Modern biology and original sin, Part II

In part I of this series (and in a response to critics of part I) I addressed the question of whether monogenism of the sort entailed by the doctrine of original sin is compatible with modern biology.  I have argued that it is.  In this post I want to address the question of whether modern biology is consistent with the claim that the ancestors of all human beings transmitted the stain of original sin to their descendents via propagation rather than mere imitation.  The correct answer to this question, I maintain, is also in the affirmative.  Critics of the doctrine of original sin often suppose that it claims that there is something like an “original sin gene” passed down from parents to offspring.  And this, of course, seems highly dubious from a biological point of view.  They also suppose that to say that Adam’s descendents inherited from him the stain of original sin is like saying that Al Capone’s descendents somehow inherited from him his guilt for the crimes he committed, and deserve to be punished for those crimes.  And this too seems absurd and unjust.  But both of these objections rest on egregious misunderstandings of the doctrine.

Faith and reason

Before explaining how, I want briefly to say something about the rational foundations of the doctrine.  Some skeptical readers were critical of my appeal in my earlier post to Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis, and mocked my statement that “there is no evidence against” the supposition that God may have infused human souls into creatures descended from sub-intellectual hominids.  They seem to think that what I was saying is that because a certain religious authority has said something, that by itself suffices to show that it is true, or that the mere fact that there is no evidence against a proposition licenses us in believing it if we are so inclined.  But this is a complete travesty both of my views and of Catholic theology.  

To be sure, while it has sometimes been suggested that the doctrine of original sin can be defended on purely philosophical grounds, probably the more common view is that it is a matter of faith.  But what is faith?  It is not what most people think it is; in particular, it is not a matter of believing something without any grounds for believing it, or believing it simply because you’ve taken a fancy to it, or because through sheer will you’ve worked yourself into a state of belief in defiance of all the evidence.  In short, faith, rightly understood, is in no way at odds with reason.  On the contrary, faith is, in a sense, grounded in reason.  

Suppose you know nothing about quantum mechanics but you do know a physicist who is both highly competent and scrupulously honest, and he tries to explain the subject to you.  Suppose further that you only understand part of what he says, and even that part you understand only imperfectly.  Still, you have no doubt that what he is saying is true.  You trust him, because he knows what he is talking about and wouldn’t lie to you.  You have faith in him, and your faith is perfectly rational.  Indeed, it is grounded in reason in the sense that it is reason that tells you that he is a reliable source of information, and thus can be believed even when what he is saying is something you could not have discovered for yourself and cannot even fully understand.

Faith in the religious context -- or at least in the Catholic theological context -- is like that.  To cite a representative definition, “faith is adhesion of the intellect, under the influence of grace, to a truth revealed by God, not on account of its intrinsic evidence but on account of the authority of Him who has revealed it” (Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, p. 101).  That is to say, faith involves believing some proposition we could not have discovered on our own and perhaps cannot even fully understand, but which we know must be true because God, who is omniscient and cannot lie, has revealed it.  But this faith is grounded in reason insofar as the claim that the proposition in question has in fact been revealed by God is something that can and should be independently rationally justified.  In short, reason tells us that there is a God and that he has revealed such-and-such a truth; faith is then a matter of believing what reason has shown God to have revealed.  In that sense faith is not only not at odds with reason but is grounded in reason.

Of course, how we know through reason that God exists and that He has revealed some truth is a large and complex matter.  I have defended several of the traditional arguments for God’s existence in several places (here, here, and here).  The way to get from God’s existence to the justification of the claim that some particular Christian theological doctrine (such as the doctrine of original sin) really has been divinely revealed would have to involve a number of further steps.  In particular, it would have to involve a defense of the claim that Jesus Christ claimed divine authority for His teaching, that He was resurrected from the dead, that only God could have effected this resurrection and that it therefore constitutes a divine seal of approval of Christ’s teaching, that Christ founded a Church with authority to pass on and interpret His teaching, and so on.  In other words, the rational defense of any particular purportedly divinely revealed Christian doctrine presupposes an independent rational defense of the truth of theism, of the veracity of Christ, and also (I would say) of the specifically Catholic understanding of revelation and authority.

Obviously I can hardly accomplish all of that here, in a single blog post, though of course many theologians have defended all of these points in detail over the centuries.  The point for now is just to emphasize that believing the doctrine of original sin is not a matter merely of appealing to authority, as if the reliability of the authority did not itself need to be rationally established (of course it does).  And I am not, in any event, pretending in this series of posts to establish the doctrine of original sin to the satisfaction of someone who is not already familiar with and convinced by the arguments for theism and Catholicism.  My aim is rather only to answer certain specific criticisms of the doctrine.  Hence when I said that “there is no evidence against” the novel monogenesis scenario sketched in my previous posts, I was not saying “There is no evidence against it, and that suffices to justify us in believing it.”  I was saying “This scenario is compatible with the genetic evidence, so the claim that the genetic evidence has refuted the doctrine of original sin fails.”  Naturally, a positive case for the doctrine would have to say a lot more than that.

Now some Catholic readers might wonder if I am presenting too rationalist an account of faith (as some readers of my book The Last Superstition seem to think I did there).  In particular, they might think that I have ignored the role grace plays in faith (a role referred to in the definition I cited above).  As the Catholic Encyclopedia says in its article on faith:

[I]n the minds of many faith is regarded as a more or less necessary consequence of a careful study of the motives of credibility, a view which the Vatican Council condemns expressly: "If anyone says that the assent of Christian faith is not free, but that it necessarily follows from the arguments which human reason can furnish in its favour; or if anyone says that God's grace is only necessary for that living faith which worketh through charity, let him be anathema."

But what I am saying is in no way in conflict with Catholic teaching, and is in fact just standard Scholastic theology.  As the very same article immediately goes on to say:

On the other hand, we must not minimize the real probative force of the motives of credibility within their true sphere—"Reason declares that from the very outset the Gospel teaching was rendered conspicuous by signs and wonders which gave, as it were, definite proof of a definite truth" (Leo XIII, Æterni Patris).

And as the same encyclopedia puts it in its article on fideism:

As against [fideistic] views, it must be noted that authority, even the authority of God, cannot be the supreme criterion of certitude, and an act of faith cannot be the primary form of human knowledge.  This authority, indeed, in order to be a motive of assent, must be previously acknowledged as being certainly valid; before we believe in a proposition as revealed by God, we must first know with certitude that God exists, that He reveals such and such a proposition, and that His teaching is worthy of assent, all of which questions can and must be ultimately decided only by an act of intellectual assent based on objective evidence.  Thus, fideism not only denies intellectual knowledge, but logically ruins faith itself.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Church has condemned such doctrines…  On 8 September, 1840, Bautain was required to subscribe to several propositions directly opposed to Fideism, the first and the fifth of which read as follows: "Human reason is able to prove with certitude the existence of God; faith, a heavenly gift, is posterior to revelation, and therefore cannot be properly used against the atheist to prove the existence of God"; and "The use of reason precedes faith and, with the help of revelation and grace, leads to it." … [T]he [first] Vatican Council teaches as a dogma of Catholic faith that "one true God and Lord can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made"…

As to the opinion of those who maintain that our supernatural assent is prepared for by motives of credibility merely probable, it is evident that it logically destroys the certitude of such an assent. This opinion was condemned by Innocent XI in the decree of 2 March, 1679… and by Pius X in the decree "Lamentabili sane"…  Revelation, indeed, is the supreme motive of faith in supernatural truths, yet, the existence of this motive and its validity has to be established by reason.

In short, the teaching that grace guides us to faith does not entail that at some point we just have to close our eyes real tight and will ourselves into believing some proposition for which there are insufficient rational grounds.  That is William James style fideism, not Catholicism.  When someone says “There but for the grace of God go I,” he does not mean that he did not freely choose to avoid a life of sin and that God somehow programmed him to avoid it, as He might program a robot.  Similarly, when we say that we are led to faith by God’s grace, this does not mean that we are not at the same time led to it by reason.

Let’s move on now to the doctrine of original sin itself.

What original sin isn’t

Many people seem to think that the doctrine of original sin says something like this: Adam and Eve were originally made for the eternal bliss of Heaven, but because they ate a piece of fruit they were told not to, they came to merit instead eternal torture at the hands of demons sticking pitchforks into them as they roast over hellfire.  Though Adam and Eve’s descendents had no part in their fruit-stealing, they are going to be held accountable for it anyway, and merit the same eternal torture (demons, pitchforks, hellfire and all).  For they have inherited a kind of guilt-carrying gene, which will automatically transfer them into the custody of the pitchfork-carrying demons straightaway upon death unless God somehow supernaturally removes it.  For some reason, though, this gene doesn’t show up in biological research, and its existence must be taken on faith.

Naturally, atheists and other non-Christians reject this scenario as too ludicrous for words.  And it is too ludicrous for words.  But it also has nothing to do with what the traditional doctrine of original sin actually says.  Indeed, it barely rises to the level of caricature; certainly it bears no resemblance to the traditional Catholic understanding of original sin.  Here as elsewhere, too many critics haven’t troubled themselves to find out what the main Christian thinkers have actually written, but rely on vulgar stereotypes.  And on the rare occasions when such critics do at least skim some serious theological work (so as to forestall the accusation that they haven’t done their homework) they are likely to read into it the ludicrous scenario just described. 

Properly to understand the doctrine of original sin requires understanding what traditional theology says about what human beings were originally made for, what the offense of our first parents consisted in, what the punishment for that offense was, and the sense in which we have inherited that punishment.  Let’s look at each issue in turn.  We will see that what traditional theology says is radically different from what many people think it says.  Nothing that I will be saying here is original.  You can find it in old works of Scholastic theology, and online in relevant articles from the Catholic Encyclopedia.  (See, for example, the articles on original sin, supernatural order, sanctifying grace, and concupiscence.  You might also look at a book like Matthias Scheeben’s recently reprinted The Mysteries of Christianity.  The best discussion of the doctrine I’ve read is in Thomas Harper’s long out-of-print little book The Immaculate Conception, but that is hard to track down.  You can read about Harper here and Scheeben here.)

Natural and supernatural

For Scholastic theology, human beings have, like everything else, a nature or essence, and what is good for them – what they need in order to flourish as the kinds of creatures they are – is determined by that essence.  Hence, for example, because we are by nature rational animals our flourishing requires both bodily goods (food, shelter, and the like) and intellectual goods (such as the acquisition of knowledge).  The point of Scholastic natural law theory is to provide an account of the various human goods and their moral implications.  (I provide a brief sketch of how this goes in the first half of this article, and also in chapter 5 of Aquinas.)

Now among the things that are naturally good for us is a certain kind of knowledge of God and a certain kind of religious devotion.  For as rational animals, we are capable of knowing the ultimate causes of things and of freely pursuing the good; and God is the ultimate cause of things and the highest good.  The paradigm of this natural knowledge of God is the sort of thing we know from natural theology – for example, the kind of arguments concerning God’s nature and essence one finds in Aristotelian or Neo-Platonic philosophy.  

As with other creatures, nature provides human beings with what they need in order to realize these goods, at least in a general way.  For example, we need food, and nature is set up in such a way that we can acquire it – by hunting and gathering, through basic farming, and also by the more sophisticated agricultural methods and economic institutions familiar from modern life, which our natural rational capacities have made possible.  We need knowledge of God, and philosophical investigation gives us such knowledge.  But as with other creatures, while nature provides the means to our ends, she doesn’t guarantee that every one of us will in fact realize those ends.  Due to misfortune, some of us sometimes go hungry.  Due to intellectual error and the complexity of the philosophical issues, some of us sometimes fail properly to understand the main arguments for God’s existence, or mix all sorts of errors into whatever knowledge of God we do have.  Due to the weaknesses of our wills, we also fall into moral error.  And when moral and intellectual errors multiply throughout a culture, the resulting general social environment may make it difficult for a given individual living within it to avoid more numerous and more serious moral and intellectual errors than he otherwise would have been prone to.  (Modern Western society provides a good example, insofar as the secularist portion of it is much farther from understanding the basic truths of natural theology and natural law than perhaps any other culture ever has been.  I have explored the contingent historical and philosophical reasons for this elsewhere.)

So, human beings in their natural state have only a limited capacity to realize the ends their nature requires them to pursue in order that they might flourish.  They have the raw materials needed for this pursuit, but the finitude of their intellectual, moral, and material endowments entails that there is no guarantee that each and every individual human being will in fact realize the ends in question, or realize them perfectly when they do realize them at all.  Nature has granted us what it “owes” us given what we need in order to flourish as the kind of creatures we are, but no more than that.  This is the situation Adam, Eve, and their descendants would have been in had God left the human race in its purely natural state.

But according to Christian theology, God offered to our first parents more than what was “owed” to us given our nature.  He offered us a supernatural gift.  Here it is crucial to understand what “supernatural” means in this context.  It has nothing to do with ghosts, goblins, and the like.  What is meant is rather that God offered us a good that went above or beyond what our nature required us to have.  In particular, he offered Adam and Eve the beatific vision – a direct, “face to face” knowledge of the divine essence which far transcends the very limited knowledge of God we can have through natural reason, and which would entail unsurpassable bliss of a kind we could never attain given our natural powers.  He also offered special helps that would deliver us from the limitations of our natures – that would free us from the ignorance and error our intellectual limitations open the door to, the moral errors our weak wills lead us into, the sicknesses and injuries our bodily limitations make possible, and so forth.

By definition, none of this was “owed” to us, precisely because it is supernatural.  Hence while God cannot fail to will for us what is good for us given our nature, He would have done us no wrong in refraining from offering these supernatural gifts to us, precisely because they go beyond what our nature requires for our fulfillment.  Still, He offered them to us anyway.  But this offer was conditional. 

The fall of man

The condition was the obedience of our first parents.  Yet they did not obey.  And of course, that is the point of the account of their eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  It wasn’t fruit per se that was important, but rather the will to rebel against the Creator.  (Recall Augustine’s youthful theft of the pears, where what was attractive about the theft was the fact that it was forbidden, not the fact that he got some pears out of it.)  The penalty was the loss of the supernatural gifts they had been given and that their descendants would have been given, and a fall back into their merely natural state, with all its limitations.  In particular, it was a loss of all the helps that would effectively have removed those limitations -- and worst of all, loss of the beatific vision.

In short, the penalty of original sin was a privation, not a positive harm inflicted on human beings but rather the absence of a benefit they never had a right to or strict need for in the first place but would have received anyway had they not disobeyed.  And it wasn’t the prospect of pitchforks and hellfire that Adam’s descendents had to look forward to because of what Adam did, but rather the privation of this supernatural gift.  What is essential to Hell is the loss of the beatific vision, and while Hell can certainly also involve more than that (including the pains of sense) the standard view is that it does so only for those guilty of actual sin, and not those (such as infants who die without baptism) who merely suffer the penalty of original sin, without ever having committed actual sin.  (For this reason the Scholastic tradition came to settle around the view that infants who die without baptism, and thus without removal of the penalty of original sin, probably enjoy perpetual natural happiness -- the highest state we could have attained without being raised to the supernatural gift of the beatific vision.)

You might compare the situation to that of a landowner who has sold an unimproved parcel of land to a certain family – which, just to be cute, we’ll call the Adams family.  In allowing the Adamses to take possession of the parcel, he’s given them everything he owed them.  But suppose he offers to throw in, for free, something extra – to plant on the land a vineyard using the finest quality vines, whose fruit will make possible the best wine.  This is something that all the descendents of the original Adamses who bought the land will profit from.  But the landowner makes the offer only conditionally.  He wants to see how Mr. and Mrs. Adams are going to handle things before turning the vineyard over to the Adams family as a whole, including the many descendents who are not likely to do any better with the vines than their ancestors are.  So if Mr. and Mrs. Adams do well with the first vines planted, they and their descendents will get to keep them and reap the benefits.  If not, the landowner will tear them out and leave the Adamses and their descendents with only the original unimproved parcel, which is all they were owed in the first place. 

Now suppose that Mr. and Mrs. Adams botch things up, and the landowner removes the vineyard.  The fault is entirely theirs, but all their descendents necessarily suffer the penalty just as much as they do, just by virtue of being Adamses.  Yet it is not a positive harm that is inflicted on them, but rather the loss of a benefit they were not entitled to but nevertheless would have received if not for the actions of their ancestors.  

The hereditary stain

Notice that there is nothing the least bit unjust about the landowner’s actions, since he never owed the vineyard to any of the Adamses in the first place.  He would have done Mr. and Mrs. Adams no wrong if he had refrained from offering the vineyard, and he does none of their descendants wrong in denying it to them.  Notice also that there is nothing remotely mysterious about how our fictional Adamses inherit the penalty of Mr. and Mrs. Adams’ error, and do so genetically.  For they do so, not because they’ve got some strange “vineyard-losing gene” but rather simply because they are the biological descendents of Mr. and Mrs. Adams, and the deal that would have gained or lost them the vineyard was a deal made with Mr. and Mrs. Adams on their behalf.

Similarly, we inherit the penalty of original sin, not in the sense that we’ve got some “original sin gene” alongside genes for eye color and tooth enamel, but rather in the sense that the offer of the supernatural gifts was made to the human race as a whole through their first parent acting as their representative.  Inheriting this penalty from Adam is more like inheriting your father’s name or bank account than it is like inheriting his looks or his temperament.  And there is no more injustice in this inheritance than there is in the landowner’s not planting a vineyard for Mr. and Mrs. Adams’ descendents.  

That, anyway, is how the doctrine of original sin came to be understood in the Scholastic tradition.  Obviously the account depends crucially on the distinction between the natural and supernatural orders -- a distinction that was blurred in Protestantism and has also been blurred by some modern Catholic theologians (a tendency criticized by Pope Pius XII at paragraph 26 of Humani Generis).  Part of the danger of blurring it is that doing so threatens to make a hash of the doctrine of original sin.  If Adam and Eve lost for us something we are in some sense owed by nature, or if the penalty of original sin did involve some positive damage to that nature rather than merely the privation of a supernatural gift, then it does come to seem unjust that we have inherited that penalty, and the door is opened at least a crack to the caricatures of the doctrine’s critics. 
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