The Fall and the Order of the World

As I have noted before, some people claim a very strong tension between the claim that the earth is ancient and that life has an evolutionary history, and the claim that the doctrines of Christianity are true. This is done both by Christians, to argue against evolution, and by unbelievers, to argue against Christianity.

Thus for example Joseph Gehringer says:

After nearly a decade of making headlines, the creation-evolution controversy in the United States has quietly faded from public view. Having won two major court victories (Arkansas, 1982; U.S. Supreme Court, 1987), evolutionists are now working quietly to consolidate their hold on the educational system (e.g., the California Science Framework; Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Meanwhile, media interest has shifted to new issues such as AIDS and sexual harassment.

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Father Zimmerman clearly recognizes the problems caused by the widespread acceptance of evolutionary theory. For, if man evolved gradually from an animal species millions of years ago (as he believes), the Genesis story of Adam and Eve becomes a religious myth of little significance in today’s secular culture. As a consequence, the doctrine of original sin and all those doctrines which depend upon it, lose their meaning for a modern Catholic. Father Zimmerman feels that this situation can be remedied if we “locate Adam on our family tree as we look at the fossil record THROUGH THE EYES OF SCIENTISTS” (page 2, emphasis added) and correct the errors of “theologians based on a wrong reading of Genesis” (page 202). In the Foreword, Paul Hallett hails this approach as “groundbreaking.” But I find nothing new in the Modernist error that “Scientific progress demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine … be re-adjusted” (No. 64, Syllabus of Errors).

Basically Gehringer’s objection is that if the theory of evolution is true, then the account of the fall in Genesis is false or at least meaningless.

Jerry Coyne says similar things, arguing for the opposite side, while discussing an essay by Mike Aus (Coyne’s link to the essay is no longer valid):

Here are the points of incompatibility as Aus sees them.

  • Adam and Eve  This is the big one, and all attempts to see it as a metaphor (since we know that the human population never bottlenecked at two individuals) are ludicrous on their face. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, what sense does Jesus make. I quote from Aus:

“Which core doctrines of Christianity does evolution challenge? Well, basically all of them. The doctrine of original sin is a prime example. If my rudimentary grasp of the science is accurate, then Darwin’s theory tells us that because new species only emerge extremely gradually, there really is no “first” prototype or model of any species at all—no “first” dog or “first” giraffe and certainly no “first”homo sapiens created instantaneously. The transition from predecessor hominid species was almost imperceptible. So, if there was no “first” human, there was clearly no original couple through whom the contagion of “sin” could be transmitted to the entire human race. The history of our species does not contain a “fall” into sin from a mythical, pristine sinless paradise that never existed.”

. . . The role of Christ as the Second Adam who came to save and perfect our fallen species is at the heart of the New Testament’s argument for Christ’s salvific significance. St. Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation of all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to salvation and life for all.” (Romans 5:18) Over the centuries this typology of Christ as the Second Adam has been a central theme of Christian homiletics, hymnody and art. More liberal Christians might counter that, of course there was no Adam or Eve; when Paul described Christ as another Adam he was speaking metaphorically. But metaphorically of what? And Jesus died to become a metaphor? If so, how can a metaphor save humanity?”

I don’t see any way around this. BioLogos has had a gazillion posts trying to make metaphorical sense of Adam and Eve, but responses like the “federal headship model,” in which God simply designated two of the many early humans as “Official Original Sinners”, are simply laughable.  And remember that the Catholic Church’s official policy is one of “monogenism”: all human literally descended from Adam and Eve.  Catholic Answers notes:

In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis 37).

I wonder how Catholic scientists like Kenneth Miller reconcile this dogma with their acceptance of human evolution. Do they simply deny the teachings of their church? If so, they are heretics.

The objection is that given the way evolutionary theory works, there could not have been a “first man” in any usual sense. It apparently follows that the account of the fall in Genesis is false, just as Gehringer argues.

I would note two things concerning this objection:

First, Coyne misunderstands the statement by Pius XII. I have noted previously that Pius XII is leaving the question open, in the sense that he is allowing for the possibility of a future reconciliation, while warning that at the moment there appears to be a conflict. And whether there is a conflict or not, it is clear that the Catholic Church no longer objects to someone holding that there was no first man in any ordinary sense. The document of the International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship, states:

63. According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the “Big Bang” and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution.

70. With respect to the immediate creation of the human soul, Catholic theology affirms that particular actions of God bring about effects that transcend the capacity of created causes acting according to their natures. The appeal to divine causality to account for genuinely causal as distinct from merely explanatory gaps does not insert divine agency to fill in the “gaps” in human scientific understanding (thus giving rise to the so-called “God of the gaps”). The structures of the world can be seen as open to non-disruptive divine action in directly causing events in the world. Catholic theology affirms that that the emergence of the first members of the human species (whether as individuals or in populations) represents an event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation and which can appropriately be attributed to divine intervention. Acting indirectly through causal chains operating from the beginning of cosmic history, God prepared the way for what Pope John Paul II has called “an ontological leap…the moment of transition to the spiritual.” While science can study these causal chains, it falls to theology to locate this account of the special creation of the human soul within the overarching plan of the triune God to share the communion of trinitarian life with human persons who are created out of nothing in the image and likeness of God, and who, in his name and according to his plan, exercise a creative stewardship and sovereignty over the physical universe.

The clause, “whether as individuals or in populations,” clearly accepts the possibility that there was not one first man from whom all other men descended. The document is not a document of the magisterium but required the approval of Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in order to be published. This indicates that Catholics holding such a view are certainly not heretics, contrary to Coyne’s supposition. As for the issue of a gradual process, as the ITC notes here, Catholic doctrine implies a radical distinction between human beings who have immortal souls and other animals which do not. But this does not imply any radical outward rupture, just as there is no such rupture in the behavior of a human being, starting from conception, where there is no rational behavior at all, and throughout the remaining history of the child’s life both before and after birth. This process of change is always gradual, and there is nothing in Catholic doctrine on the soul which would imply that the process of human evolution could not have been gradual in a very similar way.

Second, it should be conceded that the apparent continuity of human evolution, and the evidence against a bottleneck (namely against the idea that the human population once consisted of two individuals), is evidence against the account in Genesis. However, it is fairly weak evidence, because the account in Genesis is not a literal account. What is necessary to that account is an elevation of human nature and a fall from that state, not the particular claim that the human race descended from a couple such as Adam and Eve.

However, it follows from this that both sides, here represented by Gehringer and Jerry Coyne, are right to some extent in claiming that there is some tension between Christianity and the theory of evolution.

In fact, there is a philosophical objection to the account of the fall in the first place, which would be a somewhat reasonable objection even apart from the idea of evolution, and the effect of the theory of evolution is simply to exacerbate the effectiveness of the objection.

Discussing the order of the world, I stated that a successful world is one in which the order of time basically corresponds to an order of goodness, that is, in the sense that the world should be improving over time. I argued in the following posts that the world tends to be successful in this way, that is, that things generally tend to get better rather than tending to get worse.

This is evidence against the account of the fall, in which things appear to get much worse. Naturally, this is not conclusive, since things do in fact sometimes get worse, and even sometimes much worse, even if the general tendency is the opposite of this.

The nature of the order of the world also provides some evidence against the preceding elevation of human nature which seems required for the account of the fall. This is true to the degree that the preceding elevation includes things which in principle could be the result of secondary causes, but which according to the account did not actually come about through such causes. The reason for this is that the world is good not only because there are good things in it, but because one thing is a cause of another. Consequently, the world is better and more ordered if something which can be a result of secondary causes is in fact a result of secondary causes, than if the thing is produced directly by the first cause. This is no argument, of course, against those aspects of the preceding elevation which could not be produced by secondary causes in principle, except by association: namely, if part of the account is not true, that argues against the rest of the account.

The theory of evolution exacerbates this argument by pointing out that before the existence of humanity, the world of animals in some way increased in goodness until it touched upon human nature, and that after the existence of humanity, the human race continued to make various improvements over time. That is, one possible response to this objection is that the human race is a specific exception to a general situation regarding the order of the world. The theory of evolution indicates that it is not an exception. In order to maintain the account of the fall, one must hold that it was the specific events of the elevation and fall that are exceptions.

One final point that strengthens this objection still more, is the fact that it is a very common human error to argue, “Things are really bad right now, this surely means that they must have been much better before and just got worse.” This argues that the account of the fall might simply be a mistake of this kind. C. S. Lewis would no doubt object, and especially without a specific argument indicating that it is in fact an error of this kind, but it remains reasonable to point out such facts.


6 thoughts on “The Fall and the Order of the World

  1. The problem with arguments on both sides is that they are wrong. All of which makes this debate boringly redundant and irrelevant. However, i did like your post. It was, otherwise, intellectually stimulating.


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