Friday, October 03, 2008

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.


Blogger N T Wrong said...

Thanks again for the continuing dialog, Stephen. I particularly appreciate your KJV-style, in which you print your own words in ordinary type, but my words in red type. Here’s hoping that, yet again, my words will attain to the level of inspiration which you behold them.

There is a problem that I first want to address, which involves using the Hebrew Bible as a source for Christian theologies. The doctrine of Original Sin is founded on a worldview in which evil is in cosmic opposition to God, and by which humanity is fundamentally afflicted, so that humanity is wholly dependent for salvation on God’s in-breaking grace and incarnation in Christ. But, as you will well appreciate, in the Hebrew Bible (and Daniel is the obvious exception) -- by and large -- evil is not some opposing force represented by cosmic powers, demons, or a Devil. In the Hebrew Bible, ‘evil’, generally speaking again, is not a force, but ‘evil’ is simply ‘bad things happening’. Sure, the world is portrayed as one which has sea monsters, poverty, and sickness. But the Hebrew Bible suggests a dozen or so ways in which God mitigates such bad occurrences – e.g. protecting the righteous from harm, only temporarily afflicting the righteous, etc. Whatever the case, all of these evils operate without the idea of there being any cosmic battle between forces of good and evil, which later becomes such a prevalent idea in Enochic, Danielic, and Christian Judaisms. What I’m getting to from all this, is the following conclusion. God is at fault in many of the Hebrew Bible’s presentations of evil -- but this “evil” is not at all the same conception as that “evil” which is presupposed in Paul or Augustine. We’re talking about apples and pears.

Moreover, in the absence of any doctrine of creation ab initio in the Hebrew Bible, evil is not even something created by God (as in D&W’s proposal). Rather, God is continually opposing chaos in sustaining his creation. The chaos, and the Leviathan which represents it, is not a radical evil in God, but the ‘stuff’ out of which God creates order and shalom. Evil is always God’s Other, even if he has the power and control to determine whether chaos shall break forth on somebody’s head, or not. If this is the case, can it even be said that God is so radically at fault for the evils that beset humankind in the dominant worldview of the Hebrew Bible?

I mentioned that there is one exception in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Job. As Carol Newsom has outlined, in the book of Job, the examples of Behemoth and Leviathan no longer say the same thing as what they say in the divine warrior creation myth elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible -- where God defeats chaos in order to establish the world. These figures of terrible power and evil are not in hostility to God, but are symbols of the powers of unimaginable chaos which have been taken up into the very being of the transcendent and all-powerful Axial Age Yahweh. That development we see in Job is probably a step in a similar direction to that developed in the Enochic literature (maybe even a response to it?). Only here, in the Hebrew Bible, is there a radical fault, within God, for evil.

Now, to get back into the discussion of Original Sin proper. Your emphasis is definitely on the understanding of Original Sin as a ‘universal’, as a ‘symbol’, as a ‘poetic and archetypal reality’, as something shared by ‘the dreams and myths of world cultures’, as ‘the sense of anxiety and alienation that human beings existentially experience’, as ‘psychological and existential experience of humanity’, as ‘our human existential and spiritual condition of alienation’. And this is definitely one aspect of the doctrine of Original Sin. But, as the commonplace goes, even heresy gets orthodox belief at least partly right. The heresy is in the mix. Some recourse to the History of Tradition is always worthwhile when it comes to discussing matters of orthodoxy. Original Sin can only be understood correctly, I say, if its two traditional references are held together: peccatum originale originans and peccatum originale originatum. That is, any understanding of Original Sin that is true to its historical usage must take into account both the ‘originating’ sin of Adam and Eve on one hand, and the ‘originated’ universality of sin on the other. There was a tendency in the twentieth century to emphasise sin’s existential effect, by describing the prevalence of evils (the Holocaust, worldwide starvation, mass-murders of tens of millions by governments of Russia and China) in terms of Original Sin. But that’s just one aspect of Original Sin. The weakness of D&W’s scheme, and your own explanations, is that they overemphasise the existential, universal, archetypal aspects at the expense of its ‘originating’ respect in the fall of Adam and Eve. But, you can’t have one without the other without a shift in meaning of Humpty Dumpty proportions. That is, these explanations of Original Sin which focus largely, if not exclusively, on the originatum -- on the ‘state’ of evil in the world -- have radically shifted the meaning of the term.

It’s not often that I find myself a champion of orthodoxy. But the reason I wish to take some care about orthodox definitions here is that I suspect that this particular strategy by which Original Sin is given a defence – after the discovery of evolution, after the elimination of ‘Adam and Eve’, after the end of any concept of original blessedness, after the end of any ‘fall’ in time and history – is a tendentious attempt to defend the concept of Original Sin by redefining it.

And I can well understand the drive towards such tendentious theologizing. What do you do with a concept that explains how death came into the world (in time-history), after the fact of evolution has demonstrated that humanity was created by death -- by trillions of earlier deaths? Answer: reduce the concept of Original Sin to an “originated” status or condition of ongoing humanity, eliminating its “originating” status at any one point in time. What do you do with a concept of an initial period of Paradise in the Garden of Eden (which as the ‘contemporary bible scholar’ James Barr has so eloquently argued on many occasions is both history and theology for its authors), when there never was any such Golden Age? Answer: reduce the story to an ‘archetype’ or ‘myth’, which has ‘mythic meaning’ but no historical meaning. (Ah, Barr would be turning in his grave!) What do you do with the doctrine of ‘the Fall’ once evolution has shown we are not ‘fallen angels’ but ‘rising beasts’ (to employ Arthur Peacocke’s cute phrasing)? Answer: reduce the story to a ‘mythic meaning’ about the prevalence of evil carried on by humanity from generation to generation.

Ah – but you object – it’s not just me: it’s Tillich, and Rahner, and Wimmer and Domning, and other theologians... who have also been backed into this corner by the fact of evolution. Why are there so many theologians turning from the orthodox formulation of Original Sin, after we discovered the fact of evolution? Now, that’s just got to be more evidence of ... Original Sin!!

... or, it might be an example of the tendentious nature of theologizing itself, which Albert Schweitzer summed up so nicely:

“Es gibt keine Lage so verzweifelt, dass die Theologie keine Ausweg wüsste.”

Sat Oct 04, 12:38:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks, NT. What an amazingly quick response. I'll give some quick thoughts, but I really do want others to join this conversation. We need more voices! As to your first point about "apples and pears," I would remind you that the Hebrew Bible is indeed concerned to stress that evil is no mundane phenomenon along the lines of "bad things happening." As my mentor Brevard Childs has shown, that is why Genesis (which would prefer to struggle against myth, not use it!) brings in (i.e., co-opts) mythic stuff like a talking serpent---to make sure we know that evil is a force beyond the everyday. As to your second and third points, I do not yet see where we really disagree. In Job and elsewhere (cf. 2 Isa: "I create evil"), a strand of theology in the Hebrew Bible sees God as inscrutable, a-moral, wielding chaos and darkness in a way that leaves us floored. Recent scholarship has shown that this is not a challenge to theology, but a spiritually constructive theology. I guess where I would push back is with your tendency, NT, to fall back on history-of-religions categories, betrayed by your use of words like "development" and "step" within Israelite religion. I do not find this tendency very helpful in a theological discussion about original sin, because I want to talk about God's perspective on evil and sin as witnessed to in the texts, not on human developments or steps in thinking about God and sin. In your next paragraphs, it is clear that you get my point. Thank you. However, this position that I am laying out is in no way "being backed into a corner" by evolutionary science. Please, all truth is God's truth, and our task is to work towards an undivided mind about evolution, the creator God, and sin. We cannot dispose of any of the three, so we are stuck to fit them together. As Francis Collins stressed at the Consortium meeting that launched this discussion, modern mathmatical physics now knows that the universe is just too amazingly fine tuned for us to imagine that God did not create it. Also, as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, a non-static, evolving world helps tremendously with theological problems, such as theodicy (again, see Teilhard de Chardin). This is evolutionary science helping theology, not backing theology into a corner! Please not that Genesis 1-3 was not read as crude history up until Darwin did his work, and readers got "backed into a corner." See again, Ian Markham's discussion in _Understanding Christian Doctrine_, p. 109: "Origen was adamant that a literal tree of good and evil was sheer nonsense; and Kierkegaard writing twenty or so years before Darwin insisted that Genesis should be read as metaphor." Markham goes on to rightly state that because of clear generic markers in the text of Genesis 1-3, "Indeed, there is something rather tragic about turning Genesis 1 into a rather odd history." A contemporary theological approach to Gen 1-3 is not "redefining it." The text always meant to convey real truths abour our existence, not mere scientific or historical truth. Again, as I noted above, the text always knew that serpents don't talk. The text co-opts a talking serpent from ANE myth because it wants to talk about truths beyond the merely human plane. However, now that we have evolutionary science, contemporary readers want answers to questions like what does science contribute to the question of Original Sin and its etiology. We sure know that Original Sin is real, we have our human existential condition of alienation as our witness. What W. & D. do so nicely, in my judment, is help us see what evolutionary science contributes to our understanding of the etiology of Original Sin. ---SLC

Sat Oct 04, 08:29:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger N T Wrong said...

I agree -- I'm all for listening to other opinions from anybody who has actually survived reading our lengthy exchange. There's lots of ways to consider these issues, and undoubtedly I haven't begun to consider many of those ways (which is one of the reasons I find it valuable to look back in history to see how humans have tackled it in the past, including humans at various stages of early Jewish thought, as attested in the Bible and other works. I very much doubt any of them have reached 'the Truth', but I agree that we have an obligation to work towards that, an obligation in which the past should function as one of our guides.)

I note that I am quite aware of what you call the 'sophisticated' interpretation of passages like Gen 1-3, which attempts to treat it as pure 'theology' or pure 'mythic meaning'. But it is no coincidence that 'sophisticated' stems from the same root as 'sophistry' does -- and I have argued, with contemporary biblical scholars such as James Barr, for a more appropriate way in which to interpret Genesis-Chronicles, here, here, and here.

Thanks for the discussion thus far, Stephen.

Sat Oct 04, 02:42:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Doug said...

I decided that my (cheap) two pennyworth was nonetheless too long for a comment, and posted here.

Sun Oct 05, 02:35:00 PM GMT-5  

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