The sins of our fathers

Last time I wrote about the “Hobbit”, the small hominid who descends from an ancient line but survived to be a contemporary of homo sapiens. Another contemporary of ours was the Neanderthal, also not thought to be a direct ancestor, but surviving – according to the most recent study – until 37,000 years ago. Homo sapiens has been around for 195,000 years. Neanderthals, and our probable ancestor homo erectus, show evidence of intelligent and imaginative life, together with a capacity for artistic expression and abstract symbolism.

This presents us with a modern-day version of the difficulty of reconciling the story of the six days of creation with science. While we solved that, we are still faced with the question of our descent from Adam, the generation of Eve and Original Sin. And in looking at these issues we are looking at matters so fundamental to our faith that the Magisterium has frequently put us on warning against attacking their historical reality. To take just one prominent theme, we teach that sin came into the world through one man, and so did redemption from sin. We must suppose that Paul, and indeed Jesus (in his human nature) assumed the biblical account to be factually true.

But a cat may look at a king, and I – who write with no authority and so can be safely ignored – can allow myself the luxury of a little speculation.

Just what are the essentials here? Man has a spiritual soul which is directly created by God; in some way which we do not understand that soul was infused into a hominid sufficiently evolved to receive it. We call this hominid man, and we distinguish him from the lower animals by his capacity for abstract thought, his free will and his moral sense.

Man, being a creature, has no innate right to be in relationship with God. And all our experience confirms his strong tendency to turn away from God and do evil. He inherits this tendency just as he inherits his humanity. In order to enter into relationship with God he must, directly or indirectly, accept redemption by Christ – which is always on offer.

If we limit ourselves to these essentials – and space obliges me to be brief in my listing – we can approach a number of questions which may trouble us.

There is no difficulty in maintaining that man was descended from one original couple, but it would seem that this couple lived nearly 200,000 years ago. And if we think that homo erectus may have had the essential qualities of a soul, it could be two million years before that.

The generation of Eve from Adam’s rib is of course possible to an omnipotent God, but, by human judgment, unlikely. Sexual reproduction, with its enormous evolutionary advantages, had been established for at least two billion years. So we might wonder why God found it necessary to make an exception. That wonder is increased by the thought that, since the distinguishing Y chromosome can be properly described as a de-natured version of the female X chromosome, it would be more likely that Adam would have been formed from Eve.

Original Sin, as a doctrine today, was formulated by St Augustine. It evolved from earlier Patristic ideas, and incorporated, somewhat unfortunately, a key mistranslation of St Paul. The story of the Fall has been deeply explored by the theologians and many fundamental understandings, as well as conundrums, have emerged. I am content to regard it as an inspired story full of spiritual truth: a mystery to be fruitfully mined.

What I can see is that the first man, given his moral sense and free will, immediately chose to sin. And this proneness to turn inwards to our selfish selves instead of outwards toward God and our neighbour is, with just two exceptions, a universal inheritance. It is rightly called “original” because it was with us from the first, and will be with us until we die. Even the personally innocent, such as the infant or the mentally handicapped, having human natures, inherit this tendency although they cannot express it.

It is part of human nature insofar as we share the essentially selfish nature of the non-human animal with the essentially spiritual aspect of our humanity. Indeed, it was Paul himself who most graphically wrote about the tension between these two warring aspects of our nature. Should we doubt the existence of Original Sin we only have to look momentarily into ourselves to find it.

So I would suggest that here we are talking about a story or a myth in the full sense of expressing deep truths within the conventions and the comprehensions of the time. It does not surprise me that the people of the New Testament were able to grasp the essential spiritual truths though the medium of what they understood to be literal history. We, who following Augustine’s own advice, aim not to cause scandal by using interpretations which others can see are plainly contradicted by the facts, must be ready to review our understanding when new knowledge becomes available. Provided that the new understanding does not derogate from the spiritual meaning of the old, and may indeed give us further insights, we have nothing to fear – at least in exploring it.

New interpretations have always been uncomfortable, as Galileo found out. But should they stand the test of theological examination and receive the blessing of the Church, they guide us towards the  deeper understanding of truth in which, we are promised, the Holy Spirit guides us. So this is an opportunity to explore this question, and to tell me I am talking bunkum if you wish.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The sins of our fathers

  1. Superview says:

    In an exploratory frame of mind, although as ever grateful for his invaluable scene-setting, I am not so settled as Quentin (“What I can see is that the first man, given his moral sense and free will, immediately chose to sin.”) on the ability of the first couple of humankind to knowingly and wickedly so offend Almighty God that they and all their descendants would be justly punished forever; forever, that is, unless and until Almighty God, at some point tens of thousands of years in the future, sent his only Son to suffer and to die to redeem the teeming billions of humankind in that future. On the contrary, I feel there is something intuitively dissonant about this.

    Because it is a central doctrine to Roman Catholicism (most specifically), and I am a Roman Catholic, I go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for illumination:

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM

    This is what it says:

    “” Original sin – an essential truth of the faith

    388 With the progress of Revelation, the reality of sin is also illuminated. Although to some extent the People of God in the Old Testament had tried to understand the pathos of the human condition in the light of the history of the fall narrated in Genesis, they could not grasp this story’s ultimate meaning, which is revealed only in the light of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We must know Christ as the source of grace in order to know Adam as the source of sin. the Spirit-Paraclete, sent by the risen Christ, came to “convict the world concerning sin”, by revealing him who is its Redeemer.
    389 The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the “reverse side” of the Good News that Jesus is the Saviour of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. the Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.

    How to read the account of the fall

    390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. “”

    I have read these paragraphs repeatedly, and, without wishing to “tamper” with anything (definition: to meddle or interfere with) what I understand of them is that we need to believe that some primeval human beings personally committed the most terrible sin creation has ever witnessed, in order to explain why God’s only Son had to become incarnate, suffer and die, and was resurrected. I wonder if, without this umbilical link, original sin could stand independently as a doctrine? It feels to me that there is a sense of desperation about clinging to it in the light of the acceptance now of the non-literal interpretation of Genesis, after two thousand years of believing otherwise, and the knowledge we have of the origins of humankind.

    In paragraphs 396 – 390 the Catechism deals with original sin under the heading ‘Freedom put to the test’. I would gladly paste it in but at cost of undue length to these comments. So I summarise:
    Paragraph 396 covers the prohibition against ‘the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil’ and I have always found this to be enigmatic. Surely humankind’s thirst for knowledge and understanding is laudable, to say the least? Without it we would be still in caves, and not have made the advances in understanding evolution, or the cosmos, or DNA, or the atomic and sub-atomic world, or medicine, to name but a few (and to note with sadness the obstacles to progress that the Church has placed in all these spheres).
    Paragraphs 397 –399 develop the indictment of ‘Man’s first sin’. He let trust die in his heart, abused his freedom, he preferred himself to God, he scorned God, and wanted to be like God. All this from eating a figurative apple?

    Finally, I have to quote again paragraph 400, because it reveals so much about the mindset of those who wish to persuade me/us/the world that what they speak is the truth:

    “”400 The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history. “”

    In another sphere I would recognise this as journalistic licence. If this is the best case to be made, it is disappointing to find that the grounds for my belief are so insecure.

  2. Superview, I don’t know whether this is going to help or not – but you do give me a hook on which hang a fuller explanation of the mistranslation to which I referred. It’s our old friend Romans 5/12. And I rely here on the highly authoritative “Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture”. The modern (NRSV) translation reads: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…” Compare that with the much older Douai translation , on which I was brought up: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.”
    The difference is that the second version can be, and was, interpreted as our sin originating in Adam. The first is simply saying that Adam sinned and reaped the consequences; so did we.
    The second version is from the “old” vulgate and mistranslates the original Greek. The first version is correct, which is why modern translations use it (see also the Jerusalem Bible). Unfortunately Augustine used the old, and the Council of Trent declares that anyone who does not accept that Adam’s sin was passed on to all: “let him be anathema, since he contradicts the Apostle who says:
    By one man sin entered into the world and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.”
    But of course the Apostle didn’t say that. Thus I would argue that the anathema has no force. Fortunately the Council also provided that if “something should turn up which requires explanation or definition, which does not appear probable” opportunity to sort the issue out should be available. Admittedly the timescale as been long, but no longer than that needed to correct the teaching that unbaptised babies necessarily go to “that part of hell called limbo”.

  3. JohnBunting says:

    I assume that most of us are now happy to regard the creation story as expressing the perceived meaning of the creation, not its physical processes.
    Part of that meaning is in the difference between the animal and the human. If we accept, at least provisionally, that humans evolved physically from animals, there must have come a point in the pre-history of humanity when some creature became conscious, perhaps very dimly at first, of a sense of right and wrong: a moral sense, where formerly there had been only a sense of what was desirable and what was best avoided. Perhaps that realisation, “I have done wrong”, marked the first sin and, ipso facto, the first human: the one man by whom sin entered the world (Romans 5:12).

    People with children of their own are probably better placed than I am to know how this process occurs in the life of each one of us, when children are said to have reached the ‘age of reason’, and begin to be held responsible for their actions.
    In this view, the story of Adam can apply to the early history of the race and also to each of us individually. But perhaps Adam and Eve, or their hominid ‘alter egos’ (what’s the correct Latin plural there, by the way?) have had a bad press. They were the first and original sinners, but we all share their imperfect human nature. And why do we have to specify any particular aspect of that nature, be it sex or anything else, as the means whereby original sin is transmitted through the generations?

    I see, Quentin, that your thoughts on Darwinism are under fire on the CH Letters page today (12 February); and Paul Johnson, last week, described it as a ‘pseudo-religion’. So it can be, and so can other scientific ideas, if you apply them to matters for which they were not intended. Darwinism, considered as a theory, still very incomplete, of how organic life may have developed from simple beginnings, seems to me pretty harmless, and not inconsistent with creation. Like any scientific theory it is subject to revision, and may be replaced by a better one in the course of time. That is how science works. But if Darwinism is held to explain almost everything, and made the basis of social policy, it is hardly surprising if the results are bad.

    Finally, may I offer my understanding of the prohibition against ‘eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil’?
    I used to think, ‘Well, what’s wrong with knowing what is good and what is evil? Surely we need to know that’. Then somewhere I came across the idea that what is being forbidden here is deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil. If we are free to do that, then so is anyone else, and the result is social chaos.

  4. RMBlaber says:

    A minor point: H. erectus had an average brain capacity of 900 cc as opposed to the average sapiens brain size of 1350 cc, one-and-a-half times larger. (For comparison, the bonobo brain averages 300-400 cc; sc. http://www.animalinfo.org/species/primate/pan_pani.htm.) There is no evidence of sophisticated intelligence 1.8 Mya, so I don’t think we have to attribute ‘ensoulment’ (_rational_ ensoulment, that is) to erectus, or his immediate descendants, H. ergaster and H. heidelbergensis.

    It is not until H. sapiens appears on the scene that things become complicated, because for a time, at least, there are two sorts of human being on the planet – H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis, one of which – the latter – became extinct about 30 kya.

    Anatomically modern humans do indeed date from circa 195-200,000 years ago, as Quentin says (the Omo Remains, from the Omo National Park, SW Ethiopia). Behaviourally modern humans (H. sapiens sapiens) do not make a definitive appearance in the fossil record until much later, however – not until 80 kya (Blombos Cave, S Africa). The Cro-Magnons – the first European BMHs – do not appear until circa 40 kya.

    What is very clear is that death and decay have been around for a very long time – a lot longer than human beings! Indeed, death and decay have been around as long as there has been life on this planet. They certainly didn’t become part of our world because of some act of disobedience to God by a Palaeolithic husband and wife!

    I think we must interpret the ‘death’ discussed here to mean ‘spiritual death’ – what St John in the Apocalypse calls ‘the second death’ (ho thanatos ho deuteros, Rev.21:8). What exactly that means is another matter – it could be understood in terms of annhilationism, the idea that the soul of the unrepentent sinner is destroyed – or it could be understood in the traditional sense of the damned being consigned to Hell.

    As to ‘original sin’ – I think Quentin puts his finger on another problem without following through on it. It is quite true that animals are essentially self-orientated – although ‘altruistic’ behaviour has been observed on the part of some species, for example _Tursiops truncatus_, the bottle-nosed dolphin, and nurturing, maternal/paternal behaviour towards young is another feature of many species’ ethological repertoire. This isn’t something that we can blame on Adam and Eve, because it was long-established well before the human species came into existence.

    It is true, too, that we share this characteristic with the rest of the animal kingdom – even, in some senses, with all life. Surely, however, we had this innate egocentricity prior to any putative ‘Fall’, and indeed must have done, for otherwise the Fall itself would have been impossible, absent a motivation to which the ‘Serpent’ could appeal.

    That leaves ‘concupiscence’ – from the Latin for ‘intense (or violent) desire; lust’. It is this that is, in St Augustine of Hippo’s view, the means of transmission of original sin (as opposed to original guilt). The guilt of Adam is imputed to us, as we are his descendants, and ‘inherit’ his debt to God (a bit like the heirs of a bankrupt inheriting his debts to his creditors). The sin of Adam is passed down to us through sex -through the act of sex itself, which is why St Augustine believed it should only be permitted within marriage for the purposes of procreation, and should not be enjoyed.

    Needless to say, I do not agree with St Augustine – about this or much else. What exactly is wrong with ‘intense desire’, might I ask? Superview is also right to question what is wrong with seeking knowledge – seeking knowledge and being creative is exactly what makes us human. Should we not have learned how to use fire, or make wheels, or stone tools, or made cave paintings and simple carved figurines all those thousands of years ago? Of course we should!

    Yes, we also learned how to make weapons, and wage wars – something we got very good at over the centuries, but that is the downside of the primate brain. It may yet render us extinct – but if we can learn how to transcend our animal limitations, then perhaps there is a chance we might survive, even into the next century!

    The story of the Fall, however, although it served an aetiological purpose for the Jewish people, in accounting for death, for the tribulations of everyday life and work, and for things like women’s pain in childbirth, does not serve these functions for us today, when we have sociology, biology and physics to do this far more adequately.

    As for Christian theology – and in particular, Christian soteriology – well, if there was no Fall, no ‘felix culpa’, what about the Incarnation and the Resurrection? Far too big a subject for now. Leave it for another time.

  5. Archaeologists will, I’m sure, continue to argue about the hominid line, and the candidates for our lineal predecessors will no doubt change with time and new discoveries. What counts as sophisticated behaviour – which might suggest the possibility of a human soul – is subjective
    But it may be worth noting a recent find, published last December, which showed evidence of “a formalized conceptualization of living space, requiring social organization and communication between group members. Such organizational skills are thought to be unique to modern humans.” This is dated to 750,000 years ago – that is half a million years earlier than the advent of even archaic homo sapiens.
    I am with John Bunting in holding that the gauge of a human soul is the capacity to choose between right and wrong – or moral responsibility. I suspect that we are much less free than we imagine (which may be a useful defence at the Day of Judgment). It is only introspectively that I am able to be confident that on this or that occasion I was free to choose, however strong the influences may have been. But the distinctions between evolved altruism and morality are very important. I hope to look at these in more detail in a column of its own.
    Darwinism can have many religion-like aspects for its devotees, but I think one would have to agree on the essential characteristics that define the nature of religion. Not the Jedi, I think.

  6. Guy says:

    Some thoughts on the topic of the Creation of Humanity that this thread has prompted are really ideas of Rahner’s (Foundations of Christian Faith) concerning the human individual and concupiscence.

    His notions of the reality of the person at every stage of development as created by god for god is something that the “story” of Adam and Eve brings out clearly (for me). In light of this I tend to shy away form any notion of ensoulement as far a the human reality is concerned. Our total reality at every stage has been equipt by God for knowledge of God and relationship with God – even if it has had to travel through many phases of ignorance, violence and idolatory. Ultimately God’s free offer of fulfilled being in Christ is received as gift whether the human is carefully making their way out of the prieaval mud in some shape or form or travelling through space in advanced human technology. The creation of the human being as the one open to receive that gift is the definition of who we are (my opinion on the meaning of Genesis: 3).
    The enitrely of human meaning is only available in light of our being for God even though it manifests in countless facets of science, art and culture.

    Regarding concupiscence Rahner’s view of a pre-moral and morally neutral influence for good or evil makes a lot of sense. Rather than an affect of sin, a proper component of our nature that makes us feel alive when it urges us to actions (all the time and either morally “good” or “bad”) puts the Augustian notions in more holistic way (for me) in the age we live in.

  7. Superview says:

    It is dispiriting to think that a search for the truth would be thought to be ‘tampering’ with the story of the Fall, and that there is a fear that it is inevitably catastrophic for Christianity if any weakness were to be exposed. Is there no alternative?
    For the Latin Church, it would certainly result in doctrinal problems because of the centrality given to original sin and the reasoning that Christ’s suffering and death was a propitiatory sacrifice, which alone could satisfy God’s wrath and rebalance the scales of divine justice.
    The Eastern Orthodox Church seems not to have quite this problem, not having accepted Augustine’s conclusions about mankind’s condemnation among other things, and preferring the description ‘ancestral sin’. However, from what I can see, the Fall is also central for their theology and their reliance on Genesis is still literal. Nevertheless, although they reject reason as a route to belief, I was surprised, never having understood anything of the differences between these two pillars of Christianity, how sympathetic I was to their criticism of the ‘legalistic’ theology and doctrines of the Latin Church (for example, the Orthodox approach to divorce is firm, but compassionate).
    I found this attempt at differentiating between them very readable:
    http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/ortho_cath.html

    Some other observations – until I read of the speculation in Augustine’s time it never occurred to me to ask what happened to Adam and Eve, and all those people who strove to live good lives in the thousands of years until the coming of Christ. No firm conclusions it would seem. We also have to reconcile the eschatological outcomes for Jews and other non-Christian, God-fearing people whom have no attachment to the doctrine. In the days when there was no salvation outside of the Church this was an easy one. Not so now?
    So what is needed to render the doctrine intelligible? That is, can the Catechism’s assertion that there was an actual primeval event be substantiated in any meaningful way? Does it require that there was an actual conversation between God and the first human couple in creation who satisfied the judicial conditions for rejecting Him and thus fully deserving the dreadful punishment that was the consequence? Could there ever have been a pre-Fall idyllic state? Did they have a competent knowledge of good and evil? Did they have a real experience of God’s goodness but chose evil instead? Is this plausible?

  8. Ion Zone says:

    I tend to think of the Old Testament as being what God thought we could handle at the time, knowing it would be corrupted – parents often tell children stories about how the world works because they aren’t ready for the details.

    Moses: “Quantum whatnow?”

    And, since this was a very, very, long time ago, corrupted in the retelling. Indeed, I think we have forgotten something fundamental about the Old Testament – that the inclusion of a book in it does not imply its truth, but rather our history. Genesis I take to be the fireside stories, content of truth unknown and changed beyond recognition, we then move forward to Leviticus, the corruption which Jesus fought against in the New Testament (which, besides the Qur’an, is the clearest of God’s messages to us).

  9. Superview, unless I have misunderstood you, I don’t see that the economy of salvation is altered. The fight within our natures between a gravity which pulls us down into sin and an invitation and an aspiration to the good is something that not only we but the writers of Genesis must have experienced. It’s built into our original natures. And so it’s right to describe it as inherited. In any event, as mere creatures of God we have no natural right to be his sons. But he freely extends the opportunity to us.
    We have all sinned, as Scripture tells us, and therefore we all need redemption through Christ. Of course we don’t always recognise Christ in those whom we love (perhaps the least of his little ones). But that is not only true of Christians it’s true of everyone. For all I know (and certainly for all he knows) Professor Dawkins may be closer to God through means that he does not recognise than any of us.

  10. Superview says:

    Quentin, you touch on what may be the essence of the meaning to be given to the story of Adam and Eve from both sound theological and even existentialist standpoints.
    What I’m finding, from a straightforward attempt to understand the doctrine, is obfuscation and inconsistencies in the statements (I hesitate to call it teaching) which seem to me even now to show an attachment to a poetic but fictional account of creation and the origins of mankind. It means, for example, that the distance is minimal between us and the Fundamentalist Evangelicals who accept Genesis as literally true and dismiss fossils and cosmological physics as irrelevant.
    The call to consistency and integrity is made on all of us, and it is more than a lifetime’s work, and I can’t believe that it is unreasonable to expect that the Church would be exemplary in demonstrating these qualities. Consistency in this case does not mean sticking with something when it is lacking credibility, it means being constant in seeking truth, and acting as expeditiously as circumstances allow especially when it concerns something important. Conversely, from the record, what seems to happen is that the more important it is the less is the chance of something happening to serve the truth within centuries. I simply can’t see this as the counsel of the Holy Spirit. So what is the cause of it?

  11. RMBlaber says:

    The problem, it seems to me (and believe me, I have been wrestling very hard with all of this recently) is that the Catholic faith _appears_ to require Catholics to believe that Genesis 2:4-3:24 is, to all intents and purposes (and with the exception of relatively minor details), a literal statement of historical fact.

    That this cannot be the case is guaranteed by the Church’s acceptance of the neo-Darwinian consensus regarding biology, and by its acceptance of modern biblical (and specifically, Old Testament) studies, including the Graf-Wellhausen Four Source Theory of the Pentateuch, Form Criticism, Tradition Criticism, and so on.

    The Church communicates that well enough to its trainee priests in seminaries; what the Church doesn’t do is communicate that very well to the laity.

    What is the alternative? The alternative seems curiously schizophrenic to my – admittedly autistic – way of thinking. It is to accept that Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-3:24 are myths, from different sources, the former the so-called Priestly Source, dating from after the Exile in Babylon, and incorporating much material from Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian myth, such as the Creation Story of the Enuma Elish; the latter, the so-called Yahwist source, dating from circa 1000 BC, the beginning of the Israelite monarchy.

    At one and the same time, however, it is also to accept that these myths are, in some non-literal sense, ‘true’ – at an analogical or metaphorical or symbolic level. We are in a world of ambivalence and ambiguity here, of polysemantic messages. We are in the realm of Wittgensteinian ‘language games’, where the language game of science and that of religion must not be confused. (I am talking, of course, of the later Wittgenstein, he of the Philosophical Investigations, rather than the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.)

    I am not satisfied, however. I want to know what advantage there is to be had in playing the religious language game, if that is all it is. Science is not just a game – it has results, pay-offs, with a definite utility – even if our technology is something of a two-edged sword.

    This is where evidence of the supernatural might come in handy (for me, at any rate). Other, more higher-minded, individuals might not be all that impressed with alleged manifestations of the kind supposedly displayed by St Joseph of Cupertino – or St Teresa of Avila, for that matter. Me? A levitation or a miracle or two would certainly get me thinking.

    I was in bed last night, thinking that one day I will draw my last breath; one day my heart will beat its last. What then? Will my consciousness just cease, as if I were under an anaesthetic, one from which I will never come round? Or will ‘I’ still be, and still be aware (the two being the same thing, for the human being: _esse est percipere_)?

    I would like to believe so. I do not want to believe that, at death, I shall just become a piece of slowly decomposing meat.

    That is why I say I would like to know that the religious language game has a pay-off, a utility. I’m sorry if that sounds like self-interest. Yes, actually: it is. What’s the point of all this religion stuff, if, at the end of the day, I’m just going to be worm-food?

    The death of the physical body is a consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy, and has been a part of biological reality since biology existed. It has nothing to do with ‘sin’, and neither does the physical body itself have anything to do with sin, regardless of what St Paul appears to say. (In fact, he uses the term ‘soma psychikon’, ‘psychic’ or ‘mental body’ in 1 Cor.15:44-6, as opposed to ‘soma pneumatikon’ [ibid.], ‘spiritual body’ – the REB translators incorrectly translate that as ‘physical body’.)

    The innate egocentric drives Freud labelled the ‘id’ we share with our primate forebears, and with most, if not all, of the rest of the animal kingdom, namely, for food, warmth and shelter, comfort, sex, and a minimum of control over our environments, are instinctual and programmed into us. They are not the product of some primeval sin! Socialisation requires education -by our parents, by our teachers, and so on. It is only through that that we can acquire the ‘ego’ of prudential controls and the ‘super-ego’ of moral ones.

    Christ’s death on the Cross, whether it is seen as a propitiatory sacrifice, or as a penal-substitionary atonement, or as both, is only necessary if the whole human race – from the very first-born member of H. sapiens sapiens onwards, right up until the last, with the sole exceptions of Christ Himself (qua human) and Our Lady, is a _massa damnata_ (to employ Calvin’s terminology), and therefore in need of salvation – brands to be plucked from the burning.

    Personally, I have a nasty suspicion that this requires an evangelical theory of imputation of sin/guilt, and also of righteousness, so that the redeemed sinner is, in Luther’s words, ‘simul justus et peccator’. However, that is ruled out by the Council of Trent. Imputation, though, need not – and does not – exclude impartation, in the sense that evangelicals are open to the idea that the righteousness of Christ is not merely imputed to the sinner in the _event_ of justification (which is purely forensic), but also imparted to him in the _process_ of sanctification.

    God’s perspective, is, of course, trans-temporal. He sees all of time in a single instant, ‘At the still point of the turning world’. Adam and Eve sinning, Christ’s redemptive act, the _Eschaton_, all happen at once. I think I can cope with that – even with the idea of a first person (maybe not a first pair) actually sinning (but not eating of ‘that Forbidden Tree whose mortal taste/Brought Death into the World, and all our woe’).

  12. RMBlaber says:

    Sorry, I’ll correct the grammatical solecism. The passage in the above which reads, ‘Other, more higher-minded individuals, might not be impressed…’ should read ‘Other, more high-minded individuals might not be impressed…’

  13. Ion Zone says:

    St Augustine warned (was it him? I think it was) against taking the Old Testament seriously – and that was almost in the time of the New Testament.

    Here is the thing; the Neo-Darwinists *want* us to believe, or at least, like to think we believe, Genesis and the other Old T stories, this is because you can never have enough rods with which to beat the hated enemy. It doesn’t matter to them what the real truth of the matter is, as long as they have us running round in circles with ‘logical’ statements that contradict and invalidate each-other, never mind that will say, literally, anything to prevent their ‘logic’ applying to them. Naturally, everything good done in the name of religion is either meddling or would have happened anyway, while, of course, the same doesn’t apply to our faults, which are resolutely caused by religion….along with their own crimes and evils!

    The point of twisted logic is that it sounds reasonable (The BNP use it – badly), some of it sticks, the silver tongue gets under your skin. To get past it is a gargantuan task. You don’t just have to catch them, you have to get everyone who watches the debate to realise it also. And you can’t do that by playing fair. For that you need a charismatic counter-attack. You have to leave them stumbling. And you won’t do that with a Bishop in front of an audience of several thousand hard-line atheists who have come to hear the soothing music of their master’s voice. No, what you need, is a honourable bastard.

  14. JohnBunting says:

    This may be a little off-topic, but I think Superview’s assertion that the Church has nearly always opposed the progress of science calls for a reply. I will be brief for the present, and you may prefer, Quentin, to put the subject under a separate heading, if it merits attention at all.
    First, however, I think Superview conflates two distinct ideas under the ‘tree of knowledge’. Of course our thirst for understanding is laudable, but to claim for oneself, individually, the right to decide what is good and what is evil, is a different matter. That is my understanding of ‘eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil’, and I welcome comments on it.
    On science in general, yes, the Church has often been slow to accept new ideas, and behaved badly to particular scientists. But if it was as widespread as all that, why does the Galileo affair – and to a lesser extent a few others, such as Giordano Bruno – get trotted out so often, and the rest hardly at all? And one might add that the Church is not obliged to give assent to ideas which are still in dispute among scientists themselves. The opposition to Galileo did not all come from the Church.
    By and large, science has done pretty well in European culture, strongly influenced by two millennia of Christianity. Men such as Albert the Great, Jean Buridan, Nicholas Oresme, Marin Mersenne, Gregor Mendel, Pierre Duhem, Georges Lemaître – to name but a few – are evidence enough for that.

  15. JohnBunting, the point you make about us only noticing the “Galileo” incidents, and omitting all the good science is well taken. There is a very good case, for example, for claiming that Mendel’s pioneering work on inheritance was ultimately more important that “the survival of the fittest” which, on analysis, reduces to a tautology.
    I think you need to explain your thoughts on discovering good and evil more fully. Are we not taught, and is it not our experience, that we have the capacity to recognise the good? Of course I agree that we are not free to be arbitrary about our choices (As in Milton’s Satan’s cry: Evil be thou my good.).
    Good letter from you in the CH this week. let’s hope you get a response.

  16. Superview says:

    JohnBunting’s latest post above is interesting and the points he makes are persuasive. I’ve revisited what I said 0n 12 Feb and this is the jist of it:
    “Paragraph 396 covers the prohibition against ‘the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil’ and I have always found this to be enigmatic. Surely humankind’s thirst for knowledge and understanding is laudable, to say the least? Without it we would be still in caves, and not have made the advances in understanding evolution, or the cosmos, or DNA, or the atomic and sub-atomic world, or medicine, to name but a few (and to note with sadness the obstacles to progress that the Church has placed in all these spheres).”
    The idea contained in the last few words in parenthesis was an afterthought and is so categorical that JohnBunting is right to offer a more nuanced view. I did toy with the placing of the word ‘often’ between ‘has placed’ but it was a qualification that seemed to me to be mealy-mouthed at the time, especially as I felt referring to ‘obstacles to progress’ was sufficiently accommodating, given the fact that people sometimes got burnt at the stake for disagreeing with the Church – but I don’t think this is what JohnBunting meant by behaving badly. William Tyndale even attracted this fate for giving people the bible in their own tongue did he not?
    Forgive me, I didn’t intend to be argumentative, but I have just got around to reading last week’s Catholic Herald and it has left me disillusioned, yet again.
    On the point about the knowledge of good and evil, I’m inclined to go with the words as written. Are they two sides of the same coin or two different currencies? Is it sufficient to teach a child what is good, and leave no mention of evil? There are times when I wish to have no knowledge of evil, but we surely have to name it to deal with it? JohnBunting’s (and Quentin’s) point may be therefore that we need someone to tell us what is right and wrong and to accept it uncritically, but if you have in mind the Church, the days have long gone when I could do that with an easy conscience.

  17. JohnBunting says:

    Thankyou, Quentin and Superview, for your comments.
    A few rather disjointed thoughts come to mind.
    Ideally, and in anthropological rather than specifically religious terms, deciding what is good and what is evil is essentially a social matter. Of course there will always be breaches of the law, and tension between law and individual freedom. Sometimes for obvious selfish reasons, e.g. theft or fraud; sometimes for reasons of principle, e.g. conscientious objection in time of war, assisted suicide and such-like hard cases; but you know what they say about hard cases.
    As long as there is general agreement on what is and is not acceptable, a society may remain stable, even if things are permitted or enforced which, at other times or places, may be thought seriously wrong. For example, human sacrifice, slavery, or cruel and barbaric punishments. Here I wonder whether those in the Church who sent heretics to burn at the stake ever paused to ask themselves, “Does Jesus approve of this?” Of course we might ask ourselves the same question now, about other things.
    So is there a universal ‘Natural Law’ which could decide all such questions, for all people, at all times and places? If there is, it is something we grope towards, but never attain in this life, although I agree, Quentin, that we can usually recognise the good. Choosing to act on it is harder, as Paul discovered.
    The essence of tragedy, it has been said, is not the conflict between good and evil, but between one good and another; or having to choose the lesser of two evils. But I don’t think God wants us to live racked by guilt because of such moral dilemmas. We have a duty to inform our conscience, and may seek the help of the Church in doing so, but as for “someone to tell us what is right and wrong and to accept it uncritically”, well, in addition to Superview’s misgivings about it, that sounds a bit too much like dictatorship to me.
    No amount of legal detail can cover every possible situation, but Jesus pointed to the essentials of the Old Testament law and, by extension, of all law: “Love God, and love your neighbour. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. Nowadays, with an ever-increasing mass of detailed legislation, we seem to be putting that into reverse. As William Blake put it, “Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth”.

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