The Fall into "Original Sin" within an Evolutionary World-View
|Abstrakt:||Most theologians conceive of original sin today within an evolutionary framework. But many offer no concrete suggestions as to how this can be done. R. Schwager does so and in the course suggests a re-interpretation of Christian tradition on the one hand, and a Christian reading of the theory of evolution on the other.|
|Publiziert in:||Guest-Lecture at Heythrop College, University of London, Feb. 2003|
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 first aspect only in this lecture.
As long as theology accepted the first chapters of the bible as quasi-historical reports about the creation of the world and the subsequent first human sin, the peccatum original originans was not so difficult to construe: it was the first ever instant of a grave, or mortal, personal sin. With Augustinian theology of grace and its teaching of the complete graced integrity of the first couple, their life in paradise before the fall was imagined as a very ideal state of humanity that included being physically immortal, protected from illness and any kind of suffering, in full mental control of their lives with a mature intellect and a psychological freedom surpassing ours by far. It is true that it was somewhat hard to see why human beings in such an ideal state would sin. But that is the nature of freedom that in can do something senseless. Not that the first human beings could commit a mortal sin was a puzzle for theology, only how this affected posterity - but that then is the peccatum original originatum.
With the advent of evolution theory this situation changed. The Church and theology saw this new theory as its enemy, because it seemed to subvert the special place of humanity within creation, and it seemed to contradict the biblical reports of creation. In Catholic theology this has changed meanwhile. Critical bible study has shown the true nature of the biblical writings, fossil findings have given evolution theory such an amount of support that denying the probability of evolution theory would seem almost foolish. So when it acknowledges the relative autonomy of creation in GS 36, the Church implicitly accepts evolution theory, as long as it is the best theory science comes up with and is interpreted not in contradiction to doctrines of faith but in harmony with them. This seems possible. We can conceive of creation today as an evolutionary process proceeding according to natural laws that have been given by God, thus as a natural process that nevertheless is guided by God's will and providence. That way human persons can also be the product of that evolution, while at the same time remaining its destination and God's special creation in His image and likeness.
However, it becomes more difficult, when we ask, how under these circumstances the first humans could have committed a mortal sin. We cannot presuppose ideal conditions anymore, but we have to reckon with a humanity just having crossed the threshold from animal life. These early humans were quite savage people, for all we know, they were still unfinished in their development, merely at the start of the long history that was to make them the rational creatures we are supposed to be today. They were subject to early death by predators, illness and their fellow humans, and one wonders, what "personal freedom", which is a precondition for grave personal sin, might have meant for them.
Raymund Schwager, our current Dean in Innsbruck, takes on the hard task of reconciling evolutionary thinking and theological doctrine with one another by modifying the concurrent imagery that goes with either of them. I deem this to be a very important contribution to today's theology, because Schwager attempts nothing less than to re-formulate the doctrines of Christian faith in its Roman-Catholic tradition in such a way that they resonate with the modern "Weltbild" shaped by evolution thinking.
Schwager accepts the modern view that the first humans before the Fall were not free from natural physical death, and he argues that the bible only claims they were free from violent death.
In Gen 2:17 God announced that the first humans would die, if they ate from the forbidden tree. But when we hear about the punishments for all the participants of the transgression (Adam, Eve, the Serpent), what is notably absent is death. From what we have heard before, we might expect Adam and Eve to die on the spot. But they don't. According to Gen 5:3 Adam went on to live for 930 years - not exactly the kind of punishment we would expect.
Schwager finds a solution to the ensuing puzzlement in the next chapter of Genesis. It reveals that the kind of death that results from sin is violent death. The effects of sin unfold "as rivalry between brothers and reach their pinnacle in murder"1. As manifold ways of rivalry are the consequences of acquisitive mimesis in mimetic theory, so in Schwager's exegesis the punishments mentioned in Gen 3 are forms of rivalry (between man and woman, woman and serpent, man and soil). The story of Cain and Abel, however, makes that completely clear, because it is envy that leads Cain to murder Abel.
Thus the consequence God threatened for the transgression does indeed occur -God did not make empty words. But: it is not God Who brings it about; it is humans themselves who bring it on each other. So judgment "is an inner consequence of evil human action, a consequence which can fall upon someone who is not guilty of the evil himself, but stands in close kinship with the perpetrator of evil"2. Already Gen indicates that God's judgment really is a human self-judgment.
Schwager also agrees that the process of the constitution of humans was not fully completed with hominization, creation being an ongoing process, and thus the rationality the early humans had was quite undeveloped compared to ours. The first humans were much more guided by their affectivity, their emotions. However, this need not preclude them from having a relationship to God. From interaction with today's mentally handicapped we know that human persons with little intellectual capability but with an intensive emotional life, can have a very strong relation to the divine.
But Schwager's modifications also concern the theory of evolution: To be acceptable to Christian theology it may not be construed as a blind process of mere mutation and selection, rather it must be seen as guided by a teleology, which shows itself in the vigor inherent in life: the drive of every living being to protect and spread life. And finally Schwager insists that the definition of what a human is cannot not come from empirical anthropology alone. Membership in the human family is not determined by the intellectual power of a creature, but rather by their having some kind of openness to the transcendent. If that transcendence has been established, we may and must consider these creatures human persons, however undeveloped their other capabilities might be.
But for any theology of the Fall, these early humans must have been able to sin, which implies that they must have had some kind of freedom. Indispensable for that is, according to Schwager: being able to be a principle of one's own further development (which fits very well into an evolutionary world view) and being able to make choices. For the first humans, however, the latter ability would not have primarily consisted in the power of rational deliberation and of choosing between clear and distinct alternatives, but in the capability of being faithful or unfaithful to an experience of being gifted.
If you think about your important choices, these for the most part are not only rational deliberation between clear and distinct alternatives either. Being at a Jesuit institution here, I just want to remind you that this rational way of choosing is only the third of the three "times" St. Ignatius mentions in the exercises, and he taught that this type was only warranted, when the other two types, which are much more guided by the affective side of our psyche, had not produced any result (cf. nos. 175-178). Karl Rahner argued that this third time was the "deficient mode of the second time"3. So in fact, what Schwager accepts for the first human beings is not so extraordinary, he merely places the emphasis not where modern and enlightenment thinking had placed it; he places it where other great Christian thinkers have placed it.
According to Schwager the first humans, who were endowed with great emotional intensity and yet little critical self-reflection and rationality, were called to respond to the gift-like experience of the closeness of God in the way proper to their stage of development, and thereby to move forward in that development.4 Primordial sin then consisted in the failure to do so. A primordial scene of hominization that could reconcile Christian doctrine with an evolutionary "Weltbild" would look somewhat like the following:
Divine influence prompted a group of higher animals to transcend the limitations of their mental horizons and to become human persons by opening them up to the experience of the closeness of a mysterious infinity. They felt this closeness very intensely, and yet only implicitly. With it came the call to deepen that experience step by step, so as to also constitute human self-consciousness explicitly. This call also summoned the first humans to embark on a path that would eventually lead them - through an unknown, shared future - to explicit cognition of God and communion with Him and among themselves. In absorbing that experience, however, the group shied away from its mysteriousness and the intensity of communication. Instead they clung to the impulses of their familiar animal past and turned the gift they had received into a means of self-assertion. Thus the new experience of the infinite led to a problematic self-constitution of human consciousness, because it included experiences of fear of the numinous and an increased tendency to violent conflicts. The call to communication and a common future was followed in a negative way: in the negative unity of ganging-up against a common victim.5
As you can see, Schwager construes the act of hominization with reference to evolution thinking and the mimetic theory, yet theologically he relies on the model of the scene at Jesus' baptism: a deep personal experience of the divine endows the recipients with a new grasp of their identity and with a new calling or mission. Schwager also relies on Rahnerian thinking in that he sees openness to the transcendent as the defining mark for being human and employs Rahner's concept of self-transcendence, and he accepts a merely implicit or unthematic experience of the divine. With that, however, comes the danger of misunderstanding and misusing this new kind of self-consciousness, a danger Jesus experienced too, as the bible tells in the narratives of his temptations, but did not succumb to, while the first humans did.
Schwager even goes a step further in making the scene of hominization and the Fall more vivid and proposes three alternative scenarios. He positions himself at the moment of hominization and looks from there backwards into evolution and forwards into salvation history, each time finding points of resonance for the scenario he considers. He emphasizes, however, that these considerations should not be misunderstood as historical reports. The goal again is to express the doctrine of the Fall within the framework of today's science and scholarship, thereby transforming both realms of human operation.
Schwager imagines three "variations on primordial sin":
Variant 1: The intense experience already mentioned occurred during the sexual intercourse of two animals. The offspring of that union was included in the movement of self-transcendence just initiated and thus a new group was constituted. A misapprehension of this experience could have happened such that the numinous fascination of sexuality led to its divinization. "This variation - retrospectively - fits very well with the fact that sexuality was already an important catalyst in the evolution of animal life and - prospectively - that in this scenario the unity of the flesh that God had intended from the beginning according to Jesus (cf. Mk. 10:6-9) and that was to become the symbol of the unity between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:31f.) had already existed at the outset of humankind."6
Variant 2: The mentioned experience was made during intensive forms of common feeding. Gradually "animal feeding should have been transformed into an experience of being gifted and food should have been experienced as a living symbol of the power granting these gifts. That version is supported - retrospectively - by the fact that feeding was an important factor of evolution and - prospectively - that in this case the high cultural importance of the human meal and the sacrament of the Eucharist would have been prefigured."7
"Variant 3: While jointly hunting or engaging in a kind of 'War of the Chimpanzees'8 the unified group was struck by an awe-inspiring premonition in the face of the stricken prey or victim. This premonition could have gradually led to a change of behavior and to a sensitivity for the inviolability of the human person as the bearer of a mysterious presence. Actually a negative development commenced, and killing itself was more and more experienced as an awe-inspiring, fascinating (= sacred) act. This variation seems plausible - retrospectively - because of the role fighting has in animal behavior, and - prospectively - because of the all-importance of Christ's Cross for salvation."9
Schwager admits that we are in no position to decide on one of the variants. Instead he deems it likely that a long-term process occurred in which all three elements played a role, in addition to the experience of overwhelming natural powers. Now, even if we are prepared to accept this very speculative account, I think it poses a grave challenge to the conventional wisdom about the situation before the fall.
For Schwager's construction really inverts that conventional wisdom. It seems that a harmonization with evolutionary thinking can only be reached at the cost of giving up important aspects of the traditional Christian view of the world, or maybe even of Christian doctrine itself. Traditionally the first couple was thought of as being given primordial grace and by that grace they hade an immediate, thematic (!) relationship to God, the gift of integrity, which freed them from concupiscence and thus gave them a freedom of volition surpassing ours. With evolutionary thinking that is turned upside down in the way described already in the beginning. Moreover circumstances around these first humans appear to be anything but paradisical. Their environment was ruled by the harsh laws of survival and hominization posed them the task of overcoming those in human social life.10
How do we react to such a radical change in perspective? First, I want to stress that the graveness of that change can hardly be underestimated. For centuries Western thought was drenched in the imagination of a paradise lost, adventurers even looked for its geographical location. Then, especially during the past century, this view was abandoned in favor of an inner, spiritual or psychological understanding of paradise. Schwager's proposal would even give that up. The immediate thematic relation to God would turn into an intensive, emotional and unthematic feeling of the divine, the imagery of paradise loses any referent in reality, at least with respect to our past.
What about doctrine? If you take the time and look up documents of the magisterium through the centuries, you will interestingly find that only a few of the elements bound up with the traditional understanding of paradise have been officially taught by the church: Adam's immortality11, the holiness and goodness of the first human couple and their integrity through grace.12 These documents, however, give very scant information as to how these teachings are to be understood and thus leave a wide window for further interpretation. The very pleasant ideas of the first human persons being free from illness and suffering are mentioned nowhere in these documents.
But let us consider those elements that are mentioned. Concerning the immortality of the first humans, Schwager's interpretation that this is to mean their freedom from violent and not from natural death seems to contradict the first canon of the first synod of Carthage, which states: "Whoever says that Adam, the first human being, was created mortal, so that no matter, whether he would sin or not, he would have died in his body, i.e. he would have left his body not because of sin but because of the necessity of nature, they be excluded."13
However, the bible supports Schwager's interpretation and the idea that the first humans were physically immortal has become completely implausible in our current world-view. Karl Rahner for his part also has argued that the first human persons must have experienced some kind of natural death even before the fall, and he had not done so out of modernism, but inferred that from his Christian understanding of human freedom. Since human freedom eventually means to make an irrevocable decision for or against God, a decision that determines what eternity will look like for the human person, and since any decision can be reversed during one's lifetime, Rahner argues that some kind of end-point that would end the possibility of conversion or of aversion, has to be postulated for the first humans as well. And this can be called natural death, even before the fall, when we accept that this death did not bring the same fear and anxiety with it that our dying brings for us.
Schwager now argues that, because we live in a world full of violence and murder, death for us has become tainted with that experience of violence, and that is why even natural death has become so frightening to us, while it need not be so for human persons that felt comforted by God and knew no homicide or murder. These theological considerations have never been reprimanded by the magisterium of the church, so that we can take the Synod of Carthage to teach just that dying in an environment marked by sin is completely different from dying in an environment untouched by sin, though it might be ruled by the harsh laws of the jungle with respect to animal life and death.14
So how about holiness and the special grace of the beginning? In Schwager's concept, of course, the first human persons were without sin, when crossing the threshold from animal to human life. However, they were afflicted by the problematic aspects of animal life and were supposed to overcome and transform these aspects. These traits were not sinful as longs as a being was a mere animal, they would however become sinful, if they remained in human social interaction. By the very act of hominization this task was given to humans, and in the very way they perceived this act, they already failed in that task. So the fall in Schwager's model coincides with hominization, not necessarily but factually.
How might we conceive of special grace and integrity in that situation? We could interpret the experience of infinity and the feeling of great emotional closeness to God given with that as the special grace of the beginning.
In order to situate integrity in that new context let us first clarify what it basically means: Integrity is the freedom from concupiscence, which K. Rahner defines as "spontaneous human desire, as far as it precedes free decision and resists it"15. Rahner means by that the experience everyone has made in their life: that we see what we should do, that we want to do that, but that temptation is stronger than the decision we have made. The variety of possible "sins" springing forth from this type of concupiscence ranges from trifles like eating another bar of chocolate, although I had already made up my mind to leave it there, to a murder committed out of hate, although I had decided not to act on that impulse. Being free of that type of concupiscence then means: to be able to do what one does wholeheartedly. That is possible, when our own decisions form ourselves in that they permeate our whole nature and personality: if I wanted to forgive, I'd be able to so wholeheartedly, without any residue of hate remaining. So, what integrity in the traditional sense really means, according to Rahner, is being able to do what one does wholeheartedly and unreservedly, because my own decisions really have a deep-reaching impact on myself, they shape my future being.
It is this latter element that I think can be transferred to Schwager's model: What the first humans did right after hominization indeed shaped their future being, it permeated their nature and personality - and that of their descendants. They influenced who they were by the way they reacted to the gift of God. And they reacted in the way of original sin, as the church teaches.16 Of course this reading differs quite a lot from what integrity had meant for Augustine and the tradition after him, and also for Rahner: Looking back to the beginning with Schwager's eyes, we do not see human persons completely in control of their emotions nor being able to integrate their emotions completely. What remains of integrity as described earlier is their being subject to the consequences of their decisions in a more profound sense than this is true of us.
But remember: The documents of the church do not clearly describe, what integrity and holiness at the beginning looked like, they only teach they were there. In these documents the church wanted to emphasize the goodness of creation against Manichaeic or other dualistic heresies, and it did so with this vocabulary. The imaginations bound up with that are not necessarily also part of church doctrine, but models that believers, among them also theologians, came up with in order to integrate church doctrine into their view or the world. It may therefore be possible and even necessary for us to remodel these images in order to remain faithful to the doctrine within a new view of the world. Such transformations have occurred quite a lot during the last century and theology's re-orientation around the Second Vatican Council. Schwager's theology of the fall seems to belong into that category as well.
By nexus mysteriorum systematic theology refers to the fact that the different doctrines of our faith do not refer to isolated and arbitrary and disparate teachings, but they form an interconnected whole. So when we can see how a certain doctrine fits into that whole, we at the same time get a better understanding of that doctrine and its meaning and we also advance the clarity of our understanding of that doctrine. Also the complex whole will become clearer. Now when we compare Schwager's new interpretation of the fall with the traditional understanding, I think the new one can be integrated much better not only into evolutionary thinking, but also into other aspects of Christian thought and this enhances it plausibility.
In the traditional approach the world Adam and Eve lived in before the fall was so different from ours that we can hardly draw any comparisons. In Schwager's approach the world of the first human is not so alien to us, and it fits in with some basic tenets of Christianity. To live as a Christian means, among other things, to follow a call, to work with grace and strength given by God for the improvement and salvation of the world. In order to do that, a Christian has to grow into their mission, we can fail or succeed in following that call. The OT very often views sin as a deviation from the right way, while Christianity defined itself in the beginning as the new way (cf. Acts 19:9).17
With Schwager's model the same applies to the first humans: From the beginning being created as a human person meant being given a call and a mission. Primordial sin in that respect would not differ from later sins: failing in the mission you have been given by God. That way, not the world around human beings would have change completely after their being driven out of paradise, but our imagination of what life before the fall was like would have to change quite a bit.
What made the old conception particularly implausible was its implication that all of creation changed because of human sin, even the animals changed their behavior and catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions or earthquakes came about because the first humans sinned in paradise. In Schwager's model we can let go of these assumptions. We could, however, try to come up with an answer to the question as to why these imaginations became part of human thinking about the beginning.
Could it be that they projected all their hopes and ideals into the beginning because revelation said: The world as created by God was good, and believers interpreted: God created the world so that it was perfect from the beginning? The biblical narratives of creation several times state that God made part of creation bring forth another part (earth - vegetation Gen 1:11; waters - living creatures Gen 1:20) and this is the same as God created these creatures (cf. Gen 1:21); the command to be fruitful runs in the same vein. Thus we may say that these elements of the biblical creation narratives stand in much closer proximity to evolutionary thinking than to the traditional view of a world finished and perfect from the beginning. Also scholastic theology always taught that creation was a creatio continua, meaning that creation does not primarily mean the chronological beginning of the world but its constant ontological dependence on the Creator.
Thus biblical imagery, evolutionary thinking and scholastic theology concur in that creation is not the production of a perfected end-product, it is an ongoing process that has not been concluded yet, but that has been oriented by divine teleology to that perfect end, and in that orientation lies the reason for its being very good from the beginning. Could it be that the traditional models mistook the hoped for perfect end-state of creation for its beginning?
If that were so, we could also understand those models that see Adam in his integrity as a completely sovereign and mature person as back-projections from the new Adam, who is Christ, to the first Adam, the primitive human beings right after hominization. The grace of the beginning and the goodness of creation could be understood as meaning that this newly constituted humanity was teleologically oriented according to God's plan of creation and of salvation to develop toward the perfect human being (that appeared in Christ) by their power of self-transcendence. But that would have been the goal for creation, not its state at the beginning.
Seen that way an evolutionary view on creation on the model of Schwager is not just a concession to modern Zeitgeist, it links up the theology of creation and the fall with christology, eschatology and spirituality in a much better way than was previously the case.
1 Schwager, R.: Erbsünde und Heilsdrama. Im Kontext von Evolution, Gentechnologie und Apokalyptik (Beiträge zur mimetischen Theorie 4). Münster - Thaur 1997 (= EHD), 25. If not stated otherwise, all translations are my own.
2 EHD 29.
3 Rahner, K.: Die Logik der existentiellen Erkenntnis bei Ignatius von Loyola. In: Das Dynamische in der Kirche (QD 5). Freiburg 31965, 74-148, here 91.
4 Cf. EHD 65.
5 Cf. EHD 111.
6 EHD 114.
7 EHD 114.
8 Cf. Goodall, J.: The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Patterns of Behavior. Cambridge, Mass. 1986.
9 EHD 114f.
10 Cf. EHD 85, Anm. 49.
11 Cf. DH 222, 231, 1511.
12 Cf. DH 239, 371, 621, 1511f., 1907, 1909, 1923, 1926, 2301, 2434f., 2616.
13 DH 222.
14 Schwager, R.: Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. (German: Brauchen wir einen Sündenbock?) Transl. by M. L. Assad. Crossroad, New York, N. Y., 2000, 230. Rahner, K.: Zur Theologie des Todes (QD 2). Freiburg 1958, 26-30.
15 Rahner, K.: Zum theologischen Begriff der Konkupiszenz. In: S 1, 377-414, here 390. (= The Theological Concept of Concupiscentia. In: Theological Investigations 1: God, Christ, Mary and Grace. Translated by C. Ernst. London 21965, 347-382, here 360).
16 Cf. EHD 54.
17 Cf. „Path" and „Walk, Walking". In: Ryken, L. / Wilhoit, J. C. / Longman, T. (Hg.): Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, Ill., 1988, 630-632 and 922f.
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