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roundtable:science and faith Watch Show 7:
"What About God?"
on PBS
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Several people have written that they have thoroughly studied both creation and evolution and find that both are forms of faith in that they assume events that occurred before the time of man. They both have an element of trust needed to believe that either are correct or incorrect. Please comment.
Must we take the first several verses of Genesis literally in order to respect the spiritual authority of the rest of the Bible? Conversely, must the literal nature of the Genesis creation story be discounted in order to reconcile religion with evolution, astronomy, physics, and other sciences?
Please tell us specifically how you handle the question of original sin. If God chose to create organisms, specifically mankind, through millions of years of evolution, what happens to the theological underpinnings of original sin and redemption without a real, flesh-and-blood Adam and Eve?
If one accepts Darwinian evolution, how can one truly reconcile that theory with religion as practiced by most Americans? Even if evolution doesnŐt conflict with the existence of a God, it does seem to clearly refute the idea that God plays an active, day-to-day role in the course of earthly events.
Even if many people can reconcile religious and evolutionary world views, it seems that many evolutionary biologists cannot. Biologists seem much more likely to express hostility toward religion than practice it. Several persons have said that a religious person cannot be a true scientist. Does an evolutionary world view gradually drive a person toward atheism?


Q: Please tell us specifically how you handle the question of original sin. If God chose to create organisms, specifically mankind, through millions of years of evolution, what happens to the theological underpinnings of original sin and redemption without a real, flesh-and-blood Adam and Eve?
Panelist Responses: < back to intro page
I think many theologians, certainly in most of the 20th century, have not taken the story of Adam and Eve as a literal story. They're taking it as a great myth -- that is, a story which is told to convey a theological truth, namely about the alienation of human beings from each other, from nature, and from God.

And that, I think, is a fact. So in that sense, original sin is a fact that we all face. A judge in a law court knows about original sin. In that sense, none of us do what we think we ought to do -- we all fall short of our highest ideals. And there's an in-built pressure from society to have the wrong motivations and the wrong ways of going about things. So in that sense, original sin is with us all the time.

But I think when you have to make it a story which involves two particular people in the past and tie it to their being two people which generated the human race and their action alone caused this, I think one is being misleading. What I see is human beings emerging into consciousness, emerging into a sense of values, of truth, beauty, and goodness, but at the same time being free so they can reject those values. They can become beasts as well as angels, if you'd like. And this fact is what alienates us from each other and from God. We're not yet what God intended us to be.

So when one sees that in the evolutionary perspective, we see human beings, as it were, going upwards but with greater risk of falling. And myself, I think a lot of the language of redemption which we inherit from Saint Augustine, with his view that there was a historical event in the past when human beings fell from grace, as it were, can be misleading. What we see more is something like the Eastern Orthodox Christians see -- namely, a growing of human beings towards God and that the work of Christ is to help people to grow up, to grow into the image of God which we human beings, as Christians, say we see in Jesus the Christ. So this reshaping of the whole redemption language is really under pressure from that. But the fact of alienation, if you like, the fact of sin, is I think with us. We are like that now.
I find the doctrine of original sin and redemption one of the most hopeful in all of Christian theology and Christian tradition. First, with regard to the scientific side of it, I refer to what I just said a moment ago about [what] the literal interpretation of the Bible means. The doctrine of Adam and Eve, I think, in terms of what we know nowadays, cannot be taken literally in the sense of implying two particular human individuals from which we are all descended.

We know that our ancestors were never at any time just two individuals. Modern genetic analysis allows us to conclude that through millions of years of our history, there have been always at any time at the very least several thousand individuals. So we don't descend from a single pair.

The content of our descendence from Adam and Eve is that we are all members of one single species, the same humankind, and we are all equal in that we are the children, as it were, of the same ancestors. To me, that's a very strong statement for equality in general, and very importantly, against any kind of racism or segregation based on ethnic preferences.

It says that members of different ethnic groups are all brethren and we are all descended from the same ancestors. We should consider ourselves equal in all relevant aspects.

The doctrine of original sin, as I understand it, implies that we humans, because of the possibility of having free will, are inclined to behave in ways that often are not virtues, that often imply sin. I think that even the greatest saints or prophets, at least at some moment or another, have sinned.

And the doctrine of original sin and redemption, to me, tells that we can accept sin, the fact that we sin. Now we can think about ourselves individually. That doesn't mean that we should be condemned or living with the moral consequences of sin forever. There is hope. There is the possibility of redemption, and redemption, of course, in the case of Christianity, comes in the form of Jesus Christ. More generally, in the context of the Bible, it comes from the Messiah. So the Messiah establishes, as it were, a covenant with God for all of us that makes it possible for us to be redeemed and therefore to be saved from our own follies and our own sins.
This, for traditional Christians and certainly for many evangelical Protestant Christians, is the critical issue. Compared to this matter, questions about the age of the Earth, questions about whether Adam and Eve came from previously existing creatures or were made afresh, questions about the plasticity of species, all of those are simply trivial questions.

The reason that Christian believers have been so concerned traditionally about the real, flesh-and-blood Adam and Eve is not because of the early parts of the Bible, but because of the message of the New Testament. In many places in the New Testament, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul, there is the closest possible parallel made between the once-in-history saving acts of God's son, Jesus Christ, and the once-in-history fall of humanity, Adam and Eve, into sin. I'll read just one brief passage from the Book of Romans, chapter 5: "For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace send a gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many?"

So what the Apostle Paul is doing here is placing in balance and parable the heart of the Christian religion, God's entrance into humanity in the incarnate person, Jesus Christ, and his supernatural life, death, and resurrection. That heart of Christianity is juxtaposed with the historical fall of Adam and Eve.

Now Professor Peacocke made some interesting statements about the Augustinian tradition and Augustine's view of original sin and saying perhaps that was a mistake. Many traditional Christian believers do not think that was a mistake, because they see the teaching, the historic teaching about the fall of Adam and Eve, as very much built in to the historic teaching about the salvation won for humanity in Christ.

Francisco Ayala raised an excellent point: that the teaching of the unity of the human race and Adam and Eve is a very strong defense of the equality of all humans and the unity of the human race. And these are the great elements that simply have to be retained for any traditional view of the Christian faith.

Now the question arises, Is it possible that Adam and Eve should be reinterpreted in some way that fits some of the conclusions of modern evolutionary science? I myself don't know the answer to that question. I can see the possibilities of that kind of reinterpretation, but only if the very strong Christian teachings about the unity of the human race, the reality of sin in all the human race, the reality of sinfulness making the necessity of a divine savior, only if all of these critical elements of Christianity are retained.

I think those who have raised this issue in response to modern discussions of origins really are putting their finger on the critical theological and historical question for traditional Christian believers.
It is a great question, and I believe my three Christian colleagues all said, as I would have said at a distance, that this is the deep question really raised by natural selection. Far more than the question of common ancestry is the question of species origin. If we originate as a species from a previous species, then the notion of a single parent or single set of parents who engaged in a single original sin which needs the redemption of a single Messiah, that whole argument seems to me to be difficult to sustain, but not my problem.

My problem is that by my previous disciplined notion of accepting the text as it is because it is a revelation, I too have to struggle with the meaning of a single set of parents, in light of science that argues for a species evolving from within another species as a population, never an individual.

And the way I square this is to say that the text tells us that though we may come in genetic terms from many individuals, we can make no claim to priority or primogeniture or specialness of our ancestor over someone else's ancestor. And that the religious meaning of Adam and Eve for me does not lie in their original sin, but in their uniqueness. We're all equally children of Adam and Eve in a serious way, and that serious way is: The Creator did not pick any of us above any other of us.
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