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.