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Where should one Search for "Original Sin"?
(A Dialogue between Theology, Philosophy, and Science)

Autor:Wandinger Nikolaus
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Kategorieartikel
Abstrakt:In recent decades theologians have tried – sometimes desperately – to find models for explaining "original sin" to modern men and women. It has been construed as structural sin, as mimetic desire, as a neurotic distortion of the human psyche, or even as the negative by-product of evolution's progress through mutation and selection. Each of these models can point to supportive arguments, but they seem to be mutually exclusive, so all of them cannot be adequate models at the same time. Moreover: If one of the phenomena mentioned above were "original sin", should not theology drop this ancient and misleading expression and put one of the others in its place? By interpreting "original sin" as a formal concept, I will attempt to show that indeed all of the models mentioned above (and probably also some others not yet found) say something valid about original sin, without precluding the others from doing so as well, and without condemning that concept to redundancy.
Publiziert in:Guest-Lecture at Heythrop College, University of London, Feb. 2003
Datum:2003-03-05

Inhalt

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1. Peccatum originale originatum

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1.1. Definition

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When I am about to talk of "original sin" as a formal concept, I want to clarify first, what aspect of the two main aspects pf original sin I want to deal with here. The doctrine of original sin has two main parts: 1) Original sin as the first sin committed by the first humans, the sin the bible tells in its story of the forbidden tree in Gen 3. The technical term for this aspect is peccatum originale originans. 2) Original sin as the ensuing consequences from that first act of sinning for the rest of humankind, that is our nature's being marred by original sin, the peccatum originale originatum. I will be concerned with the second aspect only in this lecture. I will present some thoughts on the first aspect on Friday in Michael's undergraduate class, if anyone should be interested in that. But here I want to concentrate on some aspects of humankind's being marred by original sin.

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In the second half of the 20th century, this teaching has been perceived by many theologians as very problematic: there was the fear that this would place all of humanity under a sort of collective guilt and the problem of how the sin of the forebears could be transferred to their descendents and what its influence in our daily lives was? If the latter question could not be answered, the doctrine seemed to be irrelevant to how we gave meaning to our lives.

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I think the first of these question could be answered in quite a satisfactory way by simply recollecting that from the beginning "original sin" was not meant as a concept of moral appeal or judgment but rather as an instrument of interpretation, explaining why human persons in certain circumstances are not able to act in accordance with their moral ideals and tend to fail in spite of the efforts they make. That was one of the functions the doctrine of original sin had in Augustine's debate with Palagius: Grace was needed to overcome this human inability to do the good. Augustine's mistake in that debate, was of course, to suppose that God would give that grace very sparingly. Once you suppose that God gives that grace generously, you can see that the doctrine of original sin does not place humankind under a sort of collective guilt; rather it accounts for our inability to conform to our own ideals and explains that inability by saying that our nature has been wounded through the sin of our ancestry. Proof for that is that a theology of the limbus puerorum has completely vanished, because the church has completely accepted the idea that deceased infants got to heaven, whether baptized or not. That rejects the first objection towards the doctrine: it does not apportion collective guilt but interprets the human inclination to accumulate ever more guilt. It does not, however, explain how this sin is transferred or what its consequences in our everyday lives are.

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The main consequence is that the "freedom" of human decisions becomes very limited, indeed in certain instances, it may vanish completely, although human beings never can avoid their basic nature as free and responsible creatures. From here, modern man and woman can easily find access to the consequences of this doctrine: we are aware today that oftentimes we are not our own masters, that we might want to be better but are unable to, we might have meant well but caused damage instead, we might act in an evil way, yet claim that we are not to blame but someone else who made us the way we are. And these are not just excuses or pretexts. There are objective causal relations between us and our ancestry that limit - and sometimes remove - our ability to choose, or to act according to our choices. This is basically, what the consequences of original sin are in our lives.

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However, there is a fundamental difference between the usual modern perception of the limitation of human freedom and the doctrine of original sin: As a modern man I would not see my own misbehavior, in as far as it is brought about by other people's behavior towards me, as sin; rather I would blame those persons for having damaged me. I would call them sinners against myself, and would in fact make them scapegoats for my wrongdoings. The Christian doctrine does not deny their responsibility; nevertheless it holds that it is I who is sinning now and nobody else. Even a personal sin that was occasioned by my being a victim of original sin is still my sin now. So while acknowledging that there is a connection, or even a causal link, between sinners, the Christian doctrine of original sin does not allow me to shift the burden of guilt completely on my ancestors. In that it faithfully follows God's model in Gen 3:12-19, where God acknowledges that the woman, the man and the serpent indeed share responsibility for the transgression, but He does not accept the shifting of blame along that line of chronology.

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We could summarize what we've seen so far as follows: Any influence that the sin of one human person exerts on a different human person in such a way that it limits the second person's ability to act freely and inclines him or her to sin is a manifestation of original sin. The ways in which human persons can influence each other in such a manner can be construed as the ways through which original sin is passed on. It is that formula, I think, that many modern-day theologians had in mind, when they borrowed models from other academic and scientific disciplines in order to explain that strange influence on our deeds in a timely way.

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1.2. Incommensurable Descriptions

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Unfortunately for theology, however, these descriptions seem to be incommensurable or mutually exclusive, which leaves theology with an array of suggestions, but no real solutions. I want to enumerate a couple of those now, for illustration.

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1.2.1. Structural Sin (Social Sciences)

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It is true that structures in which we participate do determine to a large degree, what we can do or cannot do. They shape our very perception of the world and prevent us from seeing certain forms of injustice, while perceiving others very clearly. The individual cannot or can only at very great cost break out of these structures and in that sense is forced by them to certain actions. If these are sinful actions, we have structural sin: We as citizens of rich Western Europe share in the guilt that the world economic rules diminish the chances of developing countries; or that the environmental pollution of our cars and industries is completely out of proportion to our share of world population, etc. Most people don't even realize that guilt is connected with these facts of our daily lives, because of the structures we live in. And those who do realize it can only bring about marginal changes and improvements because it is very hard to readjust whole structures. No single individual has the power to do it. Even governments seem to be more and more driven by structural realities, rather than shaping those realities.

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So theologians used that model to describe original sin and make that concept meaningful to modern persons. But - and that is the question: Can we say: Structural sin is original sin? If it were so, why shouldn't theologians stop talking about original sin and talk about autonomous socio-economic structures? Would we still need a theology of original sin then, or wouldn't that rather seem a leftover of bygone times that did not have the means to describe those problems adequately? Would not then, what was meant to be a useful description of original sin, actually become its abolition? The suspicion does not seem so far-fetched to me, since these attempts to give new meaning to the old doctrine has not succeeded in bringing that doctrine back into believers' system of interpreting their lives in the light of faith.

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However, structural sin is not the only aspirant to replace original sin.

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1.2.2. Neurosis (Psychoanalysis)

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Another way to come to terms with original sin is psychoanalytical. Indeed, the typical inner-psychic battle that ensues, when a human person is tempted and tries to resist that temptation, can be well described by Freud's inner-psychic entities: Id, Ego and Super-Ego. And these descriptions fit very well with lively descriptions through the centuries that placed original sin and concupiscence foremost in the sexual realm: the desire a well-formed body evokes and seductive behavior arouses, or maybe just the hormones of the afflicted person produce; the inner fight of that person to resist, the making up of their mind first toward what is perceived to be virtuous, then to the evil, then again to the virtuous, in order to finally succumb to temptation. Many did and do (mis-)understand the bible's "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" as describing nothing more aptly than that.

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Freud came up with more than a description, with an explanation: Persons tossed about by their sexual desires in such a way have a weak Ego. The desire, aroused by the Id, and the prohibitions anchored in the Super-Ego fight over the head of the weak Ego, which can do almost nothing to influence the outcome. It will execute what the winner of the fight will tell it. A person haunted by that type of conflicts does not need an infusion of grace, according to Freud, but a psychotherapy that will strengthen the Ego and help it to take command on the bridge of that ship called a human person.

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So again, inner-psychic conflicts can very well be used to describe what is meant by the influence of original sin and by concupiscence, but isn't the cost the eventual abolition and replacement of the theological term by these concepts?

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1.2.3. Original Sin as Hereditary Sin (Biology)

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In German the word for original sin is "Erbsünde", which means - literally translated - hereditary or inherited sin. The implicit model behind that is probably that of a hereditary illness: you didn't incur the illness yourself, you inherited it from your parents. Maybe that is the reason why German-speaking theologians also seek for explanations of original sin in modern genetics. Raymund Schwager, Dean of our Innsbruck faculty, is one of them.

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Of course, he does not suppose that sin is simply genetically transferred like for example hemophilia. But he goes back into the history of evolution and reckons that when the first human beings started fighting and killing their own kind, they did nothing less than influence the process of selection that is an integral part of evolution. For, the most intelligent early humans were likely to be the most successful in fighting as well. That in turn, however, made them also the most violent. Because these individuals and groups were successful, they had a much better chance of passing on their genes. We know by now that behavioral patterns can become encoded in the brain or may even become part of the genetic code of an organism. If the inclination to violence became part of the genetic code, then sinful human action (the first killings) would really have influenced human nature in the sense of the genetic structure of human organisms. That way Schwager hopes to refute the enlightenment contention that human nature and freedom are completely separate realms with no interaction between the two.

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But would we really accept the possibility that we might one day be able to remove original sin from our genes by a very sophisticated form of genetic engineering? And why would we still hold fast to the concept of original sin? Wouldn't it sound very sensible to accept this kind of influence on our genetic blueprint as an unavoidable part of evolution, like our getting furry during a certain stage of embryonic development?

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1.2.4. Mimetic Desire (Anthropology)

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As far as I am informed René Girard's mimetic theory is not a sealed book to you here. In his later writings Girard has acknowledged that the problematic aspects of human development under mimetic desire may not be seen as following necessarily from human nature as such but as consequences of fallen human nature, thus of original sin. One could now argue that the problematic side of mimesis, the way it leads to metaphysical desire, conflict, mimetic crisis, victimization etc. is the way original sin shows itself. Could we say that original sin or at least concupiscence is mimetic desire?

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Undoubtedly Girard's theory is much broader than what we have heard of so far, and it can incorporate the other approaches into its framework. Isn't it the way mimetic desire works that makes it so hard for us to break out of structures? Can't Freud's postulated inner-psychic entities be abolished by the mimetic theory, which in turn provides an explanation for all the dithering that is just as good as Freud's, while not in need of any of his postulated entities? Can't even genetic heredity be modeled as a very primitive kind of mimesis: the reproduction of a genetic structure being an emulation of that structure?

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I think, these are strengths of mimetic theory. Nevertheless, we might ask: Is really every sinning that is strongly influenced by someone else's previous sinning explicable by mimetic theory? Can we rule out that there are instances which the mimetic theory cannot account for? Actually, I would not dare to exclude this possibility. And therefore, I would not accept a claim of identity for original sin with mimetic desire either. Moreover mimetic theory is not a theological theory in the first place. We would still have the problem of losing a theological concept and supplanting it with one of the human and social sciences.

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So, the question posed now is, what is the added value we gain, when we keep the theological concept. Are there material reasons for keeping it, apart from our wish to be orthodox theologians and remain faithful to church teaching?

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2. Formal Heuristic Concepts

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I do think there are, but in order to see them we will have to make an excursion into philosophy to learn what "formal concepts" are.

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2.1. An Excursion to Philosophy

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Some philosophers distinguish between ordinary concepts, such as tree, book, or car, and formal concepts like entity, fact or event. The first type are used as "principles of classification of things"1, while the latter "reflect not things independent of language, but certain ways in which words meet the world"2. "Formal concepts are in effect concepts of ways in which language or thought meet the world"3, thus not distinguishing one thing from another (thing, by the way, is also a formal concept), but rather distinguishing one aspect of reality from another. Of course, that does not mean these concepts have nothing to do with reality. An adherent of philosophical realism may well suppose that these concepts do not merely superimpose something on reality but that they designate different views on reality we can take, while these views then do show aspects reality. Though the term formal concept has come to be used in modern philosophy after Wittgenstein4, the function it fulfills was also recognized in scholastic philosophy, at least in Aristotle and his Christian interpreter Thomas Aquinas. They clearly saw the difference between talking in intentio recta (using ordinary concepts) and in intentio reflexa. What scholastic philosophy called the transcendental properties of being, properties that belong to any conceivable being, no matter what its category, like unity and identity, are in fact formal concepts.5

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Yet, not all formal concepts are transcendental in that sense. But they all have in common that they do not talk of things but of aspects all things of a certain type have. For example when we call an object material or consisting of matter, that is no help in distinguishing a table from a car.6 However once we know that the object of inquiry is a material object, that is a help for our further inquiry. When we know that something is a material object, we immediately know too that we could inquire into the size and weight of that object, its chemical build-up, its density and so forth.7 So formal concepts can also be called heuristic concepts - as B. Lonergan has done8 -, because they inform us about the paths of inquiry that should be followed with a particular object in question. Otto Muck explains: "Heuristic concepts … indicate where we should look, and what [that which] we are looking for might be like, but they do not themselves give us that for which we are seeking."9 In order to get that, we might have to weigh and measure and so forth. But we know that these are proper procedures, because we know what matter and material object mean. Muck then proposes "that the key notions of metaphysics and ontology … have such a heuristic function. For instance, we can speak of the nature or the essence of something, without knowing the nature or essence completely."10

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That way heuristic concepts interrelate with each other in various ways of logical implications and exclusions. Material object relates with matter, matter with weight, and size. They form an ordered heuristic structure of inquiry with super-ordinate and sub-ordinate concepts, leading to the different paths of inquiry, while at the same time interlinking these different paths. A chemist or biologist will describe water as H2O, an engineer constructing a hydro-electric plant will view water under completely different aspects, as will the manager of agricultural development projects in drought regions. But they all refer to the same substance. We could also say they all view the nature of water from different perspectives in order to utilize it for different ends. No chemist would say: since water is only H2O, you cannot produce electricity from it, for that you need ionic acids like in a battery. They would not say so because they know that different sciences and technologies can do different things with the same substance. But what they can do with what substance depends, among other things, on the nature of that substance. So, the concept of nature is a formal concept whose function is to integrate the different descriptions of different approaches into general human knowledge. Only that way can we relate different realms of experience and research to each other and to the reality that generates them. Modern-day sciences do not talk about that, but in fact they implicitly rely on that all the time. Metaphysics or ontology only make these implicit presuppositions explicit and that way opens them up to academic discourse. Thus it offers ordered structures for an integrative understanding of our world.11

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2.2. Formal Heuristic Concepts in Theology

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Now it is a historical fact that the theological concepts we are dealing with have played an important role in scholastic theology, which was by and large undertaken by the same thinkers who produced scholastic metaphysics and ontology. It seems therefore probable that their theological concepts might function the same way.

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In the introduction I said that from the beginning original sin was a term to designate human nature's being wounded by some deeds of the forebears. Now we heard that nature is a formal heuristic concept. As such it does not describe what human nature consists in, but it has the heuristic functions I have just described. The next logical step is to see original sin as a sub-ordinate heuristic concept to human nature. Christian doctrine insists that, when inquiring into human nature, one necessary path of inquiry has to be to look for the influence of our ancestry and other persons on our negative actions, i. e. our sinning. At the same time, another necessary path is to look for grace, i. e. for God's influence on and in that human nature.

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We can therefore construe nature, grace, and original sin as formal heuristic concepts, nature being the super-ordinate concept, grace and original sin being two subordinate concepts.

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That in turn then shows us that, basically each of the models mentioned before, contributes to the understanding of original sin in its own particular way, in as much as they contribute something to the question, how human nature's inclination toward sin can manifest itself. They are thus, descriptions of possible manifestations of original sin from different perspectives, from different sciences and academic disciplines. For that very reason, neither of these descriptions can replace the formal concept original sin, for neither of them fulfills its heuristic and integrative function. However, they situate what is meant by original sin in the lives of people and relate the concept to their experiences. If these experiences in turn are seen as instances or cases of the formal structure theology calls original sin - and not as voiding the concept of meaning - maybe that traditional language can find its way back into the believers' self-interpretation and the interpretation of their lives.

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I would like to suggest that reading original sin as a formal heuristic concept means something else. If formal concepts do not serve as principles of the classification of things, but show ways in which thoughts meet the world12, and if original sin is such a concept, then original sin cannot designate another type of sin which would differ from what we normally call sin and what moral theology has labeled personal sin. Instead the terms original sin and personal sin can be understood as formal expressions that alert us to two aspects of sinning that normally belong to any instance of sinning: my personal responsibility will be involved, at the same time the influences that have shaped me and are beyond my control will play a part. These two aspects will go together and cannot be disentangled from a human point of view, or as tradition said in statu viatoris. Only God's final judgment can discern with certainty between my own and personal guilt and the contribution through original sin. I said this is normally the case, because we cannot rule out completely that there are acts of sinning where the contribution of one aspect of sin, as described here, in fact is null: then you have either a person completely unaccountable for their deeds or you have a definite and final mortal sinner. Most of our sins are in between. Reading original sin as a formal concept tells us that.

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An objection, however, might arise here: Church teaching holds that a human person is afflicted by original sin from the very beginning of their existence, which is starting with their conception. At the same time we generally agree that children need to have a certain degree of maturity in order to be able to sin at all. Now, if original sin, is that part of sinning that is foreign-induced, so to speak, and small children cannot sin at all, they should not be afflicted by original sin either. Here is my response: It is indeed true that original sin does not manifest itself in children as young as not being able to sin. But infants, small children and even fetuses are subject to the very influences from outside that do shape their inner capabilities of freedom which then will bring forth the manifestations of original sin we have looked at so far. In that case original sin would not only be a formal heuristic concept, but also a dispositional concept. To say that human beings are subject to original sin from conception onward then is to say that they are susceptible to negative influences on their capability to act freely and responsibly from conception, and modern sciences have indeed taught us that pre-natal and early post-natal influences do have a very deep impact on the personal development of a person. This, of course, applies to good as well as bad influences. The doctrine of original sin stipulates that there will be bad influences too, because humanity has been afflicted by it from its very beginnings.

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We can therefore distinguish original sin as a disposition or habitus that afflicts every human person, with the known exceptions, and original sin as manifestations of that habit, which can be as different as the ways human freedom can be influenced by other persons' sins. The formal heuristic and dispositional concept therefore cannot become superfluous by the different descriptions of the manifestations of original sin, on the contrary it serves as a criterion for what descriptions can be accepted for that purpose.

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Let me add a word on the known exceptions I just passed by so quickly. When the church teaches that Christ and his mother were free from sin, including original sin, this can rendered that way: Since Mary was already free of original sin, her pre- and post-natal influences on her son, being the most profound human influences on him would be free from it, too. We can therefore conceive of Christ in his humanity the way the perfect human was supposed to be: without original sin because there were no sinful influences that shaped his inner realm of freedom. But he was just as susceptive to the influences of his mother as we were to those of our mothers. He is really like us, except in sin (Cf. GS 22**). It is harder to see how to conceive that freedom for Mary, for her parents were afflicted by original sin. Probably we'd have to say that through God's grace she was made not as susceptible to these influences as we are, and in that respect, she differs more from us than Jesus. But actually I do not want to get too much into that speculation. I'd rather make some more comments on the relationship between theology, philosophy and the sciences and humanities.

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2.3. Philosophy - Theology - Science

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Of course, one could elaborate much more on how nature and grace function as heuristic concepts, and then proceed to fill these with concrete descriptions. Unfortunately today we don't have the time to do that. In following the concept of original sin and explaining its functional nature, we also came across different ways of human inquiry: theological, philosophical and scientific, in the sense of the natural sciences as well as the humanities. It turned out that philosophy provided us with a means to sort out our puzzle and relate formal theology with descriptive science.

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We can therefore say that different ways of acquiring knowledge also serve different purposes: the philosophical-ontological to structure the quest for detailed analyses, distinguishing different aspects, while at the same time integrally unifying them. The humanities and the sciences undertake that quest in their respective ways and try to find detailed answers to the manifold interests humanity can have when studying the world. The two, of course, employ different methods of inference and of formulating their hypotheses. Today is not the time to elaborate on them, but they also are shaped by the different functions of the inquiry.

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And theology? Well, theology cannot be relegated to either camp. There are theologies that more or less belong to the one - like scholastic thinking - there are theologies that belong to the other - like a lot of modern theology. And I think theologians should work in both camps, because their task is it to add a question to academic discourse that the other branches do not pose: What does that mean with respect to God? When that is the focus of theology, it will need both formal and descriptive analyses to answer the ensuing questions.

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But, whenever the two are seen as rivals, there will be transgressions from one realm of reasoning to the other: a believer will find it inconceivable that humans are the product of millions of years of evolution, starting with a big bang; or an evolution theorist will find it ridiculous that God should have created man and woman in His image and likeness. A theology at home in both realms can show both these positions as a misunderstanding. In European theology this is no big problem anymore with respect to creation and evolution, in America the discussion is still going on. Another problem virulent right now that could be helped a great deal by a clear distinction of the sciences and ontology is the debate on naturalism in the philosophy of mind. But I will not get into that, anymore.

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Notes

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:

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1 Hamlyn, D. W.: Metaphysics. Cambridge 1984, 55.

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2 Ibid.

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3 Ibid.

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4 Wittenstein coined it in the Tractatus 4.126ff.

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5 Cf. Runggaldier, E.: Einheit und Identität als „formale Begriffe" in der Metaphysik des Aristoteles. In: ThPh 64 (1989), 557-566, here 559.

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6 Compare William James' cynicism about metaphysics that it explains that someone can see by their power of seeing.

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7 And once we know a being to have the power of seeing, we can inquire into how and what it is able to see - we might respond to W. James.

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8 Cf.: Lonergan, B. J. F.: Insight. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957, 36f.

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9 Muck, O.: Assumptions of a Classical Philosophy of God. In: Milltown Studies 33 (1994), 37-50, here 46. German version of the text: Voraussetzungen einer klassischen Philosophischen Gotteslehre. In: Muck, O.: Rationalität und Weltanschauung. Philosophische Untersuchungen (Hg. W. Löffler). Innsbruck - Wien 1999 (= RW). 337-351. See also Muck, O.: Zwei Weisen der Erklärung? In: Weingartner, P.: Evolution als Schöpfung? Ein Streitgespräch zwischen Philosophen, Theologen und Naturwissenschaftlern. Stuttgart 2001, 1-19. Ders.: Wahrheit und Verifikation. In: RW 81-100; ders.: Rationale Strukturen des Dialogs über Glaubensfragen. In: RW 106-151, v. a. 115-131. ders.: RW 132-135. Ders.: Metaphysische Erklärung als ganzheitliches Verfahren. In: RW 225-231.

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10 Ibid., 47.

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11 Cf. Ibid., 48f.

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12 Cf. Note 2f.

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