What is Sin?

This post is part 7 of a series The Fall and Sin After Darwin. We’ve been looking at the essays in a book Theology After Darwin centered around a simple question: What are the implications for Christian theology if Darwin was right? In conjunction with this we are also looking at three articles in the recent theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) Reading Genesis: The Historicity of Adam and Eve, Genomics, and Evolutionary Science.

In the last post in this series, Did God Create Us Sinful?, we looked at the question of theodicy – wrestling with the concept God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil and the questions human nature and human impulses. The nature and understanding of sin is a big piece of thie discussion. In the course of the discussion I quoted from Dr. Schneider’s article summarizing some of the reasons for the conflict between evolution, common descent, and the traditional view of sin as he sees the issues interacting.

The main point is that recent phylogenetic or cladistic analysis convinces many genetic experts that these detailed similarities of self-serving behaviors can hardly be coincidental—they look like a genetic legacy that has been passed on from one species to the next, including to our own. Domning endorses this as, by far, the best explanation: “The selfish acts of humans are homologous; that is, similar because derived from a common source.” And in any event (so we add, lest one resist that explanation), the traits are genetically common to every individual in all animal species. As members of a species, we are programmed, as it were, or powerfully disposed, to engage in our own genetic self-interest and advantage. We need not endorse the theory of common ancestry in order to respect the force of all this evidence and to begin pondering its implications for theology. (p. 202)

Natural biological response does not need to be limited to the negative of course. Virtue can also be argued to be merely natural biological response. Schneider discusses, not only sin, but also altruism and behavior for the communal good rather than the individual good.  He continues after the quote I have above:

It should be noted that geneticists observe, too, that we also share with animals “virtuous” traits involving love, genuine sympathy, and care. If this is selfishness, it proves that selfishness is the source of not only vice, but also virtue. If animals engage in genuinely unselfish acts-disinterested in the general survival of their own germinal DNA—then that is extremely interesting, to be sure. It is nevertheless clear that many animal “virtues” show self interest in a manner that benefits other nonmembers of the species, too. Domning calls this behavior “amoral selfishness.” As for deliberative human altruism (if there really is such a thing), it requires, writes Domning, “an intellect and will of a caliber that does not and cannot exist in the simplest life forms.” The clear implication of the science is that, at the dawn of human consciousness and its moral awareness and capacities for such virtue, altruism was the challenge for humanity in the future, not the original primal condition of human beings in the past. (p. 202)

Recent observations of chimpanzee gangs and food sharing by bonobos are used by some to bolster the argument. Human behavior is simply deterministic and natural. This idea has serious consequences for Christian theology.  Much of Schneider’s article is dead-on, insightful, and worth serious consideration. But his emphasis on sin and a sinful nature as equated with “natural” biological urges and tendencies is something of a problem.  It strikes me that we have here a serious misunderstanding of sin – and of the relationship between natural biological response and sin. We can not understand Adam, Paul, or the Christian faith if we cannot get a handle on the nature of sin. So I put up the question for consideration:

What is the relationship between sin and natural biological response?

I was planning to post on this topic – but was beaten to the punch in the comment section of the last post. David Opderbeck made the key point early in the comment stream (#16) – and I agree with him here.

Schneider makes some excellent points and his pointing towards Job on the theodicy question is exactly right.

However, he is fundamentally and I think dangerously mistaken about the reduction of “sin” to biology.

“Sin” is not merely a natural inclination, and “selfishness,” or better, “self-regard,” is not in itself sin.

When my dog takes food off the kitchen table, she is being a “bad dog,” but that is not “sin.” She’s just doing what dogs do. If I were to steal food from my neighbor’s table, that would be “sin,” even though I’m inclined by my “selfish” instincts to hoard food. Why is it “sin” for me and not my dog? Because I possess a capacity of “will” or “agency” or, if you will, “soul,” that my dog does not possess.

In fact, Augustine noted this distinction well before the challenge of biological evolution. It was the “soul” that, for Augustine, allowed human beings to regulate their impulses in ways animals cannot. This is very important: Augustine and the other Fathers wrestled with this problem of “natural” inclinations, free will, and moral culpability long before evolutionary biology. Contra Schneider, this is NOT a new problem at all, and there are rich resources in the tradition for thinking about it.

The only way in which it could be a new problem is if hard-core sociobiology is right: that is, if human beings have no free will or agency at all — if all our actions could be traced entirely to “hard wired” evolutionary causes. Very few scientists actually think this is true. In any event, I doubt it’s ultimately a “scientific” question rather than a “metaphysical” one.

Christian theology asserts that human beings possess agency such that we are morally accountable for our actions. Christian theology also asserts that God is not the author of evil. IMHO, these are fundamental truths that cannot, and need not, be compromised.

Later – as I was pondering this post and constructing my argument David put up comment in response to the argument that the continuity between animal and human behavior might undermine the concept of sin – and especially Original Sin.  It comes down, not to inherited response and biological structures, but to the intrinsic reality of free-will and human agency. (Comment 90)

As to “continuity,” I agree with you, we’ve inherited from our forebears all of the stuff from which our minds emerge. These include the mental structures that support culture making and morality. They also include the mental structures that support behaviors we may deem “immoral”.

I reject any view, however, that reduces what it means to be “human” merely to those inherited structures. I reject strong versions of neurobiological determinism. I believe human beings possess genuine agency. I believe the human mind, with its apparently unique capacities for agency, is an emergent phenomena that exerts downward causality, and therefore that human agency isn’t reducible to biology.

I also reject any view that reduces what it means to be “human” even to biology plus the emergent phenomena of mind. Humans are “spiritual” and “soulish” in ways that other creatures apparently are not. The “mind” and the “soul” are not exactly the same thing. This is a datum, I believe, of revelation, but it also accords with the experience of self-consciousness and God-consciousness.

Finally, I reject any view in which these various aspects of what it means to be “human” — (1) our biological and neurobiological and sociobiological inheritance, (2) our capacity for true agency through the downward causality exercised by the emergent phenomena of “mind”, and (3) our spiritual and soulish nature — are conceived of as divisible. Sort of like the Trinity, the layers of our being interpenetrate and coinhere with each other. We are not dualities or trialities — “body and soul” or “body, mind and soul”. We are integrated creatures though our ontology involves multiple layers.

As to “sin,” that begins not in layer (1), but rather is a product of the willful misuse of human capacities at layers (3) and (2) — and thereby it affects layer (1) (e.g., in the stress and anxiety that are produced when we intentionally harm others and break relationships). Certainly the structures of layer (1) make “sin” possible, but they do not dictate that “sin” must happen. A bodily behavior is only “sin” when the “soul” and “mind” have willfully directed the person to improper ends.

Human agency and free-will, creative, abstract, aesthetic thought. These are really the key ideas. Human beings can respond, create, and imagine – and the results of these processes have a reality that extends beyond the merely chemical, physical, and biological.  There is also evidence that human response can intentionally influence the biological ability for response. This came up when I posted last year on an article on the Science of Sin (part 1, part 2,). While it is clear that there is an undeniable connection between human response and natural impulse there is also evidence for an element of control or feedback in human response, albeit imperfect. One of the researchers quoted in the popular level article commented regarding the response in the brain “this network provides us with the evolutionarily unprecedented ability to control our own neural processing – a feat achieved by no other creature.”  There is an element of our very being, an element consistent with the idea of humans created in the image of God that is not merely reducible to animal instincts and biological encoding.  We can (in theory) choose and we can (in theory) change. This is true of the impulse for altruism as well as for the impulse for envy and self-aggrandizement.

Sin then – and the universal reality of sin – relates to an abuse and perversion of this capacity for agency. I posted last May on an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS 107, 4499, 2010) that dealt with the materialist argument against free will with suggestions for the criminal justice system (Is Free Will Anti-Science?).  Christian understanding of reality runs counter to this purely materialist view of action and responsibility. Agency, not just in Adam but in all of us, is a key part of the puzzle. The incarnation and the Christ-centered gospel is not about a return to an “natural-urge-free” existence, but about the ability to stay in proper relationship with God, to make proper choices, and the consequences for making improper choices. The most significant of these choices are relational – first and foremost relationship with God, and then with each other in community extending to the world in which we’ve been placed and in the context of the mission we’ve been given.

This is still only the tip of the iceberg – but enough for today.

Does evolutionary biology – or for that matter neuroscience – call into question the Christian understanding of sin?

More importantly – Does it challenge our understanding of the biblical story and the gospel?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit What is Sin? at Jesus Creed

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