Jerry Coyne weighs in with a few thoughts about the various attempts, considered in my last post, to preserve the notion of original sin in the light of modern science. It turns out he’s even less impressed by those attempts than I am. Go have a look!
Since Wednesday’s post was already quite long, I didn’t get around to mentioning one additional attempt to promote an evolutionary understanding of original sin. It comes from theologian John Haught. In his book God After Darwin he writes:
What, then, might original sin mean? Superficially, it means a systematic turning away from God by human beings. But what does it mean in terms of the notions of God and cosmos that I have been setting forth in the course of this book? Rather than tracing here the complex and controversial history of the notion of original sin, I would prefer now simply to suggest a way of interpreting it from the point of view of the aesthetic-evolutionary perspective sketched above. Other frameworks would understand it differently, but in this setting original sin means that each of us is born into a still unfinished, imperfect universe where there already exist strong pressures — many of them inherited culturally over countless generations — for us to acquiesce in an indifference to God’s creative cosmic aim of maximizing beauty. Original sin consists of all the forces that lead us away from participation in this most essential and vitalizing pursuit.
Skipping ahead a bit, Haught specifically rejects the sort of solution proffered by Daryl Domning, described in the last post. (Just to be clear, Haught was not directing himself to Domning specifically.)
Moreover, even though the potential to do evil is already a part of our genetic makeup, it is theologically inappropriate to identify original sin simply with the instincts of aggression or selfishness that we may have inherited from our nonhuman evolutionary ancestry. Even though these tendencies are part of our evolutionary legacy, the substance of “original sin” is the culturally and environmentally inherited deposit of humanity’s violence and injustice that burdens and threatens to corrupt each of us born into this world.
We’ve certainly come a long way from the idea of an actual sin committed by Earth’s original people. In my last post I commented that there is no fact of the matter regarding the meaning of these doctrines. There is only what different people or different faith communities say they mean. But we are certainly entitled to point out that under Haught’s interpretation the concept of original sin is contributing nothing at all to our understanding of anything. An atheist, no less than a Christian, is fully capable of noticing that humans often fall short of their highest ideals and that society suffers as a result. Why we should refer to the culturally and environmentally inherited deposit of humanity’s violence and injustice as “original sin” is not explained in Haught’s book.
In my forthcoming book about evolution and creationism, due out from Oxford University Press in March 2012, I have a chapter discussing this sort of thing. In it I make an analogy between these sorts of attempts to redefine doctrines in the light of modern science and someone who tries to “reinterpret” the idea of phlogiston. Someone keen to preserve the idea of phlogiston could say, “Sure, the old understanding of phlogiston as an actual physical substance is now happily abandoned. Nowadays we should understand phlogiston as the exquisite dance between fuel and oxygen so brilliantly explained by modern chemists. Phlogiston is a process, not a substance.” I suspect most scientists would simply roll their eyes. They would say you can make whatever definitions you want, but this notion of phlogiston is very far removed from its historical meaning, and there is absolutely nothing to be gained from reviving the notion in so bizarre way.
But now imagine that the phlogiston-defender runs around telling everyone that with his reinterpretation we have a clear convergence of modern science wit older wisdom, and that scientists are arrogant and dogmatic for not paying attention to his ideas. That, in my view, is essentially what theologians do.
There is one place where I think we can say that Haught’s ideas are simply erroneous.
Evolution implies that we live in an unfinished universe, and we can easily overlook the invigorating and even explosive spiritual implications of this fact. The sense of a universe still being created, as implied in evolutionary science and now amplified by big bang physics, opens up to us the gracious horizon of an indeterminate future for the world; a static eternal, finished, or perfect universe could not possibly permit the graciousness of this horizon. The fact that creation is not yet completed endows all of cosmic reality, including our own lives, with a significance that would be inconceivable in a state of finished perfection.
Even taken at face value that looks like high-order gibberish to me. But the idea that evolution implies that we live in an unfinished universe is just flat wrong. It implies no such thing. There is no “finish” to evolution. There is no omega point. Evolution implies simply that we live on a planet in which species change over time. There is no direction or goal to this change. It just happens. Barring some future intervention by God, the processes of cosmic and biological evolution will not be leading us to any discernible goal, save, perhaps, for the inevitable heat death of the universe.