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Reconciling Evolution within Christian “Fall” Narratives

August 28, 2015

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, regarding the changing views regarding sin:

…Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

I do not deny that human beings can have problems. But I suspect that I would run afoul in some sense of G. K. Chesterton’s “denying the cat.” The Christian narrative of the fall from grace and of original sin simply doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t see myself as hopelessly broken and in need of saving (although I can understand how some others might feel that way and I can see that there could be events in my life that changed my view on that [but i’m not going to try to purposefully wreck my life on the off-chance that I will then see the need for God]), and even further, I don’t see how a supposedly perfect creation could become so hopelessly broken (or even be empowered to break itself, as  per the Christian narrative of the fall, in a way that could still be called “perfect”).

I recognize there could be a few reasons for this message not resonating with me. I have lived a fairly privileged life. My life really is going well and even when I have problems, they certainly seem within my own grasp to fix…

And even for problems that don’t seem within my grasp to fix, I don’t perceive that the Christian narrative of a fall has a lot of explanatory power for them. Maybe I’m spoiled by the Mormon narrative of the fall, where two major things differ from the traditional narrative: 1) God is arguably not as omnipotent as he is portrayed in traditional Christianity, and 2) the fall is not purely a mistake, but a planned necessity to accomplish the rest of God’s purposes.

Still, there is something that kinda sorta resonates with me and I wonder if any Christians have reconciled it to the Fall narrative?

In thinking about determinism vs. free will, I have to admit that determinism generally makes more sense to me. This is especially in terms of beliefs — I don’t perceive beliefs as being consciously, voluntarily chosen (and have had a lot of struggle trying to reconcile Mormonism, a tradition that absolutely is voluntarist in terms of beliefs, with atheism. [But, for whatever it’s worth, it’s not just Mormonism. I have wrangled with theists of all denominations trying to figure out what they are referring to when they talk about the choice to believe.])

I perceive more choice in actions than I do in beliefs, for sure, but I am aware enough that perception is not always reality. However, I think the perception differs enough in that I would feel more comfortable saying that I choose my actions than I would in saying I choose my beliefs.

As I have casually read thoughts from the Buddhist tradition, from phenomenology, philosophical explorations about qualia, etc., I have also resonated with this idea that there are things I call my own — things I identify with — that may be a little more complicated than I first imagined. What is “I”? When “I” am thinking, am I fully in control? I mean, “I” perceive that there are some thoughts I voluntarily think, but I am also aware of the “monkey mind,” the steady flow of thoughts that fill up my head whenever the external world is silent. When a song gets stuck in my head, who was it who triggered that? When I feel angry, did I choose that? Then who triggered that?

…To be fair, I don’t think I fully resonate with that message either. After all, even if I’m not choosing my thoughts, it’s tough to reject “I” as a locus of those thoughts — because certainly, I hear, think, feel, and experience *my* thoughts and not *anyone else’s*. (This is why thought experiments about philosophical zombies and qualia work — because regardless of if our “selves” are illusory, there is some sense in which whatever “I” am has privileged access to “my” thoughts/emotions/sensations and not anyone else’s. I really do have to take for granted that everyone else is experiencing the same deluge of thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc.,)

As I’ve thought about these things…I’ve thought again about determinism and free will. If things are strictly deterministic, then how can “I” step back of the flow of automatic thoughts and see those for what they are? Where does that meta-perception come from? Was that determined from the start? It doesn’t seem likely.

As a result, I’ve recently come to think that maybe…in some ways…I — every human, really — am incomplete. Well, maybe not incomplete, but on the precipice of something.

Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss…What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under

Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert on Nietzsche, but that quotation came to mind. Man is a bridge and not an end.

What does this mean to me?

I feel that our issues as humans associate with our origins and provenance as animals undergoing a process of evolution. The “determinism” within us, the “monkey mind,” the part that is “asleep,” the part that lashes out…that is animal.

I feel that our potential as humans associate with our evolution of higher thinking abilities and consciousness. The free will within us, the ability to meditate and perceive outside of the monkey mind, to let those thoughts go by, the part that can become lucid even during a dream, the part that can let things go…that is something else. I can see how some would call that divine.

But sometimes, it’s flipped. Sometimes, our issues as humans associate with our higher thinking abilities and consciousness…these things keep us attached to things that aren’t important, can drive us to overthink and ruminate and stress.

And sometimes, our potential as humans associate with our origins and provenance as animals. When we can let go and just live in the flow, some problems just evaporate.

That makes sense to me. That resonates. And I can see how one could apply the Christian narrative of the fall along those lines. The fall becomes a story of humans becoming conscious — separating from the unconsciousness of the rest of the animal kingdom…but the fall also a story about how that consciousness and higher awareness is fitful.

But I wonder — with the disclaimer that I know I am not as well read as I maybe could or should be — if anyone else, if any other religious traditions have really applied these sorts of concepts and reflections on a fitfully evolved humanity on their religious narratives?

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  1. Agellius permalink

    I think what you’re saying can be made to fit along the lines of the traditional notion of the Fall.

    One of the major negative effects of the Fall is concupiscence, which is basically our lower, or animal, appetites asserting themselves against our higher selves, that is the intellect and will. From the beginning Christians have been exhorted to practice moderation and exercise discipline to keep those lower appetites in check, lest they lead us into sin.

    It also fits with the traditional Christian distinction between flesh and spirit, the lower appetites representing the flesh and the intellect and will, the spirit. The spirit should always rule over the flesh, and never vice versa, because if the flesh is not ruled by the intellect, then it’s not ruled at all. This doesn’t mean that fleshly pleasures are bad, but that they need to be kept within bounds and enjoyed in moderation, otherwise they run rampant.

    There is also what Aristotle and Aquinas refer to as the passions, which is defined by Wiki as “the instinctive, emotional, primitive drives in a human being (including, for example, lust, anger, aggression and jealousy)”, but which I think may also be defined as those drives or desires originating in the flesh, as opposed to the spirit.

    I think the “monkey mind” (great term by the way!) originates not in the spirit but in the flesh. I would consider it a part of the imagination, which again has its origin in the physical, not the spiritual. This is based on the fact that to imagine something means to create an image of a physical thing – you can’t imagine spiritual things, you can only conceive of them, whereas only physical things can be imagined. The monkey mind likes to replay songs over and over again, but also imagines other things that you don’t always want to think about; and the fact that you — *you* — have to struggle against the monkey mind, is representative of the struggle of the intellect and will to maintain control over the passions.

    I understand what you mean when you say that sometimes the “higher thinking abilities and consciousness … keep us attached to things that aren’t important, can drive us to overthink and ruminate and stress.” But again I would suggest that this is almost always tied to the physical. Stress is an emotion, and all emotions are physical in origin; in fact “emotion” is another way of saying “passion”. And our overthinking and over-ruminating almost always has to do with physical or temporal concerns, that is, things which affect our life in this world and in the body, whether money or love or work or where to live, what to study, etc.

    The Fall took away much of our spirit’s ability to rule over the flesh and its passions, and therefore leaves us susceptible to acting irrationally, that is, not in accord with reality and with right reason, or in other words, truth. To the extent that we’re able to act in accord with truth the majority of the time, it’s the result of exercising discipline over the passions and desires of the body, which doesn’t come naturally or easily to the vast majority of us.

    Traditional Christian teaching says that the flesh comes from the parents, but each individual soul is made directly by God. This ties in well with evolution, that is, it allows for it: Our bodies evolve from matter but our spirits do not, and so there is this natural dividing line between spirit and flesh. The biblical account of the Fall need not be changed in the light of evolution: It simply says that at one point, our spirits had complete control over our flesh, but due to sin we forfeited that control and now have to struggle to rule the flesh. Our sin introduced disharmony between body and spirit, so that the spirit is often deluded, or its judgment clouded by the body. Whereas before we would have seen clearly the hierarchy of goods, and kept the higher before the lower (we could have turned off the monkey mind at will), now the higher and lower get muddled and we lose our sense of proportion, causing us to do things that are harmful or hurtful to ourselves and others, leading to confusion and suffering and doing things like skinning cats for enjoyment.

  2. Agellius,

    That is a very interesting reconciliation indeed. I think a lot of this really meshes well too. I think the probably the main disagreement (which probably makes sense given the different narratives) would be on the “timeline” of events so to speak. For example, as you say:

    The Fall took away much of our spirit’s ability to rule over the flesh and its passions, and therefore leaves us susceptible to acting irrationally, that is, not in accord with reality and with right reason, or in other words, truth.

    Which again, goes with the Christian narrative that in the beginning, things were all well and good, but things broke over time.

    Whereas, it seems that in an evolution-centric narrative, the flesh and passions came first, and the development of the ability to (however imperfectly, however fitfully) rein those passions in came later. (That probably is also coincidentally because the Christian narrative separates flesh and spirit in a way that probably maintains larger incompatibilities with a fully naturalistic model)

  3. Agellius permalink

    I’m not sure why you would say that the ability to rule over the passions came later, since people today generally have a lot of trouble ruling over their passions. It seems like you’re assuming that early humans had less control over their passions than we do, and that those who evolved later must have evolved more control. But that seems to assume that evolution is always towards the “better” (though how is that defined?); whereas I think most scientists would say that evolution is random and is not does not always result in a species “improving” (whatever that means).

    I agree that there is a timeline issue if by “in the beginning” we mean the very beginning of time, since people hadn’t evolved yet at that point. I take it to mean more like, in the beginning of the human race being fully human. And I don’t see why it’s not possible that the first fully human persons had control over their passions, via their spirits, and then lost it through sin; I mean, I don’t see why there is any necessary chronological or evolutionary problem with it.

  4. I’m saying that — as a gloss — homo sapiens (“wise man”, so to speak) is defined apart from precursors and ancestral species by the ability to rule over passions — to use your terminology. (This is a gloss for many reasons, but one is that other species have *some* ability to do this…but it appears that humans are of a different magnitude). What I’m saying is that basically, the further in the past from homo sapiens you go, the more of an “instinctual animal” you will see.

    But yeah, as a species, homo sapiens has been around evolutionarily for a long time. I am not necessarily assuming that in 2015, we have a dramatically better grasp on things than in, say, 10,000 BC (or even or 100,000 BC). (Although I would suspect that in some ways we are a bit better. I mean, whether you consider religion, the development of social sciences, the development of philosophy, humans have come at least a little bit of ways in thinking about these things.)

    And I agree that evolution isn’t necessarily trending towards better. I think that consciousness and the other features that correspond with the ability to control passion is somewhat “accidental” and “piecemeal” as it were. This accidental development explains why, even in 2015, we’re still not great at it — because it never came developed out of the box, it has developed fitfully and accidentally, and it’s not like we have the instruction manuals to our own natures.

    Anyway, my main disagreement is that I would disagree that the first humans were created (or evolved) to be perfect at this task. But that seems implied by the garden narrative. The first human narratives were perfect, and then the fall introduced brokenness.

    Like, to respond with what you say here:

    And I don’t see why it’s not possible that the first fully human persons had control over their passions, via their spirits, and then lost it through sin; I mean, I don’t see why there is any necessary chronological or evolutionary problem with it.

    I am not saying there is any *necessary* problem with it, just a matter of probabilities, etc., Like, I’m thinking that control over passions is complicated, with a lot of moving parts (genetically/neurologically). For us to have gotten all the mutations to have perfect control early on…and then have degradation over time…seems unlikely.

    Rather, it makes more sense (to me) to think that humans had some critical mutations that have led to this ability (albeit limited, imperfect), but it’s not fully fledged.

    It’s like talking about the evolution of the eye. Talking about the eye evolving in rudiments over time (e.g., attracting/repel from light sources….responses to light…several advancements in “resolution” so to speak allowing processing of direction, shape, etc.,…advancements in pigment recognition, etc.,) It really wouldn’t make sense to me describe the eye developing perfectly at first, and then the mutations only making it worse over time.

    That being said, i can see that mutations go both ways. as our environment changes, our vision can worsen…and maybe the same could happen for ability to control passions. But that doesn’t seem like the likely case to me.

    Again, I recognize this could be the end of the line in terms of compatibilizing both narratives. Obviously, in a theistic evolution narrative, it wouldn’t be difficult to have evolution start with a more perfect control, and then human sin degrade that over time.

  5. Agellius permalink

    Yeah, that may be the best we can do. You are basically criticizing the idea of the spirit having had complete control over the passions at some point in the past, by arguing that control over the passions is a matter of physical evolution. So we’re talking past each other. But it’s fine, that’s what happens when you have a fundamental disagreement.

  6. But I think it’s helpful to know where the disagreement is, and by being able to compare/contrast terminology, I think I have a better understanding of what people mean when they talk about the passions, concupiscence, etc.,

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