Structures of Evil

Structures of Evil [Strukturen des Bösen] is Drewermann's first major work. Volume 1 (1977) is his doctoral thesis and the whole three-volume work is his post-doctoral thesis [Habilitation], that qualified him as a university teacher in theology. The work went through several editions, with additions in response to the feedback he received, and was published as a paperback special edition in 1988, in spite of being almost 2000 pages long. The work examines the Yahwist's primeval history (the Genesis stories of the garden of Eden, the 'Fall,' Cain and Abel, the great flood, and the tower of Babel).

Volume 1, subtitled The Yahwistic Primeval History, Viewed Exegetically, is more or less a commentary on the text.

Volume 2, subtitled The Yahwistic Primeval History, Viewed Psychoanalytically, explores the significance of each motif and symbol from Freudian and Jungian perspectives.

Volume 3, subtitled The Yahwistic Primeval History, Viewed Philosophically, aims to transform the mythical language of the primeval history into modern concepts, and to expresss its message in the language of philosophy. Kant, Hegel, Sartre, and Kierkegaard are pressed into service in this undertaking. It also contains a very important excursus analysing why early Christianity opposed pagan myths, when it was so positive about the pagan philosophy of Plato and others.

Traditionally, the story of the 'fall' has been the basis of the doctrine of 'original sin.' This doctrine barely makes rational sense and is not consistent with what we know from biology and evolution. Most modern theologians ignore or dismiss it. Drewermann sets the doctrine to one side, but brings together the best modern methods of interpretation to examine the stories and to explore their contemporary meaning and significance. His negative conclusions are as follows:

  • As mythical stories, they are not about what happened once long ago. They portray essential, general truth in the form of myth. "In the beginning" would be better translated "fundamentally, in principle," just as the proverb, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" would be better translated "The fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom."
  • They are not about disobedience. Eve was very keen to obey the commandment not to eat of the fruit.
  • They are not about rebellion, either, unlike the Greek story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods. The tower of Babel is better understood from the perspective of anxiety; we humans are like the frog that puffs itself up and makes like it is big and frightening, out of its own anxiety.
  • They are not about a fall from a higher level of being to a lower level. Traditional theology thought that humans began as immortals, a little lower than the angels, but became mortal at a level little above the animals.
  • The story of the 'Fall' should not be treated in isolation. It is part of a larger whole, a preface to the story of Israel, that weaves together mostly mythical stories that already existed in the surrounding cultures.

It is not so easy to explain Drewermann's understanding of these stories, but here is a very simplified and one-dimensional attempt. They are portrayals of how anxiety deforms human existence. People lose a sense of hold and security when anxiety takes over, and in their desire to obtain an absolute or metaphysical security, people only make things worse.

The snake with its wide open, devouring jaws is a symbol of nothingness, emptiness, and death. It cleverly twists God's words, alienating Eve from God, so that she experiences Him as heteronomous. It reassures her in her fear of death: "you will not die," in effect offering itself as savior. The result is that she eats of the forbidden fruit and indeed comes to know good and evil; the evil of alienation from nature and Cain's murder as well as the good of the garden of Eden.

Cain and Abel make offerings to God, attempting to get back that fundamental trust, that metaphysical security. But Cain's offering was not accepted; blessing seems to have become scarce beyond Eden. Life is a struggle to conquer the feeling of rejection and non-acceptance. Cain cannot rejoice in his brother's good fortune, but becomes uncontrollably angry and murders Abel. Now he is a fugitive and wanderer on the earth. Human existence becomes homeless when that metaphysical security is lost.

The humans try to maintain their unity by embarking on a grand project to build the Tower of Babel, which is to reach right up into heaven. This is a model of all political programs that rely on us all thinking the same. For them, unity is strength, but there's always someone who is excluded. The result of attempting to find metaphysical security in unity and conformity is dispersal and inability to communicate.

The primeval history is a catastrophic story of the inbreaking and spread of evil. It ends with no reassurance, no hope of improvement for humanity. A new chapter begins. It is not about humanity as a whole, but about a single people. It starts with God's calling of Abraham, and declares that in him all the peoples of the earth will be blessed. Faith in Israel's God will be a counter-movement to human tragedy as it is portrayed in the primeval history.

In response to the suspicions and the questioning of the snake, the woman in Genesis 3.3 attempts to remember the guidance of God exactly. She quotes word for word what God has said; but she can only repeat God's command within a feeling of intensified anxiety. Under the influence of anxiety, words that were originally intended to enable and protect, become words of alien demand and despotic restriction. ...And now it becomes apparent that with the best will in the world, a person cannot live when the sources of his life are poisoned by deadly anxiety

A "religion" whose relationship to God is characterized by anxiety makes it seem as if God and human face each other like abolute combatants. "God" is suspected of humiliating the human. The human must protect his worth by sweeping this God away and setting himself up as an absolute being.

Anxiety turns God's words into commands; it drives the human into opposition. Anxiety finally has him do what he initially (literally for God's sake) absolutely does not want to do. In the frenzy of anxiety there is no God any more, nor is there allowed to be. Now the human tries to change the contingency and the superfluousness of his existence through an excess of his own exertions, in order to achieve a certain necessity and justification for his existence. In this opposition and after the complete loss of God, he has to want to be like God, so that he can tolerate being a person.

...the more he strives to produce something absolutely valid, the more vehemently he will curse himself for only being a human being -"naked" and wretched, clothed in "fig leaves," the ancient symbol of death. He is a synopsis of creation and the more he puts himself in the place of God because of the intolerable fear of God, the more inextricable is the curse of being nothing other than a creature.

The Gospel of Mark I/13