What is this that you have done?

After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the “LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” … “What is this that you have done?”” Reading the first chapters of Genesis in the context of the Pentateuch as a whole, which many recent scholarly commentators suggest doing, we can hear the tone of these questions as expressing the empathetic disappointment of a parent.1 While there is a great deal more to be said than this, the interpretive advice is a poignant reminder of how difficult it can be to determine the evocative resonance of an ancient text. Much more than the phrasing alone needs to be considered.

In Genesis 2-3 the shrewd snake convinces the man and woman to do what was forbidden by God. Through the serpent’s cunning they let themselves be duped into violating the commandment. In consequence they are ejected from paradise and cursed, no longer able to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, no longer able to enjoy direct, intimate communion with God. Newly exiled, they must labour, experience pain, and ultimately die. About this drama one of the preeminent commentators has written:

The narrative of Gen 2–3 will always retain its meaning for humankind. Something basic is said about humanity that no religious or ideological, no scientific, technical or medical development or change can or will in any way alter. It is part of human existence that a person is fallible. One cannot be a human being other than a fallible human being.2

Claus Westermann must have known that this is a deeply contestable point. So let’s try and get as clear as possible about what he is saying. He maintains that the narrative of Genesis 2-3 relays a basic existential truth: to be human is to be fallible. Allegedly, this is a metaphysical fact which no new way of thinking or development could alter.

In order to see what I think is questionable about this statement, let me add one of my own basic anthropological convictions, stated bluntly: human beings are rational animals. As Aristotle rightly saw, what it means to be human is inescapably connected to the fact that we are animals who use language to make statements of significance, and these statements of significance are inextricably interwoven with how we perceive and move about within the world. And as Hegel rightly saw, there is no experience of the world apart from the way our subjective systems of significance situate us within it.

In terms of the quote from Westermann, I think this helps us make a crucial distinction. On the one side are religion and ideology, and on the other are science, technology, and medicine. At least in their modern conceptualization, the latter three domains of knowledge are typically framed as being unaffected by humanity’s subjectivity. Scientific understanding proceeds by studying matter in motion on the effective assumption that it obeys observable causal laws. I’m simplifying drastically here, but in studying the physical world in this way science operates quantitatively, not qualitatively. It should be obvious that neither religion nor ideology do this. Unlike science, they necessarily attend to human nature, human behaviour, and human language. As lived systems of thought, as performed structures of meaning-making, they are contrastive, evaluative, and qualitative; they are embodied historically in the variable mentalités of particular societies; and they have provided multitudinous ways of answering one of the most central of human questions: what’s the right thing to do? If being human is a matter of being qualitatively situated, then qualitative assessments which fail to take this into account will fall well short of the best way of seeing ourselves.

Westermann is speaking here as if he can occupy some neutral metaphysical terrain from which to make his anthropological assessment. It’s as if he’s trying to stand in a religion- and ideology-free zone. But where is this place? How can one possibly get there if my—admittedly debatable—Aristotelian and Hegelian anthropological conviction is right? From that vantage-point there is no qualitative assessment outside communication. Since Westermann is human like the rest of us, and given that he is making a descriptive statement about humans, the place from which he speaks is not that of the objective scientific ideal, as if describing humanity’s existential situation is a matter of neutrally observing a causal material relationship. It may be true that human beings are essentially fallible, but they are essentially hermeneutical as well. The one cannot be asserted in the absence of the other if we’re talking about what is anthropologically basic. Some account of the fact that our assertions about ourselves are inescapably caught up with the qualitative frameworks from which we make them is needed.

That Westermann can make such a statement without feeling compelled to justify it is likely linked to the fact that he equates ideology with mutability, as if it were solely a matter of illusion, distortion, or mystification. Yes, ideology can and does distort one’s perception of reality. But that is not all it does. I’ve made the counter-assertion that there is no view of reality that is not constituted through the systems of significance of which we are a part. “Seeing means articulating.”3 All human experiences are interpretive and are therefore ideological to a certain extent. Ideology is not simply an abstract or doctrinaire system of ideas, as dictionary definitions sometimes have it. With Clifford Geertz’s notion of “thick description” in mind, ideology can be better characterized as the web of images, ideas, and values that shape the lived experience of human beings in their social roles, which vary according to the structure of the society in which they find themselves.4 Thus, ideologies may both obscure and clarify our vision of the way power in a given society works.

If we abandon the notion that ideology is inherently false then we can say that the truth is reached through ideology, not in spite of it. That does not mean everything is ideological in the same way or to the same degree. Nor do all ideological manifestations matter to the same extent. Anyone who is unable to see that there is a gradient to ideology explains too much by being too general. If you account for the motion of all heavenly bodies by the force of gravity alone, this leaves you unable to move beyond the statement of a general truth to explain why some types of bodies move one way and others move another. Greater precision is needed. Likewise, ideological astuteness entails employing our capacity to distinguish between the relevance of different factors in determining the power structure of a given social form. It’s possible for an assertion to be made that isn’t ideologically saturated, such as the conclusion of a scientifically empirical observation. Yet as soon as that observation is related to human purposes they become part of the ideological constellation. This shouldn’t be hard to grasp in the era of Covid-19. Epidemiologists may tell us one thing, but what our ruling governments decide to do with that research is another. Clearly ideology informs the ongoing political debates about how to strike a balance between a society’s public health and its economy.

Westermann has said that nothing can invalidate or alter the basic truth of human nature’s fallibility. In doing so he has glossed over the fact that what counts as invalidation or alteration is going to be determined by a judgment which is realized through one’s overall orientation to the world, i.e. a mentalité or an ideology. Human experience is never simply given. The cultural legacy of Genesis 2-3 reminds us of this very fact. Taking his assertion of fallibility as an existentialist variant on Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, how would Westermann respond to historians who describe the Enlightenment as a movement which revised Augustine’s anthropology in an Epicurean direction, leaving its bifurcations and the concerns of the heavenly city behind?5 And is Westermann prepared to say that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard (in Émile, ou l’éducation, 1762) is an ideological alteration whereas his own declaration is not? Both make fundamental claims about the nature of human experience and religion. They do not agree. Without considering a wider range of history or providing a more robust philosophical anthropology, it’s hard to see how Westermann could make an adequate reply. Too often ideology is the speck in another’s eye and never the plank in your own.

  1. See Bill Arnold, Genesis, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 67 ↩︎
  2. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11, Augsburg, 1982, p. 277. Not only does Arnold quote this excerpt from Westermann, he says something quite similar in his own commentary: Arnold, Genesis, p. 51. ↩︎
  3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Continuum, 1989, p. 79. ↩︎
  4. See Geertz’s now classic essay in The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 2000 [1973], pp. 3-31. I’m putting my own spin on Terry Eagleton’s definition. See: Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, Routledge, 2002 [1976], p. 15; Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, Verso, 1991, Conclusion. ↩︎
  5. For example, John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 2005. ↩︎
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