As the title of this post suggests, the origin of man, his supernatural destiny, and how that destiny is to unfold in light of the fall is an area that I am particularly concerned with here. It is an area rich in interpretive possibilities, but also one which modern evolutionary biology, secular humanism, relativism, and so on puts strain on the boundaries between truth vs fable, Tradition with a capital “T” vs tradition with a small “t”, “settled” dogma vs. legitimately open theological speculation. It is on this latter point that I have been subjecting my own understanding of human origins, the fall, and redemption to ensure that I hold only defined teaching as non-negotiable while allowing more range on anything else. These questions are not simply important topics for the theologians or theologian “wannabes” like myself; the answers should profoundly impact one’s own interior life and the right ordering of our relationships with others and society.
Adam and Eve and the issue of human origins
The question of our first parents is often presented as an immediate departure between faith and science, so a quick disposal of this “non-issue” is helpful when establishing a framework for discussions of faith and society. For example, it is often argued by evolutionary microbiologists that new traits are most effectively introduced via “breeding populations” rather than a single pair, in an attempt to cast doubts on the account of Adam and Eve. Whether or not the church ABSOLUTELY requires that you believe our first parents were indeed a single couple is a bit hypothetical and not likely to provide an out here: every theologian I am aware of accepts (as I do) this view of first parents being a single couple, and most of the best and clearest theological perspectives of fall and redemption seems to require it, so it is safe to assume that this is this is indeed church teaching. No hedging here: the question must be addressed directly
First, regardless of evolutionary biology’s favoring of breeding populations for the emergence of a new traits, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that it must happen that way or that it even can happen that way. Emergence of a new species complicates the matter, requiring more speculation beyond empirical evidence. Further, there is the case of the “Mitochondrial Eve” , an individual female living about 200,000 years ago from whom all humans on earth descend: not necessarily the first human, but certainly not in conflict with the story of our first parents. Indeed, most of the most theories most threatening to the church’s teaching are just that: “theories” or often, mere speculations that are given more credibility than they deserve simply because they are the speculations of “scientists”. In spite of numerous and vocal atheists who claim to possess definitive scientific proof of God’s “non-existence” or the unreasonableness of Catholic faith, nothing can be substantiated by what could be called “settled science”.
The question of the fall, original sin, and the need for and nature of redemption, however, adds layers to the story and its “accessibility” to unaided reason. But since it takes a rather concrete stance on the very meaning of human existence, this story directly affects all of us. Indeed, there many competing answers to questions such as “why is there evil?”, “how can we form society in the midst of this evil?”, “how can I do good and avoid evil?”, and, at the root, “what is good and what is evil?” The answers one accepts will have a profound and fundamental impact on both how one lives their life and how one lives in society. And I think the search for the right answers will always find its start in Genesis.
The story of the fall seems straightforward, at least to a theological first glance. Adam and Eve were created in a state of original innocence (“Though they were naked they felt no shame”), were keenly aware of God’s presence and closely united with him (“God told them…”). God gave them a garden of earthly delights, and only forbade them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil which is another way of stating that they properly accept their positions as dependent creatures and not as being gods themselves capable of deciding what is good and what is evil. They opted for the latter and as a result lost their original innocence (“They realized they were naked”) and their friendship with God. Though they have been guilty of an enormous sin, He promises a redeemer (“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel”). And certainly, at this point in sacred scripture and in the history of human race in general, all hell breaks loose so to speak: the need for redemption is pretty obvious. Just how “all hell breaks loose” is reflected in the notion of “original sin”. This notion is critical to understanding how this sin of Adam and Eve directly affects us and the possibility of our redemption, meaning our temporal and eternal happiness.
So what is this critical notion of original sin? It has often been referred to as “damaged nature”, a “stain on our soul” we inherit from our first parents and so on. It is passed on to our offspring almost as part of our genome. As concepts, these seem appropriate enough, at least helpful in trying to form an understanding of our plight. But not only the truth, but its very formulation presupposes acceptance of the moral authority of the Bible and the church, leaving a significant gap that must be bridged when engaging a culture that is largely atheist or at best deist in it’s make up.
This made me think more of an “anthropological process” view, one whose description is much more directly personal and experiential, one described by Joseph Ratzinger in his book ” ‘In the Beginning…’ A Catholic Understand of the Creation and the Fall”. Addressing the prior mentioned “conceptual” views of original sin he writes the following:
In the Genesis story that we are considering, still a further characteristic of sin is described. Sin is not spoken of in general as an abstract possibility but as a deed, as the sin of a particular person, Adam, who stands at the origin of humankind and with whom the history of sin begins. The account tells us that sin begets sin, and that therefore all of the sins of history are interlinked. Theology refers to this state of affairs as by the certainly misleading and imprecise term “original sin”. What does this mean? Nothing seems to us today to be stranger or, indeed, more absurd than to insist upon original sin, since, according to our way of thinking, guilt can only be something very personal, and since God does not run a concentration camp, in which one’s relatives are imprisoned, because he is a liberating God of love, who calls each one by name. What does original sin mean, then, when we interpret it correctly.
Finding an answer to this requires nothing less than trying to understand the human person better. It must once again be stressed that no human person is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live of or for himself or herself alone. We receive our life, not only at the moment of our birth but every day from without – from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: they live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are “present.” Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives – themselves – only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is the loss of relationship, the disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event – sin – touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.
It is easy to stop one’s reading here. Now one has a “Catholic” perspective that harmonizes nicely with the modern secular humanist perspective. To take one example, the novels of the Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison, seem to echo this view. Her novels describe what is often reprehensible behavior on the part of her characters, yet she develops these characters from the perspective of how they came to act the way they act in a manner that develops no little sympathy for the worst of them, given what they had to face in their lives. This seems to tangibly illustrate exactly what Joseph Ratzinger is describing in the above quote. We have a common language for discussing the obstacles to be overcome. We need to heal relationships, moving each generation closer and closer to redemption through steady elimination of this “loss of relationality”.
This runs the risk of becoming an all too human interpretation of Ratzinger’s words and the creation story in general. The fall might be viewed as a fundamentally human process, the passing on of any negative consequences is a human process, and overcoming it can also be simply a human process. The result will be the ambiguities of secular humanism and the loss of a frame of reference regarding thus what is the evil we should be overcoming and the good we should be replacing it. Sympathy for the individual and understanding for their response to harsh circumstances gives way to acceptance of their behavior as justifiable under their and eventually under any circumstances. We lay the foundation for the culture of death. Joseph Ratzinger’s words above, however, can only be rightly interpreted in the context of the church’s (and Joseph Ratzinger’s) teaching on sin and grace. To continue the above quote:
But from all of this it is also clear that human beings alone cannot save themselves. Their innate error is precisely that they want to do this by themselves. We can only be saved – that is, be free and true (his words, my emphasis) – when we stop wanting to be God and when we renounce the madness of autonomy and self-sufficiency. We can only be saved – that is, become ourselves (ditto) – when we engage in proper relationship. But our interpersonal relationships occur in the context of our utter creatureliness and it is there that the damage lies. Since the relationship with creation has been damaged, only the Creator himself can be our savior. We can be saved only when he from whom we have cut ourselves off takes the initiative with us and stretches out his hand to us. Only being loved is being saved, and only God’s love can purify damaged human love and radically reestablish the network of relationships that have suffered from alienation.
The key is recognition that the critical “broken relationship” is man’s relationship with God. Original innocence, based on a reading of Genesis and the tangible proximity of God to Adam and Eve it expresses, has to include more than a “naturally” healthy loving human being. It must include the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace. This direct relationship with God was the source of the elevated, supernatural state of man’s original innocence: it was God’s initiative. Reconciliation with God and restoration of this supernatural, while requiring our acceptance and participation, must also be God’s initiative.
This does not mean that the anthropological perspective alone is not a valid means of engaging the humanist view of today’s society. I think it is an excellent starting point for a conversation. People are connected, for good or ill, with others and one’s outlook, attitudes, approaches to life, and so forth will be shaped, for good or ill, by the influence of these connections. Once the common language it offers is accepted, the opportunity for critiquing the purely natural view is created and further engagement is possible. In this engagement, the ultimate truth about man’s origins and destiny is the only valid foundation for a just and long lived society. But this ultimate truth will never be revealed by a secular humanist approach alone. More to the point, human fulfillment (salvation) will never be achieved by a secular humanist approach alone: their motto of “Good without a god” is a non-starter.
Death vs Eternal Life: our ultimate destiny and society
Now, we come to what might be termed the existential crux of the matter: death vs man’s eternal destiny. The fact that because of man’s sin, man must die is clearly stated in the account of the fall. The implication is that man possessed eternal life prior to the fall and lost it as a result. However, throughout the Old and New Testament God speaks through the prophets and then directly in Christ of eternal life: the sinner will perish but the just man will never die. This promise is clearly stated in “post fall” biblical accounts. So how do we reconcile that with the promise of never dying, and what are the (at least theoretical) implications for man in the state of original innocence?
It seems to me that we clearly have to distinguish between natural death of the human organism vs the spiritual death presented in the Bible. In particular, I don’t think the notion of biological death is incompatible with the state of original innocence. We have to consider that Jesus Christ and Our Lady both experienced natural death even though Our Lady was conceived without sin and never committed a personal sin, and Jesus Christ was both perfect God and perfect man. Both were clearly in a state of original innocence. I would therefore argue that biological (natural) death is inherent in our temporal nature independent of the fall. But the experience of that death is radically and fundamentally different pre and post fall.
Here on earth, as we live out our natural life we seek to “become person” to paraphrase Joseph Ratzinger. We do so in relationship with others, the essence of what it means to be person. Ultimately, all of our relationships should be in God and to the degree that they are, to the degree that our relationship with others is bringing about relationship with God, we are experiencing the beginnings of eternal life, or our definitive relationship with God, even here on earth.
On earth, our relationships with others are mediated by our “natural faculties”: our senses, imagination, reasoning abilities and so on. That is, our relationships are dependent on the power of these “faculties”. As our death approaches and these natural faculties naturally lose their power, our earthly relationships also begin to be lost. The more imperfect these relationships are, the more “earthbound” they are, the weaker our “hold” on eternal life is. Our death becomes primarily an experience of loss of relationships, of “radical alone-ness” so to speak. To the degree that eternal life is present but obscured by our more earthbound and self bound attachments, our alone-ness is our purgatory and our reconciliation with our God who we love, yet offended in so many ways through these attachments. If our relationships are entirely earthbound in nature, or if our relationships are really ultimately with ourselves alone, our hold on eternal life is non-existent. Our earthly death leads to eternal death, that definitive state of “radical alone-ness” we call “hell”.
However, if our hold on eternal life is strong, if our relationships are “in God” and lead to God, then natural death becomes less an experience of lost earthly relationships and more of an unveiling of the Divine relationship embodied in the earthly. Death is a quiet passing, an entering into our homeland, the definitive experience of “radical love of God” which is heaven. The type of death experienced by the saints, and most especially by Our Lady.
This “culture of love”, in the end, is the only workable framework for a society. Society is not created by laws or government. Rather society can only emerge from the truths inherent in the human persons and their relationships with other persons. Government is a tool to enable a society to grow and function but unless it is based on truth, it will contribute to society’s unraveling. A secular humanist government based on the theories behind the slogan “good without a god” will never reach an understanding of true human good and is destined to degenerate into self seeking and anarchy. Engaging this dominant error is critical to the future of our society, but more important, to the eternal destiny of all its members.