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The Historical Adam: Karl Giberson

Adam or No Adam, We're Still Original Sinners

Editor's Note: Books & Culture is hosting a symposium on the historical Adam, which Karl Giberson and I organized. Karl's student assistant at Stonehill College, Olivia S. Peterson, played an indispensable part in rounding up the pieces and preparing them for posting. There will be eight participants, representing a range of views: Peter Enns, Karl Giberson, Denis Lamoureux, Hans Madueme, Harry "Hal" Lee Poe, John Schneider, William VanDoodewaard, and John Walton. After the first round, each participant will have an opportunity to respond. Posting will be in alphabetical order. Following the second round, I will post a wrap-up, and the symposium will conclude.

"Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."—G. K. Chesterton

Most arguments for the historicity of Adam are little more than wishful thinking. Do we not all wish for a world that makes sense, as it once made sense before Copernicus uprooted the earth prompting the great poet John Donne to declare that the "new philosophy casts all in doubt" to such a degree that a once cozy cosmos was "now in pieces, all coherence gone"? If we project our longings and fears onto the cosmos, we have to admit that it would be more comforting if the earth were fixed at the center of the universe, if the earth and all its inhabitants were created about the same time as humans, if the stars were not unimaginably far away, forever out of our reach. It would be comforting if humans were more distinct from animals, if there was a convenient explanation for suffering and death. Science, however, has raised troubling questions about who we are, how we should live, why we are here, and where we came from.

In Four Views on the Historical Adam, William Barrick writes that "Denial of the historicity of Adam … destroys the foundations of the Christian Faith." So what are we to do when science threatens our sacred cows or, as the case may be, our sacred stories? We cannot turn away. We must always be prepared for new knowledge to overturn ancient ideas. No received wisdom from the past—in sacred texts, confessions, creeds, statements of faith, or anywhere else—should be immune to challenge from the advancing knowledge of the present.

I want to suggest however, that the science that has driven Adam to extinction does not, in fact, destroy the foundations of the Christian faith, but simply provides more powerful insights into human nature.

In the Christian tradition, the human problem is referred to as sin, blamed on Adam, and said to be present in us all through the inheritance of original sin. Scientific advances have made such a viewpoint no longer tenable, and we must learn to get along without the notion that we inherited sin from Adam. There is no original sin, and there was no original sinner.

But we must not forget that the Christian tradition's long conversation about sin was primarily a conversation about what was wrong with us, and only secondarily about how we got to be that way. Augustine was more interested in his own sin than that of Adam. Regardless of how it originated, or whether it even had an origin, something appropriately called "sin" remains a deeply rooted part of human nature and, given that we are born this way, "original sin" is not a bad name for it. G. K. Chesterton called original sin "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."

The Nobel laureate Christian de Duve, an atheist with no investment in Christian doctrine, has written a provocative book titled Genetics of Original Sin: The Impact of Natural Selection on the Future of Humanity. De Duve tips his hat to the sacred writers, who, he says, "perceived the presence in human nature of a fatal flaw." He is quick to dismiss original sin as the flaw, but quite insistent that the flaw is real, serious, and threatening to our species.

De Duve's culprit is the process of natural selection that shaped our species over the long course of evolution. This selection process, unfortunately, privileged gene traits that were "immediately favorable to the survival and proliferation of our ancestors … with no regard for later consequences." Such traits include "selfishness, greed, cunning, aggressiveness, and any other property that ensured immediate personal gain, regardless of later cost to oneself or to others."

The serious problems we face today arise from this deeply rooted, deeply troubling, and ineradicable part of our evolved human nature. And yet, many propose to solve these problems with trivial rearrangements of the social order. At the moment the world is recovering from the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. Major banks are paying billion-dollar fines for their role in the collapse of the economy. And yet one listens in vain for any suggestion that uncontrollable greed on the part of bankers may have caused the collapse. The news is filled with unhappy stories about growing wealth inequality, but nobody seems to think that greedy self-interest might be part of the problem.

In the Middle East, ISIS slaughters innocent civilians and publically beheads non-combatants. The intensity of their campaign is rooted in the ancient tribalism that took up residence in our genes when defending one's tribe had survival value. We forget that Western Christians waged similar campaigns a few short centuries ago, and it was only in the last century that Hitler was murdering Jews. Setting aside tribal differences requires more effort than economic sanctions or high-brow political conversations at Camp David.

Jimmy Carter writes passionately in A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power about the global exploitation of women that occurs in every nation, a natural consequence of social structures where powerful men are in control. In the United States, young girls develop eating disorders as they strive to look like artificially enhanced versions of what men find attractive. Evolution has programmed men with unhealthy attitudes toward women; when not checked, these attitudes express themselves in tragic ways.

Climate scientists try in vain to awaken the world to gradual changes that are ruining the planet. Natural resources are getting used up. But we are programmed by natural selection to care only about the short term. Thinking about people who will be born in the next century seems like a fantasy. How can we possibly owe them anything? Why should we restrain our lifestyles to enhance theirs?

For centuries we understood ourselves as fallen, sinful creatures—an understanding that served as a caution by illuminating our dark behaviors. We still find ourselves in need of salvation, however, and yet strangely lost in our search for solutions. The original sinner has indeed gone extinct, but he didn't take original sin with him.

(Adapted from the conclusion to Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible's First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World, published by Beacon Press, June 2015)

This article is part of our Symposium on the Historical Adam:

Karl Giberson is Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. He publishes broadly in science and religion and has authored or co-authored ten books, including Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible's First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World.

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