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.