郭建:Teaching the Story of the Fall:A Humanist and Cross-Cultural Perspective

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郭建 (进入专栏)  

“Do you really think a snake can talk?” I remember asking in class in response to the insistence of a few students on a literal reading of the third chapter of Genesis. That was many years ago when, for the first time, I taught selections from the Bible as part of an undergraduate course. I was young, then, and didn’t know better. But, nevertheless, what a blunt question! And further responses I had from this group of students were no less blunt: “Well, it depends on what you believe,” a female student said with all sincerity. Though the class, apparently benefiting from its tolerance for outrageous questions and spontaneous responses despite all kinds of tensions and conflicts, was quite lively, I blush at the bare thought of this particular exchange. On the other hand, it was also a moment of revelation in my teaching career; an eye-opener, as my students would say.

The course that I have just mentioned is called the “World of Ideas,” which covers literature from four disciplines and two cultures. Since it is a compulsory general education offering on our campus, each section is usually diverse enough to include students from various religious and political backgrounds and persuasions. At the one end of the spectrum are those adopting a dogmatic approach to their religious heritage, like the ones taking a talking serpent for granted. Due to a general lack of literal/scriptural basis for their conviction, they are not exactly literalists or fundamentalists: they have come to know their Bible quite well mostly by listening, and, having not heard of Augustine from church fathers, they tend to think of the story of the fall as the story of the Original Sin. At the other end of the spectrum are those who may have suffered as much from a lack of exposure to outdated print media but who happen to feel much liberated from the burden of the past so as to consider traditions, religious tradition in particular, to be primitive, superstitious, irrational, and irrelevant. Students at both ends are usually more active in class than the moderate but more or less indifferent majority, and this rather silent majority consists typically of faithful postmodernists who sincerely believe, “there’s no right or wrong, true or false; it’s just a matter of opinion.” Compared with my students—to complete this sketch of a typical class of the World of Ideas—I tend to be more enamored than the majority with universal truths but be less confident in my own convictions than the extremes. Regarding the selections from the Bible we cover during the first week of class, I am always eager to share with the class my fondness of the story of the fall as an interested reader from outside of Judeo-Christian tradition: like the story of Narcissus from Greek mythology or the story of sour grapes from Aesop’s fables, it is one of the greatest stories ever told, not so much because it is a foundation story of a religious faith as because it speaks much of humanity in general and of each one of us in particular. But, no, I have never really put forth such a blatantly humanist reading; at least, not in a straightforward manner of professing as I would have preferred but for the lesson I have learned from my students: So much depends on what one believes that no one is entitled to assume the role of a light-bearer, who may just as well turn out to be a self-invited thirteenth guest at someone’s dinner table.

Eventually, however, I did accomplish to a moderate degree what I intended—not by telling my students what I thought of the story of the fall but, first, by treating Biblical interpretations partly as an issue of intellectual and literary history and discussing the more or less humanist and naturalist readings of the religious fable by late 18th and early 19th century Romantic writers and, second, by adopting a cross-cultural perspective and reading the story in comparison with a passage of similar import from the Tao Te Ching of ancient China. I do not mean to say that these texts were chosen for the purpose of intertextual and comparative readings with the story of the fall as a thematic center; rather, they, including selections from the Bible, were chosen independent of one another for the unique contribution(s) of each to the central theme of the course: the good life, or “eudaimonia” (εÛδαιμονία), a concept that philosophers of ancient Greece considered to be central to all human quests. However, literary borrowings, historical interpretations, and cultural parallels all made the class more dynamic and the readings more connected and more interesting. Only in hindsight do I see that my adoption of these approaches in interpreting the Biblical story, partly as a strategy to speak in another’s voice, also marked my departure from a more spontaneous and more straightforward way of teaching: I have become more aware of the difference between my audience and myself and certainly felt ashamed of my initial bluntness, and I have begun to see the necessity of re-tailoring the uniform attire of humanism for an age of cross-cultural encounters, globalization, and political correctness.

From the Biblical story to the Romantic poem, students can almost find their own way; for, in response to my question of how one may relate to the Genesis story today, there are almost always a couple of students in the World of Ideas class who are willing to comment on connections between the Biblical Eden and their own childhood. There, already, is a dawning awareness that Adam and Eve’s subsequent tasting of the fruit from the tree of knowledge as told in Genesis could be suggestive of a process of growing-up and maturation that every individual experiences. Quite naturally, discussions of fondly remembered details of childhood pregnant with such awareness would set the stage for the entrance of such Romantic writers as William Wordsworth, whose autobiographical poem The Prelude recasts the Biblical vision of history in terms of individual human experience. But, no, both the length and lyricism of the work make it an unrealistic choice for a general education course; we read “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” instead. In both poems, the life journey of an individual is presented as a story of paradise lost: The celestial glory of childhood, blessed with innocent and spontaneous joy, gradually fades into the light of common day as the child grows up.[1] At the same time, however, the fall is also a humanizing process: what is lost is the instinct and spontaneity of the young child as an animal to whom nature is “all in all,” while the “abundant recompense” for such loss—a bargain the poet finds hard to accept but eventually recognizes as inevitable—is the thoughtfulness that makes a child’s dream recede and gives the adult person an ear for the “still, sad music of humanity.”[2]

Very much like Wordsworth, but more in the spirit of Emersonian Transcendentalism, the American writer Henry David Thoreau takes a secular humanist approach to the scripture and writes about our fall from nature into society. Our life is not altogether a forgetting, Thoreau writes, with a Wordsworthian echo, in his “Life without Principle,” (Again, as with Wordsworth, we skip Thoreau’s major work Walden and read a short posthumous piece instead); it is also a remembering of something of which we should never have been conscious in the first place.[3] On the normal path of life, we adopt coarse and vulgar adult appetites for fame and fortune, we put to sleep the higher and finer instincts that we had as children, and we shut our mind’s eye and fall into a slumber of vegetative life. Apparently, being American, Thoreau sees our fall into society in much more negative light than Wordsworth of the Old World. And yet, to Thoreau, as well as to Emerson, the kingdom of heaven is actually at hand: Regeneration of life can begin any time for anyone who is willing to resist temptations of a morally depraved acquisitive society and becomes aware of the vital life force, the universal spirit, which streams through the universe, making all things interconnected and alive, and which is only conscious in the human mind.

For various reasons the Romantic habit of mind presents considerable difficulties to the current generation of college students. But, since writers like Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Emerson are highly relevant to our reading of the story of the fall, I usually need to devote quite a bit of time to acquainting my students with the historical context of the Romantic “high argument” and explaining the little we read of Wordsworth and Thoreau as part of an ambitious historical endeavor; namely, the effort of the Romantic generation to make sense of the fast-eroding Judeo-Christian religious tradition for the age of reason and science.[4] For my purpose, I often borrow M. H. Abrams’s eloquent words regarding this great historical endeavor: “Romantic writers . . . undertook to save the overview of human history and destiny, the experiential paradigms, and the cardinal values of their religious heritage, by reconstituting them in a way that would make them intellectually acceptable, as well as emotionally pertinent, for the time being.”[5] With such a historical perspective, naturally, I highlight the departure of the Romantic readings from traditional interpretations and try to help my students see how the new readings may “update” the ancient tale for us. I find this perspective also to be a gentle and quiet step towards forming the question, “After all, what is the truth of the story of the fall?” without actually asking it.

When we come to the Tao Te Ching, however, we have an antithetical situation as far as its relation to the Bible is concerned: there is absolutely no historical connection, and radical differences between the east and the west (to most of my students, the Bible is of the “west” regardless of its origin) are taken for granted. Consequently, I take a quite different approach in posing a question about the beginning of Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching:

The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly;

The whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.[6]

“Did we read something like this before?” I would ask in class. Rarely are my students able to recall the story of the fall from Genesis until I allude to the implication in the Biblical story that Adam and Eve’s being good—the condition for their staying in the Garden of Eden—is contingent on their not knowing what good is. I can see how puzzled, and then surprised, my students are by this unexpected convergence of the Biblical tale and the Taoist maxim since the latter, in foreign and abstract terms, points to an apparently unfamiliar paradox central to a story that is supposed to be thoroughly familiar to them. The point becomes clearer as we read on—

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;

The difficult and the easy complement each other;

The long and the short offset each other;

The high and the low incline towards each other;

Note and sound harmonize with each other;

Before and after follow each other.[7]

“You can’t know what is good unless you know what is evil, too,” some students would offer a comment at this point, coming to my help by resurrecting the Biblical phrase “knowledge of good and evil.” This is a moment I always want to celebrate, because cross-cultural reading helps me accomplish something for which I have striven so hard without much success so far: For various reasons—including the perception that knowledge is power and the belief that knowledge is the very reason why students are in the classroom—the idea of “falling into knowledge” is hard for my students to take in; “They fall into sin” or “They fall into evil” has been the characteristic response of my students to my question about the prepositional object despite my reiterations of the Biblical text directly relevant to this issue. But, now, reading a foreign text, they seem to be able to wrestle with the idea in cognitive terms and even to have begun to understand the coming-into-being, as well as the interdependence, of opposites, including that of good and evil, an idea that seems to have always been there in the scripture.

What, then, is the nature of the fall? By now, the “fall into knowledge” is no longer a question for my students. Instead, “what kind of knowledge” becomes the question. The Biblical story seems to indicate, at least on the surface, that it is moral knowledge, while the Tao Te Ching, with a short list of opposites, including “good” and “bad,” covers a much broader range. For the discussion to continue on this issue, my class does need some prompting. Usually, a couple of questions about Adam and Eve’s postlapsarian awareness of their own nakedness would be sufficient. Students would again recall their childhood experience and then turn to discuss the beginning of the sense of shame and the birth of self-consciousness. My contribution to this part of the discussion is usually a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.”[8] I may also follow with a question about possible opposites relevant to self-consciousness, and sometimes answers to this question as well, if the class is too quiet: “How about the self and the other? How about you and I?” I would say. “Without your sitting there as students and looking at me, I can’t see myself as a teacher.” By now, my class would be able to make a fairly philosophical conclusion about the fall, though from time to time they may still need my assistance for the wording of such a conclusion: it is a departure of the human mind from its early stage of feeling of things as an undifferentiated whole toward a more discriminating adult consciousness capable of conceptualization and self-reflection.

A comparative reading of the Biblical and the Taoist texts also makes us aware of certain cultural visions of universal significance that may not be readily available should we treat each text in isolation. A largely critical view of knowledge in both works, for instance, suggests an uneasy feeling regarding the movement of civilization away from the supposedly original natural state of things. Characteristic of such an attitude and more socially-oriented and more development-conscious than the beginning of Chapter 2 is a passage from Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching:

Hence when the way was lost there was virtue;

When virtue was lost there was benevolence;

When benevolence was lost there was rectitude;

When rectitude was lost there were the rites.

The rites are the wearing thin of loyalty and good faith

And the beginning of disorder;

Foreknowledge is the flowery embellishment of the way

And the beginning of folly.[9]

If one takes the Old Testament and the New Testament as a whole—which we actually do in the World of Ideas class, by reading selected passages from a number of books in the Protestant Bible—a much more elaborate vision of history faithful to such a sentiment may emerge. According to this vision, which many world cultures seem more or less to share, the simple life of the earliest times when the concept of virtue or the knowledge of good and evil was not even thought of is the bliss humans ever know; the life of the present badly in need of virtue is of an inferior kind, fallen from the original state; and, finally, the lost early history, projected as the golden age, will be restored in the distant future, and people will be happy ever after. While the Judeo-Christian view of history may have become a paradigm of this vision, the author of the Tao Te Ching shares the nostalgic feeling, embraces the imagined past as the ideal, but stops short of entertaining an apocalyptic vision of the future. The best Lao-zi hopes for an individual to achieve is no more than security, peace, contentment, and longevity of this life on earth, which he believes to be achievable if one is willing to follow the Tao, the natural course of things. For my teaching purposes, I am content simply to see that most of my students understand the differences between the otherworldly vision of Christianity and the earthiness of Taoism while some of them are able to recognize “Eden,” “Tao” (one of its meanings, as in “when the Tao was lost”), and “Golden Age” as different names for the same thing.

As we read the Biblical and the Taoist versions of the story of the fall side by side, I often hear students say “good and evil,” referring to the second line of Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching. Usually, I would take up this slip of the tongue—for it is indeed an interesting slip, since we have just done a fairly close reading of the translated text—and comment on the largely amoral approach to things of the author of the Tao Te Ching. I used the qualifier “largely” because the first two lines of the second chapter along with the passage I have quoted above from Chapter 38 do reflect the author’s moral concerns. Of the opposites listed in Chapter 2, however, “good” is the only moral term, and it is also the only term that does not have an antithesis—nothing like an equivalent of the English “evil” is given as the opposite of “good”; rather, at the end of the second line, the contrast to 善 (good) is 不善 (not-good), which D. C. Lau translates as “bad,” a cautious choice though not completely faithful to the original. One wonders if this exception to the rule may not be an indication that Lao-zi does not feel entirely comfortable with the idea “evil.” Moreover, Lao-zi’s view that the development of our aesthetic and moral consciousness is rather deplorable, a Taoist version of the human fall, which is expressed in the beginning two lines of Chapter 2, does not flow smoothly into the dialectic observations of the opposites in the next six lines in which he withdraws judgment. The tension is obvious, as even the title of the book may imply, with Tao (道, way) on the one hand and Te (德, virtue) on the other. Attempting to make Lao-zi’s argument more consistent, some translators, and scholars, too, actually try to interpret the beginning two lines of Chapter 2, “天下皆知美之为美,斯恶矣;皆知善之为善,斯不善矣,” in light of the lines that immediately follow, and represent beauty and ugly, likewise good and not-good, in a dialectic relationship interdependent of each other for existence.[10] But, in class, we do not go beyond D. C. Lau’s translation for such a coherent reading. Besides, my students usually enjoy struggling with ambiguities and tensions. Since we read many other passages in the Tao Te Ching, eventually they come to see Lao-zi more as a naturalist than a moralist and begin to wonder if this explains why the author of the Tao Te Ching tends to take a more philosophical and more this-worldly approach to the story of the fall while the Biblical vision, with the knowledge of good and evil as a point of departure, is remarkable for its moral passion and religious outlook.

Theoretically, especially in light of the Taoist text, we may go still further: What are good and evil (or good and not-good) anyway? Where do they come from? And, likewise, “something” and “nothing?” And high and low? Are they Platonic forms out there independent of human consciousness? Or are they a priori concepts genetic to the human mind? Or are they—as current academe has it—“constructs,” products of the linguistically-constituted, form-creating human subjectivity? If they are any of the above, especially if they are simply made up, then what further conclusions shall we draw on the story of the fall? I have all these questions down in my teaching notebook, but I have never offered to take my students beyond the conclusion we have drawn. Nor have I ever spoken directly of what I really think is the truth of the Biblical story and the Taoist maxim: For better or for worse, we fall into humanity. How simple! How clear! But I have decided to keep it to myself because I am afraid that in reaction to this revelation, some student might say, “Well, that’s what you believe.”


[1] William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, eds. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1941-1949), Vol. 4, pp. 279-285.

[2] William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, eds. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1941-1949), Vol. 1, pp. 259-263.

[3] Henry David Thoreau, “Life without Principle,” The writings of Henry David Thoreau, eds. Bradford Torrey and F. B. Sanborn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), Vol. 4, pp. 455-482.

[4] For the Romantic “high argument,” see William Wordsworth, “Prospectus to the Excursion,” The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, eds. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1941-1949), Vol. 5, pp. 3-6.

[5] M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 66.

[6] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. D. C. Lau (New York: Penguin, 1963), p. 6. Since I use the Lau translation in my class, I shall use the same text in this paper and make qualifications when necessary.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume III: Essays: Second Series, introduction and notes by Joseph Slater; text established by Alfred R. Ferguson and Jean Ferguson Carr (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 25-49.

[9] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. D. C. Lau (New York: Penguin, 1963), p. 45.

[10] For instance, in the beautifully printed, popular English version by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York: Random House, 1972), these two lines are translated as “Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. / All can know good as good only because there is evil.”

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