A number of years ago I had my own website. It no longer exists because it cannot be hosted through my current internet provider. But I was looking through the old files this week when I came across the page on which I attempted a somewhat daring explanation of our first parents and original sin.
The further back we go through the Old Testament the more examples we find where a story, rather than an historical truth, contains the deeper truth of Revelation. The classic example is the creation of the universe in six days. (If you think it really took only six days, leave the classroom.)
Creation is a great truth but the concept is straightforward. Original Sin isn’t. History tells us that much dispute and disagreement, to say nothing of heresy and division, has arisen as a result. What is the deeper truth here, and what are its consequences? My web page on the subject assumed for its purpose that Adam and Eve and Original Sin was a story like the narrative of creation. So I attempted my version of the deeper truth. To be acceptable it needs to be consonant with the history of salvation, it must allow for the spiritual side of human beings (reason and freewill) and it must – at least potentially – be in accord with science. So here it is.
What if Adam and Eve never existed?
Did mankind descend from a single pair? Science tends to say not: new species are unlikely to develop from a single base, and there are ancillary difficulties such as the genetic effects of incest. These would of course be enhanced if, as Genesis describes it, the female partner derived her germ line from the man. But from the Church’s point of view descent from an original group is complicated by the doctrine of Original Sin, on which salvation history is centred. “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. (Romans 5).
It would be interesting to explore a way through which polygenism could be reconciled with Original Sin.
The question is academic, partly because it may prove impossible to demonstrate incontrovertibly how the human race started, and partly because the distinction between brute beast and man with a capacity and a responsibility for moral choice is a spiritual one, and so not necessarily subject to the normal rules.
A theory which I favour is that we are a fusion and a tension between the nature of the evolved brute beast, whose entire dynamic is self-benefit, and the spiritual nature through which we understand good and evil, and so moral obligation. We actualise our captivity to sin through our choices, just as we actualise our freedom through grace to follow the good. This would be a truly original sinful state (not in itself a personal fault) and truly inherited with our human nature. It may be no coincidence that the forbidden fruit in Eden gave them their knowledge of good and evil. In such a theory, Adam (a collective Hebrew word with no plural form, for “man”) becomes representative of the human race, particularised in a story – as was the custom. That may seem a radical idea but it requires no greater jump in interpretation than has occurred before, as scientific discovery has stimulated the Church towards a deeper understanding of the allegorical aspects of Scripture.
But what does this make of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, whereby Mary was free from Original Sin by virtue of her son’s saving merits applied retrospectively? If we rephrase Original Sin as a natural lack of integrity between our higher and lower natures then Mary’s freedom from this lack becomes itself a wonder. Her total being, body and soul, is fully harmonised and fully sanctified. She is, from the very beginning, the exemplar of the perfection towards which all Christians aspire. She is of course subject to suffering, illness perhaps, and temptation and death for, like her son, she is a true human being, and this is the human condition. But at all times her spirit, oriented towards the good, infuses her body and makes her a complete human person, a holy thing.
A further note
I remember, in my youth, counting my ribs against my sister’s, and being disappointed to find that I was not missing one. The irony is that the y chromosome of masculinity is actually a de-natured form of the x chromosome. Thus, as far as we know, the male was formed from the body of the female rather than the other way about. That fits in well with Eve, whose name means “source of life”.
The sentence in italics did not appears on the original web page, but is consistent with my theory.
The earliest remains of a homo sapiens skull (not neanderthal) is dated at over 300,000 years ago, in Morocco. DNA and brain shape could not be ascertained. nature 8 June 2017. Whether Neanderthals had reason and freewill is an interesting speculation. If so, they had a similar original sin, and we have no reason to suppose they are not in Heaven.