Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn
– Final stanza of “Adam Lay Ybounden”
Years ago, back when we all still went to public libraries, I checked out a collection of Christmas carols performed by the Choir of King’s College. One of the most curious carols was the one linked above - a six-hundred year old English song by an unknown author, existing only in this manuscript.
The idea expressed by the writer was, to me, even stranger than the language: blessed be the Fall. Come to find out, it was a sentiment known as felix culpa, expressed fairly regularly within Christianity all the way back to the ancient liturgical text Exsultet:
O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem
O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer.
It has been worth all the suffering brought about by sin, these writers say, to experience the love of God manifested in the life of Jesus.
Back in February, I wrote about the Fall as the mythological rendering of human self-consciousness. When Adam and Even ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they acquired a discriminatory knowledge that separates into subject and object. This self-consciousness was the decisive break from the more-than-human world. Subject-object separation has moved humans from participants in the natural world, to observers, to manipulators, to, finally, a geological force capable of altering natural processes on a global scale, causing mass extinctions of nonhuman animals, and potentially destroying itself in any of several ways.
It is nevertheless true that, just as with the felix culpa in Christian theology, the destructive force of self-consciousness has brought a great deal of beauty into the world. Would art be possible if we were not able to somehow float free of natural processes, watching ourselves and others?
As Oliver Burkeman (quoting Heidegger) points out in Four Thousand Weeks, we do not have time - we are time. Our subjective experience is not that of grasping and manipulating time but of undergoing it. We do not know how nonhuman animals experience time (in fact, it may not be possible for us to know), but we experience it as beings constituted of story and memory. We connect our moment-by-moment experience through stories. These stories constitute our self-understanding.
This subjective experience of being time brings us some of our most exquisite moments of joy and pain. The joy of companionship with your beloved and your pain at their loss exist because you share a story together. In order to tell this story, you must be able to mentally separate you and your beloved as subject and object. Without this discriminatory knowledge, what meaning could love have?
And so, felix culpa. Our joy and pain, our creativity and our apocalypse arise from the same source. This is, in one sense, simply the way of nature. In our case, however, the stakes are very high.