Filosofilsamtal 2022

Måndagen den 4 april

Om skapelse och uppenbarelse i Schellings filosofi

Clara Berg, doktorand i systematisk teologi, CTH Lund



Samtal 28 februari


Care against death
by Mårten Björk


The word catastrophe comes from the Greek words kata, down, and strephein, turning, and originally signified the sudden and final event which brings a play to a close. 


The katastrophḗ was in the Greek drama the dramatic resolution of the plot after its beginning, protasis, development, epitasis, and its climax, catastasis. “The catastrophe,” Aristotle writes in his Poetics, "is an action bringing ruin and pain on stage, where corpses are seen and wounds and other similar sufferings are performed." But, more importantly, with this catastrophe the meaning, or sense, of the drama is sealed. 


The catastrophe is an event that overturns a stable order, and even if it was not until the eighteen century that the English word catastrophe was extended to imply a sudden natural disaster, becoming a concept for events outside the world of drama and plays, it was still originally used for describing a disastrous occurrence in a play. But it was a disaster with sense, a tragic and dramatic sense, since tragedy is the catastrophe that gives meaning to a life or to a sequence of events by concluding it catastrophically. In sharp contrast to the Greek tragedy, which thus culminates in the revealing sense of the catastrophe, stands the biblical myth of the primordial fall as told in Genesis. For Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the catastrophe is not an end concluding an existence by giving it a sense but the original cataclysm of the fall out of Eden. 


The fall reveals, as the theologian Paul J. Griffiths argues, that the world is a form of devastation, “The principle signs of the world’s devastation are death (of animate creatures), annihilation by destruction (of inanimate ones), pain and suffering (for animate creatures), and chaotic decay-toward-destruction (of inanimate ones).”  Beauty, happiness and justice remains, Griffiths writes, but “for the most part, the world appears to human creatures as it is: a charnel house, saturated in blood violently shed; an ensemble of inanimate creatures decaying towards extinction; a theatre of vice and cruelty.” But at the same time, it is important to remember that life in itself is not catastrophic if we believe the story of the fall. Life is originally an uncatastrophic order, which becomes catastrophic through the hubris of Adam and Eve. And here we see the difference to the Greek drama; the catastrophe described as the fall is not something that gives meaning at the end. The catastrophe is what commences life as we know it and the end is the promise of a non-catastrophic order. The sense and meaning of life is, so to speak, the catastrophe of the fall.


The Abrahamic traditions oscillate between a tragic and comic sense of the catastrophe. The catastrophe is on the one hand a generalised tragedy engulfing life as such, since the tragedy of existence is not revealed at the end but at the beginning. On the other hand, the idea of the fall is tied to a conception of temporality as something that moves existence towards an end of this original cataclysm. The sense of the end, viewed from the comic perspective of the Abrahamic traditions, is the recapitulation of the non-catastrophic promise of the origin in a new form. It is a happy end, a comic cancellation of the tragical farce of the fall. Thus, it is not strange that a strong tradition in Christianity, from Ambrose of Milan to G.W. Leibniz, describes the primordial cataclysm as a happy fall, a felix culpa, since the violence and destruction constituting the normality of the postlapsarian existence according to this tradition signifies the possibility of a fundamentally non-catastrophic end. 


This does not necessarily lead to a stoic acceptance of the violence of the world before the eschaton, the end, even if this certainly has been motivated by all the Abrahamic traditions and the civilizations that have their roots in these so-called religions. The myth of the fall can also be an endeavour to designate how one should develop a life form here and now against those forces that the myth of the fall denaturalizes. The violence and catastrophes of the world are from this perspective inherently irrational, and they only have a sense if they can disappear. The only acceptable meaning of the death, destruction and decay characterizing animate as well as inanimate existence in the fallen world are, from the lenses of the myth of the fall, their end. The story of the fall has therefore always been connected to the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the promise of eternal life. Church Fathers such as Origen and Irenaeus developed doctrines of the recapitulation of all things at the eschaton, and said that the end draws the cosmos in its totality out of the fall and moves it towards something, which philosophers today perhaps would designate as the singularity.   


The idea of the felix culpa has in the history of ancient and modern Christianity been related to the Abrahamic ideas of the election and the covenant, and to the promise God gives to his people so that they can, as Oskar Goldberg writes in Die Wirklichkeit der Hebräer, live contra naturam. This life against nature is not a life against creaturely existence as such, but against the political and biological forces moulding it to a being enslaved by death, sickness and aging or what the Abrahamic traditions call sin. Like premodern and mythical thought in general, the story of the fall is impossible to understand accurately if we consider it from the divisions between culture and nature, history and morality, politics and economy, which we take for granted today. Biblical thought is to some extent close to what Claude Levi-Strauss calls pensée sauvage since death in the Bible is not primarily or solely a natural phenomenon. It is a political and ethical disaster, in other words it is a sin, and immediately related to how we humans organize our daily existence. 


The human species as a race of animals gifted, through the fall, with the strange capacity to differentiate between right and wrong as well as good and evil, can decide to reproduce the sin of the original catastrophe or to wrest itself out of its grip and thus be part of that messianic recapitulation, describe Origen and Irenaues in their exegesis of the Bible. The species can, as the Hassidic tradition of Jewish thought teaches, be part of the tikkun olam, the mending of the world, or live on in the state of the world that the revelation has disclosed as an existence in sin. And if sin first and foremost is the decay and destruction of inanimate things, and the death of living beings, be they animals or plants, then one could argue, with the help of the palaeontologist Peter Ward, that sin is the discovery that "[l]ife itself, because it is inherently Darwinian, is biocidal, suicidal, and creates a series of positive feedbacks to Earth systems (such as global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane content) that harm later generations." It is multicellular life, understood as a superorganism that thrusts itself into decay and destruction, which reveals life to be inherently catastrophic. It is important to understand that this implies that Darwinian life produces temporal instability undermining its own capacity for reproduction by immanently producing catastrophes that can become enormous. Two of many examples which Ward uses to illustrate his case of the suicidal tendency of life is the release of microbial-triggered extinctions, such as the oxygen catastrophe 2.7 billion years ago, and the Great Dying, 252 million years ago, which was a hydrogen sulphide driven mass extinction killing 90 to 96 % of all species. Life as such is prone to death and destruction. But interestingly enough, Ward thinks that there is something special with humans. When the human species comes to the scene an animal ascends that not only accelerates the destructive traits of the evolution, which it certainly does through the anthropocene, at the same time the capacity to conceptualize the danger of extinction that life immanently leads to arises, "We humans have the odd distinction of being the only ones that either know or care, and it remains to be seen if we will stave off planetary extinction or hasten its onset." It is this odd distinction that, at least from an evolutionary perspective, makes it possible to define humankind as what the Jewish philosopher Erich Unger has called a "turning point in the order of nature", which potentially can live against nature, Gegen die Natur, in the sense that humankind can, so to speak, care against death.


The myth of the fall is from such a perspective not a legitimization of the misery of death, destruction and violence inherent in all Darwinian life but an anthropotechnics suggesting how life should be lived contra naturam even before the end of the fall. This strange ability to care for the dead, and care against death, is certainly part of the slave revolt of morality which Friedrich Nietzsche diagnoses and aims to save humanity from by declaring the innocence of life. But life, and perhaps especially human life, is not innocent to the destruction and extinction immanent to its evolution and reproduction. The myth of the fall is a description of the human condition as an existence inherently in need to take responsibility for its debt to all life, and it expresses the hope that humanity can flee all the catastrophes its compassionate parts witness in death and destruction of both animate and inanimate creatures. The fall of humanity is therefore not an actual history of what once happened. It is a mythical endeavour to make sense of the history of humankind, which clearly is tied to the violence and destruction of life at the same time as it expresses the happiness all creaturely life reveals in its moments of joy. These almost messianic instances of joy are enmeshed in the brutality of life, proven by the simple fact that the pleasure of eating comes at the cost of death and destruction. But at the same time these instances of happiness give rise to the strange speculations of a non-catastrophic life that became so important for the groups in the Middle East depicted in the Bible as life forms that through prayers, myths and hope attempted to live against the brutality of society and nature and overcome death. These and other odd distinctions in the life of our species point to an existence breaking with the forces of production and reproduction that the German Catholic theologian Erik Peterson traces in his exegesis of the nature of the fall:


Reproduction is without sense, like ‘life’ itself . . . The paradise trees do not reproduce themselves. God has created the tree of life, but not its reproduction. In fact, the reproduction is done outside the paradise. Not ‘the life’ but only ‘the eternal life’ has a meaning. According to the Bible, a very transparent sense is attributed to life after the fall: the work for the man and the birth for the woman. As if the chain of births could replace eternal life! Or as if work could kill the memory of paradise in us!


These harsh words from a father of five children should not be understood as a form of Gnosticism, as if creation as such is evil, but as a reminder that from a Christian perspective, humanity is fallen into a life of birth and work, and all civilizations and empires are part of the fallen world and not symbols for the life of God. But, at the same time, as the imago dei humankind is rooted in a life, which can only be known analogically, or perhaps negatively, in its eschatological unfolding of the end of the world that is also its origin, namely, the Edenic order which will be recapitulated at the resurrection. It is not an exaggeration to state that Peterson searches for a life beyond production and reproduction, beyond the state that animal and vegetative life find outside the walls of paradise according to his interpretation of the myths in Genesis. Life here and now is not life but a form of death. Peterson claimed already in the 1920’s that theology, and especially natural theology, never should contribute to the glorification of life and the body in the vein of the popular Lebensphilosophie. The path of Lebensphilosophie is closed for theology, “Every absolutisation of the concept of life attempts to take the glory from God and the shame from the humans . . . We can never forget that our lives will be destroyed by death, that we are taken from life by the fall.” It is the whole cosmos, all life and death, which has sinned and is in need of righteousness in order to be able to break free from the catastrophe of the fall that curses women to be mothers and men to be fathers. No part of the cosmos can escape this judgement, and all natural theology must begin from this state of sickness and death. Peterson writes:


Only in contemporary theology has it become customary to make life, experience, irrationalism the starting-point of the theological thought. This seems to me a disastrous mistake. When we begin from ourselves, only our misery, our death, our ratio can be our starting-point, only then can the theorems of natural theology give the foundation for the propositions about revelation.


These words from 1922 are not only the words from a disillusioned veteran from the First World War. It is also the statement from a theologian who argues that anthropology, and even biology, are attempts not only to objectively state what the human is––perhaps a dangerous animal as a conservative philosopher as Carl Schmitt would argue, or a metabolic carbon based process with the power to reproduce itself––but also to give an implicit or explicit suggestion of how one should live. The myth of the fall exposes the normality of birth and labour, death and finitude, as something constructed and artificial. It makes the speculative wager that the world of production and reproduction, birth and labour which the fall instigates and which we from the viewpoint of Genesis can trace to Abel's murderer is nothing but an on-going catastrophe threatening life itself. 


Cain, the first farmer and murderer in history, is also the builder of the first civilization, Enoch, where the human species dwells as a race doomed to labour and birth. The postlapsarian Homo Sapiens is a Cainite species, an animal that, as Karl Marx argues in his Economics and Philosophical Manuscripts from 1844, humanizes nature and, as we know today, changes the Earth's crust to the point that it becomes increasingly unliveable for whole species of creatures. As long as human life is fixated on the dialectic between production and reproduction, work and birth, and constituting human history as a cycle of civilizations culminating in greater and greater disasters, the catastrophe, Peterson states, will be the condition of possibility for human existence. And no political action can by itself free humanity, and thus nature, from this precondition if it does not at the same time aim for something of a biological revolution moving our species out of its Darwinian prison. The primordial catastrophe, the fall, grounds not only the political history of humanity but also the biological life of the human race, and thrusts the whole cosmos to which it belongs, into the postlapsarian existence that Griffiths baptises as the devastation and which Ward describes as a Darwinian life. 


Peterson searches for a non-catastrophic life by using the myth of the fall to state the speculative question if it is possible to discern a life beyond the ideas of production and reproduction. Such an existence is also beyond the division of sex that Peterson, in accord with a long tradition, traces to the fall. Peterson is certainly no feminist. In his lectures on Paul’s epistle to the congregation in Rome, he stresses that Christ is male, and that humanity is saved through an exemplar of our species equipped with a penis, “While the male is fallen we can also only be saved through a male. Christ has not only become human, but also male”. And in “What is Theology?” from 1925, he makes clear that “the seduction of Eve was subordinated to the fall of Adam”. This is important, since it is not Eve, here symbolised as the woman, but Adam, the male member of humankind, who, as Peterson states, commits a sin. Eve, as Peterson writes, can only give birth to sinners while Adam can produce sin and death, in so far as, “he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image” (Gen 5:3), that is in death and sin. Peterson claims that “first through the fall of the man the reproduction [Fortpflanzung] of sin has arisen”. Even though he in 1949 questions if Adam should be described as male, he argues in the 1920’s that Eve, the woman, is only tempted, whereas Adam, the man reproduces the sin that the woman carries in her life and womb as the curse of birth. This leads the conservative Peterson to argue that the man is the head of the woman before the eschaton, but he also states that the curses on their genitals, what he calls pure functionality, is undone through the life of Christ. Christ, as a male who renounces marriage, and who according to the myth is born of a virgin, liberates male and female from the chains of nature, revealing a life beyond the empire of flesh that the fall instigates. The promise of a non-catastrophic life that Christianity entails is, for Peterson, a strange reality where the genitals of men and women either have disappeared or at least been deactivated and robbed from all reproductive sense. 


After the Second World War, Peterson revealingly writes that the church should never bless cannons or matrimonies, since these are parts of the biopolitical structure of the modern national state which needs arms and children (soldiers). And by returning to the ideals of asceticism, celibacy and virginity, in an epoch when family, motherhood and natality had moved to the centre of politics, Peterson’s theology becomes a critique of his time. Theodore Roosevelt writes as early as 1905 that the men and women who refuse reproduction merit “contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle, or upon the man who refuses to work for the support of those dependent upon him.” Benito Mussolini implements “a bachelor or celibate tax on unmarried men to found some of his pronatalist programs,” and Adolf Hitler imposes pro-matrimonial policies by providing loans for men who were engaged to be married. In contrast, Peterson declares that the life of the Christian cannot be found in any sphere of human existence but in the participation in eternal life that the resurrection has revealed for the baptised to be the truth for humanity. This is not a non-erotic life, since eroticism not even in the fallen state needs to be centred on genital intercourse, and it is not even a life where the happiness of children is forbidden. But it is a life that questions if reproduction, be it a biological, metabolic reproduction, or an economical reproduction of the empires of the world, is the meaning of life. 


To be human is not to be a Homo faber, or to partake in the creation of civilization on the Earth’s crust, but rather to reveal that there exists an exteriority, something else, and more, than everything that can be named and understood with the categories of nature, history and even ontology. Life is the eternal life of God, and not the Darwinian life that the fall initiates, Peterson argues, for “[w]hen the Christians think about life, then they are thinking of the eternal life of God, of the gift of the life of Paradise or the revealed life in Christ, and when they are thinking of death, then they are thinking of death as the expulsion from Paradise, of the death as the pay of sin, of the death of Christ.” Life and death are cosmological, and therefore, political concepts that for Peterson reveal the metaphysical status of biological nature as something in need to be chastened, in others words uprooted from death, and changed. From Peterson’s mythological conception of reality, moral and metaphysical questions cannot be separated from their real and positive existence in being. Sin is not primarily a moral category but an objective fact of death and thereby a part of the concrete world as the loss and horror that every death means, from the perspective of the creature gifted with compassion, in the development of the cosmos. 


The grammar of the fall is not necessarily related to the language of Christianity which Peterson spoke, but it reveals that the conditio humana is a political condition. It shows that the guilt of all human life is its participation in the universal community, which, if we believe Ward, both accelerates the tendency to destruction immanent to Darwinian life and has the odd distinction to care against death. The catastrophe is not the fall of the order. It is the fall into the order of Darwinian life and implemented as a form of natural destiny since all life dies and all events have an end. Thus, the tragedy of existence is not the catastrophe that throws a noble man or woman, or a whole society into chaos and disarray, as it was in the Greek drama. The tragedy is that humanity still is bound to the dialectic between reproduction and production, birth and labour, upholding the division of classes and sex, which from this perspective is anything but natural. Not even death is, if we listen to the story of the fall, a natural phenomenon. It is surely part of the nature of the world, and something we certainly cannot free ourselves from, but it is still possible to hope that even death will end, since we who are alive can care against death and live in a community with the dead through the living hope of their resurrection. 






Filosofisamtal  2020 - 2021


Tisdag 5 oktober kl 19.30

Elena Namli professor i teologisk etik Uppsala universitet



Tisdag 3 november kl 19.30

Mårten Björk, doktor i teologi och religionsvetenskap, Research fellow vid Campion Hall, Oxford universitet

artikel av Mårten Björk:

Care against death: life and catastrophe