I’ve been enjoying an off-line discussion on the origins of humankind, and I want to share some of it with you.
My correspondent is questioning the Catholic teaching that all humankind is descended from a single human couple who failed in some test and passed the consequences of this failure on to their descendants.
- a single human couple who sinned against God vs science can’t say anything about this
- this couple lived in isolation with no other humans anywhere on the earth vs human population never dropped below some ten thousand
- all humanity is descended ONLY from this couple vs the matrilinial and patrilinial most recent common ancestors lived some 70,000+ years apart AND examination of the human genome shows we are descended from a much larger pool of ancestors. There is NO evidence of a early ancestor couple and plenty of evidence that there was NOT a single couple.
- the effects of the sin have been passed that on to all their descendants vs again, science doesn’t have much to say about this apart from the fact that the ancestor pool was never as small as a single couple (so perhaps original grace was passed on too from those ancestors who didn’t sin?! LOL!).
I pointed her to my speculative attempt to reconcile these points. She came back with seven quotes from me followed by her questions. I’ll get to them all over the next few weeks, but here is the first, and it’s a doozy:
“Adam and Eve failed in a task God gave them – a metahistorical event we call ‘the Fall’. “
–> Any thoughts on what the nature of this ‘task’ was to merit so severe a consequence? It seems quite out of proportion. Perhaps God was taking a break from being merciful that day and instead putting all his efforts into exploring the wrathful side of his divine nature? LOL!
This is too big a topic for one post.
For this post, I’d like to tease out two points. The first is to do with the nature of the prelapsarian state; the second with what we mean by original sin. Later, we can look at what the actual task might have been, following the thoughts of various Jewish and Christian commenters.
A word before we start – these are my preliminary ideas: I hope to develop them further with your help.
What was the prelapsarian state?
I love that word ‘prelapsarian’. Pre=before; lapse=the fall – prelapsarian=existing before the fall.
According to Catholic tradition, God gifted Adam and Eve with four privileges. These were the complete mastery of their will, passions and instincts; exemption from death; sanctifying grace; and the vision of God in the next life. Sanctifying grace unites us with God; it is a permanent tendency to turn towards God. Before the fall, then, Adam and Eve were ‘full of grace’.
Note that these were gifts. Adam and Eve did not have an entitlement to them. Further, they were not (yet) natural to humans, as intelligence, humour, story-telling, and an appreciation of beauty are natural.
To make these gifts part of themselves; to accept them and make them inheritable; the first couple (I’m using the term ‘first’ in the royal sense of the word) needed to co-operate with grace and freely choose to do something simply because God told them to. Is this as petty as my correspondent fears? We’ll come back to that point.
What is original sin?
Just before Christmas, Richard Dawkins published a comment in which he lambasted the Pope and the Church for the pernicious doctrine that we were all born guilty of sin. It’s a common misunderstanding, and one that I think results from changes in language as well as from some of the robust language of the early Fathers.
The Church draws a firm line between actual sins – the sins we ourselves commit – and original sin – the hereditary condition of human kind. We are guilty of – culpable for – the first. We are not culpable for the second. There is a sense (clearer to those who think in terms of community responsibility) in which the actions of the head of the community are the responsibility of all members of the community – that is, we are part of the whole of humankind, and so bear a part in both the sinful act of Adam and the redeeming act of Christ. But we can’t be blamed for the first or credited with the second.
Hence, Catholic doctrine supposes no punishment for children who die in a state of original sin. They have done nothing to be punished for. Until recently, the Church has commonly supposed that such children are deprived of the sight of God – one of the four prelapsarian gifts to which we are not entitled. However, most modern thinkers agree with those of the Fathers who held that – while baptism is the only way to Heaven – baptism of desire counts, and God can baptise who He will, before death or after.
Adam’s action deprived us of those four prelapsarian gifts. We are not masters of our will, passion, and instincts. We are not exempt from death. We are born without sanctifying grace. We are not entitled to the vision of God in the next life. So does baptism restore all four gifts when it removes original sin? No, clearly not. Baptism gives us access to the sanctifying grace we need to achieve mastery and the vision of God, and life after death, but it doesn’t put us back into the prelapsarian state. In our current state, we suffer from concupiscence – concupiscence being a desire of the lower appetite contrary to reason. Concupiscence is not itself a sin, but giving into it often leads to sin.
We are not responsible for the sin of Adam any more than we are responsible for our parents’ decision to settle in the town where we were born. But we are born in that town nonetheless.