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Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin: A Brief Survey by George Murphy

This is a guest post by George Murphy, and is the second installment in a guest-post series discussing his paper Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin. George is a physicist, theologian, and pastor, and has authored numerous articles and books including The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.

In this brief survey of my article “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin” I focus on some basic concepts related to original sin and the model I suggest for understanding the human condition. Space limitations preclude treatment of two questions that concern many Christians, the historicity of Adam and Eve and the relationship between sin and death. I refer those interested to the original article for fuller discussion, and to Couldn’t God Get It Right? for a discussion of the concept of God’s “accommodation” in scripture.

Sin: The Concept
It’s important at the outset to be clear about some concepts that are involved in a discussion of original sin. First there is sin itself – fundamentally, violation of the First Commandment, worshipping the creature rather than the creator (Romans 1:25). The common biblical terms for sin (Hebrew chata’ and Greek hamartanĊ) have the sense of missing a mark. The same idea can be seen in the Old Testament’s common word for “repent,” shubh, which means to turn back or return. God’s intended goal for creation is threatened if part of it moves away from that goal.

Ephesians 1:10 speaks of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” Creation is for the sake of Christ. Sin means that something has gone wrong with that plan. Atonement – i.e., reconciliation - is needed because creation is alienated from God, an alienation revealed by human sin. In Romans 1 Paul emphasizes that the refusal to acknowledge the true God as creator is the basic human problem.

Sin threatens creation. Pride, the desire of the creature to usurp the place of the creator, was traditionally seen as the basic sin. Recently feminist theologians have emphasized that in their experience resistance to God’s will is often expressed in the opposite way, as failure to be what God intended them to be. We may be tempted to usurp God’s place, but may also be tempted to be not much of anything, refusing the call to represent God in ruling and serving the world. Our failure may be the deadly sin of pride but it can also be the deadly sin of sloth. And it may be falsehood, a willful denial of the truth about God and the world. In all these forms sin contradicts God’s will for creation.

Sin: A Universal Problem
The problem of sin is universal – all people are sinners. This universality of sin is the reason salvation is needed, salvation that is accomplished through Christ. Contrary to the claims of some opponents of evolution and critics of Christianity, an explanation of why all people are sinners is not a sine qua non for belief in Christ as savior. That “why” is an important question to be explored here but the basic law-gospel message does not require that it be answered.

Not only are all people sinners but they are that from the beginnings of their lives. That is the idea of “sin of origin.” Though the two are related, it is not the same as the concept of “original sin,” which has to do with the idea that the sinful human condition began with sin of the first humans at some point in history. That “original sin” (in the Christian tradition described in Genesis 3) contrasts with the “original righteousness” with which the first humans are supposed to have been created. They were in a “state of integrity” in which they could choose not to sin. The original sin and its effects (somehow communicated to all later generations) mean that no one can now avoid sinning.

Sin and Human Evolution
How are we to understand these ideas, and to what extent can we retain their traditional forms, if we believe that God has created humanity through an evolutionary process in which natural selection was a major factor? If that is the case then our prehuman ancestors were members of their species who were most successful in competition with others for survival needs. They were not “sinful” because they killed or deceived their fellows, were sexually promiscuous, and did other things that would be sinful for us. But when the first hominids who somehow were made aware of God and God’s will for them came into being, they would have had strong propensities for the same types of behavior. They would have been powerfully tempted to the basic sin, putting other things ahead of God. Studies of our closest primate relatives show that they do behave in ways that natural selection leads us to expect.

Thus what we know of evolution and primate behavior in particular makes it implausible that the first humans lived in a sinless state of integrity for any period of time. The traditional Christian concept most threatened by evolution is not original sin but original righteousness. How can we deal with this?

The Wrong Road
We focus on those first hominids (without deciding how large that group may have been, or where or when they lived) who had evolved to the point of self-awareness, rational thought and linguistic ability. They can in some way receive and faintly understand God's Word and have some awareness of God's will for them, though we don’t know how it may have come to them. They are at the beginning of a road along which God wants to lead them and their descendants to mature humanity and complete fellowship with God.

They could follow that road but it would not be easy because of inherited traits and learned behaviors that enabled their ancestors to survive and pass on their genes. Those traits predispose them toward selfish behavior and away from the kind of relationships that God intends for them. Sin is not “hardwired” into them but tendencies toward it are strong. They can refuse to trust God and disobey God's will for them.

That is what happened. History shows that from its beginnings humanity has not trusted the God of Israel and has been involved in continual conflict. That historical reality corresponds to the picture of humanity’s gradual departure from God in Genesis 1-11, though the biblical story need not be seen as an accurate historical narrative. The first humans took a wrong road that led away from the goal God intended. They and their descendants had soon lost their way.

This image of “taking the wrong road”, like that of “the fall,” is a metaphor for the human condition, not an historical narrative. It is not the condition of being on a journey that is sinful. The problem is not that we are on a metaphorical evolutionary road, but that we're on a wrong road. Failure to make this distinction may result in the work of Christ being seen only as one phase in the creative process rather than a correction of something that had gone wrong with it – a mistake that, for example, process theology often makes.

Both Nature and Nurture Predispose us to Sin
Humanity is a “symbiosis” of genes and culture. Both help to transmit to each person the essence of humanity, but both can also contribute to deviation from God’s intention for humanity. Our genetic makeup, conditioned by natural selection, predisposes us toward selfish behavior. The cultures in which we are conceived, born and live exacerbate those tendencies. We are born as members of a tribe lost in the woods.

To say that there is a genetic component of original sin does not mean that there is a “gene for sin.” Whether or not an action is sinful generally depends on the context in which it takes place as well as the action itself. Genes may give us tendencies for certain behaviors but do not force us to do those things.

To say that there is a cultural component of original sin means that sin is in part a result of our environment, an effect of “nurture” as well as “nature.” The effects of our environment can be far more pervasive than mere examples, as the analogy of fetal alcohol syndrome due to a uterine environment suggests. They are not things that we freely choose to accept or reject, but influences that we take in “with our mother’s milk.”

Solidarity in Sin
There is solidarity in sin, so that, in a classic Augustinian phrase, people make up a “corrupt mass.” More modern language speaks of “structures of sin” such as racism in human societies. A person born into a racist society is not predestined to be a racist, but it will be very “natural” to do so. Because of both genes and culture, we all start our lives on that wrong road, far from God, and are pointed in the wrong direction. Thus we are “missing the mark” from the start. Our sin of origin truly is sin. As Tillich put it, “Before sin is an act, it is a state.”

Neither strict Augustinians nor determined Pelagians will be satisfied with this model. Unregenerate people are not compelled to sin but all people are sinners and would need the saving grace made available in Christ even if they could theoretically avoid “actual sins.” This approach does preserve the essence of what the western church has insisted upon without theories about human history and the transmission of sin which are now seen to be untenable.

Note: As indicated in the introduction post, comments will be closed for posts #2 to #6 for this series. Post #7 will include George's answers to reader questions. If you have a question for George that you would like included in this post, please send it to me via email.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Evolution and Original Sin: Series Introduction

This is the first installment in a guest-post series discussing George Murphy’s paper Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin.

For many Christians, the rejection of evolution is simple logic. A) The Bible says God created Adam & Eve on the 6th day. Therefore evolution is false. QED. Or: B) Evolution contradicts many straight-forward theological truths (eg. Original Sin). Therefore evolution is false. QED.

For these Christians, the problem with evolution is not the scientific evidence itself; in fact, very few have even a basic appreciation for the evidence. The primary issue is the perceived difficulty in reconciling the scientific evidence with common methods of biblical interpretation (eg. statement A) and some traditional theological conclusions (eg. statement B). Although I completely agree with Peter Enns’ observation in his review of The Bible, Rocks, and Time that “deliberate conversation between biblical scholars and scientists” is sorely needed, I believe that the conversation between orthodox Christian theologians and scientists is even more urgently required. Evangelical biblical scholars (like Enns) have provided us with an abundance of resources to deal with fundamentally flawed scientific claims based on equally flawed biblical interpretation. However, good theological resources to address the integration of modern science and Christian theology are few and far between. So, while is not that difficult for thoughtful Christians to address claims like statement A, addressing theological conundrums like statement B are much more challenging.

George Murphy’s Theology
George Murphy has been very helpful in addressing this challenge. Murphy is a physicist, theologian, and pastor. He has written numerous books, articles, and columns on the interface between science and theology. Personally, I’d put his The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross right up near the top with Polkinghorne’s Science and Christian Belief for resources that constructively examine the relationship between science and orthodox Christian theology. Where Polkinghorne conducts a wide-ranging discussion of modern science in the light of the Nicene Creed, Murphy conducts this same discussion within the context of the Theology of the Cross (as espoused by Luther among others). Murphy has described his theology as an in-progress research program, and he continues to expand that program. For example, in the upcoming December 2008 issue of PSCF, he will be publishing a paper on atonement. But it is an earlier paper that I’d like to discuss in some detail here on my blog , a paper that provides guidance on how to reconcile evolution with the theological truth mentioned earlier: Original Sin.

Personally Grappling with Evolution and Original Sin
Back in the spring of 2006 I spent a lot of energy investigating evolution and its implications for Christian theology. (I even took a one-week “vacation” from work to immerse myself fulltime tackling some of the tougher issues – ok, not everyone’s idea of a wise use of vacation time). Original Sin was one of those issues, and I was excited to see that the June 2006 edition of PSCF had several articles on the topic. I can’t say all of these articles resonated with me, but one in particular stuck out as very important: Murphy’s article entitled Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin. Here was what I was looking for: a theological framework that seemed capable of fruitful exploration while remaining grounded in the truth revealed in scripture and Jesus Christ. No, not all the tough questions were answered (if anything, I probably had more questions after reading the article) but at least it was a good start. I looked forward to further discussion of the article.

Unfortunately, that discussion never seemed to happen. It has been more than two years since Murphy's paper was first published, and I have yet to see a significant discussion of the paper. Maybe I am not looking in the right places.

So in the spirit of “Stop complaining and do something about it yourself”, I’ve decided to launch a discussion here on my blog. Since I have neither the theological training nor expertise to lead this effort, I’ve invited several guests who have both to participate in a guest-post series.

The Series
Over the next several weeks, I will be publish a series on evolution and Original Sin using Murphy’s article as a focal point. The series will begin with Murphy himself providing a short summary of his 2006 PSCF article. Three other guests will then respond to the article. Critique’s will be provided by Terry Gray from Colorado State University (and webmaster for the ASA), Denis Lamoureux from St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta (Author of Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution), and David Congdon (A PhD Theology student at Princeton Theological Seminary and publisher of the Fire and the Rose Blog). (A quick teaser: the response-order has been set as Terry, Denis, David to satisfy a quasi-Goldilocks reaction to Murphy’s views: a theology too-far, not-far-enough, and just-about-right).

Series Format
The following is the format for the series:

1. Introduction (this post)
2. Summary of the 2006 PSCF article (George Murphy)
3. Response #1 (Terry Gray)
4. Response #2 (Denis Lamoureux)
5. Response #3 (David Congdon)
6. George Murphy replies to the three responses
7. George Murphy answers readers’ questions
8. Conclusion

Note that I’m trying an experiment here. Think of this series as a debate/dialogue lecture in a comfortable university lecture hall. George, Terry, Denis, and David are on the stage and each will be given a turn to speak, in George’s case twice. During their lectures (posts), there will be no questions, remarks, or criticisms from the audience. As such blog comments will be disabled on posts #2 through #6. (And to show respect to our speakers, please turn off all electronic devices for the next few weeks).

Post #7 will be an opportunity for you the audience to ask questions. The post will consist of readers’ questions, and short answers from George. This isn’t a free-for-all. Questions must be submitted to the moderator (myself) for review before access to the audience microphone (questions published in post#7) is granted. This is not about censorship, but about quality discussion. I’m sure we have all been to lectures where a good discussion was ruined by an audience question that was longwinded, confusing, and off topic.

How to Participate in the Q&A
If you would like to pose a question to George to be answered in Post#7, please submit it to me via email. You can do this at any time up until 2 days after post#6 is published. Please keep questions relatively short – ideally 3 or 4 sentences maximum. Blog comments will be open on this post – consider it the after-lecture reception where informality (and sometimes heated discussion) is the norm.

Let’s Go
So the lobby lights are flashing, and it is almost time to begin. Finish that drink. If there is anything you would like to say, say it now. (Actually, you have a few minutes – these things never seem to start on time anyways).

Otherwise sit back and enjoy the series.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate: Conclusion

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the seventh and last installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges. At the end of this post, readers are invited to participate in Marlowe's research survey.

Like any good narrative psychologist, let me close this series with a parable, or at least the broad outlines of one. An engaged couple was separated geographically through no fault of their own; he ended up in Miami, while she landed in Anchorage. Undaunted, they made plans to rectify the problem. They agreed that on a certain date he would start driving north and west from Miami (within the limits of geography and available roads) and she would begin driving south and east from Anchorage. Each would drive the same number of hours each day, and their plan was to meet in the middle of the country, get married, buy a house, and raise a family.

One notes two things about this story. First, it is theoretically possible that the plan would work. Second, without more specific tactics and a good awareness of the intervening landscape, the odds of the couple actually meeting are astonishingly low.

The Historical Relationship Between Science and Religion
In my view, even at its best the historical relationship between science and religion is something like this. (The parable is based on the short story The Place of Telling I wrote in 1992). Once upon a time, these two ways of knowing were united (there was a unity of knowledge), but for complex reasons, the two went their separate ways, with unfortunate results. In today’s culture, some people believe that one or the other is unnecessary or even detrimental. Others attach such primacy to their preferred approach that (to continue with the analogy) they refuse to leave their state of origin (Florida or Alaska respectively).

A Hope for Unity once more
In contrast, I have the hope – and, indeed, the currently unsubstantiated faith commitment – that, when all is said and done and, in the words of W. B. Yeats, “all that story’s told”, the two can and will meet without contradiction, and the unity of knowledge will again be restored. As Eliyahu Rips puts it, “I think that finally, when we understand both well enough, religion and science will come together, and we will at last have a unified field theory.” We’re a long way from that as I write; the driver of the science vehicle is somewhere in Georgia, and the religious traveler has just crossed into Canada.

As the Amy Grant lyrics my wife and I chose for our wedding put it, “We’re caught in between the now and the not yet.” This creative tension between the way the world is now and the way the world one day will be is, I think, an inevitable part of the Christian experience. It colors everything, including how we think about both science and faith. But one day all things will be united in Christ. Although in context Paul was talking about a different kind of separation, it is perhaps not an inappropriate application to note that one of Christ’s ministries was that of uniting the hopelessly divided: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).

While many people do affirm both science and religion in principle, the historical relationship between them has often been rife with conflict. This series has attempted to explore some of the psychologically based reasons for the ongoing conflict: the resistance we all have to changing our established ways of thinking; group polarization processes that make it difficult to regard perspectives of other, “opposing” social groups fairly; and cognitive style differences that may cause different persons to process and evaluate the same information in strikingly incommensurable ways. While these concepts are not a panacea that will resolve the cultural disputes once and for all – if I were able to do that, I would hope for a Nobel Prize or at least immediate tenure – they do represent a “tool kit” that may enable us to respond to those with whom we disagree with a greater degree of understanding, respect, and dignity. If we can’t always agree about conclusions, perhaps we can find ways to agree about process or about motives.

Reinhold Neibuhr once famously said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” My hope is that this series has been a small contribution towards that end – looking forward to the day when “we shall know, even as we are known.”

Thanks again for the privilege of contributing to this series.

Take the Survey
I invite readers to participate in my online survey on attitudes about origins. The survey contains 85 questions, 55 having to do with issues related directly or indirectly to the origins debate, 30 involving normal personality diversity. I have, of course, some specific research hypotheses that I would be happy to share, along with preliminary research results as they emerge, with those who complete the survey and email me to inform me that they have done so. The survey is anonymous (I will not know whose responses are whose).

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Personality Diversity and Cognitive Modes in the Origins Debate: Part Two

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the sixth installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

In the previous article, the possibility that the origins debate stems in part from personality or cognitive differences was introduced. This article will focus in a more technical way on the possible roots of those differences and their implications.

Cognitive Modes
The links between personality (who we are and what motivates us) and cognition (how we think and process information) are complex and multifaceted. However, it would be rational to expect a connection between them, since both motivation and cognition are undergirded by one and the same neural apparatus! Much theorizing on the phenomenon of hemispheric lateralization (the fact that our higher brain centers are divided into mirror-image opposite halves or hemispheres, which appear to process information in radically different ways) has led to speculations, some more scientifically grounded than others, about how the personality-cognition linkage might work in practice.

Most experts, with varying degrees of skepticism about these notions, probably now agree that the left hemisphere processes information in a more linear, detail-minded, logic-driven manner (asking narrower or more concrete questions, and being more verbally driven), as compared to the more nonlinear, big-picture, intuitive processing of the right hemisphere (asking broader or more abstract questions, and being more visually driven). Since, to a greater or lesser extent, all of have a more dominant hemisphere (the world can be divided into left-hemisphere and right-hemisphere types), some would go further beyond the evidence to speculate about personality and motivational differences between these two types of individuals. Some authors call them the “safeguarding self” and the “experimenting self”, for instance.

Different Colored Thinking Hats
Perhaps influenced by these ideas, consulting psychologist Edward de Bono has postulated six different cognitive modes or ways of using one’s mind, which he believes are learnable skill sets that can be enhanced through targeted practice. He uses the metaphor of putting on different “thinking hats” to characterize the shift between cognitive modes; thus, he talks about detailed observation (White Hat), emotional expression and empathy (Red Hat), creativity and humor (Green Hat), logical critiquing and troubleshooting (Black Hat), and so forth. Linking these ideas to the previous paragraph, it seems likely that left-hemisphere persons specialize more in White and Black Hat thinking, as opposed to the Green and Red Hat emphases of the right-hemisphere thinker.

Again, my research on student views of the origins debate is beginning to examine the influence of cognitive mode differences on student views of creation and evolution. (Note: Readers of this series will have the opportunity to examine my research instrument in the concluding article of this series). Somewhat in line with the previous hypothesis, I expect to find that evolutionists (and particularly secular evolutionists) will show more evidence of White and Black Hat thinking (“just the facts, ma’am,” as Jack Webb used to intone each week on Dragnet), while creationists and perhaps also theistic evolutionists to a lesser extent will show more evidence of Green and Red Hat thinking (“there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy”).

Further Implications
If the intractable divide between creationists and evolutionists in the wider world is, in fact, driven in part by fundamentally different ways of thinking and processing information, it is no surprise that opponents routinely talk past one another and fail to understand the meanings and motivations of each other. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist - which is convenient for me, since I’m not one - to observe, along with Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier, that most of the origins debate has been yet another example of “dialogues of the deaf”.)

A good first step in bridging the divide may be an explicit recognition of the fact that there are multiple gateways to truth (or at least to the conviction that something is true), and that many of the classic disputes really are, as children of the Vietnam War era are still prone to put it, “arguments about the shape of the table”. Those who are cognitively prone to restrict themselves to direct empirical evidence often fail to understand how anyone can doubt evolutionary science or, more radically, why anyone would need to assert any level of kind of explanation other than the reductionistic and proximal. On the other hand, those whose natural cognitive tendency is to place empirical data in a wider context (or, in more extreme cases, to disparage the role of the merely empirical) can’t easily understand how anyone could be satisfied with an explanatory framework that failed to ask the wider questions of meaning, purpose, and ultimate metaphysical causality. Colin Chapman’s famous work on the six ways of knowing is a good framework for bridging these differences, and I recommend it (particularly its exposition in Christianity on Trial, a work that remains cogent though now rather dated).

Questions for Discussion
1. What do you think of De Bono’s idea that factual-logical thinkers (White and Black Hat) may differ dramatically in outlook and motivation from intuitive-subjective thinkers (Green and Red Hat)? Might these differences, in part, underlie the origins debate? Where on this continuum do you think you fall, and why?

2. From an evolutionary standpoint, why might both styles of thinking have persisted throughout human (pre)history? (This is a very speculative question, but I would be interested in readers’ thoughts about it.) Presumably both styles are functional and adaptive in some fashion. How and why?

Copyright © 2008 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved