As I look back over the past few years, I am dissatisfied with how I have been teaching the concept of sin in Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost. Invariably, it seems, my students just see sin as a matter of breaking an arbitrary set of rules handed down by the church (in Marlowe’s play) or by God (in Milton’s poem). Therefore, they tend to see Faustus as a heroic intellectual bucking established religion (think Galileo) and Eve as a heroic feminist bucking patriarchy. In these interpretations God comes off as narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, and (in Eve’s case) sexist. I try to argue that Marlowe and Milton are not against intellectual exploration but rather against people who use the intellect for selfish rather than for godly purposes. But I feel like I’m swimming against the tide and the journal entries that the students write—especially on Paradise Lost—are among the weakest they produce.
I think I have failed to do full justice to a central contradiction within the human experience that Marlowe and Milton are also wrestling with. That issue is dramatized by Eve’s punishment that she will experience pain during childbirth. (Note: I am particularly attuned to this issue at the moment given that my daughter-in-law Candice is in her 36th week.)
If humans experience a special kind of pain during childbirth it is because, unlike animals, they anticipate it and worry about it. This puts a whole new slant on how eating the fruit of knowledge leads to the punishment meted out to Eve:
Thy sorrow I will greatly multiplie
By thy Conception; Children thou shalt bring
In sorrow forth . . .
Seen anthropologically, what seemed to Milton and the authors of Genesis as a divine punishment is more of a description of what it means to be human. Because of consciousness, humans stand in a different relationship to creation, including to pain. Once we humans were set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, then our unique track was set. To apply Biblical language, that is what it means that we have inherited Adam’s “original sin.” Children may seem to be born innocent and sinless yet they inevitably develop this sense of separateness.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that there was no choice in the matter, no Adam and Eve choosing to eat the apple. Instead, they offer up a range of theories about how we evolved into consciousness. The Book of Genesis simply takes note of the fact that the shift happened. That’s the truth to be found in the story, not some literal apple and snake. Genesis also accurately notes the consequences of the shift, how it has led to good and evil, concepts not relevant to animals. Consciousness not only makes us aware of our suffering but leads us to deliberately cause suffering.
So here’s the tension I need to highlight when I teach Marlowe and Milton: intense curiosity, the desire to eat from the tree of knowledge, is integral to what makes us human. We identify with Faustus, Satan, and Eve because they want to push the boundaries. It’s important to affirm our attraction to their adventursome spirit.
But it’s important also to understand how curiosity such as theirs can go wrong. And the response is not to stop being curious and let established authorities like the church do our thinking for us. The answer is to ask ourselves what is the right use of our intellectual curiosity and what is the wrong.
When Milton says about the first two humans “he for God/she for God in him” and when he has Eve serving dinner and sleeping while Adam is being taught by angels (apparently Eve is supposed to be Martha, not Mary), then he is reflecting his culture’s gender hierarchy and his poem doesn’t have a lot to teach us today. But when he says that we can use our reason to move past the separation that consciousness has opened up, then we are getting some place interesting. In Christian terms, this involves calling upon the aid of Jesus so that we can open ourselves to God’s love and thereby possess “a Paradise within thee, happier far.”
Along these lines, Milton’s Adam notes that it is almost good that humans fell (this is the concept of “the fortunate fall”) because they can therefore see more fully, through Christ’s sacrifice, how much God loves us. We would not have realized this if we had stayed forever innocent.
Or using the non-Christian framework of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, we can move beyond “fallenness” that has us living as alien creatures in the natural world and instead experience the blissful sense of belonging to the unity of nature—a connection that is all the more powerful and joyful because, unlike animals, we have chosen it.
I think, then, when I teach the notion of sin in Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost in the future, I will focus more on sin as separation rather than as disobeying God. And I will start talking about turning back to God as a stepping into a different relationship to creation, whether we define that creation using religious language, general spiritual language, social language, or environmental language.
If I convey that God represents that sense of union, that overcoming of alienation, then we can move on to start talking about why God gets associated with rules and how it takes disciplined behavior will get us what we most desire. It’s a good conversation to have with people on the verge of adulthood.
I’ll report back in a year and let you know how it went.