Adam and Eve: A Heretical History

In the movie “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” a Jesuit scientist is on trial at the Vatican because he has written that the natural state of humanity had always existed, that essentially there was no event that theologians call the Fall of Man. His interrogator, grasping the implications of this, says, “So God is the author of sin and death? That’s heresy, Father.”

The priest-scientist is clearly modeled on Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit anthropologist whose writings about the physical and spiritual evolution of humanity were blacklisted by the Vatican. Now, it appears the controversy about evolution is being played out in just this way, only on an evangelical stage rather than a Catholic one.

My pal and former Ledger colleague Brandt Merritt recently called my attention to an article in Christianity Today magazine about the latest round of the evolution controversy. (See the full article here.)

CT is aimed at evangelicals who aren’t afraid to take on intellectual and cultural challenges, and the article, written by former Associated Press and Time magazine religion reporter Richard Ostling, is an excellent summary of the current state of the controversy. Ostling says that the focus of the debate about evolution (which is at root a debate about the roles of science and biblical interpretation) has shifted from the old trope about humans evolving from the apes to the question of whether humanity is descended from one historical couple – Adam and Eve.

This is actually a question to which I’ve given some thought. In my weekly column for The Ledger, I wrote numerous times about evolution, and it was and remains my position that there need not be any conflict between the scientific explanation of the evolution of species and the Christian faith. That’s not to say there aren’t unresolved issues, and the question of Adam and Eve is the one that presents me with the most serious theological problem.

Ostling repeatedly refers to the views of Dr. Francis Collins, recently named by President Obama to head the National Institutes of Health, and Collins’ fellow travelers at the BioLogos Foundation and American Scientific Affiliation, organizations that seek to reconcile orthodox Christian faith with modern science. Collins’ position, to which I subscribe, is called “theistic evolution,” meaning that we accept evolution as the best scientific theory to describe the known facts but we believe that it is a divinely guided process.

In this approach, the opening chapters of the Bible that describe the creation of the world, are interpreted symbolically and metaphorically, not as literal history.

This method causes serious heartburn among some evangelicals for a couple of reasons. One is that in their minds it undermines the biblical account that makes humanity the crown of creation, made in the image of God. If evolution is correct, they say, then we are no better or no worse than any other species, just a different branch of the evolutionary tree.

But their main objection is that not taking Genesis 1-3 literally destroys the authority and therefore the credibility of the Bible. If we can’t take this account literally, they say, then what else can’t be taken literally? The virgin birth of Jesus? His resurrection from the dead?

I happen to think that comparing Genesis and the Gospels is like comparing apples and oranges, but never mind. The difficulty with taking Genesis as literal history is that it forces you to deny too much science that is self-evidently accurate and therefore makes you look like someone straight out of the Middle Ages. You become an anachronism, a laughingstock among educated people, and it discredits the Christian faith as incompatible with intelligence.

Collins is a geneticist who helped with the project to map the human genome, and it’s significant to me that this former atheist has turned to Christian belief without checking any of his considerable intellect at the door. And it is precisely the scientific enterprise of genomics that has turned the theological discussion about evolution toward the origins of humanity.

According to Ostling, a recent book by Collins says that the best current theory for the origins of modern hominids is that they emerged from a pool of several thousand individuals about 150,000 years ago. Now, if you don’t take Adam and Eve as a literal historical couple but as symbols representing humanity, this may not seem like a problem at first. But there is a subtle theological problem.

It has to do with the responsibility for evil in the world. Genesis describes how Adam and Eve disobey God, and they “fall” from an innocent state, as created by God, to a corrupted one. As St. Paul puts it, “By one man sin entered the world,” meaning Adam. But if there is no Adam, there is no Fall in that sense. Indeed, evolution would say that our natural state extending all the way back to the first primeval creatures has not changed. And if God set that natural state in motion, then where does the responsibility for sin and evil in the world lie if not with God?

I know that traditionalists say, “Aha! That’s what comes with not taking the word of God seriously enough. You end up with heresy.” But I don’t think that is the inevitable outcome.

The problem hasn’t caused me to change my mind about the validity of evolution, or to lose my faith. I’m sure more clever theological minds than mine have thought about this and proposed solutions. I’ve just never run across them.

For now, it’s just one of those quandaries I continue to ponder and to live with.

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