Tuesday, October 20, 2015

St Paul and the discovery of Original Sin

Today's first reading (so influential in the history of theology, and in particular of the theology
concerning Original Sin) reminded me of just what an "original" thinker Paul was. Back in his day, nobody taught about "Original Sin." The story of Adam and Eve was not a dominant theme in ancient Judaism, nor is it today. It seems that it was Paul who recognized something deeply revelatory in this ancient tale. Come to think about it, it almost had to be Paul to draw from the ancient and rarely remarked upon story of the origins of evil, reinterpreting it in the light of the Risen Christ. At any rate, that seems to be what happened.

Paul, smitten with "Christ and Him Crucified," the paradoxical "power and wisdom of God" that manages to simultaneously fulfill and evade the expectations of "Jews and Greeks alike," realized that if we are saved by something as unique and unsurpassing as the death and resurrection of the Son of God, then what we are saved from must have been just as fundamentally life-altering and on just as wide a scale as the redemption. If "Christ died for all" it can only be because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," and as far as Paul could look back, the only point in time when "all" sinned was in Adam.

Really dense reading but worth it.
We owe to St Augustine the elaboration of the concept of Original Sin, and there have been attempts through the centuries to develop other approaches that take into full account the universal need of redemption, the drastic "price" of redemption, and the dogmatic truth that original sin is passed down "by generation, not by imitation" (that is, that it is "hereditary"). There haven't been a whole lot of viable contenders in the development of a theology concerning Original Sin since the 5th century, except perhaps for James Alison, whose "The Joy of Being Wrong" presents us with a very robust theology indeed of this "happy fault." But one real stumbling block for modern thinkers is the whole hereditary aspect: Can something fundamentally spiritual in nature (the absence of sanctifying grace and a tendency to out-of-control desires) be passed from parents to children like some sort of genetic marker?

Turns out: maybe so. Not in the strict sense, of course, but in a way that very well could be consistent with the dogmatic truth (a matter of faith) that sin (understood as concupiscence) is not something we acquire in a strictly external way ("not by imitation"). Alison uses the insights of Rene Girard to show that human development is unavoidably imitative, and that our thought-patterns, language and even our desires are and can only be acquired by our interaction (begun in the womb) with those around us who model what is good and to be pursued, or harmful and to be avoided. Our minds are very much "conformed to the pattern of this world" (see Romans 12:2) until we are "in Christ."

But there are new insights coming from the field of epigenetics that are even more striking (and that can more easily reconciled be with the theological insights of the past). Scientists are finding that traumatic or stressing events rewrite aspects of the genetic code of invertebrates and other animals in such a way that those changes are passed down, yes, "by generation, not by imitation." These are not changes in the DNA itself, but in a "tag" or "footnote" associated with the DNA. Offspring are born with the innate tendency toward whatever behavior was "learned" in response to the original trauma. While the science (as regards human epigenetics) isn't in yet, the field does seem to be pointing in that way.

It's not that I expect theology to be validated by science, of course, but this might be one of those areas in which science could give some support to the earlier, pre-scientific (and much pooh-poohed) way in which a theological truth was expressed. It could be that those old Apostles and Fathers of the Church were on to something!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another book to add to my wish list Sr. Anne! Interesting concept and I wonder if there is a tie in to archetypes from psychology. Seems to have some relevance in terms of moving collective experience forward. [on another note, you may wish to update your profile - it still references your "upcoming" UK project :) ]