27 June 2009

The optimism in Cain and Abel

By Liam Carroll

Humans like stories, and with good reason. Not only are many of them fun, but they are also informative. Psychologist Jordan Peterson has an interesting interpretation of the Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and their two sons, Cain and Abel; it is interesting, in my opinion, because it mixes religion and science, and is both plausible and positive.

When humans were animals, before the development of self-consciousness and rational planning, we lived in paradise. We lived in paradise because we had no thought for tomorrow, no anxiety about what we should or should not be doing; we were instinctive, we lived in the flow of life, moment to moment.

As we evolved, over several hundred thousands of years and underwent rapid brain development we became increasingly self-conscious. Who knows why, or God knows why, depending on your perspective. Either way, it was an evolution; an experiment of nature, or a process of design by the creator.

The emergence of light and the creation of Adam and Eve represents this emergence of consciousness in incredibly compressed form; it's only a page or two in Genesis, about a million years according to geneticists. The snake, curled upwards around the tree, is symbolic of the central nervous system running up the spine with our organs of sight, hearing and smell in the head. This is the information system that makes us alert to our environment. It warns us about physical threats and alerts us to things we need or desire.

The eating of the apple is the moment that Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness, their vulnerability, their mortality; the fruit of knowledge is knowledge about ourselves and our environment, it is the birth of self-consciousness. We are no longer in paradise, we are no longer ignorant and blissful, we no longer live in the moment, in the rich flow of life. We now have to start preparing for tomorrow, to labour, to plan, to protect and to provide for ourselves, starting with the fig leaf.

Out of Eden we go with the Cherub, our youth, with the flaming sword, barring our return. We now have to plan and work, to store wealth, to prepare for lean times, for unexpected eventualities, and God knows what else.

Cain and Abel, the first sons, brothers, or two aspects of the human psyche, provide the first story of the choices that face us. Abel does everything right, he knows what sacrifices to make to please God and he is happy and God loves him. The love of God, literal or symbolic, depending on your perspective, represents happiness and well being. Although the world can be a cruel and tragic place, those people, according to this interpretation of the story, who behave appropriately, who make the correct self-sacrifices, and do not put aside everything for themselves, achieve happiness.

Cain on the other hand, doesn't make the right sacrifices. He sacrifices something, but in Genesis it doesn't go into detail. God is not happy with him though, and from this we might surmise that what he thinks is a sufficient sacrifice, in reality isn't. His sacrifices, his efforts, are mean and paltry, he wants to keep the best for himself, but he is unhappy, for God, or life even, does not treat him well. Cain's jealousy of Abel's happiness, of the love that he receives from others, as represented by God, is too much for Cain, and he ends up killing Abel. Life for Cain goes even further downhill from there.

The optimism of this interpretation of Cain and Abel, following on the heels of our expulsion from Eden, lies in the fact that there is redemption for humankind, if we make the right choices. Self-sacrifice doesn't mean going without, it means gaining something else.

No comments: