malnutrition are on the decline, and human lifespans are as high as ever. Many would have us thank capitalism for these miracles of technology. They would have us believe that the human ingenuity behind such breakthroughs would not have been possible without the incentive structure of self-interested profit-seeking industry.
On the face of it, this is an insult. Capitalism did not create these medical breakthroughs: people did. People dedicate their lives to such research because they feel called to it, not because they want to make the highest profit they can. Their research is built upon the research of countless others, and each discovery is ultimately a collective effort. This is how human creativity has always worked: we receive what has been passed down from others, and find new ways to innovate upon it.
Yet there is another sense in which these defenders of capital have a point: this level of interconnection would not be possible if capitalism had not transformed the world. It is because of capitalism that the world has become globalized to such a degree that people have such a massive pool of knowledge from which to draw. Yet this globalizing process began long before capitalism, and it is capitalism that brought it to its ultimate fruition. People in previous eras would have local knowledge from which to draw, and might learn about the knowledge of other cultures from wandering merchants and traders. They were also brought together by forces of empire, asserting its own cultural as well as political hegemony while also bringing together diverse cultures under its own unifying force. Capitalism brought an expansion of trade and commerce to such a degree that they became the guiding ethos of civilization, and made an empire of the market itself.
Here lies the paradox of our civilization. Human history is built upon a long lineage of increasingly sophisticated and hegemonic power structures that have alienated us from our communal and ecological life. Yet in so doing, these power structures have brought people together on a much larger scale, and created a global noosphere from which our creative powers can draw at an unprecedented level. These power structures have eroded organic bonds while producing new synthetic ones. Exploitation and material abundance have expanded in tandem. We have never had so many resources at our disposal while facing such grim and horrifying prospects. Our very existence is at stake, and we must pool this vast expanse of knowledge into ensuring our survival.
To do this, we must learn to separate the wheat from the tares. We must rediscover community amid this strange new world, while seeking liberation from the power structures that created this world in the first place. We must learn to distinguish between liberatory innovation that increases conviviality and hegemonic innovation that brings alienation. We must realize the ways in which our creativity has been stifled and canalized by hegemonic power, and learn how to connect with creative powers that have become atrophied under a system that only cares about creativity that can be monetized and commodified. We must learn how to reinvent society itself.
This is the challenge of our time. The forces of empire have enveloped the whole globe and threaten to destroy us all. Through a path of subjugation, exploitation, and oppression, we have been brought to the precipice of our own extinction. Yet along this same path, we also have the opportunity to create a world that we know in our hearts is possible. In a mysterious way, the horrors of history have been interwoven with our highest aspirations and noblest efforts to create the vast tapestry of time.
The gates of Eden are guarded by the flaming sword of the Cherubim. There is no going back to such a paradise, but there is a way forward. The only way out is the way through. The expulsion from Eden is ultimately reconciled in the coming eschaton. The path from the one to the other is that of providence. What was lost is not gone forever, but can be regained in a higher form through the unfolding of history.
The descent into exploitation, oppression, materialism, and alienation has been a tragic one, but one through which we may once again find the treasure of what was lost, and realize a higher unity with our spiritual source. The Fall implies the Eschaton, as the Eschaton implies the Fall. The end is in the beginning, as the beginning is in the end. The tragedy and injustice of history can only be answered and justified in the completion of creation – its ultimate fulfillment in things to come.
This World to Come must be understood as something that we can neither passively wait for nor bring into existence by sheer willpower. We are co-creators of the future: we can neither abandon our task in creating it nor can we immanentize the eschaton through sheer force of strength. Indeed, it has been power and force that have brought us here in the first place. Along that path, another force has been weaving itself through this story through the power of kenosis, or self-emptying. It is what Daoists call wei wu wei, the path of action through non-action.
We must act through redirection, using the system’s weaknesses against it. We must rediscover the communal bonds we have lost, and build them up over against the alienation of the system. We must deconstruct the barriers in which the system has ensnared us and seek the creative source from which all good in the world has always been born.
We must create a future in accordance with the deepest longings of our nature. The world toward which we must move is inscribed upon the human heart. This future is destiny simply because we cannot afford to do otherwise. If we fail, then all is lost. To avoid failure, we must hold onto hope, which has always been a theological virtue. The hope for a better world is a gift of the Spirit. We must let it guide us, even if we cannot see the end toward which it leads. This is the hope of the World to Come, our New Eden.