When I first started writing about evolution and creationism I took a highly accommodationist line. I was perfectly happy to parrot the conventional wisdom that evolution and Christianity were compatible and that only crazy extremists think differently. Of course, my current view is not nearly so ecumenical. Today I believe that while it is not flatly impossible to reconcile them, it is at least far more difficult than is typically pretended.
It was not an overnight change of view for me, but I can at least pinpoint the moment I started rethinking things. It was after reading Ruse’s book Can A Darwinian Be A Christian? His book had two effects on me. The first was to make me realize that the conflicts between evolution and Christianity went far beyond the creation account in Genesis One. The second was that Ruse’s arguments in favor of reconciliation were generally far too weak to defuse the conflicts.
As an example, consider his thoughts on the subject of original sin.
The traditional concept of original sin is tied to the story of Adam and Eve. We were created good, but the first couple disobeyed God and fell into sin. We inherit this sin nature, and that is why humanity frequently falls short of moral decency. Romans 5:18-19 reads:
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (NRSV)
In context it is perfectly clear that the man who tresspassed was Adam, while the righteous man was Jesus.
There are cryptic parts of scripture, but this is not one of them. Moreover, the close ties drawn between the early chapters of Genesis and the New Testament story of redemption show how difficult it is to allegorize Genesis without doing real theological damage.
This classical view of original sin was advocated especially by Augustine. Of course, modern science shows that it is entirely false. There was no original couple, and Adam and Eve never existed. In the decades following the publication of The Origin of Species, when people spoke of conflicts between evolution and scripture, they were more likely to be thinking of original sin than the first chapter of Genesis. Unsurprisingly, this was especially true in Catholic circles.
So what is the reconciler to do? Ruse thinks evolution provides a way out. In his earlier column he writes:
It seems to me, however, that what evolutionary biology takes away with the one hand, it returns a hundred-fold with the other.
Standard bravado, but since what has been taken away is the entire freakin’ doctrine it is hard to imagine what it could give back that is a hundred times better. Here is Ruse’s answer:
What this all means is that humans are going to be a mélange of good and bad, selfish and giving. This is our Darwinian human nature. And this, it seems to me, is a piece of candy for the Christian. He or she can keep the deep insights of Augustine but put them now in the context of modern science. There was no literal Adam and Eve. There was no literal Fall. We are both good and bad by reason of our biology, our evolutionary past. That is why we are not going to escape it soon. That is why a little bit of eighteenth-century optimism is not going to make us all perfect. And that is why in a sense we need help from outside — or from Outside, as one might say.
Do you see what I mean about Ruse’s arguments being too weak to defuse the conflict? I certainly see what evolutionary biology is bringing to this discussion. Our understanding of human nature, such as it is, comes entirely from science. But what is Christianity bringing to the table? Ruse refers to the deep insights of Augustine, but what insights does he mean? It would seem that Augustine took the entirely trivial observation that humans routinely fall short of moral goodness, a fact absolutely no one needed Christianity to tell them, and married it to a view of history that is now recognized as entirely false. Nothing insightful about that.
This attempted reconciliation, in which our sinful natures are equated with the selfishness we inherit from our evolutionary history, is very common in the literature of reconciliation. It is essentially what is argued by Karl Giberson in Saving Darwin and by Daryl Domning in Original Selfishness. If they find this view adequate they are welcome to it, but we should not be surprised that so many Christians of a traditional temperament are not amused. They will say that this is not a reconciliation of original sin with evolution at all. Defenders of this view are simply discarding original sin and hitching their fortunes to science instead.
In all divides, the extremists at the two ends have more in common than with those in the middle. The Creationists and the New Atheists come together in agreeing that Christianity and modern biological science are incompatible. My plea is that we see how wrong they both are. No one is asking for conversions, but in modern biology there is much of real value for the thinking Christian, and in Christian thought there is much worth pondering by the biologist. Difficult questions demand grown-up answers and it is foolish to think that only one approach can yield all of the results.
I am still waiting to hear what it is in Christian thought that a biologist should ponder. If they are to have any bite, then notions like original sin and the fall of man have to contain something more than the banal fact that humans sometimes do not behave well. If Christianity has nothing to tell us about why that is the case, and from what Ruse has written that seems to be the truth, then what good is it?
Which brings me to his current column. His primary focus is a new paper about original sin published by John Schneider, a theologian at Calvin College. Early on Ruse writes:
My argument (one repeated from my book Can a Darwinian be a Christian?) is that we should think of Adam metaphorically, and that we should see humans as the product of evolution through natural selection.
But why should we think of Adam at all?
As we have seen, there is no basis in scripture for thinking that Adam was meant metaphorically. It is sometimes argued that since “Adam” was not a proper name at the time Genesis was written, but instead is just the Hebrew word for “man”, we are justified in treating Adam metaphorically. That this is specious becomes clear when you consider everything that Adam does. In Chapter Two the specifics of his creation and that of Eve are used to explain the origins of marriage. In Chapter Three, specific actions he takes result in the curse on creation. In Chapter Five we are given a meticulous list of descendants linking him to Noah. It seems a bit odd to think that a metaphorical man could leave literal descendants. And in the New Testament he is discussed in terms that make him sound as real as Jesus. Metaphorizing Adam is easier said than done.
But the interesting part of the column is that Schneider has gotten himself into trouble with his overly liberal approach to theology.
Schneider today is in deep trouble with the president of his college who wants him kicked out for transgressing the standard line. And some of the president’s supporters are even more shrill, demanding that he be fired for “heresy.” A subscription to Calvinism that is “serious but not uncritical” (to quote Schneider himself) “and which thus allows one to contradict the Reformed Confessions at will is,” in the opinion of a writer in the Christian Renewal, “no subscription at all. It is mere hypocrisy. The failure of Calvin College to enforce adherence to Reformed standards belies its claim to be Reformed.”
The writer in question might have phrased things more harshly than I would have, but I think he is essentially correct. There comes a point when we are no longer talking about reasonable disagreements within the bounds of orthodoxy, but instead are simply throwing orthodoxy overboard. If you take seriously the “Chrisitan” part of Christian education, then presumably you also think that doctrine is not infinitely malleable, to be discarded casually any time a scientist says you must.
One can surely agree that a church-affiliated college has the right (and the duty) to see that its faculty does not presume unlimited license. I think abortion should be a woman’s choice, but I can see the point of saying that a faculty member at Notre Dame should not be preaching abortion on demand. If you want to do that, go somewhere else. Having said that, evolution is true and Adam and Eve are at best mythological. The human species never, ever got down to two people only. Nor did it start that way. So one can only welcome it when trained, serious, committed theologians try to reinterpret their beliefs in terms of (or compatible with) modern science. It is a sad day indeed when a faculty member of one of the leading Christian colleges in the nation is threatened with the sack by his president for trying to stay true to the faith of his parents and to the demands of reason and evidence, showing that he is indeed made in the image of God. John Schneider is just the sort of man who makes me, a non-believer, realize that for all its faults there is much good in religion. I hope good sense and Christian charity prevail in Michigan. (Emphasis added).
That boldface comment is really the crux of the issue. As Ruse notes, modern science has shown that the traditional understanding of original sin is entirely false. Do we respond to that by saying good riddance to bad rubbish, or do we simply shrug it off and simply change the doctrines to fit the times?
For many religion is a rock on which they can always rely. It is a body of eternal truths they can return to even as the winds of popular culture buffet them into temptation and immorality. That these doctrines do not change is precisely the point. To such people it is not at all honorable to make religious teaching subservient to the demands of science.