N T Wrong Still Remains Wrong!
This is really great. For the second day in a row, NT Wrong has left extended arguments in the comments on this blog's discussion of Original Sin and Evolution, and how the two must fit together if we really are to think coherently as both scientists and theologians. I want to thank NT. His probing questions are really lucid and helpful, and this sort of debate helps everyone think things through in detail and get some clarity on really crucial issues for both science and faith. Let me elevate his latest comment here to this post, and then offer responses, point by point.
NTW: What seems to make [God in] D. & W.’s suggestion more radically evil than [in] usual Christian theology, or any of the theologies found in the Hebrew Bible (hmmmm… with the possible exception of Job), is that God sets up a universe with ‘messiness’ (evil) right from the beginning. There is no moment when humans can exist in the world without evil already existing. And, in the absence of any appeal to pre-temporal angelic falls, this evil must be God’s responsibility. While the God of the Hebrew Bible destroys the poor in Judea for the sake of the sins of an elite few (or, even, for the sake of the sins of a single King), such an excess of evil is still prompted by human sin. In D. & W.’s case, it originates with God. God’s not just an evil shepherd when he responds to humanity's sin; he’s evil ab initio. This is fundamentally different. And God’s evil remains so, whether or not human freewill converts that form of divine evil into a new type of (human) evil. Two wrongs don’t make a right. ;-)
SLC: Actually, it is safe to argue that the Hebrew Bible frequently presents God as setting up a creation in which radical evil persists in existence, where the horrific Leviathan survives to strike us again and again, where the world remains inherently unsafe. I am using Jon D. Levenson’s phrases from his very helpful work, _Creation and the Persistence of Evil_. Some of the texts he cites to anchor the point include Gen 7:11; Ps 89:25; Ps 104:26; Isa 51:9, among many others. Here is a brief but helpful quote from Levenson, p. 49: “Where evil is only of human origin, suffering is to be attributed only to sin, which intrudes into the pristine divine-human relationship: blame the victim. But in the Hebrew Bible, it is possible, as we have seen and shall see again, to fault God himself for the suffering and to dare him to act as the magisterial world-orderer that the old myth celebrates.”
NTW: I don’t accept there are any “spiritual faculties that make moral evil and positive acts of virtue possible for us in a way that is not possible for animals”. I conclude such an idea is mystical and unrealistic. But we might just have to disagree on that one, in the absence of any common standard of proof.
SLC: I would push back against the claim that this idea is mystical, and refer both to Paul Tillich’s position on this (in the pdf on p. 49) and to the position of Domning, a leading evolutionary scientist (in the pdf on p. 84f.). True, from the standpoint of scientific inquiry, we do not yet know exactly what separates human beings from animals. Nevertheless, evolution allows for real boundaries between species, for differences in kind to exist within nature. There is no reason why this sort of thing could not include a boundary between beings who are morally reflective and beings who are morally nonreflective. In addition, I should also mention that there are major scientific thinkers (e.g., Francis Collins; John Polkinghorne) who argue that certain specifically human qualities, such as our innate knowledge of the moral law or our innate spiritual openness, require explanations that transcend the purely biological. I owe this latter idea to my dean and VTS president, Ian Markham (_Understanding Christian Doctrine_, p. 113).
NTW [for convenience of presentation, this paragraph has been moved up from its original final position]: I’m not quite sure I understood how our dreams assure us of our fallen state. I agree that the doctrine of Original Sin is no more than a ‘dream’, but I’m sure that’s not what you meant. ;-) If we wish for some better condition for ourselves, some transcendence of the way we are made, that is what it is – a wish. Unfortunately not all wishes or dreams come true. However, if my dream last night of driving along a desert road with Tyra Banks beside me in the passenger seat does come true at the eschaton, I’ll be sure to concede this point to you. (Yet, I'd still be wondering what we 'fell' from, given the evolutionary fact of humanity's 'rise' from primeval slime.)
SLC: What I was trying to get at here is my hermeneutic for interpreting the initial chapters of Genesis, which contemporary biblical scholars do not regard as the genre “history.” So then, how do I understand the genre and referent of these texts of Genesis 1-3? There are two things Gen 1-3 certainly is not: Eden is not an historical place or time; but neither is it a relic of ancient cultural superstition. It’s easy to slip into such assumptions, however. Note how you said in your first paragraph above: “There is no moment when humans can exist in the world without evil already existing.” Quite true, if what you mean by “moment” is a moment in historical time as this world flows through it. But, this “moment,” as Paul Tillich emphasized long ago, is simply “not once upon a time,” “not a historical state” (see the pdf, pp. 48ff.). It does exist, however, and not as what you call a “wish” or a fantasy. Our first evolutionary human ancestors experienced it, but no more so than we do today! (Again, see my dean’s book: Ian Markham, _Understanding Christian Doctrine_, pp. 114-115.) See further the next paragraph:
SLC, continued: Since I am a biblical scholar and not a theologian like Tillich or my dean and president, let me try to get at this in a biblical way, as follows: The Hebrew Bible attests to the existence of a pre-fall Eden in the reality of the Jerusalem temple, a symbol and sacrament of edenic, non-quotidian reality, where no one dies, where pure holiness reigns, where sin is left outside at the gates. Hebrew pilgrims knew instinctively that they were at home in the Temple and were instinctively anxious about their “exile” outside its walls. The symbols of the Temple are known from the dreams and myths of world cultures, because they reflect what Paul Tillich called humanity’s “dreaming innocence” (see the pdf, p. 49). This is no mystical category or wish, but a category necessary to account for the sense of anxiety and alienation that human beings existentially experience.
NTW: Is Original Sin merely ‘human’ estrangement from God? It appears that in [Saint] Paul’s discussion of what might be called ‘the cosmological effects of sin’, and which is necessarily a part of the meaning of ‘Original Sin’ (although that term means much more, as later developed), the ‘fallen’ state of humanity has affected the entire cosmos. Everything is something other than God intended it. Likewise, when humanity comes into its ‘all in all’, Paul considers that this same cosmos will be restored. I really doubt that Paul understood that death -- any death -- was even a possibility before humanity first sinned and the cosmos was fundamentally altered. Yet, if we accept the fact of evolution, then death – endless death, trillions of deaths, Wall-Street-sized death, deaths of entire species -- is the very precondition for humanity’s existence. So, while it is possible that Original Sin can be redefined rather than discarded in light of evolution, I wonder if in so doing we must necessarily contradict the Pauline roots of the later doctrine. And isn’t that a little bit on the specious side, even if it is too much to label as ‘intellectually bankrupt’?
SLC: Correct, NT, original sin does encompass a cosmological dimension. However, to say that there are “cosmological effects” of human sin will immediately be confusing, because, as I have just explained, we are talking about what is primarily a poetic and archetypal reality (not that Saint Paul was mindful of this, of course! We’ve gotten more sophisticated than Paul was). We now know that any notions of cause and effect with respect to original sin will be operative not on the plane of space-time but on the plane of the psychological and existential experience of humanity. In other words, the cosmological dimensions of original sin must revolve around the antinomies in our human experience of what nature looks like in Tillich’s “dreaming innocence” (e.g., effortless fertility) and what nature looks like in our waking, existential experience (e.g., barrenness and groaning, a la Romans 8:22). Let me put this as compactly as possible: Nowadays, for a biblical scholar to talk about “cosmological effects of sin” is a poetic (but meaningful and truthful) way of saying that our human existential and spiritual condition of alienation is thoroughly rooted and bound up in the material universe. Put another way, the universe looks otherwise when we are restored to the edenic, non-quotidian reality that we glimpse in our visits to the Jerusalem Temple, from which we stand exiled due to our very real guilt. When our fallenness from Eden-reality is overcome in God’s time, so also there will arrive a thoroughly cosmic and temporal salvation that the apostle Paul glimpsed in Romans 8:19-23. For more on this, see the PDF, around p. 64.