Darwin Versus the Fall – Part One

Today I enjoyed an opportunity I had to listen (online) to a lecture delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary by Kenneth Reynhous, Co-Director of the Science for Ministry Institute entitled “Darwin Made Me Do It: Evolution & the Doctrine of Sin.” Reynhous discusses the doctrine of sin in light of evolution: “If present day humans are the end result of a long history of evolution, and if part of that history involves the emergence of the human moral sense to some degree, then how might this affect our theological understanding of the doctrine of sin?”

The particular conundrum Reynhous faces is that most doctrines of sin have been founded on an historical reading of the texts of Genesis 2-3, as though an historical man and his wife introduced sin into an otherwise sinless cosmic existence. Thus, the universal and inescapable reality of sin is one that can be traced back to an ontological fall of humanity, from a sinless to a sin-ridden state of existence. Christian apologists also tend to locate the origin of suffering and evil in this historical event as well. There are significant problems squaring this with a scientifically informed understanding of earth and human history; evolution suggests that the seeds of sin reside much deeper in our being than a secondary ontological state of existence. Thus, regarding sin, Reynhous concludes:

[The view of sin I am  proposing] should take seriously both the fact of human evolution and the fact that our moral sense was shaped by this evolutionary process. Through this process, we have been endowed with a complex collection of behavioral dispositions which, in context, could encourage either morally positive, or morally negative responses. This same set of ambiguous moral inclinations combined with permutations of sociocultural norms, establishes the conditions for sinful behavior. Furthermore, such moral ambiguity underscores our continuity with the rest of creation, such that it is not possible to divide nature and spirit along moral lines.

In light of his conclusion, the connection between Reynhous’ title, “Darwin Made Me Do It” and the topic of sin is more apparent. Our moral compass is not something, according to Reynhous, that cannot be observed and examined with the eyes of science, particularly biological evolution. Much of his lecture goes into developing this point. What he is attempting to do, however, is approach this from two angles, the scientific and the religious.

In what follows, I am not interested in the debates that rage today over whether or not science and evolution have made religion obsolete. I presume the legitimacy of religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, and I accept Christianity’s core theological conviction that sin is a universal and inescapable feature of the human condition. As a general rule, I start with the understanding that sin represents a disruption in right relationship with God and others, a disruption that prohibits us all from flourishing as God intends. There are many aspects to this thing called sin includeing individual, social, and structural dynamics complicated by gender, racial, and other cultural factors. Here though, I want to focus on the question of where sin comes from. What is the source of our sinful proclivities? And how is this source related to the fact that human morality has some connection to our evolutionary origins?

In my next post, I intend to explore further the doctrine of sin Reynhous envisions and how it squares with the text of Genesis 2-3.

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2 thoughts on “Darwin Versus the Fall – Part One

  1. I’ve thought about this quite a bit myself. It’s certainly an interesting discussion because if you believe in some form of evolution (which I do), then you face several problems like death pre-existed sin, there was no ‘Fall’ event, etc.

    I’m inteterested to see what you say about it.

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