In discussing Pope for a day our respected contributor, John Candido, started a post with the sentence “The doctrine of original sin has to be removed from the church’s doctrines and replaced with a more realistic understanding of human frailty as it has garnered though evolutionary processes.“ This is a thought which might be fruitfully explored.
If we take ourselves back to primitive times we would expect to find that human nature was fundamentally the same as it is today. But, in the absence of scientific knowledge, the explanations of human nature took the form of stories which were passed on from one generation to another. And, as long as the explanation satisfied and explained, it continued without much change.
Then, as now, our ancestors could recognise the moral law. Sophocles called it “The immutable unwritten laws of heaven, not born today nor yesterday.” And they could witness the fundamental temptation to surrender to the gravity of evil, which appeared to be so much stronger than the aspiration to the good. Their natural response was that something had gone terribly wrong from the beginning – perhaps some deed of extreme wickedness had profoundly damaged our natural propensity to the good and, in doing so, had changed the standing and the direction of the whole human race. We don’t know who first wrote this story down, but the version we have comes from the writers of Genesis. And throughout pre-scientific times it has served us well.
The evolutionary model, to which John Candido alludes, provides a quite different approach. Here we have an account (well evidenced notwithstanding the gaps) of the hominid developing from its predecessor chimpanzee to modern man, via a number of failed experiments. We see the development of the modern human form, but more importantly we can infer the development of the modern human mind. In particular, we discover the faculties necessary for distinguishing right and wrong – the moral sense. That is, the presence of reason, and the presence of free will. These last characteristics, while depending on the sophistication of the brain, cannot be solely the result of material evolution: reason requires the use of abstract concepts, free will requires choice which is not determined by cause. We do not know whether moral choice, and its consequent moral responsibility, started only with home sapiens, or whether it was present in some way in earlier hominids.
So the story changes. Now we see human beings as (from our viewpoint) an awkward mixture. One element of us is brute beast with all its passions for survival and reproduction. But we do not impute moral fault to brute beasts as such, or we only do so by analogy. They are not free to choose, they are determined by genes, habit and experience. The other element of us is the recognition of the moral good, and the obligation to direct our passions in harmony with that good. And as we watch the world go by we see the tension between the gravity of passion and the buoyancy of aspiration. It’s no wonder that we think of man as flawed, and that we imagine how he might have been if all his passions had been under the control of his aspiration, inspired by right reason.
So we might look at two Christians considering these accounts. The first, who takes the Genesis story literally, accepts that he has inherited a condition damaged by sin, and prone to further sin. Fortunately he has a champion who, by taking on our human nature, has redeemed it, and has promised us the grace we need to triumph over our own sinful inclinations.
The second, who prefers the evolutionary model, accepts that he has inherited a condition which is oriented to evil resulting from his passions, and prone to give way to them rather than to follow his aspirations. Fortunately he has a champion who, by taking on our human nature, has redeemed it, and has promised us the grace we need to triumph over our own sinful inclinations.
Since either approach fits in with the history of salvation we might be tempted to discard the Genesis account. But that would be a mistake because it contains important truths. This is not the place for me to identify them, but deep thought about what God is telling us through this inspired story gives us insights we could not get in other ways. Just contemplate the serpent’s words “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” You could perhaps spend many hours of your life plumbing the depth of those 28 words.
A note on exegesis. Our acceptance that Scripture is inspired does not mean that the words of Scripture all convey truth in the same way. The various authors are writing in terms of their own culture, and the understanding of their readers. They do not even need to know that they are inspired. Thus, to take the simplest example, the creation of the world in six days contains the truth of God’s omnipotent creation, but not the literal account – which would have been incomprehensible to its first readers. Contrast this with the Koran which is seen as inspired directly, and word for word, by God.
This is why we need exegetists who can use their science to explore the Scriptures – from establishing the most accurate texts to deciding what is literal and what is symbolic. It needs great skills and background knowledge, and it is progressive in the sense that understanding may develop over time. So, when an amateur like me essays an interpretation, it must be treated as speculation, and judged on its merits. Ultimately, the Church owns Scripture, and so has the last word.