Forbidden fruit

“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals.” (Science, 22 February 2018)

This discovery, including pictures of animals, dots and geometric signs, in caves in Spain is fascinating in its own right. It was possible because of new and sophisticated dating methods. It has a particular interest for us. The use of art tells us the Neanderthals had the capacity to generalise concepts and to express them symbolically. We must therefore assume that they had reason and some level of moral sense. They may even have had a concept of religion since there is evidence that they may have buried their dead for religious reasons. It has been suggested that they are an offshoot from the human line but more recent analysis concludes that they were a different species from homo sapiens. (Our interbreeding with Neanderthals came later.)

We accept the idea that early biblical accounts are not always historical in our sense. We do not for example argue that the universe was created in six days. We accept the essential truth of God’s creation and realise that it is expressed in terms comprehensible to its original readership. We may even be critical of evangelical Christians who continue to insist on the literal truth of the biblical account. But how about Original Sin? Not only does it seem to be taught as a literal occurrence in Genesis but it is treated in the same way in the New Testament. Today, we see it as a deep, inherited flaw from the sin of our first parents and, throughout Christian history its consequences have been matter for discussion, disagreement and heresy.

How do we fit in the Neanderthals now that we have evidence that they had spiritual capacities, primitive though they may have been? If current evidence tells us that they were a different species from sapiens, then they either remained unfallen since they never inherited from Adam, or, if fallen, would have needed redemption – like Adam. Perhaps they shared the situation of an unbaptised infant who, as the old Catechism describes, is only fit for “that part of hell called Limbo”.

I am not a theologian, biblical or otherwise, but I think we may consider some questions here. (The conclusions that I suggest are personal speculation.) Science favours the view that homo sapiens is unlikely to have descended from a single couple. It notes that new species are inclined to come from several instances of creatures which have reached a similar stage of evolution.

In this context we note that Adam and Eve are not names as such: Adam simply means Man; Eve means Mother of all the living. Given that over 300,000 years ago our direct ancestors were using tools and trading, is it possible that we are not talking about a specific historical couple, somehow remembered for many millennia, but simply proxies for our first ancestors whoever they may have been?

Our distinction between body and soul may help us here. We know that we evolved from the brute beast. And at some point we developed brains which were capable of rational thinking and, through that, our capacity for moral choice. These abilities, being essentially spiritual, are beyond the bounds of science since they exclude material cause and effect by definition. We would then conclude that each of us, by the age of reason, is susceptible to the choice of evil. And all of us, except the Virgin Mary, are prone to fall. In such terms Original Sin is native but personal, and requires the grace of Redemption to save us.

The exact text of Genesis is interesting here. The protagonists are tempted by the Serpent with the promise that to eat the forbidden fruit will enable them to distinguish between good and evil, and thus to be like gods. This is an apparent anomaly. While still in their unfallen state they were, the account tells us, already susceptible to temptation, and they freely chose to disobey. To become like gods is the ultimate ambition behind all sin. It suggests to me that the potentiality to choose the evil was within our race (and presumably the Neanderthals) from the very beginning. The former ideal state of humanity, pictured by Genesis, is not a literal description but a mythological vision of how the world could have been if humans were to seek only the good. But through the Redemption we will, we may hope, live in just such a world after the Resurrection.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Forbidden fruit

  1. G.D says:

    “that they had spiritual capacities, primitive though they may have been?” …. ‘may’ being the operative word.
    They (some ‘species’ at least) also may have had spiritual capacities more advanced than we have now.
    Just because they may have been primitive in material substance doesn’t necessarily equate with primitive spirituality, or morals.
    (We judge them by our ‘superior’ material development, and generalise that?)

    The ‘beast’ we evolved from (if indeed we did?) ‘may’ also have had superior spiritual and moral concepts. As some, so called primitive, indigenous tribes display for each other and the planet, which far exceeds ‘modern’ man’s collective social morality.

    A young child is ‘primitive’ in many ways compared to an adult, but a young child, before the age of reason, can be far more advanced in spiritual and moral purity than most adults are. Before they begin to recognise and imitate the behaviour of their ‘elders and betters’ wilful wrongness that is.

    • G.D says:

      Actually looking up ‘primitive’ … in some senses – simple natural unsophisticated unaffected undeveloped unpretentious – i wish i was, and would be proud to be, ‘primitive’.
      In other senses – simple rough and ready basic rudimentary unrefined unsophisticated rude makeshift – i stand by what i said.
      Which meaning were you using?

  2. Brian Hamill says:

    I have a feeling, Quentin, that you are really a fundamentalist at heart. The way you look at the text of Genesis is like some of our Christian Brethren searching for THE answer to the meaning of life and all that is. When we look into our own hearts and souls we find that we are imperfect and so we are capable of doing moral wrong as well as moral right. That is the human condition. The story of the fall in Genesis is a story telling us this in no uncertain terms. Jesus gave us both the way to go toward full righteousness, and the means to follow that way. He saves us from our sins, not from THE SIN. The Eastern Churches have never accepted the doctrine of Original Sin and it has never been declared a dogma in the Western Church. The Eastern theologians talk of theosis, a constant movement under grace towards becoming God. St Bernard of Clairvaux said we are Capax Dei, capable of becoming God. So the theme is Western too.

  3. Martin Kirkham says:

    We think and talk as if we 21st century humans were the finished article. But why? Who’s to say that we are not simply at a stage in mankind’s journey?

  4. ignatius says:

    Martin,
    The Catholic church regards Mankind as ‘pilgrim’ in other words on the long journey. We think we have a fair idea of where we are and from where we come. We have hope for the future though we confess its mystery. We do not expect to be the same in a thousand years as we are now!

  5. John Thomas says:

    “we see it as a deep, inherited flaw from the sin of our first parents” – how, actually, is this different from Original Sin? I can’t think you’re against the concept, Quentin, just the language and the symbolic couple, snake, etc.
    “These abilities, being essentially spiritual, are beyond the bounds of science” – I think a materialist scientist would not accept that anything in “beyond science”. (Religious people, on the other hand, concede that much is “beyond religion”).
    Difficulties come when we think the first couple (oh, alright, evolved humans) were innocent OR good – the latter of which implies: following exerience,choices.
    As you seem to imply, if we are not in some way fallen, we need no saving, and no Christ; there is certainly no sin of ANY kind, because personal choices (which is what we would be left with) can’t exist in a vacuum (think – no more long-winded sermons and endless church services … sounds great …)

  6. John Nolan says:

    Catholics, Orthodox and most Protestants stress the importance of regeneration through baptism. But why should man require regeneration? That’s the question.

    • Quentin says:

      John, if that’s the question, we must think about the answer. It seems unlikely that God is sufficiently unjust to create innocent human beings who are born into a condition of sin, which, if unchanged, would lead to failure in some sort of Hell. I am not, for instance, liable for the sins of my parents. However I am born with an understanding of good and evil, and I have the freewill to choose.
      Now I want to change the terms good and evil into love and failure of love. Love is comprehensive: love of neighbour, love of mankind, love of myself.
      What is the ultimate source of love? God, of course. So my acts of love piggy back, so to speak, on God’s love — just as my lacks of love separate me from God.
      The incarnation is God’s presentation of his love in a form which humans can recognise. It is a temporal actualisation of his mercy and love which of course is eternally present and eternally available to us as a means of regeneration; every time we recognise our unloving acts and every time we choose loving acts we do so through the endless offer of regeneration, or, if you prefer, God’s endless love.

      • John Nolan says:

        ‘Amen Amen I say to thee; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’

        Your answer is erudite and thought-provoking, but does not explain why baptism is regarded as so important, and why it imparts an indelible stain – if it were a case of ongoing regeneration through our own acts (Pelagianism, surely) then there would be no need for it.

      • ignatius says:

        No,it doesn’t work, Quentin. You cannot replace ‘good and evil’ as ‘Love or failure to love’ Yes we know that it is possible to try by claiming ‘evil’ to be simply the absence of Love but it doesn’t work when put to the test of reality. Dress up Auschwitz as you will but its existence points to more than a failure to love.

        There is a body of theology which seeks to circumvent the fall by this idea of gradual divinization of the species, a kind of evolutionary progression to a universalist heaven if you like, but it falls apart whenever you pick up a newspaper.

        As to ‘the argument from Neanderthals’ I don’t think that works either. Paul had the same thoughts in Romans ch9 where he discusses vessels for noble use and those for base use. In other words God decides the who what and where of what humanity actually consists of. Speculating about neanderthal needs is quite fun but it doesn’t lead very far.

      • Quentin says:

        Response to John Nolan. Of course we can never be sure of our answers since we can only use our limited human minds. But we have to face the fact that God created a huge human race but made baptism only available to a minute proportion, and it remains so today. If, leaving aside baptism of desire etc (presented to us as special exceptions), the huge majority of his creation is a failure and is condemned to an eternity of separation from the author of their being. Doesn’t sound like a just God to me: how about you? The value of formal baptism is that it formalises a commitment, and that has always been the favoured way for us simple minded people: the outward sign of inward grace. A just God must offer everyone the opportunity to choose or reject him. When I look for the common factor behind this I choose love as the only feasible route. Are there any other candidates?

    • Nektarios says:

      John Nolan
      Once Adam was alive to God, spoke with Him in the garden in the cool of the day. Then came temptation, and the Fall. On the day you eat of the tree thou shalt surely die.

      Adam did not die physically that day, but spiritually. It was catastrophic for mankind.

      God knowing all things from the beginning to the end, purposed in Himself to rescue man from his failen state and to restore what he lost, and more than that, make him a Child of God.
      Regereration is necessary, because the soul is dead towards God and spiritual matters and realities. It is an act of God to bring man back to Himself to make a new creation of him. I hope that is enough for you John?

  7. Nektarios says:

    It seems to me that we have a problem with terminology, for example, Regeneration. If we truly followed what Christ and the Apostles taught and practiced we would not have such a problem with the terminology. We all have it in our Bibles with a proper understanding of sin, Original sin, and Regeneration and other doctrines are concerned.

    As far as becoming more evolved, the natural man, has only evolved in technological terms that is all. And even there, man is appearing like a fool especially in Space exploration, and man-centred philosophy.

  8. Quentin says:

    Response to Ignatius. There is always a problem in trying to express complex ideas in a precise and short wordcount. Such is the media. My concept of failure to love certainly includes Auschwitz.

  9. ignatius says:

    Quentin,
    I think we could agree that ‘failure to love’ may include indifference, coldness and neglect. But to beat, starve, torture, and slaughter carries with it a greater implication. I know what you are trying to say however.
    The further point would be that anthropological conjecture about ‘Neanderthals,’ would have to be set against the pretty ubiquitous biblical consideration of sin.Unless you are to count our ‘falling short of the mark’ as innocent then the notion of sin as a real phenomena stands and, with it the atonement. Either sin comes with the package or it is a disease we all catch one by one, everyone on the face of the earth and throughout our history. Jesus asked forgiveness for those who tormented him to death but he did not proclaim their goodness.

  10. ignatius says:

    RE Baptism:
    As far as I am aware, Quentin, God does not in fact condemn the unbaptised to eternal punishment willy nilly and without exception. I don’t think you will find much support for that interpretation in the catechism at least: see CCC843 -8

    “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (quoting, Lumen Gentium, 16).

    “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those, who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men” (quoting Ad Gentes, 7, another document from Vatican II).

    I really don’t think this discussion goes very far without running into enormous difficulties.

    • ignatius says:

      PS Finally, yes, Love is the ultimate choice but that doesn’t cancel out the doctrine of original sin but, rather strengthens the argument for atonement.

  11. Peter Foster says:

    Original Sin as an explication of St Paul’s statements in Romans Chapter 5 was defended by Augustine in (Contra Iulianum [opus imperfectum])

    However, arguments at that time against this interpretation on the grounds of justice had been made by Julian of Eclanum in the context of the then established practice of infant baptism.
    “Tiny babies being burdened by the sin of another”. By God??? “Who has loved us? Who has not spared his own Son for us?
    And,
    “To establish that a hereditary guilt was passed down to us as a result of Adam’s mistake, Adam is promoted to be a representative of the whole human race in all time. In contradiction the fallen angels are not held to be representatives of their class but fall as individuals.”

    Surely, the arguments from justice are an acute embarrassment to the traditional idea of original sin; but unresolvable.

    • Quentin says:

      My take on this has been that God has given us free will and that necessarily means that we can choose between good and evil. That is: in order for us to be able to choose God, we have also to be able to refuse him. He respects our choice. Whether that means that nearly everyone goes to Hell, or perhaps no one, I do not know. But as a father myself, I realise that I would go to my extremes to save my children – and God will do better than I.

    • Nektarios says:

      Peter Foster

      There are several things to mention in your posting above.

      What justice are you speaking of? The human element in that decision making process is all too obvious. Only spritually awakened people can talk about such things with any understanding.
      The fact that every human being is a sinner is also so obvious that it does not need any comment. but the fact remains.
      The source of that sin runs deep, very deep, to the very depths of our beings and lies in our hidden fallen, sinful nature. It is a spiritual problem. As you say, unresolvable, that is, until The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, walked among us, taught us about Himself, suffered and died.Was raised from the dead, ascended on high to sit at the right hand of God. He sent the Holy Spirit and He gave birth not only to the Church, but to the whole person. That is, Regenerated him, made him a new Creation that wills and does choose God and love Him and his ways. They grow up in this new life and the old nature is weakened to such an extent that it no longer rules us, but the new does. We become more Christlike till the day comes when we shall see him face to face, for we shall be like Him.

    • ignatius says:

      Peter, a couple of things:
      “Tiny babies being burdened by the sin of another”. By God??? “Who has loved us? Who has not spared his own Son for us?…..
      Technically speaking the burdening does not come from God, it comes through man.

      ‘Surely, the arguments from justice are an acute embarrassment to the traditional idea of original sin;’
      But it is not our form of justice/judgement that matters. The point is mercy and as the apostle James puts it:
      mercy triumphs over judgement.
      It has always seemed to me that , were there not a doctrine of original sin then, by simple observation of the human predicament then the Church would have to invent one.

  12. Nektarios says:

    Ignatius,

    Original sin did not originate initially in this realm, but in heaven with Lucifer and those that followed him. It is spiritual in nature not physical. Whether one is a baby here having inherited from Adam our nature which includes the physical and the spiritual, until regenerated By God’s sovereign will, one is born spiritually dead to God already.
    The rite or sacrament of Baptism for a believer, is an outward sign of an inward reality, otherwise it is a promise by others to teach them the Gospel, Church and so on, but of itself baptism does not change that without God first regenerating the soul from a spiritually dead state.
    God knows the beginning and the end of all things He has created.
    Intellectually, until we see, not only by nature we have sin and all that implies, one will have no desire for Christ nor to obey Him nor indeed follow Him. Indeed cannot, without being regenerated by God.

    We cannot speak of Justice as God as He understand it, as He knows all things. Justice in human terms is a very,very though lucrative thing for many engaged in it. But for many there is little or no justice in this world, but God sees all.

  13. ignatius says:

    Nektarios,

    You say:
    “Original sin did not originate initially in this realm, but in heaven with Lucifer and those that followed him. It is spiritual in nature not physical.”

    Alas not. If you believe that then you believe human beings never had free will…Adam and Eve, in your account, were automatons simply believing whatever they heard from whoever they heard it.. acting blindly without conscience or discernment. They were’nt tempted in any way..they just went along and did as they were told without qualm..just following orders in other words?.

    If you say Original sin began with Lucifer then thats what you are in fact saying…surely you can do better than that!

    • Nektarios says:

      Ignatius
      No right thinking Christian would extrapolate from what I said to mean what you try to assert above. I think you are just being provocative. You are not as clever, spiritually aware, or as well taught biblically if the above from you is anything to go by.

  14. G.D says:

    Wherever the malady of ‘original sin’ came from, and whoever is responsible for it, or refuses to be responsible for it ( as in the definition -‘having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role’) we live with it, but we also live amongst the accomplished redemption; if we choose to see it.

    ‘We acknowledge one
    baptism for the forgiveness of sins.’ ….
    (When i recite the creed i say ‘sin’ singular, meaning anything and everything that is not of a creative loving spirit).
    ‘After Jesus had taken the vinegar (spoilt wine) he said ‘It is accomplished’ and bowing his head he gave up his spirit. …. (Initially dying to his physical self! Why did Jesus receive a baptism of repentance – ‘change in the inner man’ – from John?).

    For all of creation, one baptism has accomplished and redeemed.

    (And when we mirror Jesus’ incarnation with Christ ’emptying’ to become man, it’s not too much of a stretch to see that accomplishment as eternal – forever Present).

    When we (christian and non-christian, the original meaning of ‘apostle’, before it was exclusively christian, simply means ‘one who is sent’) when we take seriously the command to go and baptise all nations in that one baptism (in imitation of Jesus the Christ, whatever guise it takes) love will reveal that accomplishment of God, and it will manifest; all will give up their spirits to it.
    Christ will come a ‘second time’ – for individual, and unity of all.
    Then ‘all will be well, and all manner of things will be well’.

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