Abandoning Eden

 

John Farrell provides an excellent survey of the entangled issues surrounding evolution and original sin (“Saving Adam,”July 6). Re-examination of the Genesis myth, which remains so foundational to Christianity and Judaism, poses challenging questions, among them the level of human uniqueness among species and how to balance a historically responsible metaphysics with our need for etiological narrative. Farrell skillfully explores these questions and mentions another concern passingly: the “theological difficulty” of abandoning Eden—that is, acknowledging “that the world never existed in a state of perfection prior to Adam’s Fall.”

This aspect deserves further attention, particularly for its ecological consequences. Traditionally, theology has explained the Fall as either damning nature along with our souls or as dragging us down to the level where our ungraced world already languished, leaving us at the mercy of base animal instincts. The first option grants us dread power over creatures and environment, treating them as mere props for our inner struggle toward redemption. The latter choice winds up in much the same place by rejecting creation’s inherent goodness—in other words, by ignoring Genesis 1. Both seek to return to a prelapsarian golden age, to make existence great again...at least for humans. We can blame everything bad on that first couple, even death itself.

What happens when we take away the Fall? For starters, pace St. Paul, we can stop blaming Adam (or any specific human at any specific historical moment) for introducing death into the world. As Danish theologian Niels Henrik Gregersen writes, “death is a fate, not a fault,” one which predates humanity. Athanasius of Alexandria pointed out in the fourth century that mortality is common to all created beings. Darwin helped us see that, in a cosmos replete with far more evolutionary losers than winners, the suffering and ambiguity of nature is not tethered to our own (persistent) moral failings. Farrell rightly points out how the church desires a “clear-cut origin” for humans, but there is plenty special about us without pinning all cosmic tragedy on one poor couple.

Equating redemption with a return to an idealized past is closer in vintage to recent political ideologies than it is to Jesus’ proclamation, which always focused on the God of the future. Instead of seeking comfort in an Eden we purport to know, we do better to put our trust in the unknowable, eschatological not-yet. We ought to respect the goodness of God’s creation and hope for its own suitable redemption rather than discard all the world as so much background scenery. Evolution rightly makes us question our species’s uniqueness, but it should also lead us to broaden our soteriological hopes to include the entire community of creation—a community that Adam, the first name-giver, would surely recognize as kin.

James Dechant
White Plains, N.Y.

Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: 
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