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On Faustian Christianity: a fragment

September 17th, 2019 | 6 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

The following is a section that I added to my recent Front Porch Republic talk after I gave it. It’s going to appear in the published version but I decided it needed an independent existence. Think of it as a preview of coming attractions. 

Even orthodox Christians have often presented limits, the need for work, the world that pushes back against you, as the result of the Fall, and they likewise tend to present politics itself as a postlapsarian thing. Adam and Eve lived in a world of infinitely effective will, they seem to think, and an apolitical world; we will return to that world in the New Jerusalem. 

But this is false. Humans, as long as they are human, have limits– and first, the fundamental boundary of the skin that says “This is me, and that is the world.” And it was before the Fall that God gave Adam and Eve their charge, the mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. Even before the Fall, there was work to do, productive and creative work, the human work of culture and agriculture. 

This is a subtly different vision of the world than the classical vision. “Fundit humo facilem victum justissima tellus–” “The infinitely kindly earth pours forth an easy sustenance,” says Virgil, of the Earth in the age of Saturn; “before [the age of] Jove,”

nulli subigebant aura coloni:
ne signare quidem aut partiti limite campum
fas erat; in medium quarebant, ipsaque tellus
omnia liberius nullo poscente ferebat1

Or, to quote the hymn to Persephone which another poet puts in the mouth of Orpheus,

Liba Apolloni fructibus Telluris
nil quam spirare redditor petitum
cepisse vita solum credidisse
   nutriat Ceres

Aderit horno nobis messis satis
cratera abundat cuique terra cordi
cupiditate nisi rapta vero
   copia cornu 2

In that prelapsarian earth, Virgil thought, there was simply not much to do. There was nothing to be conquered, nothing to be tamed: all was tame enough already. It was, after all, Arcadia. The only culture needed was, perhaps, a young man with a lyre. And there was no need for boundaries or for the imposition of the will of man. In the Saturnine earth, in other words, there were no economics, and no politics. It was only after the Fall– after the conquest of the Titans by the Olympians– that

pater ipse colendi
haud facilem esse uiam uoluit, primusque per artem
mouit agros, curis acuens mortalia corda
nec torpore graui passus sua regna ueterno. 3

The necessity to cultivate, and name, came as the result of the Fall: Jove “shooed from the leaves their honey, put fire away, and curbed the random rivers running wine” in order that man would

ut uarias usus meditando extunderit artis
paulatim, et sulcis frumenti quaeraret herbam,
ut silicis uenis abstusum excuderet ignem.
Tunc alnos primum fluuii sensere cauatas;
nauita tum stelles numeros et nomine fecit:
Pleiadas, Hyadas, claramque Lycanois Arcton.4

The Silver Age, engraving after originals by Jean-Jacques François Le Barbier (1739–1826), Nicolas André Monsiau (1754–1837), and Jean-Michel Moreau (1741–1814).

The Christian (and Jewish) vision is almost shockingly different. For the Biblical authors, and for the tradition, the marks of human rule and human culture are in principle not only phenomena of the postlapsarian world. The names of animals (and of stars?), Roman roads and Abbasid maps, Petra and Heliopolis, Grand Central Station and the Hofburg, novels and songs, vineyards instead of merely wild grapes – these are, or could be, a working out of the original world-smithing project. Work itself is not a curse. Sure, Adam and Eve didn’t actually get to much of this, pre-Fall. But they would have. The task was already at hand, God’s gauntlet already thrown down.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865

It’s true that in the postlapsarian Earth, for Adam’s sons, it is not just hard work that conquers the world, but what Virgil called “labor… impropus et duress urgent in rebus egesta”—  “unrelenting toil, and want that pinches when life is hard.” But even before the Fall, there was a quest. Even before the Fall, there was political rule: of God as High King over Adam and Eve; of Adam over Eve; and by Adam and Eve as viceregents over the created order, with letters of marque and reprisal to bring that unexplored wilderness to heel, to make it more fruitful according to its nature, to make it become itself.

Even before the Fall, there was a world to win. After the Resurrection, as we begin to live out now our lives as redeemed men and women, it is this task that we are still called to carry out: culture and agriculture, exploration and discovery, adventure and risk, a political and historical mission in a world that — thank God!– pushes back. 

And, presumably, when the New Heavens and the New Earth are inaugurated, we will continue to have this task. Astonishingly, what has been called the Faustian spirit of man (not, as Spengler thought, of European man) seems to find a place in the God of Abraham’s original and unthwarted intent for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.