Evolution, the Fall, and Original Sin

I enjoyed Keith Ward’s Pascal’s Fire so much (despite disagreement in places) that when I saw his Religion and Human Nature at a used bookseller for five bucks I snatched it up. RHN is part of Ward’s four-part “comparative theology” which also includes volumes on revelation, creation, and community. His methodology is to compare the treatment of these topics in various world religions as well as modern secular naturalism, and then to provide a Christian response, both where it can affirm and must deny aspects of the other views.

RHN contains really interesting and illuminating discussions of competing schools of thought in Hinduism and Buddhism in the earlier chapters, but for the purposes of this post I’m interested in Ward’s re-interpretation of the doctrine of Original Sin in light of modern evolutionary thought.

The basic picture offered us by evolutionary theory conflicts with the traditional Christian view of the fall and original sin at a number of points. Traditional Christian teaching has been that human beings lived in a state of blessedness and innocence until Adam’s sin, and that death and suffering entered the world as a result of sin. Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendents both a propensity or inclination toward sin and the guilt of the first sin (whence one argument for infant baptism).

Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, tells us that suffering and death long predated the existence of human beings, that our tendencies toward lust and aggression are part of our genetic baggage and probably helped our ancestors to survive long enough to propagate the species, and that there was likely no period when humans lived in harmony with each other and their world as depicted in the Garden of Eden story.

One popular way to reconcile these two accounts has been to see the story of Creation and Fall as a “myth,” not in the sense of a fairy tale or falsehood, but in the sense of a story that gives us a profound truth about the human condition. The way life is depicted prior to the Fall in the early chapters of Genesis represents creation not as it was some time in the distant past, but creation as it should be and will be when God’s purposes for it are finally realized. “Fallen” humanity is humanity as it is in this world.

While there is value in such an account, Ward says, it tends to sidestep the question of why a good God would create such inherently flawed creatures, and it even risks locating the source of evil in finite existence as such, rather than in a distortion of what is essentially a good creation. Instead he tries to develop a position that mediates between more literalistic and purely “mythic” ones.

Ward accepts that “Destruction and death are built into the universe as necessary conditions of its progress to new forms of life” (p. 160), but he suggests that it nevertheless is the case that moral evil entered the world at some point. Proto-humans (or whatever we want to call them) may have tendencies toward lust, aggression and greed as part of their constitutive make-up, but at some point it became possible for them to choose to indulge those tendencies at the expense of another:

Thus when humans first came into being, they were already locked into a world in which competition and death were fundamental to their very existence. In this long process of the emergence of consciousness, there was a first moment at which a sentient animal became aware of moral obligation. At some point, animal life emerged from a stage of what Hegel called “dreaming innocence,” at which moral considerations were irrelevant, since animals simply acted in ways natural to their species. At that point, a sentient consciousness discerned, or thought it discerned, an obligation to act in one way rather than another, an obligation which it was free to respond to or ignore. It seems to me plausible to say that it was at that point that truly personal consciousness first began to exist.

Two elements seem to be axiomatic about moral obligation. One is that, if a moral obligation truly exists, then it must be possible to meet it; otherwise it is not an obligation. The other is that it must also be possible to ignore it; otherwise it is not a matter of morality. It therefore seems to me beyond dispute that there must have been a first sin in the history of the planet. There must have been a moment when a conscious being decided to ignore an obligation, when it need not have done so. It is not an antique fable, it is an indisputable fact, that sin entered into the world through the free action of a conscious being which chose to do what it should not and need not have done. (p. 161)

Furthermore, this choosing of evil ruptures what may have been a “tacit” or “thematic” knowledge and awareness of God. “The Fall consisted in the loss of the sense of a felt unity with the sacred root of being, in the inability to co-operate with its gracious guidance, and so in the growth of that sense of solitude and estrangement which becomes the lot of humanity in a state of sin” (p. 162). Once this unity is ruptured, “spiritual death” is the natural outcome.

The ultimate human choice, from a theistic viewpoint, is not so much a choice between good and evil, abstractly conceived, as a choice between relationship with God, as the source of love and power, and a form of self-determination which inevitably leads on to self-regard. (pp. 163-4)

The effects of this choosing of evil reinforce human being’s already existing drives toward dominating and exploiting others, making it difficult, if not impossible, to not choose sin. And this condition is spread, Ward thinks, because future generations are born among those who’ve already turned away from God, making it even harder for them to choose the good, much less restore the lost unity with the divine. He therefore adopts a view that Original Sin is propagated by social and environmental conditions rather than being passed in some quasi-physical fashion.

The import of the Genesis story is that our world is one in which at a very early stage all humans rejected God. It is that original and massive embracing of desire that has drastically altered the moral situation of all subsequent human descendents. (p. 167)

For anyone born into such a world, the choice of good and evil is no delicately balanced, dispassionately contemplated decision. In a world of greed, hatred, and delusion, one must either be an oppressor, a victim, or a resister. One will be born as a child within one of these groups, and one’s historical responses and learned activities will be shaped accordingly. (pp. 168-9)

Even if someone managed to always make the correct moral decision, she would still not experience the unity in relationship with God that is the real purpose of human life. Instead of experiencing morality as the natural expression of a life lived in friendship with God, we usually experience it as a burdensome obligation and an obstacle to fulfilling our desires, at lest where it “pinches.” In our fallen condition our inclinations and our obligations are frequently at variance. To be delivered from our condition requires overcoming our estrangement from God, and the consequent transformation of our desires and inclinations. But this isn’t something we’re capable of pulling off.

To be continued (but not until next week probably, since I’m going camping this weekend!)…


6 thoughts on “Evolution, the Fall, and Original Sin

  1. Elliot

    Wow! Very thought-provoking.

    I’d definitely agree that the story of the Fall, with the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ seems like a parable about the emergence of the first self-conscious creatures, creatures with a capacity for moral reasoning, and their first wrong or selfish choice. But I hadn’t thought of the rest of it. I’m going to have to read this over again.

  2. *Christopher

    James Alison does this in his work, “The Joy of Being Wrong” and interprets the first sin as murder, that of Cain and Abel, and that our cultures are based in this and of course because nature and nurture are not absolute dichotomies, we are shaped thusly as well. I like this account as it deals seriously with evolutionary theory and the Fall in ways I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. Thanks.

  3. ktismatics

    I am (as you might imagine) enthused about Ward’s interpretation here. The usual contention that man fell by being disobedient seems rather crude — even dogs can obey their masters, or disobey them, without being moral agents.

    Man is a strange creature, genetically equipped to participate in a cultural environment. E.g., only man can use language, but man must be raised in a language-using environment if this genetic predisposition is to kick in. So too with morality — the ability to do both good and evil. So “original sin” would be transmitted by an interaction of genetics and social environment, which is how all human culture is transmitted from generation to generation.

    Five bucks — pretty good deal. I look forward to further installments.

  4. Here’s a very late comment! I used to be quite attracted to Ward’s theory, and I still see its merits, but I’m no longer convinced that a loss of a ‘thematic’ knowledge of God by virtue of living in a sinful society/culture/family/whatever is all there is to original sin. I mean, if we left a group of babies unexposed to sinful human actions on a desert island or something, and returned years later, would we seriously think there was a possibility of encountering a second eden or perfect society? I think rather we’d see Lord of the Flies. And whilst I can appreciate how living in a violent, selfish world would make one more inclined to sin, isn’t that what the ‘first humans’ were immersed in anyway? As Ward says himself, ‘when humans first came into being, they were already locked into a world in which competition and death were fundamental to their very existence. Doesn’t this still locate evil in finite existence as such?

    So I think we possibly have to say that the first humans were basically bound to sin in more or less the same way that we are. They began their lives without a clear awareness of God or morality, they were surrounded by animalistic violence and hate – probably far more than we are in fact! So it seems that, in a sense, evil is located in finite existence as such… although to soften the blow I’d prefer to speak of it as a kind of tragic inevitability than ontological necessity. Maybe we just have to start off our lives at a certain distance from the divine to avoid being totally overpowered by His glory, and ‘original sin’ is the name we give to the existential condition of feeling unable not to sin in this condition.

    What do you think?

  5. Thanks for your comment! (It’s been so long since I wrote this, I had to re-read the post before responding.)

    I think it’s important to remember that, for Ward’s account, the key moment is when human beings first became aware of a moral obligation and chose to disregard it. It’s that choice which ruptures the unity with the “sacred root of being,” resulting in a loss of felt unity with God. So, once that is gone, our innate tendencies toward lust and aggression have freer rein, and in a sense we are bound to sin. So, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that this loss of a “thematic” knowledge of God is a result of of living in a sinful society–more like the opposite. Once that knowledge had been lost, humanity was stuck in a situation where sin could more easily take root. So Ward could agree, for example, that the hypothetical band of babies abandoned on a desert island would not re-create Eden.

    Now whether we should think of these “pre-sinful” proto-humans as actually enjoying such a knowledge of the divine, or whether it’s more likely that they lacked any clear sense of God, seems to me a speculative question that is very hard to answer with any confidence (to put it mildly!). It does seem that very early humans had some sense of the sacred (and possibly some non-human animals have this too)–but it’s probably impossible to say just what that consists in. What the question boils down to, I suppose, is whether that first “moral” choice that Ward discusses could have been otherwise.

  6. I’m probably thinking about this in the wrong way, but can’t help wondering, given the recent science studies that show animals lie, cheat, and steal (and act altruistically too), if there really ever was a time, for them or for us, when we didn’t realize there was a choice to be made. What would it mean if from the beginning both we and animals were pretty much as we now are?

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