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Continuing yesterday’s post.

 Original Sin and Polygenism

Ferrara asserts, “…polygenism cannot be reconciled with Genesis unless Genesis is reduced to a fable.”

Well, a genetic bottleneck of only two human beings as recent as the arrival of Homo sapiens would show up in our genomes. And it doesn’t, as studies based on genetic data from the Human Genome Project have shown.

Furthermore, genetic data demonstrate quite plainly, as recent studies have shown, that the genes of Homo sapiens do not originate from only two people in the last few million years of hominins. Beginning with the genetic data of the Human Genome Project, evolutionary geneticists work backwards from the genetic diversity of Homo sapiens to more ancient lineages, confirming in the process that the human population could not have been smaller than about 10,000 individuals. So, there was a population “bottleneck”—a strong indication that there is recent common ancestry in all humans—but it was nowhere near two people, which, among other things, seems to suggest that the evolutionary understanding of polygenism is not polygenism traditionally conceived.

Indeed, it seems very likely, at least from an empirical perspective, that we, modern humans, evolved from a small population, not a pair in a garden, but, of that small population, only a limited subset left descendants (or could leave descendants), which is not at all unexpected, given all genealogy works in this way, with most everyone leaving no ultimate descendants, and a very precious few capable of patrimony and matrimony. So, it is perfectly plausible that only a select few “Adams” and “Eves” left ultimate descendants, which makes it more reasonable to speculate that there was a metaphysically distinct male and female pair that was the origin of sin, as Edward Feser imagines.

Of course, the above theological approach requires a figurative understanding of early Genesis. But the idea that the Creation narrative is a fable is not at all a novel idea anyway.

I should mention, though, that I prefer the term “myth” over “fable”. And I prefer the ancient understanding of myth over the modern one. Indeed in modern culture the term ‘myth’ seems to be synonymous with untrue or silly or what have you, but for the ancients it meant something altogether different: myth was a way of revealing existential facts; a way of articulating a metaphysical vision about the world; a way for a culture to tell itself about itself, although, perhaps, my preference for and understanding of myth only reveals my metaphysical prejudices. Oh well… I digress.

Many scholars and theologians—since the early days of Christianity—have recognized the allegorical nature of Genesis. Indeed many present-day Christians probably interpret several passages in Genesis non-literally without even realizing it (Gen. 3.9—Adam and Eve hid from God).

For example, within the very first passages of Genesis two different Creation narratives are offered up. In Chapter 1 through the early verses of Chapter 2 one gets the standard creation narrative, in which God creates man and woman on the sixth day after light, earth, fish, and so forth. However, in chapter 2 verse 4, a different narrative begins, in which God creates man, then messes about with the garden and creates animals, and only after this is completed, does God create woman from Adam’s rib.

Of course, these two differing narratives are not contradictory, if the two narratives are understood as only attempting to express a deep existential fact about reality—that the world was created by God and that we are his creatures. But I would argue that they cannot both be historically and scientifically correct, if all of Genesis is seen as descriptive fact.

The Bible is inerrant in spiritual truth, in matters of faith, but not in matters which are of little significance to the moral and spiritual vision of the Christian life. Hence Augustine, in his commentary on Genesis, asserted, “In the matter of the shape of heaven, the sacred writers did not wish to teach men facts that could be of no avail for their salvation.”

Augustine is echoed by Joseph Ratzinger: “The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God…does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are.”

Augustine even worked out a doctrine of rationes seminales (seminal principles) that attempted to explain the origin of species and solve the problem of Genesis 1.3-19 where it says that God creates light on the first day but the Sun on the fourth day. In fact, Augustine went so far as to comment that the words “light” and “days” have no literal understanding in this context, which is probably the most popular exegetical conviction in all of western Christianity.

Moreover, Augustine’s doctrine of rationes seminales could conceivably be extended into a doctrine of the evolution of species, because it postulates that, while all things were created at once, all things did not exist fully formed simultaneously. But I digress.

The exegesis of Augustine, Ratzinger, and so many others ranging from the writer of the Epistle of Barnabas and Philo and the Alexandrian Fathers to Origen and Ambrose to Aquinas and Anselm to C.S. Lewis and Karl Barth, reminds us, I think, that the Bible is about faith in God; it is not an authority on scientific matters; its purpose is not scientific, but religious.

Furthermore, classical Christianity does not even understand the creation of the world as some origin or evolution of the universe as such. The question of creation is not about some event or events that occurred at the Big Bang or in some primordial soup or in the incorporation of DNA and proteins or the change from hominid to Adam or any kind of change at all, for change implies existence, the classical understanding of creation has always been concerned with the timeless relation “between logical possibility and logical necessity, the contingent and the necessary, the conditioned and the unconditioned,” as Hart stated. “The mystical,” Wittgenstein once remarked, “is not how the world is but that it is.”

Creation, properly understood, serves to remind us that “every creature exists by grace, because by grace he was created,” as Anselm noted. That is, God created the universe and all that therein is. Hence, we owe our existence to him. It is by his grace that we exist at all.

Of course, the rub for Mr. Ferrara, as it is for many Christians, is that polygenism seems to pose a threat to the doctrine of original sin—the sinful state of humanity as a result of the Fall, which is precisely the sort of thing that, prima facie, could be of significance to the moral and spiritual vision of the Christian life. Perhaps, if one is overly attached to some strange pre-Fall period of original innocence when man knew God perfectly, then this line of thought may have some merit (although God wasn’t trying to create mechanical automatons, was he?). But, alas, the orthodox Christian need not commit herself to the Augustinian tradition on original sin, which is a poor understanding of Pauline theology anyway.

Indeed the Augustinian understanding of original sin was nothing if not a theological attempt to guarantee that man rather than God would be held responsible for the Fall; a noble attempt to uphold the goodness of God in much the same way Hermogenes was motivated to maintain God created the world out of preexisting matter to save God from the responsibility of evil. But, much like Tertullian reminded Hermogenes, there are better ways to achieve this same end. Indeed ways that salvage common sense and science, and in Tertullian’s case, God, as classical Christianity understands him.

In fact, John Hick reminds us, in Evil and the God of Love, that even before the time of Augustine an additional reply to creation and sin had already been put forward within the emerging Christian tradition, one that depended upon the Greek-speaking Fathers, of whom the most influential was St. Irenaeus.

Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, according to Hick, distinguished two stages of the creation of mankind. In the first stage, man was brought into existence as a rational agent endowed with the ability to experience great moral and spiritual development. For Irenaeus, man was not the innocent pre-fallen Adam and Eve of the Augustinian tradition, but an under-developed creature, at the start of a long journey of spiritual and moral development.

In the second stage, the present stage, mankind is slowly but surely becoming reshaped through the grace of God and his or her own free will into “children of God.” Irenaeus explains that in the first stage man is made in the image of God and in the second stage being made into the likeness of God, using Genesis 1.26 as the basis for this understanding.

The Irenaean understanding of creation is not one where God’s purpose was to create some pre-Fall utopian society, where mankind would experience an abundance of pleasure and knowledge. Rather the world is a place of transformation, where man struggles with the tasks of the mundane, of ordinary existence, of both pleasure and pain, in order that he or she may become “a child of God.”

There is also Karl Barth’s theological expounding, channeling his inner Pelagius, of the “sin of the origin,” in Christ and Adam, wherein he claims that one must see Christ, not Adam, as the de jure head of all humanity. That is, Adam, and all his descendants, must be viewed through the lens of Christ and the Cross; man must not be contemplated in terms of Adam and his sin, rather man must be explicated in terms of the Logos himself in the man Jesus. Of course, one can look back, in the throes of sentimentality, to the Garden, but there is nothing in Adam of any real theological import. He was merely the first sinner, a first among equals. Adam does not confer anything upon us, not even sin. We do not sin because we are followers of Adam or because we have been “tainted” by him, but because we freely choose to sin. Adam’s actions do not condemn mankind, our own actions condemn us, Barth thinks, for we are all sinners, and sin is implied in our very existence.

For me, I think we are all of us part of Adam’s rebellion against God, and as such we suffer the consequences of Adam’s sin, but we do not bear the guilt of that sin, for Adam’s sin is his own. We don’t inherit Adam’s guilt but his rebellion. And rebellion need not, necessarily, manifest itself in the body of one man or one woman. Indeed rebellion is usually a collective endeavor. So I see no dire moral or spiritual need to interpret the names “Adam” and “Eve” literally in order that the consequences of rebellion—sin and death—be passed on to the rest of humanity.

However, for some Roman Catholics, the Magisterium has spoken on the matter of polygenism and original sin, and any attempt at reconciling the two is an exercise in futility, I have been told. Well, for those faithful Catholics, I offer, as I don’t see how I could explain it any better, the inimitable Edward Feser’s perspective:

“…that I there rehearsed a proposal developed by Mike Flynn and Kenneth Kemp to the effect that we need to distinguish the notion of a creature which is human in a strict metaphysical sense from that of a creature which is “human” merely in a looser, purely physiological sense.  The latter sort of creature would be more or less just like us in its bodily attributes but would lack our intellectual powers, which are incorporeal.  In short, it would lack a human soul.  Hence, though genetically it would appear human, it would not be a rational animal and thus not be human in the strict metaphysical sense.  Now, this physiologically “human” but non-rational sort of creature is essentially what Pius XII, John Paul II, and the philosophers and theologians quoted above have in mind when they speak of a scenario in which the human body arises via evolutionary processes…Call this pair “Adam” and “Eve.”  Adam and Eve have descendents, and God infuses into each of them rational souls of their own, so that they too are human in the strict metaphysical sense.  Suppose that some of these descendents interbreed with creatures of the non-rational but genetically and physiologically “human” sort.  The offspring that result would also have rational souls since they have Adam and Eve as ancestors (even if they also have non-rational creatures as ancestors).  This interbreeding carries on for some time, but eventually the population of non-rational but genetically and physiologically “human” creatures dies out, leaving only those creatures who are human in the strict metaphysical sense.”

“On this scenario, the modern human population has the genes it does because it is descended from this group of several thousand individuals, initially only two of whom had rational or human souls.  But only those later individuals who had this pair among their ancestors (even if they also had as ancestors members of the original group which did not have human souls) have descendents living today.  In that sense, every modern human is both descended from an original population of several thousand and from an original pair.  There is no contradiction, because the claim that modern humans are descended from an original pair does not entail that they received all their genes from that pair alone.”

“Of course, this is speculative.  No one is claiming to know that this is actually what happened, or that Catholic teaching requires this specific scenario.  The point is just that it shows, in a way consistent with what Catholic orthodoxy and Thomistic philosophy allow vis-à-vis evolution, that the genetic evidence is not in fact in conflict with the doctrine of original sin.”

The point here, though, is not to argue for one theological rendition over another, but simply to illustrate that there are numerous ways of cashing out original sin without reference to a traditionally historical Adam and Eve. And these interpretations of the “sin of the origin” are perfectly consonant with classical Christianity, properly understood.

 Scientific Fables and Legends

However, with all that said, I do tend to agree with Mr. Ferrara that when “science” begins to speculate about the whole of experience, although these speculations may be initiated in a science, it is no longer science as such. It becomes something of a fable in its own right, when some scientific concept or template or theory that has been defined, tested, improved, and so forth, within a very specific context, is taken out of that context, expanded, and then utilized to explain questions and aspects of reality far beyond the scope of its original context, it becomes more fable than science. In this sense, Dawkinsian ND is a fable, a naturalistic fable of sorts, because it takes the TOE out of its context and uses it to articulate a vision about all of metaphysical reality.

Of course, this is not to say that biological theory cannot contribute something to the understanding of human nature and, perhaps, even provide valuable theological insights. But in reductionist, speculative, etc ND forms it functions essentially as legend, and an illogical legend at that—when it speaks on the mysteries of God, existence, consciousness, intentionality, higher causality, rationality of the world, and so forth—only a deep confusion could cause one to mistake these things as admitting of a material or natural solution.

 Bad “God”: An Atrophied Metaphysics

Occasionally, when I am thinking about these peculiar debates over evolution amongst my fellow Christians, my mind shifts to metaphysics. Indeed I think, like so many before me, from Abbot to Teilhard, that in evolutionary thought there exists a most magnificent theory of the imaginative possibilities of life, as Dickinson opined, one deserving of a God from “whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things,” as Augustine put it, a God both beyond being and being itself.

For many Christian theologians, the TOE represents a reverie of nature’s enigma that might well rescue the present-age from the idiotic Cartesian analogies and doltish anthropomorphisms that have been passed-down from a historical period where mechanistic philosophies had some genuine relevance to the physics and metaphysics of the day.

However, as Hart argues, we remain trapped in the mechanistic metaphysics of a bygone age, where evolution has been aligned with a mechanistic understanding of nature, and natural selection has simply assumed the position previously played by “God”. Nature for most of us is simply an enormous gadget either created by an “Intelligent Designer” or exists, miraculously, as a brute fact. Traditional theological problems about being, higher causality, consciousness, rational structure of the world, and so forth have now been replaced by pseudo-theological problems of a distinctly mechanical nature about physical origins, biological complexity, and so on.

Indeed I find it difficult to contain my dismay when someone like Mr. Ferrara claims one can find evidence of God by identifying individual examples of seeming causal breakdown in the processes and mechanisms of the natural world—e.g., animal body plans or DNA or eukaryotic cells or what have you—which necessitates some occult “invisible hand” directing the show, so to speak.

My disquiet is the result of how God is treated here. As if he is just some notable physical force or law of nature or physical constant found somewhere out there in nature, among all the other forces and laws and constants: not that in whom everything lives and moves and has its being, not the only true and eternal essence, the only true reality, but a law among other laws, a thing among other things; a god among all other gods, encompassed within some physical system. If this is true, then right reason enjoins that one look for evidence of the Divine in nature’s own physical structure. But that approach for discovering God is almost like looking for evidence of the mathematician in the formal symbols on a chalkboard—refusing to countenance that you will not find the mathematician there as some symbol or formula or theorem, not even where there are eraser marks, but that the mathematician is still there, on the chalkboard, in every symbol and equation and is, in fact, the source of the work’s existence—God, as Plotinus noted, “cannot be any existing thing, but is prior to all existents.”

To be sure, as Hart points out, if there is some demiurge “out there,” assembling nucleotides and eukaryotic cells and animal body plans and what have you, then that entity, is a contingent being, a part of the physical order, another part among parts, but not the summum bonum, not the apex of being, not the one who is “wholly everywhere…nothing contain the whole of thee,” as Augustine declared, and, consequently, not God, and that is Mr. Ferrara’s heresy—reducing God to a being among beings.

Of course, if such a demiurge does not exist, then who cares? The existence or non-existence of some demiurge “out there” has nothing meaningful to say about the mysteries of being and truth. The question of being is not a question for biology or physics. In fact, it is not even a question those disciplines can meaningfully ask.

However, the question about the origin and evolution of life is relevant to scientific research and theorizing in disciplines ranging from geology and botany to biogeography and genetics. It is an empirical question, not a theological one. And any attempt to disprove evolution is going to have to puzzle out the multitude of fossils, the genetic comparisons between species, the physiological comparisons between species, biogeography, embryology, vestigial structures, DNA sequencing, the predictions about where fossils will be found, the predictions when common ancestors will appear in the fossil record, the predictions about what they will look like, and many other areas of inquiry. As well as formulate a rival theory that explains and predicts the data better than the TOE, and no comparable theory, in this regard, has been forthcoming.

Again, the question of whether animal man was generated by a mechanical process in a day or by a process of growth continuing through the millennia; or whether, in that process or that day, one Adam or two Adams or no Adams were produced, is quite irrelevant to the one who believes God breathes divine life into man, for one who believes that in God we live, move, and have our being, for that person every day is a creative day. And he or she can say with the same confidence of Teilhard de Chardin that “even in the view of a mere biologist, the human epic resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross.”