Thursday, October 02, 2008

Response to N T Wrong



Finally, some debate on this blog! NT Wrong left the following comment on yesterday's post, which I am elevating up here in the hopes of stimulating more discussion:

So -- if we accept their proposals -- Christians can hold onto the doctrine of 'original sin', except for the fact that there was no 'sin' at the time? Now, that's not in the least bit tendentious...

I'm just amused by the attempts to fudge around the fact of divine responsibility, with the 'doublespeak' that the world is both imperfect and yet not 'fallen' (because we mustn't do anything to impugn the Creator of this 'messiness', mustn't we?). There's shades of Barth's double-mouthed 'darkness at the heart of God' nonsense here.

I suggest giving up on Original Sin and God's goodness. The attempts to defend the two doctrines are intellectually bankrupt if evolution is accepted. If only the Jews had simply adopted Zoroastrianism, instead of trying to blend it with their own legends...


Let me play the devil's advocate and defend the position of Domning and Wimmer. First, you are right to observe that D. & W. do argue that at its earliest roots, original "sin" was not "sin." Before the advent of free-will, they would see "sin" as not yet sin but merely all those selfish behaviors and drives that are homologous between animals and humans. When sin did appear on earth, however, it automatically became "original" in the sense that all humans were already fully caught up in evolutionary mechanisms that would end up involving everyone in sin's power. I suppose that, as you say, this view of things may sound like fudging with the meaning of terms like "original." However, smart theologians have generally tended to take this term "original" as signifying universality rather than a reference to one historical starting point for sin in human history. I don't see any especially new fudging here, just a new way of working with a specialized and stipulated meaning of a term.

Second, you raise the question of divine responsibility for all the messiness and suffering of life on earth. I do not think that D. & W. try to protect God and absolve God of responsibility. To the contrary, this view takes away a lot of the responsibility for our fallen world that has traditionally been assigned to the rebellion of Adam and Eve. The world was a messy place full of suffering long before human sin arrived, so God (and logical neccessity) must bear responsibility.

Third, you suggest giving up on God's goodness. Actually, this new proposal of D. & W. tends to solve the problem of theodicy, not complicate it. Teilhard de Chardin observed long ago that theodicy is much, much more of an issue in the old static universe than it is in a universe that is constantly changing and evolving. He is probably quite right. For D. & W., anyway, evolution with all its messiness was the only tool at God's disposal to make a real, living world worth having, so God had to humbly accept that in launching the world there was no way to leave out the dark, horrible bits. Hence, we have the reference I quoted in yesterday's post to "the Creator's humility." And, oh, I don't think that you want to say that the idea of "original sin" is bankrupt, do you? The horrible fact of human "fallenness" is surely clear from the genocides and horrors of the 20th century, is it not? And, as for Zoroastrianism, I argue in a forthcoming article that its influence on the Hebrew Bible was not very great, and rightly so.

9 Comments:

Blogger James F. McGrath said...

I think that it might be helpful to replace talk of "original sin" with another understanding of human nature rooted in Biblical tradition, which seems to capture everything we need to from the Christian doctrine and express it in a manner more compatible with contemporary biology (and science more generally).

The Rabbinic idea of the two impulses, one "good" and one "evil", is preferable because the rabbis themselves recognized that without the "evil impulse" which leads us to eat, procreate and survive, we'd be in serious trouble. The need is not to eliminate these instincts but to control them. And that is precisely the situation of humankind. We have inherited impulses and instincts from our evolutionary history, and are also able to reflect on them and make conscious choices about whether or not to follow them.

Thu Oct 02, 10:47:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Scott Ferguson said...

I would say that any talk of God's "Goodness" is only meaningful in modern debate if taken in the context of the the 3 O's (Omniscient, Omnipotent Omnibenevolent). Mother Teressa was a good person but no one is haggling over her responsibility for suffering (except Christopher Hitchens, of course.)

If you say that that "evolution with all its messiness was the only tool at God's disposal" you rob God of some of his power. Do you propose a God who is not All-Powerful or All-Good? If so, Congratulations! You may be the first Christian I have met who fully embraces this view.

As to modern genocide proving the "fallen" state of the world and mankind, this presupposes a previous "unfallen" state, something we have no non-biblical basis for. The world is messy. Human nature is messy. These are observable facts. All else is conjecture.

Thu Oct 02, 11:34:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Hi Scott, I'm glad you left this comment. Thank you!. As far as omniscience goes, surely we all have to acknowledge that even God operates under constraints. To admit it need not "rob God of some of his power" as you put. For example, read carefully what the authors say on p. 68 of the pdf: 'The key to the paradox is simply to realize that banishing evil from an autonomous world involves a contradiction, and is therefore impossible, even for God. On the other hand, a non-autonomous world, even one without evil, is not worth creating. The "power" to do the impossible is illusory; hence there is no meaning in saying that God "surrenders" it. Inability to do that which intrinsically cannot be done is no real limitation on God's power.' But there is more to the authors' argument. They suggest further: 'a God who acts through persuasion (as can be seen in Jesus' example) can actually exercise far greater influence on events, and hence greater power, than one who uses brute force. This is because a world with the freedom to help create itself has much more integrity and value than a puppet-like universe that is coerced into being; and the Creator is greater to the extent that the world created has greater value.' Hope this helps! ---SLC

Thu Oct 02, 01:24:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger N T Wrong said...

I'm glad I've finally provided some debate on your blog. Imagine a world with no argument. It sounds awful!

I think there is still something new and innovative about a doctrine of 'original sin' which grounds its universality not in humankind per se, but in God's creative actions. (The catalyst for this innovation is undoubtedly the relatively new fact of evolution, which is a complete reversal of the older almost universal idea of a decline in humanity since some 'Golden Age' of the past, and its variations. The idea that we're not so much fallen angels as rising beasts is quite revolutionary.)

Grounding the universality of sin in creation is fundamentally different from grounding it in God's own acts. Grounded in humanity, it is humanity which is responsible for the groaning of the whole universe. Conversely, when humanity is glorified to some perfected state, the universe will be 'set free from its bondage to decay'. However the doctrine of Original Sin has been conceived, it is thoroughly anthopocentric. Domning and Wimmer's new scheme, as far as I can tell, grounds the universality of sin (before it becomes sin, with the 'fall' of humanity) in creation itself. That's a whole new level of fudging.

As for God's responsibility for this always-imperfect state of creation, I do still suspect the motives for distinguishing God's creation of an 'imperfect' world from his creation of a 'fallen' world, as an attempt to deny God's responsibility for evil. I see that you explain that this is "the only tool at God's disposal to make a real, living world worth having". My criticism of this position is along the same lines as before. If God creates something which necessarily involves the creation of evil (or terms which soften this if you like, 'messiness', etc), then God is still responsible for the evil in a more direct manner than the traditional Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin. Sure, God may have wished the 'greater good', and God may have wished to have communion with his other, but none of this ameliorates the conclusion that a quite radical evil exists in God. And by grounding this evil not in humanity's own actions, but in the actions of divine creation, the doctrine of Original Sin is significantly altered.

A new point I should make is that evolution, and more broadly natural science, makes it untenable that freewill may be restricted to humans. Freewill is not something that suddenly emerged with homo sapiens. It is essential for much lower forms of life. So, too, codes of morality. Most animals, like humans, have limited freewill, culture, and ethics. Species prior to homo sapien, and cousins such as the Neanderthals, would have also.

I do indeed wish to maintain, with some rhetoric and hyperbole, that the defence of 'Original Sin' is now intellectually bankrupt. In more measured terms, the fact of evolution is inconsistent with any formulation of Original Sin which grounds it in human evil rather than divine evil. (And, as I've said, the attempt to hold onto something one would still label 'Original Sin' while grounding it in God's creative actions, is HumptyDumptian in its theological redefinition.)

The genocides and horrors of the 20th century do not demonstrate any 'fallenness'. Only a worldview in which humankind is evaluated as having 'fallen' from some higher state can impose such an understanding on the disgusting events of the 20th Century (or, for that matter, of any century). But, humankind has not 'fallen', but is simply what it is. The genocides and horrors of the last century are a result of utopian worldviews, deriving from the Western utopian legacy. But they only demonstrate a state of 'Original Sin' to those who already accept such an (untenable) idea. We're nasty beasties because that's how we're made (which is not to excuse, but only to explain).

Lastly, in what may well be both the most argmentative and now longest post on your blog, I was considering the Zoroastrian influence on Persian and Hellenistic Judaism, not on the Hebrew Bible. I agree that there's not much influence on Jewish scriptures, except when it comes to later apocalyptic scriptures such as Daniel and Enoch. But it was that particular stream I had in mind.

Thu Oct 02, 03:21:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger N T Wrong said...

Hmmmm... My nonsensical sentence, "Grounding the universality of sin in creation is fundamentally different from grounding it in God's own acts" should probably have read something like "Grounding the universality of sin in creation is fundamentally different from grounding it in humanity".

Thu Oct 02, 06:42:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks for this, NT. I believe your first several paragraphs here to be on target in noting that D. & W. are doing something rather new, and on a whole new level, with the idea of original sin. I also believe you to be correct to say that we now must hold God more directly responsible for the evil in existence than we did when we believed that we had a static world. I do note, however, that in the Hebrew Bible, God is willing to take responsibility for some major evil---responsibility for collateral and excess suffering associated with God's judgments---so I don't think God will object to our coming to this conclusion. I'm not sure this means "a quite radical evil exists in God," but I would have to hear more from you about why that particular formulation would follow.

You are correct, nonetheless, that the exact meaning of 'free-will' needs more discussion from D. & W. Until then, however, it does seem to me that we can reasonably speak of human beings having acquired a moral responsibility for meditated decisions that is absent in the animal kingdom. As human beings, we have spiritual faculties that make moral evil and positive acts of virtue possible for us in a way that is not possible for animals.

I would strongly disagree with you that "original sin is now intellectually bankrupt." Whatever its biological or historical origins and roots, we clearly now have a situation in which all humans find themselves estranged and alienated from their neighbors, from God, and from their true, ideal selves. This is all that is meant by the idea of "original sin." As you say, we are "nasty beasties." As you say, this is "what it is."

Humans have responsibility in this. We all choose whether to sin or not. Doctrines of God's sovereign-will should never be pushed to deny human freedom and responsibility. P. 63 of the pdf reads: 'While the inherent limitations of this material world set the stage for our sinfulness, the final decision is always ours. Free will and human culpability (given the availability of grace) are neither excluded nor diminished (see Sirach 15:11, 20a; James 1:13a). The blame and responsibility for the moral evil
that pervades our world are ours alone, because this evil (unlike physical evil) stems from individual human choices made with full consciousness that we could choose differently.'

Now, as to "fallenness," our dreams assure us that there is what you term a "higher state." What D. & W. are now saying is that this state may not lie in the
actual biological and historical past. We might better describe it as an archetype of the human collective unconscious or as an eschatological reality or something else along similar lines. Hope this helps! ---SLC

Thu Oct 02, 08:58:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger N T Wrong said...

What seems to make D. & W.’s suggestion more radically evil than 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. ;-)

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.

Is Original Sin merely ‘human’ estrangement from God? It appears that in 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’?

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.)

Thu Oct 02, 11:22:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

NT, thank you for these probing and helpful points and questions. Again, I am elevating your words to an actual post, where I will offer my reflections and responses. Peace, ---SLC

Fri Oct 03, 10:48:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Kim said...

in concert with mcgrath's comment I would offer the following: Original Star Trek: The Enemy Within

Mon Oct 13, 01:07:00 AM GMT-5  

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