December 16, 2004
What comes naturally

I don't know what it means to be blogging like a fish on fire, but I'll take it as a compliment. Tom defends the idea that sin does not extend to animals:

I think for St. Thomas "moral evil" resides within the sinner; the good that is lacking ought to exist in the sinner's soul, I suppose in his will in particular.

This way of thinking doesn't seem to me to blur the distinction between "human" and "nature." A dog biting me can be analyzed in the same way as a man biting me. If the dog made the right decision for a dog, then there is no moral evil in the dog; if the dog made the wrong decision for a dog, then the dog has committed moral evil. The same can be said for the man making the right or wrong decision for a man.

Now, St. Thomas (if I may speak for him) would say that dogs by nature cannot make wrong decisions, that they are incapable of moral evil, and I would agree with him. I think his association of the distinction between human and animal with rationality needs patching up (if I understand him correctly, he straightforwardly accepts that animals are irrational), but I think it can be done without turning animals into moral agents.

This comment (and others) tells me I ought to clarify a few things. One, I think there's a difference between the evil of an individual and fallenness in general. There's the court-of-law sense of moral culpability, where each person is judged separately for their actions. For that kind of discussion, talk of moral agency makes sense. But fallenness is more of a general, even environmental condition. In Augustinian theory, a baby is born sinful through no choice of his own. Agency has nothing to do with it. Whether you think of it that way, or in the Eastern Orthodox terms of captivity to Satan, or in Irenaean terms of immaturity, it all describes some way that the whole world seems "off," not as it should be; and the discrete sins of individuals are only symptoms of the disease. So I think it's fair to include the violence and suffering in the natural world within fallenness even if animals (or earthquakes, or volcanos) aren't moral agents.

Tom also brings up the point that is perhaps at the heart of this whole thing: the idea that people are not made to sin, and sin indicates a lack of something that ought to exist. I think the whole reason that original sin theory exists is not for theological neatness, or even to resolve the problem of evil, but because of a pastoral problem. How do you persuade people that their Creator wants them to act in ways that seem totally unnatural to them? I imagine that Christians of the first century faced questions similar to what they face today: "If God doesn't want me to sleep around, why did he give me such a raging libido?" etc.

The original-sin answer says that you were, in fact, created differently than you think you were, but you are tainted with the sin of your ancestor Adam, which is reinforced by all the sinful behavior around you. This explanation worked well enough when people assumed that God created humanity in a discrete act, and so could have created us in any way imaginable. When we think we're created by an evolutionary process, however, the idea becomes harder to defend. If we were forged in the drive for reproductive superiority, our nature should naturally seek it, yet Christianity calls that sinful. You are 98% genetically identical to a chimpanzee; is it any surprise that you act like one?

So I think Desmond Morris, for all his rampant ignorance, had a point that this particular understanding of the human condition requires that humans must have originally been very different from animals, and only became bestial from a distortion of our nature. He's also right that biological and paleontological evidence is piling up against that idea. I don't know how to envision sinless humans living in, say, the Earth of the Paleolithic. So it makes a lot more sense to me to think of creation falling, and being saved, all together.

I suppose one could argue that God, for some reason, picked out this particular hominid and infused us with some sort of Godness that makes us special. I guess that was what the priest who answered TS O'Rama was getting at: "Man, however, would have been protected from such (natural) violence by a special grace, among those given to Adam and Eve which protected them from suffering and death and provided them a harmony with God, self, each other and nature." This reminds me of another one of Telford's theories (like I said, we talked about this a long time!). He suggested that perhaps Eden was a real place, a separate benign environment in which God intended to bring humans to immortality but which humans proved unfit to live in. So God tossed us back into the cruel world, and decided to bring us to eternal life by a more drawn-out process which is recorded in the rest of the Bible (and that continues today). The "fall" would then have been more like a failure to rise.

Anyway, I think a few viable ideas have come up here, and since there's no way to know for sure what happened I suppose one can use whichever works. (I suspect that Irenaeus might be most appealing to secular America, given its fascination with personal growth.) We just can't use ideas of fallenness that depend, even unconsciously, on the image of God molding humans like potter's clay, because there's less and less reason to believe such a thing ever happened.

Posted by Camassia at December 16, 2004 06:51 PM | TrackBack

Camassia, have you read Suchocki's The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology? I read it a couple years ago, but sadly, I don't really remember the premise. Chances are you've already covered her viewpoint somewhere in the last few posts, though.

Posted by: Eric Lee on December 17, 2004 11:48 AM

Camassia, there's also The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes by James Alison, which I keep meaning to read.

Posted by: TSO on December 17, 2004 11:59 AM
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