Anxiety and the Fall

Some years back for a course I was taking in psychiatry we were assigned to regularly visit a local mental hospital. The first and second floors were “day programs” and the third floor was the locked unit, for those not safe enough to be let out. I will never forget the intensity of the cigarette smoke: I’ve since learned that many schizophrenics self-medicate with nicotine. Also unforgettable was the look in the eyes of the many people wandering the bare rooms of the third floor. But for this post, I’d like to talk about what a psychiatrist had on a chalkboard in a side room for a group therapy session. It was a quote from Kierkegaard:

When it is stated in Genesis that God said to Adam, “Only from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat,” it follows as a matter of course that Adam really has not understood this word, for how could he understand the difference between good and evil when this distinction would follow as a consequence of the enjoyment of the fruit?

When it is assumed that the prohibition awakens the desire, one acquires knowledge instead of ignorance, and in that case Adam must have had a knowledge of freedom, because the desire was to use it. The explanation is therefore subsequent. The prohibition induces in him anxiety, for the prohibition awakens in him freedom’s possibility.

– The Concept of Anxiety, originally published June 17, 1844 by Soren Kierkegaard; quote from the 1980 English translation, p44, emphasis added on the chalkboard.

The insight that anxiety due to choice can pathologically be at the root of psychosis was the point of the group therapy discussion; but rather than discuss that, however, I’d like to focus on a number of ideas in Mormon thought that resonate with Kierkegaard’s insight. 

It’s worth noting that many books have been written about this topic, including an excellent one by BYU Professor John Tanner, Anxiety in Eden. It’s a whole book devoted to a Kiekegaardian reading of Milton’s take on the Fall, Paradise Lost. Well, it’s more than that; it’s a much more thorough exploration of Mormonism’s view of the Fall than I can survey here. You can read a sympathetic review [in html] [or pdf], but in my partial read so far, I’m impressed with the depth of thought that has gone on in this arena by Milton, Milton’s critics and supporters, Kierkegaard, and finally Tanner: discussions of a fall before the Fall — in other words, a decision to transgress, before the actual transgression — the real role of the Serpent/Satan, and how anxiety really might play a role, and so on.

To quickly highlight a few thoughts: this idea that the real source of tension and action in the Garden is the conflict between choice and obedience is very much in line with Mormon thought. We believe we are here to grow, and growth means choice between (opposing) options. But Kierkegaard has an explanation for how there could be both free will and predictability, a transition between anxiety and guilt.

Kierkegaard’s larger point was that just as this tension arose in the Garden, it arises in all of us. As a founder of existensialism, he put his finger on a tension/concern that atheists and religionists alike identify as universal to humans.  But Kierkegaard’s angst is a concept that our English word anxiety or dread does not fully capture. Tanner cites a journal entry of Kierkegaard’s from two years’ earlier to explicate: 

“Anxiety is a desire for what one fears, a sympathetic antipathy; anxiety is an alien power which grips the individual, and yet one cannot tear himself free from it and does not want to, for one fears, but what he fears he desires.” (p 30)

The story of the Fall puts the concept of choice — and starting to choose — right up front as a fundamental act in human history, and is emblematic of the same issues we all face. These are reasons the Fall is a central story, not only in mental illness, but in all of human activity. 

LDS thought very strongly supports the idea that Adam and Eve were sent to learn by their own experience good from evil. Lehi’s distinction about things that act versus get acted upon, the nearly omnipresent idea in the scriptures that we choose our own destiny by our actions — all these ideas resonate back and forth with the story of the forbidden fruit. I feel out of my league to really comment on these issues without putting some more time into both Milton and Kierkegaard. The depth of the debate over the years suggests that many minds have really struggled to explore these issues.

The ability of this story to encapsulate so many ideas that are fundamental to our conception of our world is one counter to Mogget’s speculation that the story of the Fall may not be integral (and I think there are other reasons as well, but I appreciate the challenge of demonstrating this, so thanks, Mogget).

I can’t help but point out that June 1844 is of course the month Joseph Smith was martyred, and the year that Nietzsche was born.

One last quote from Kierkegaard that again resonates with Mormon theology: “No Grand Inquisitor has in readiness such terrible tortures as has anxiety.” I don’t think most Mormons are eager to explore anxiety as a prime mover in the Fall: perhaps they prefer the deterministic view that everything was going according to plan at each step; perhaps anxiety strikes too close to home and it is too uncomfortable to talk about. Or it’s not optimistic enough. Perhaps the idea that God too is unhappy with some aspects of the way things go is too disturbing. But the general notion that anxiety — in the way Kierkegaard describes it, particularly — played a central role in the Fall and continues to play a central role in all of our lives is a thought that fits in well with my own observations as well as my reading of Mormon doctrine. It may be frightening to face, but ultimately it may best reflect reality.

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Filed under Bible, Doctrine, Mormon Studies

7 responses to “Anxiety and the Fall

  1. TT

    This is great! Thanks for illuminating this aspect of Kierkegaard. I find it to be a really refreshing view of existentialism. For me, the insteresting thing about this is that it makes even “good” choices fraught with this kind of fear/anxiety, such as the typical desiderata of Mormon life, including God and family. Lot’s to consider!

  2. sister blah 2

    [lovesick sigh] I heart FPR in a big way.

    Paradise Lost is an awesome book that changed my whole outlook on life. Sounds like I’ll have to buy Tanner’s book.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. Mogget

    Hiya, Secco!

    What I actually said was this:


    As I was lying in bed last night I was thinking that perhaps we had not played together very nicely in your sandbox. So here are some nice, chaste, Mogget kisses….

    TT is right, I am nudging you in the direction of contextualizing your readings. With respect to texts that highlight Eve’s gullibility and her precedence in the Edenic disobedience, I am gently nudging you in a specific direction. Why do we need to sort this story out so badly?

    I find myself less and less convinced that it plays an integral role in the gospel…

    So it’s not that the story of the Fall is other than central to many ideas, but more specifically about how we use certain parts of that story that deal with Eve.

    But don’t stop now! I’m a big Milton fan — I use it to teach certain ideas about the Fall — and I’m fascinated by the SK angle. It resonates, I think, with something written by a Jewish author that I will try to find and post in a bit.

  4. jupiterschild

    Secco, thanks for elaborating. The question of the relevance of these foundation myths is interesting to me, and you’ve pointed out ways that the etiological nature of Genesis 2-3 can be utilized in the exploration of human behavior and response. Kirkegaard is a favorite of mine because he seems to be able to discuss the human condition within the biblical matrix but not so as to be bound by it. He seems, more perhaps than any other modern commentator, to tap the same core phenomena around which these etiologies were built. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for the book reference. I’m surprised I missed that one.

    I understand why Kierkegaard might say this. I’m not sure it’s justified by the text. The more interesting question is over the degree Mormon hermeneutics makes use of Nephi’s particular kind of midrasic reading. That is would a Mormon seeing themselves as Adam or Eve experience this phenomena of anxiety. In the past I’ve said yes and have done my own deconstructive readings of the various fall texts (especially Lehi’s version). Now, I’m not so sure.

    On the one hand is Joseph’s idea of the Abrahamic test. And that is a test that seems specifically designed to produce anxiety in us. To test the strength of the relationship with God. I’ve long wondered if we should read the account of the fall in that light.

    The problem though is that I don’t think there’s much of a tension or anxiety in the contrast between choice and obedience. Where the tension pops up is either in our notions of right or wrong vs. obedience (what is often, if perhaps incorrectly, focused on in Lehi’s account) or our fundamental desires and obedience.

    The former, which is where I think most Mormons look (and where I used to focus) see the problem in more the spirit vs. the letter of the law and seeing God forcing a conflict such that we have to leave the letter. Thus Adam and Eve have one command (replenish) and an other (don’t eat the fruit). There is an unstated conflict. There are problems with that I won’t go into.

    The other is the idea of our ego vs God. (I don’t mean that in Freudian terms but I can’t think of a better term for the moment) That is what we have to sacrifice is our desires to reach an atonement with God. I like that idea better. But then in the fall story what we have is the exact opposite. De-at-onement or separation. This is supported by lots of metatexts on Adam and Eve in the Mormon tradition but precious few primary texts.

    There’s this weird tension in Mormonism, perhaps partially due to our Protestant and Catholic roots, where we’re never quite sure if we ought see the fall as a good thing or not. Certainly after the fruit is eaten and Eve becomes knowledgeable she sees it as a good thing. But that somehow is in tension with the text. And certainly we see it as a good thing – with the key difference being our death or at least the phenomena of having a move towards death.

    Which moves us perhaps away from Kierkegaard towards Heidegger’s use of the fall and his appropriation of Kierkegaard and the notion of anxiety.

  6. smallaxe

    Various conceptions of ‘anxiety’ seem to play a significant role in many of the word’s religious traditions. Building off of some of these alternative interpretations I wonder if one couldn’t see the injunction to ‘cleave unto Eve’ (sorry I don’t have the text in front of me) or to have ‘dominion over the earth’ as likewise sources of anxiety. In other words not simply an anxiety about one’s relation with God (in terms of obedience and/or freedom) but in terms of an inter-personal anxiety about the welfare of an ‘other’, be it either an other human being or the host of God’s other creations.

  7. CEF

    Hello Secco,

    Do you really think that we desire what we fear? Or is it more like we want to face our worst fears? That would help explain why so many people go to see movies like “Saw.” Some kind of innate sense of wanting to face what scares us the most. In a movie theater, we are in charge, we can cover our eyes, leave, or face our fear head on. What would I do if I were there?

    What kind of fear did Adam and Eve have? Don’t do this, or else! What really is death?
    Are Adam and Eve so different than the rest of us? Were they so afraid of death that they had to face it? I do not know.

    We have a neat old box that I named the “Original Pandora’s Box” with a sign on it saying, “What Ever You Do, Do Not Open This Box.” You guessed it, most people will open the box, even though they have been warned not to. Why? I think the unknown causes anxiety, and we naturally what to assuage that anxiety.

    I can see eternity/forever. It causes the worst fear I have ever felt. Makes me sick at my stomach. I have not allowed myself to see it for over seventeen years, and it was at least ten years before that, that I allowed myself to see it. And yet, there is a constant anxiety I deal with, wanting to be able to see it without fear. Something I would like to do before I die.

    As for the Eve thing, what else would we expect her to say. “Yea, I deliberately disobeyed Father in heaven.” Or, “The devil made me do it.” I know what I would say. :)