A Rational, Religious Mind

Alex Knapp summarizes the reason why many Christians reject the science of evolution:

For some Christians, evolution would, if true, completely shatter the doctrine of Original Sin. After all, if humans evolved, then there wasn’t an Adam, there wasn’t a Garden of Eden, and there wasn’t a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If that’s the case, these Christians believe, then there wasn’t a Fall and there wasn’t a reason for Christ to be crucified. Thus, in their minds, evolution is completely incompatible with Christian teachings.

As Alex notes, not all Christians think this way.  Some approach the story of Adam more as figurative myth than as literal history.  That’s pretty close to my take.  Others reject the doctrine of original sin.  I’m personally dubious of its traditional formulation.  The Roman Catholic response has been to acknowledge the insights from evolutionary theory while maintaining something of a literal reading of the Adamic narratives.  As recently as 1950, the pope, then Pius XII, had this to say:

For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent 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 with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

You’ll notice that Pius treated an alleged historical-biological fact as an article of faith: Catholics must believe in a literal Adam from whom all humanity takes its origin.  He also maintained that original sin passes through generation, thus grounding a theological claim in a biological one.  As far as I know, the magisterium has not repudiated these assertions in Pius’s encyclical letter.  The phrase “now it is in no way apparent” leaves room for a change, however, as it could, to the Church’s mind, become apparent that science rules out the possibility of all humanity originating from a single individual.  The Catholic Church is, at least in theory, open to reforming its theology and doctrine in light of scientific conclusions.

I can’t speak for my coreligionists, but, personally, I wish they’d break the bad habit of making supposedly authoritative scientific truth claims from the standpoints of theological orthodoxy and devotion to doctrine.  The religious mind–which conceives the world in terms of myth, mystery, ritual and wonder–has its own value apart from the rational endeavors of the scientists and the philosophers.  The religious mind seeks a unique truth, even when its truth discloses a reality also pursued in other disciplines.  Its methods of inquiry and verification are different than those of science and philosophy.  Let them dialogue, but let’s not confuse them.  Because each has its own truth to offer, religious faith and reason have much to say to one another.  In my opinion, we benefit from listening to both and from cultivating a mind informed by both religiosity and reason.

Speaking of a rational, religious mind, my son, who’s five, complained to me this past Sunday about having to go to church.  He asked why we had to go, and I told him that God asked us to gather with others to celebrate the Mass.  His response: “Well, I didn’t hear him.”  I imagine some religiously-minded parents would have been horrified.  I was quietly pleased, and smiled as I helped him get ready.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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6 Responses

  1. Pub Editor says:

    I wish they’d break the bad habit of making supposedly authoritative scientific truth claims from the standpoints of theological orthodoxy and devotion to doctrine.

    +1, if not more. Breaking that particular bad habit would (1) help them avoid painting themselves into corners, and (2) hopefully avoid a “God-of-the-gaps” fighting retreat.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Thanks. Personally, I’d like to see the church re-emphasize the apophatic tradition in all its uncertainty and unknowability.

  2. Serena says:

    I had a debate with a creationist friend of mine and she couldn’t get around an allegorical interpretation of Genesis due to original sin. I can’t imagine the frenzy if the Church did away with the concept of original sin, however it could claim tradition by doing so by admitting that the “Eastern Lung”of the Church was correct it terms of original sin; as in it doesn’t exist. The best description I’ve heard between the differences of original sin between east and west, is that west’s view is “we all die because we are sinners”. The east’s view is “we sin because we die”. In other words, our foreknowledge of our demise is was causes us to sin.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      If memory serves, the Eastern view is closer to the privation theory of evil, the Fall being an loss of grace rather than a “stain” passed through generation that the waters of baptism wash away. The Eastern view makes much more sense to me, but I wonder what a Western embrace of that language would mean for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, one of the two ex cathedra pronouncements. Immaculate, after all, means “without stain.” I think it could be done, but not without a change in language, which would mean, to some extent, a change in teaching, as form affects content. Maybe the Immaculate Conception would be rephrased as the “Grace-Full Conception,” as Mary was said in the bible to be “full of grace.” (I’m leaving aside whether the church should insist on this miracle occurring at conception, a position that has its own problems).

  3. Tom Van Dyke says:

    If you examine William Jennings Bryan on evolution, it’s damn interesting. It’s not just about Biblical authority, it’s an opposition to the [modern] mechanistic view of Man, against “social Darwinism,” eugenics, and a lot of jerkface dehumanizing stuff.

    I’ve been meaning to flesh out the research but it’s all there. BTW, the Inherit the Wind play/movie is a total cops-and-robbers manicheanistic joke, as are most secular accounts of faith vs. reason.

    [My main man Aquinas disputed they are in conflict.]

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I particularly like the previous pope’s description of faith and reason as two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.