Legends of the Fall, Part 7: And on the Seventh Post (actually, the 22nd!) He Rested

Well, after all this time, I had to use an image from the movie eventually!

So we come finally, after almost two months, to the end of the series on the Fall which I’ve been posting here.  I have ideas for several other posts that have come to me during the course of thinking and writing about the issues here, but most of them are tangential.  Not that I haven’t gone off on more than a few tangents in this series, but I think I’ve covered the substance of what I wanted to say on the main issue at hand.  Therefore, this is the “official” last post of my “Legends of the Fall” series, discounting the next post, which will be an index that will give easy, hyperlinked access to all the installments.  The other posts will get their day in the sun in the coming days and weeks, and some may relate back to this series; but they’ll be stand-alones, or perhaps the beginnings of new series.  Time will tell.

What I want to do here now is, as briefly as possible, to recap the basic ideas and insights we’ve discussed over the course of the series.The main purpose has been this:  to see if it is possible to reconcile what we know beyond any reasonable doubt about the origins of the universe and humanity as a result of modern science with an account of the Fall of Man, Original Sin, and the Atonement–all central doctrines of all forms of even vaguely orthodox Christianity–in a way that does not do violence to either and that is theologically plausible.  I think that it is possible; if I didn’t, I would not remain a Christian–at least not an orthodox one.  As it is, some may think that I skirt the very fringes of heterodoxy–or to use a less pleasant word, heresy.  Some may think I do more than “skirt”.  That is for the reader to judge; but I think what I propose is no worse and no less amenable to orthodoxy than the revisions and reinterpretations to Christian belief necessitated in many other areas in the last half-millennium (e.g. the change to a heliocentric solar system, the revelation of the universe’s vast age, etc.).

As points of contrast, we looked at the Gnostic account of the Fall as well as the system postulated by Evagrius Ponticus.  The reason I looked at these was to get a broader picture, and possible assistance in thinking out a workable system in terms of orthodoxy.  I think there are many points in which orthodoxy can benefit and learn from Gnostic thought and the system of Evagrius (which is already a bit of a hybrid as it stands), and I had originally intended to try to tease out some ways to synthesize the best of all the three systems.  Over time, it seemed better to stick more strictly to the issue of the Fall as such, and save such possible syntheses of orthodoxy and the other systems for future posts.

In any case, as I’ve said before, I think the Gnostic system, once one makes allowance for the baroque, mythological ways in which it is expressed (and such allowance has to be made at various points in all the systems we’ve discussed), meshes very easily with modern science.  The Evagrian system does, too, although it has a harder time than Gnosticism in accounting for pre-human natural evil in the world, though I think this issue can be dealt with.

The basic hurdles which a system coming from the orthodox perspective must deal with are the existence of evil before humanity existed (which I discussed here, here, and here); the almost-certain fact that not all humans have descended from a single, initial couple (discussed here and here); and why God would put innocent, sinless humans into such a flawed world.  In light of all this, let’s finish with a schematic version of the theory I’m presenting.

  1. At some “point” in Eternity, God creates the angels.  This is His original creation, and is perfectly good in all ways.
  2. “Later”, some of the angels fall (mythologically expressed as the rebellion of Lucifer and his minions and the War in Heaven).  How the fall could have occurred from an originally perfect population of beings to begin with is a mystery that no system answers, or can answer; but the “what” of the sin itself, once it occurred, is self-centeredness.  That is, the rebels moved away from God, seeking their own power on their own terms.
  3. God then creates the material cosmos.  During or immediately after the creation of the universe, it is “marred” by the fallen angels, who attempt to “strike back”.  Alternately, they may have good intentions, but wish to have a plan of their own, independent of God.  This very independence from God renders the plan flawed and full of evils from the start.
  4. Man is created by God.  The first ensouled hominids–the first true humans–are several in number.  Though they do not share direct common lineage, they are metaphysically connected by being ensouled human beings.  What one or more do can metaphysically alter all, to say nothing of their descendants.
  5. Man’s purpose is to heal the world and direct the material world back to union and harmony with God.
  6. Partly at the instigation of the fallen spirits, humans fail their task.  They, too, fail to have trust in God, wishing to do things their way; though the myths suggest that the main motivation for the fall of humans was more fear than aggrandizement.
  7. God had always intended to become incarnate as a human in Christ.  Had mankind not fallen, this would have been the capstone of the human project.  God sticks to His guns regarding His plan, but in light of the fall, Christ’s Incarnation becomes not a triumphal finale, but a mission of salvation, to restore the human race to grace, and to set in motion events and forces that will ultimately result in the restoration of the cosmos after all, though not on the same time scale and in the same way as originally intended.  In the end, this will be achieved, and God will truly be “all in all”.

I don’t claim that this scenario is complete, perfect, immune from criticism, or not in need of elaboration.  Still, I think it looks pretty good, and is at least a good jumping-off point for thinking about the matter.

I hope this has been thought-provoking and worth the time to read in full.  I give my sincere thanks and gratitude to all of you have followed this series, even if only in part, and hope that posts to come will be equally of value.  Pax et bonum!

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 03/07/2012, in Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. You need a certain number of breeding physically-human organisms to have a viable population.

    Is it their bodies that make them human? — or their mental level.

    Perhaps we can collapse ‘Adam’s “creation” and “fall” to the same event. (‘Eve’ may well have ‘gotten it’ first.)

    That event would be the moment that the group’s evolving vocabulary/communication-system suddenly “jelled”, in one member’s mind, into a “language” — some structure of syntax that allowed for thinking with words.

    Any number of the others might have subsequently been infected with the same condition.

  2. Of course, as I’ve explained before, all humans DO have common ancestors, many in fact. Any population does, and this was almost certainly true of the nascent human population in Africa. That doesn’t mean these common ancestors constituted a bottle-neck at any point. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that “humanity” was inherited ultimately from only one pair of those common ancestors, even if other genetic lines bred in. After all, “humanity” is ultimately a metaphysical determination, not a physical/genetic one. And that metaphysical trait could well come from one pair even if they were not a bottleneck genetically (after all, the human vs. mere-hominid line was always going to be ultimately fuzzy and arbitrary on the purely physical level.)

    Yes, this requires the idea of descendants of that first ensouled couple breeding with their non-ensouled hominid peers. Somewhat distasteful, though not entirely unbelievable given that they all would have still been very physically similar. I see no reason why we would need to assume that the mates of their children would also have had to be ensouled humans. Why would that have to be the case? Because you don’t think such pairings are possible for some reason? Or because you don’t believe God would have structurally required that sort of mixing (even though you don’t seem to have a problem with the idea of descent from non-ensouled animal matter in generations PRIOR to the first ensoulments)? Or because you presume to know who they would or would not have been willing to mate with? How can you possibly know that?

    I don’t see why heterodoxy (and, yes, the polygenism you propose here is heresy) is preferable to this other option. Maybe neither option “feels” entirely satisfying to some, but why is the idea of a one-couple metaphysical bottleneck NOT necessarily corresponding to a genetic bottleneck apparently MORE troubling to you than heterodoxy. That is what makes me severely question your priorities. Why is heresy preferable to admitting that the first couple’s children may have mated with non-ensouled hominid peers (who would have been, genetically, entirely similar)??

    • I’d point back to here–remember?–and also the document Fr. O’Halloran references, and this post from Mark Shea’s blog a few years back. Fr. O’Halloran and Shea’s correspondent argue–persuasively, in my view–that polygenism is not heretical and that it can be reconciled with Genesis. It also seems, given the changing language used by more recent document and the lack of any mention of polygenism or reiteration Humani Generis by the last several popes, or any condemnation of Catholics who have posited polygensis, that the Vatican is gradually moving to an affirmation of the possibility of polygenism. I’ve heard rumors of that in other places, too.

      You might not like that, but I assume that Fr. O’Halloran knows more about the theological issues than either of us do; and there does seem to be a cautious movement in that direction. So what are you going to say if and when the Vatican comes out and says, with appropriate nuance, that polygenism is acceptable? Will you acknowledge it? Or is it going to be another one of those “prudential judgements” which allow you to refuse to change your mind while berating those idiots in the Curia who bend over backward to please those evil Modernists, since they haven’t learned from the horrible, horrible example of Vatican II?

      I stand by what I’ve said in the series here and deny that polygenism is prima facie heretical.

      As to my priorities, people questioned Galileo’s priorities and the priorities of Christians who accepted evolution. My priority is to truth. Bl. John Henry Newman said that truth is one, and cannot contradict itself. Thus, if Scripture and secular knowledge (science, archaeology, history, etc.) seem to conflict, either we’ve got the science, etc. wrong or we’ve interpreted Scripture wrong. There are, in fact, cases where the science was wrong–e.g. recent archaeology has confirmed many Biblical statements that were once thought to be pure myth.

      On the other hand, the recalcitrance of the Church to accept things like the heliocentric solar system or evolution until unassailable proof was found (and sometimes not even then, among creationists) has damaged its credibility. In this regard, I think Shea’s correspondent is exactly right in saying that Pius left an “escape hatch” because, whatever he believed, he was wise enough not to say something irrevocable that would damage the Church still further if it were conclusively proved wrong later. I think the Church should refrain, as far as possible, from saying anything about science and just keep to a prudent silence and agnosticism about developments that seem to be in conflict with doctrine rather than rushing in only to be burned later. Once more, see the Galileo case.

      As someone whose training is in the sciences, it grieves me when well-meaning Christians try to take arms against ideas they really don’t understand in defense of unnecessarily literalistic readings of Scripture and Tradition. Regardless of what Dawkins and co. may say, science is not the enemy. Intransigence–on both sides–is the enemy.

      In any case, if you read all the posts in this series carefully, I didn’t deny the possibility of your scenario. What I said is that the theology shouldn’t lock itself in to a position that may be falsified by scientific advances. As to the theology, given the exaltedness of the human soul–the place in which he is in God’s image–it seems incongruous, at odds with God’s way of operating, and I’d even say blasphemous to suggest bestiality. God could take care of His plan with a population as well as with a couple.

      As Fr. O’Halloran said, it basically comes down to the attempt to defend a literal interpretation of Genesis or a certain interpretation of certain Papal encyclicals at all costs. But why is this necessary?

      • If the Vatican ever begrudgingly admits the possibility of polygenism, I will indeed have to assume is is because they were bamboozled. It will almost certainly be a case of theologians with a bad understanding of the science being led to a conclusion by scientists with a bad understanding of the theology!

        The Church makes a metaphysical claim, Science makes a material claim. The two are not necessarily incompatible, and each would be encroaching on the proper sphere of the other to try to tell the other that it “needs” to change to conform to the facts. The Church’s metaphysical claim implies only the very minor (and scientifically undisputed) natural claim that the historical human population has shared common ancestors.

        This is less about the objective genealogy and much more about the philosophical question of what constitutes a human being (which is not science’s place to say!) It’s not about insisting on any particular science, really, but on a particular metaphysic of human nature.

        Basically, the explanation you just gave boils down to not liking a fundamentalist approach to doctrine, and so seemingly jumping eagerly on whatever examples you can find that you feel might justify revisionism, not so much because you care about the actual cases in question, but only to be a test-case for revisionism! The fact that, in this particular case, science does not actually exclude the doctrine…seems less important to you than using it to flesh-out some general principle of religious truth not being totalizing but rather submitted to other systems of “truth.”

        As for “bestiality,” I’ll merely say that we DON’T KNOW what would have happened if the First Parents had not fallen. Maybe then there WOULD have then been a bottleneck. But maybe the unfallen state would have prevented the negative effects of inbreeding by spontaneously introducing positive genetic mutatons at a much faster rate that normal. Who knows.

        But the fact is man DID Fall. And, so, reduced back to a Cro-Magnon state of primitivism, would it really be very surprising for these primitive “cave” men to breed with their physically indistinguishable (even if unensouled) cousins? I doubt Cro-Magnon fallen man was considering the moral or philosophical implications of whether his mates were “ensouled” or not! In fact, I doubt at the time that he, having fallen back into ignorance, was even really all that aware of how he was special and different from the hominids around him in general.

      • See, you claim that this is less about denying the hypothetical possibility of a one couple metaphysical bottleneck being maintained, and more about providing and allowing for a theoretical framework in which the Church teaching could survive even IF a total lack of sufficiently human common ancestors for all historically recognizably humans is proven (obviously, we all have some common ancestor, but what if that ancestor turned out to be as far back as a dog-like creature, etc..)

        While this attempt to make Church teaching non-contingent may seem noble as you describe, in reality the alternative you provide is ALMOST as contingent as the one I provide.

        Specifically, the “real” meanings of “monogenism” and “polygenism” in science (check wikipedia) have nothing to do with how big the genetic bottleneck humans passed through was (be it one couple, or several hundred or thousand individuals)…but rather with how many root populations gave rise to the human race.

        As such, if THIS sort of “polygenism” were proved true (though, all evidence suggest that it is not, that humans come from one population in Africa two to three hundred thousand years ago)…YOUR theory here is likewise pretty much disproven, because it depends on a single population, whereas “polygenism” of the traditional sort suggests that humans all over the world just sort of evolved “in parallel” from populations of hominids spread out all over, who themselves evolved simply “in parallel” from populations of primates spread out all over, who themselves evolved simply “in parallel” from populations of mammals spread out all over, with only “cross-pollination” keeping these stages from diverging into separate species.

        it’s much harder to reconcile original sin with THAT.

        So your theory DOESN’T actually “untether” Church teaching from things that hypothetically could be discovered by science. In fact, your theory’s dependence on a single population is pretty much as fragile as a theory positing a single couple. And, indeed, a single population will always have had common ancestors, and so the situation your theory depends upon…also practically implies the feasibility of mine.

        So I’m not sure what you think you’ve accomplished here.

    • And why can’t there be psychological/cultural “inheritance”: One person’s awakening catalyzing the same process in other big-brained hominids. ?

  3. Actually, scrap my last comment. I was confused. You make a case assuming that Polygenism in the traditional sense WERE true. So I retract the last comment.

    Nevertheless, I think it is unnecessary to try to save the appearances or to try to protect ourselves from contingency like that (especially when all current data points in that direction!!)

    If polygenism were proved true, I’d stop being Christian, and furthermore would stop considering “humanity” a meaningful “family.” Then everyone out there is potentially just monkeys all cross-breeding, and I’d have no reason to respect anyone.

    But, that isn’t true. So why worry about “if” it were?

    • If polygenism were proved true, I’d stop being Christian, and furthermore would stop considering “humanity” a meaningful “family.”

      If you mean “soft polygenism”–no primal couple, but a primal population, with multiple ensouled couples, not just “Adam” and “Eve”, I don’t see why this would be so. My suggestions in the series give a framework for how that could work, and Vatican theologians are apparently preparing contingency plans. They, like I, apparently find an ensouled primal population less theologically problematic than bestiality.

      If you mean “hard polygenism”–humans arising from different primal populations, then yes, that would appear to be irreconcilable with any orthodox theology.

      Then everyone out there is potentially just monkeys all cross-breeding, and I’d have no reason to respect anyone.

      This wouldn’t have to follow, though. My training is in math, and my experience of it is that mathematical truth is objectively true and exists external to human minds. In short, just as rocks and streams would be there whether humans existed or not, so would mathematical truth. I follow Gödel in being a mathematical Platonist. This I assert from direct mathematical experience.

      This has interesting consequences, though. If math is immaterial–which it obviously is; but objective–which I have no doubt that it is; and if our minds can perceive it–which they obviously can; then it follows that our minds must be, at least in part, immaterial. This must follow, since the totally material couldn’t perceive the immaterial. Thus, even independent of my religious beliefs, I have no doubt that the human mind is immaterial–in other terms, that the soul is real and distinct from (though currently attached to) the body. This would also seem to indicate that the mind can function separately of the body, which implies the continuance of the soul after death. Thus, whether I were Christian or not, I’d not think that humans were just “monkeys cross-breeding”, since my direct experience shows otherwise.

      It would still be difficult to square the orthodox account of the Fall with hard polygenism, admittedly. However, my theology works from Christ backwards–I definitely believe in the Resurrection, partly on purely historical grounds without respect to religion, and I definitely believe in the God who becomes one of us to save us. Thus, as long as that’s in place, I think everything else can be negotiated to an extent (not infinitely, but to a greater degree than perhaps is usually considered possible). So, the only thing that would really force me to reconsider Christianity is if compelling evidence that the Resurrection did not occur came to light. That doesn’t seem likely. If such evidence did occur, it would be devastating, but not fatal to me. Once more, I have no doubt that humans are more that just “talking monkeys” in the words of the move The Prophecy or “plains apes” in the words of the comic strip Narbonic. Thus, I’d find another religion in that unlikely contingency–probably one of the Dharmic religions, as I said over at Vox Nova.

      If hard polygenism were ever demonstrated–and I agree with you that the science is currently against it–then given my belief in Christ, I’d probably adopt an Evagrian theology. Frankly, to me the Evagrian cosmology makes more sense on a lot of levels than the orthodox. I don’t adopt it because the Church teaches otherwise, and I do take Church teaching more seriously than you might think. Still, if hard polygenism ever were proved, it would seem that the Evagrian system would work nicely; and it would not eliminate the “brotherhood of man” since we would then all have been brothers and sisters in the Pleroma before ever being incarnated.

      I would say this: from what I’m hearing you say, your faith depends on the truthfulness of an exact set of propositions that must be a certain way else you’d lose your faith completely, all or none. Either the Church is exactly right on certain issues, or humans are talking monkeys. I’m not minimizing the difficulty of transition if something caused me to lose my belief that Christianity were true (hard polygenism, as I explained above, wouldn’t bother me that much–I’d mainly worry that it would give ammo to racists more than that it would damage Christianity); but I’d survive and be able to re-evaluate my spirituality, since I have no doubt of the existence of the human soul, and therefore human uniqueness, and that belief doesn’t depend on a particular faith.

      So which one of us is better off, and better prepared if bad theological news were to come down the pike?

  1. Pingback: Excursus: Evil, Part 3–Who’s In Charge Here, Anyway? « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  2. Pingback: Legends of the Fall: Index « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  3. Pingback: Polygenism Revisited: Terminology « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  4. Pingback: Polygenesis Revisited: The Theology of Cavemen « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  5. Pingback: Legends of the Fall: Reflections « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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