Saturday, February 28, 2015

TOB: What is original solitude?

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We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

As I wrote in my first post on this topic, John Paul II’s TOB is often looked at solely in terms of what it has to say about sex and marriage. This is not without warrant—indeed, John Paul II placed a great deal of emphasis on marriage and the family during his papacy—but if looked at only in this light, we miss the bigger picture. Man and Woman He Created Them is about, in the simplest terms, what it means to be human—a bodily creature who comes from and responds to God.

This method of theological anthropology is evident from the beginning of TOB, After John Paul II sets up the starting point for his reflections—that is, Jesus’ insistence that we return to “the beginning” in his dialogue with the Pharisees about divorce—the pope introduces the three “original experiences” based on the creation accounts in Genesis. These three experiences—solitude, unity, and nakedness—all help us understand what it is to be both spirit and body. What does it mean to be in the material world but not entirely of it? There is more going on in TOB than thoughts on what conjugal love is and means.

This is reinforced by John Paul II’s reflections on the first of the three original experiences -- original solitude. Though in the first creation account, male and female appear simultaneously (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” Gen 1:27), this is not the case in the second creation account. Instead we are presented with Adam, the first human, whose name means something like “humanity.” John Paul II is careful to note that in this second account, the worlds “male” and “female” (‘is and ‘issah in the original Hebrew) do not appear until there are two. I’ll talk about this more when I address original unity, but for now we’ll give our attention to the solitary Adam.

John Paul II explains the experience of original solitude in terms of man’s place and situation in the world—man is neither animal nor pure spirit.  As both, man is above the rest of the creatures. The first indication of this superior place in the created world is the directive about the garden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Work, then, helps set humanity apart from everything else in this world; man is the only creature with the capacity to care for what has been created—to receive it, we can say, as a gift. This receptivity and capacity to work, then, is a first step in thinking about original solitude.
"For to be a farmer's boy" by Winslow Homer is in the Public Domain

Another indication of man’s being set apart is the naming of the animals: “out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them” (Gen 2:19). This too is a form of dominion—to name something is to see and understand its essence; no other creature in the world has been given this task and privilege.

Though this multi-faceted dominion is clearly a gift for and to man, making it clear that the earth is for him, it also sets the man apart in such a way that it’s not entirely clear to whom or what he belongs. By tilling the garden and naming the animals, it is evident that though Adam has a material body like the rest of creation, there is something more in him as well. Obviously the question of belonging becomes clearer when Eve is created from Adam’s rib, but we should not pass too quickly over original solitude, as, for John Paul II, it is the key to other original experiences.

John Paul II draws our attention to a third dimension of human existence that occurs before the original unity of male and female: “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it, you shall die’” (Gen 2:16-17). John Paul II asks this question of the passage: “could man, who in his original consciousness knows only the experience of existing and thus of life, have understood what the words ‘You shall die’ mean?” (7th Catechesis). Put another way: how could Adam understand death as death has not yet entered the world?

We tend to glide over this question because of our familiarity with these passages. But if the commandment about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil can hold any weight, so to speak, with Adam, then he must have at least some sense of the consequence the Lord gives him. What can this mean?

John Paul II writes: “The words of God-Yahweh addressed to the man confirm a dependence in existing, so that they show man as a limited being and by his nature, susceptible to nonexistence.” In other words, because man is a creature, nonexistence is constitutive to his very being. Though it is somewhat unfathomable, we all know with certainty that there was a time when we were not. This is the situation of the creature.

Thus the commandment, though often viewed in negative terms (likely because we transgressed it and pay the price), is actually also a gift in line with the other directives of keeping the garden and naming the animals: it allows man to know his place in relation to the world and God, in short, it gives him the capacity to know what he is—a creature.

This, then, is the main thrust of original solitude: that man can rest in the knowledge that he is a creature, and not just a creature, but also one to whom God speaks. The original experience of solitude secures our knowledge of our selves in this world, that each person is created for his or her own sake by God, who gives the world to man as a gift.

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