On Being an Animal, Being Fallen, and Being Made in the Image of God
Many atheists look at the imperfections and evil in the world and are dismissive of the idea that any good God could exist. The evidence, they suggest, only mounts on the other side. Birth deformities, parasites, less than ideal design of the human body, tsunamis, ethnic cleansing, and corruption, all point to the absence of a controlling loving intelligence. These arguments are not new. What is new is the post Darwinian status of Christian theology, and its implications for the fall.
For Christians have always in the past had some response to the problem of evil. The traditional, Genesis-inspired Christian narrative teaches that in the beginning God created a perfect world. This older, literalistic explanation of our human state is that there was a falling into violence and sin that followed our very creation as humans. The accompanying story, which still holds sway in some segments of the church, says that human beings, and all animals, lived in the splendor of paradise without death, but that humans were tempted, fell and were banished from Eden. Humans, in turning away from God, brought upon themselves and the rest of creation a brokenness often referred to as fall. The fall, including death, brought an inevitability to further sin in all the descendants of the first pair. The fall did not afflict everyone in the same way, and its results were primarily moral, but they were also physical. Afflictions and imperfections from carnivorous animals to sickness were explained in this way.
Humans, however, were made in the image of God, placed in dominion over the rest of life, and destined to eternal life of one sort or another, while the spirits of animals returned to earth. Hence the enormous emphasis upon salvation alone, and the growing ecological estrangement of the Christian millennia. Christian salvation tells the story of God’s coming in Jesus to save humans from death, and to restore the perfection of Eden. In Christian history this story has been understood in a variety of ways—symbolic, allegorical and literal–but has always included an historic dimension, especially as it relates to the coming of Christ.
In another variation of this story—after Irenaeus and other early church fathers who also argue for Christus Victor atonement–there is a battle between a pre-existing evil, mostly thought to be fallen angels, and God. Adam and Eve were caught up in this battle and brought Satan into dominion over the earth. The fall still explained evil, and separated evil from being God’s responsibility.
Not all evil was explained in this way. Tragedies and horrible wrongs that could have been prevented were often explained by the fall. In the Old Testament evil befalling a people was understood as God’s judgment. (Ex 7:4; 12:12; Isa 34:5) Jesus, however, resolutely refused to allow that for individuals misfortune was in any sense linked to sin or wrongdoing. (John 9:2) Job, although enigmatically referring to this evil, also suggests that the same logic of wrong doing followed by suffering did not plumb the depths of an understanding of suffering (Job 38-40).
In any age also, a distinction must be made between suffering and evil. And not all suffering needs a comprehensive moral framework. Not everything we would call suffering is necessarily evil. When we hurt ourselves and feel pain it is a reminder to care and heal the limb or part affected. Suffering can even strengthen character, and perseverance and holiness. But there are horrendous evils that have gone way beyond these more easily accepted endurances [McCord Adams 1999]. These evils are not rare. The killing in war and battlefield, bringing on a whole people and whole generation a brokenness and horror beyond comprehension, is horrendous evil. The holocaust was beyond our comprehension. The killing fields were horrendous. Even in the natural world, though, we find horrendous evil. Why does disease leave people suffering from leprosy, Lou Gherig’s disease, stroke, suicidal depression or psychosis? Why does a mother kill her children? Why does a tsunami wipe out half a million people in an instant? Why are people generation after generation sold into slavery or outcast as untouchables? Why do children get AIDS? All of these in some measure touch upon the horrendous. Although God may work all strands together for good, we see no glimpse no hint of this working.
1.1 Evolution and the fall
Science tells us, however, that there was a long long history of nature “red in tooth and claw,” predating humanity. The traditional story with its Edenic perfection in the past is no longer plausible. Why then, persist with the doctrine of fallenness at all? Other explanations are possible. The story has been set on its head. The perfection is not in the past but the future. Eden is the perfection towards which, in faith, we believe God’s creation is headed. Perfection is the eschatological fulfilment of the present time. This was an early interpretation of Genesis is light of evolutionary theory. Many scientists in the nineteenth century had a hopeful and expansive view of evolution which fitted well with this sense that a grand beautiful end to all suffering was where evolution was headed. Hence suffering now barely mattered. [Hilton 2006]
Alternatively the Genesis story is read existentially: Adam is every person. The fall is the dawning of consciousness and of a moral sense of right and wrong. More common, perhaps, is a rethinking of the whole doctrine of the fall. It is a theological position based on very little in biblical terms. Why not abandon it altogether? This is also a very common position held by many today—to take the fall as literally and as seriously as Scripture itself takes it. After all, although Romans alludes to the fall, the Old Testament scriptures never mention it again after Genesis. (Rom 5:12, 15-16)
I argue, however, that we are theologically in a quandary without the doctrine of fall. Horrendous evils still require some theological explanation. McCord Adams has argued that humans, being so metaphysically insignificant compared to God, are surely not to blame for all evil. God cannot be let off the hook [McCord Adams 1999]. Evolutionary theory seems to place the blame even more squarely in God’s court; the counter-argument that this hands-off God is required for human freedom [Plantinga 1977], is a kenotic expression of God’s creativity [Haught 2005], or is intended as soul-making [Hicks 1985], might be some solace except that the suffering is so terribly unequally distributed. Perhaps this would be satisfying if all of us were equally afflicted in the interests of souls or freedom, or if everyone had only equal amounts of sadness in this so-called ‘best of all possible worlds’ But quite plainly we aren’t equal. Great inequality of affliction abounds.
Eastern Orthodox theologian David Hart has argued that there any number of cheap Christian answers to evil. He cites examples like the one that God has hidden purposes for suffering, or that there is an equation whereby the good will ultimately outweigh the evil in history. Hart insists that the only explanation of evil is that God is also against all death and evil, and God will eventually win over the powers and principalities that wreck havoc on our lives [Hart 2005].
In a sense I agree with Hart, that the only explanation of evil is on the one hand to affirm that God is good, and delights only in life and goodness—and that we are deceived when we think otherwise–and on the other hand to return at one level to the understanding of fallenness. This idea suggests that there are corrupted powers which work against God. After all, the prologue to John speaks of the darkness that did not know Christ. “The darkness” it says, “did not overcome him.” (John 1:5) And Genesis suggests the existence of evil which long predated human existence.
I am intrigued, for example, by this statement from John Milbank, who is one of the leaders of the new radical orthodoxy movement. He says:
[T]o have a doctrine of the fall does not mean to believe that creation is totally corrupted or that it is corrupted in part. In a kind of negative version of the causality of gift, it rather remains entirely perfect—else it would not exist at all—and yet also entirely corrupted through and through. [Milbank 2004, p17]
Nature is thoroughly perfect, and thoroughly corrupted. But in the end it will be resolved in the marriage supper of the lamb, and the peaceable kingdom where the wolf and lamb will lie down together. If nature is understood as both the locus of the divine, as perfect, and yet also as corrupted then the death and destruction brought by nature need not cause us to despair of God. It means that the natural world is not an ambivalent irrational or opaque revelation of God; it reveals God’s perfections but it also reveals corruptions.
To say that the world is corrupted is not of course, to say that the earthquake and the tsunami and other natural disasters are corrupted aspects of nature in themselves. It is rather to say that there is not a perfect blending of the world being itself—with clashing tectonic plates and hurricanes and tsunamis–and humans being themselves. The delicate blending of physical constants that made life possible appears to betray us in these sudden eruptions.
Can we make moral sense of evil by postulating a close entwining of good and evil, made more potent when human sentience and intelligence became a part of the state of affairs? How does this understanding of fall survive when laid against the scientific story of origins, especially of human origins?
1.2 Process theology and deism
We cannot attempt to do justice to the problem of evil, and fallenness without looking first at two theological variants in the twentieth century–process theology and deism. Both may be seen as attempt to foreclose on integration of the scientific story and the theological story too soon. Both process and deism represent attempts to understand God, science, God’s interaction with the world and the presence of evil in a coherent manner. A process God describes God as a lure in which the creation has at every level some measure of freedom, and for whom the future is open as it is for creatures. The process God, with its emphasis on creation’s freedom and sometimes also on God’s kenosis or loving absence, has been a powerful tool for integration in the twentieth century, giving due measure to the freedom of the creation, but assuming that a more interactive God would cancel that freedom.
Similarly, a deistic God does not square with the God the bible describe as love, as constantly calling us. But both process and deism allowed us to live with the problem of evil and with science. In deism God is only ultimately responsible and cannot stop every evil that happens in human history. A process God, on the other hand, is intimately associated with that evil but can do no more than lure human and other life to a better end, while nevertheless suffering with and for the creation. Both process and deism, however, allow some settling of the problems that arise in dialogue, but only if other issues are overlooked.
What has been overlooked very often has been both the biblical text and the experience of believers. Faithful people all over the world interact with God and report miracles and healing and answers to prayer. These cannot be easily dismissed or reinterpreted as lure. The power of God is discernible, as it was for Job, though it is not distributed in a way we would like or would even deem fair– experienced more as gift and hiddenness than as law.
The biblical text also speaks to a God who does and can interact, most powerfully in incarnation, without compromising the freedom of God’s people. A God who is both close and interacting is a potentially very troubling God in terms of evil. Yet if deism and process are rejected there must be other ways of dealing with and understanding evil in an evolutionary light.
While process theology sheds some light on our dilemmas, and existential and proleptic understandings are common, and add to our understanding of Genesis 3 as partly myth and partly reflecting an interpretation of origins. I will argue, however, that in a climate where we are focusing in science on the past, we cannot rule out theological questions about the boundary between us and other animals.
2.1 A preliminary look at the science
If we wish to understand fallenness in conversation with science there must be a dwelling on the past in which questions of human uniqueness and human fallenness are kept in mind. Evolutionary history tells us that we are animals, and that we share a common history, with primates, with mammals, and ultimately with all life. Evolutionary genetics tells us that we are almost indistinguishable as people, one from another. We are, perhaps 99% the same as one another in our genes, and 96% the same as chimpanzees.
We know that there was this unthinkably long period of time in which death and carnivorous preying prevailed in a creation that was in many respects “perfect,” if incomplete. We also know from animal studies and paleontology that violence occurs in the primate world. The roots of human violence, and of the disturbances called sin extend back into the animal kingdom, and are shadowed today in the chimp and other primate colonies that express not only degrees of sentient consciousness, language, toolmaking, and culture, but degrees of infanticide, murder, jealously and warfare. [Midgley 2002] There are also deep and important continuities with the intelligence and violent dispositions of human hominid precursors.
Thus the lower level of aggression required purely for feeding expands—although unequally–with increasing sentience and intelligence, until it reaches mammoth proportions in humanity. The threshold of humanity, then, was not the beginnings of death, nor does it mark out the beginnings of an end to innocence. Whatever the truth, humanity is not to ‘blame” for evil. We are a lot more conditioned by the beings who preceded us.
There was a history, perhaps a very very long history in which primate precursors of humanity made the transition to humanity. This long history needs always to be given due weight and consideration. There is ambiguity; Neanderthal were once considered “human” are not now. [Van Huyssteen 2006, p54, 188-189] Were they made in the image of God? Is not any human who buries their dead in relationship with God? The long long scientific history demands a theological interpretation regarding that transition. It is no longer possible to ignore the past, nor to speak glibly of the first people instead of the first couple. The “first people” may have been a long time in the making.
But if we look at the paleontological history we can also search it with this question in mind. One discipline cannot often speak authoritatively to another, but in the case of fallenness science can tell us that aspects of the world we would see as fallen long predated human coming. Even if it is only our perspective that is at fault, God’s universal shalom seems to involve an animal kingdom that is different and more harmonious than that which now exists. In the words of Van Huyssteen “it is no longer possible to claim some past paradise in which humans possessed moral perfection, a state from which our species somehow has “fallen” into perpetual decline.” [Van Huyssteen 2006, p37] And physical death, at least, is intimately welded into the fabric of life; there was no time when death was not. Theology will always want to add a caveat here, that it also seems to be a part of the human experience to be deceived in some sense.
Speaking of the result of long years of investigation of these Paleolithic connections Van Huyssteen argues that even as we have grown to understand and indwell our animality, to see diminished the “break between humans and the great apes and the separation of races,” at the same time “human uniqueness was ever more carefully defined.” [Van Huyssteen 2006, p52] Thus it is possible by indwelling the paleontological record to be convinced at the same time, of our deep animal roots, and animal nature, but also of our unique human capacities.
There are no easy structural boundaries between the ape pre-cursor and the hominid who was to believe it was made in the image of God. Species differentiation can take millions of years, and there is some evidence that it took this long in humans.[Patterson et.al. 2006] Moreover, the innate abilities that culminate in the kind of rationality and spirituality we possess long predated us in some kind of primitive form. The shadow of the imago Dei stretches way back. If Mary is known as theotokos, mother of God, the animals are the mother of the image of God. Although we have always known that we were animal and lived amongst the animals the depth of that connection is only now apparent.
Thus while science precludes a fall from paradise, it does not preclude the close interweaving of good and evil which Milbank, and earlier Christian thinkers advocated. If we maintain any historical edge to fallenness, and if evil seems to predate humanity then some form of progressive fallenness may indeed be rationally suggested.
A part of the problem with any coherent story of origins is not only that Christians and others have given up only parts of the Genesis story, but that there has also been only very partial appropriation of the evolutionary story in church and in society. Many secular humans don’t like to dwell on our primate origins. They have no taste for it.
2.2 Our association with animals
There is a long standing association, for example, in the history of Western thought, with some notable exceptions, between beasts and violent or sub-human or sinful behavior. Titus 1:12 quotes Epemides as saying “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” It is only recently that we have begun to study wild animals in their own habitats, and to realize how false these connections are. The association between brutality and animals is curious, and proof that we have many stories very muddled together. For if wild animals are so bestial, why is it any surprise at all they we, who have evolved out of them sometimes are? A part of the answer is that we haven’t fully internalized this evolution, or we think it is so far back as not to matter. Another reason is that we take what we want from the primal story of origins. We take that we are made in the image of God, and animals are not. We take a spiritual separation, forgetting that another part of the story refers to the fallenness of humans rather than animals.
What then do we know of our animal cousins? We know that most animals kill only to eat, and this includes wolves and the big Cats. Although there has been a widespread connection between bestiality and human malfeasance, most animals are not bestial at all. But some of the higher primates are. From primate studies we know that whatever violence we have did not emerge for the first time with our humanity, but before. In some of the higher primates there is infanticide, murder, aggression, and occasional warfare. On the whole, although we can see some of our traits reflected in them, they are not anywhere near as violent as we are in effect. Some chimpanzees are more violent, but they make up almost as often as they fight [Leutwyler 2000] Chimpanzees don’t pose a nuclear or ecological hazard to all life.
Of the twenty or so hominids around on the earth at various times in the previous 100 million years ago, we are the only ones left, and we are the most violent [Van Huyssteen 2006 p53]. Even within homo sapiens our ancestors must undoubtedly be among the most violent humans or we would not be here to tell the tale. Thus whatever problem we have with violence emerged as our intelligence increased. It stretches back into our primate beginnings and is shared with some other primate groups.
This similarity but difference from other animals is intriguing and puzzling to us. In the last century or so there has been an ongoing and persistent search for human origins, and for the mystery of what it is that makes us different from and similar to the animals. It begins with Darwin who saw the parallels in emotional life between the species [Darwin 1990]. We have come closer than ever before to understanding those parallels in the much more coherent accounts we have of animal behavior. We all know now that elephants weep, and that birds are ingenious and that pigs are highly intelligent. Mary Midgley, for instance, says of chimps:
There is no question of keeping the chimps out of the castle. They and many other animals have always been inside, and only our conceit and prejudice have stopped us from seeing them. They are all over the ground floor, which is still a central area of our life as well as theirs. But there are many other floors to which they do not go and cannot, because they have never wanted to enough, and so have never developed their powers beyond a certain rudimentary point [Midgley 2002, p217].
Why then have we refused to see them? Midgley goes on to say that this is because we not internalized evolution. We have lived within a threatening dead modernist world view, and have wanted to separate ourselves from it [Midgley 2002, p xxix]. Another perspective, and one that gives us incontrovertible proof of our origins is available only in the last year, in comparisons of the chimp and human genomes. Graeme Finlay has detailed the way in which even errors in primate DNA have been handed down to us as humans [Finlay 2003]. The search for origins, for a coherent history of our past is an urgent scientific quest. Because this is so it is also an urgent theological task to do the work of dialogue and integration. Science tells us, though, that evil preceded humanity, both in kind and in degree.
At this stage we would do well to think about method. How can we bring this long paleontological history into conversation with Christian theology in any meaningful way? In his magnum opus Alone in the World? Science and Theology on Human Uniqueness, based on the 2004 Gifford Lectures, J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen investigates the theological theme of imago Dei in light of the scientific record of origins. He uses the method of transversality, a postmodern epistemology adapted from a variety of disciplines [Van Huyssteen 2006].
“Transversal” dialogue refers to the kind of discourse between disciplines that lays one against the other, but that does not attempt to reduce one side to the other, that quarries one language game for clues or resonance with the other. In this case there is the scientific story of the origins, of human uniqueness and of the causes of human violence laid alongside the theological story of human origins and its explanations of evil and image. How do hominid origins and the prevalence of other violent primates make us think about the meaning of imago Dei, and about sin and responsibility for violence? And contrariwise how does the story of Adam and Eve and temptation resonate in the scientific story of origins? Van Huyssteen uses this method to look comprehensively at human uniqueness in science and in theology. The insights in one discipline resonate with and deepen an understanding in the other, but there is no false or premature closure, even though there is an implicit belief that both are attempting to find the truth. The other aspect of this dialogue must be that all scientific and theological conclusions must be taken as tentative, but at the same time, that it is often with the more speculative emerging shoot of science that interesting theological connections can be made. In this paper I will interact with and expand Van Huyssteen’s analysis to an understanding of fallenness as well as imago Dei.
Why does the way we intersect the disciplines matter? Much science and theology dialogue in the last few years has been arguing that there is a meaningful boundary. But this boundary is not an easy place to be. So much theology is done with too fast a sense of closure. People of faith have also often reacted against science without understanding it. Evolution, for example, does not mean that God is absent.
On the other side there is often from the scientific side too little appreciation of the subtlety of theology, or the need for theology. In theology and science in the last decades scientific accounts have been recognized but there has been what can only be called a premature closure, and an attempt to integrate too closely the scientific and theological accounts; in these situations one account is almost always privileged. In process theology, for example, there are huge concessions in the theology of God to accommodate this overall theory. In Deistic accounts science is privileged, but there is little recognition given of human experience of God nor of biblical accounts of God’s movement with us. Transversal dialogue aims to allow a mutual openness between disciplines without false closure, and without losing too much of the tension between the disciplines. Sometimes this will mean that one discipline will raise questions in another, or will help to frame those questions? So Van Huyssteen says:
When a concept like human uniqueness is used in theology, it may mean something entirely different than when it is used in the sciences But these diverse uses of the same phrases may, at the same time, alert us to promising liminalities between the disciplines. Indeed, interdisciplinary discourse may begin at this very point of transversal intersection and tension. [Van Huyssteen 2006, p9]
The tension unresolved, in my view, centres around the involvement of humanity. Did fallenness come in stages? What happened at the edge of human becoming which might still count as fall, albeit a reinterpreted fall? This requires a deeper transversal investigation, and perhaps questions about resonances, rather than doctrine. Is it possible to find resonance in the evolutionary record, with a pre-existing, or increasing fallenness, in which good and evil are entwined as Milbank might suggest?
4.1 Other interpretations
This discussion is not new. In the middle of the 1850s there was a debate going on between those who saw the world in quite static terms—having been made perfect 6000 years ago, and having fallen into depravity, and full of humans who were awaiting redemption; and a more evolutionary theory that posited long aeons of time before humanity, and who therefore saw the universe in a much more dynamic and progressive way. True there had been no perfection in the past, but nor were we stuck with what we have now—humans and God could work together for something better. [Hilton 2006]
There is another way of looking at these matters—somewhere in between. In the twentieth century we have been under the sway of a much more pessimistic evolutionary philosophy—and a much more absent God. The evolutionary process is a mixture of randomness and law (regarding fit and survival). This process has no personal intentions, no concern for humanity above other creatures, and is associated with no final nor formal causes. This is very much the pessimistic space in which many scientists—for instance Dawkins–dwell today, having lost the sense of paradise but fixating up on the more random and purposeless characteristics of the evolutionary process.
Thus we imagine the world and evil in diverse ways. The debate continues. There have been many attempts to reconcile Genesis with an evolutionary understanding of fall. Most common, as mentioned above, have been new forms of existential interpretation of fallenness. Richard Bube argues that to be fallen means that which we experience as temptation and recrimination [Bube 1975]. Clatworthy insists that evil is our responsibility, and the world is not fallen [Clatworthy1998]. Randy Isaac makes a case for progressive fallenness [Isaac 1996]. Thus he sees a fall begun by humanity but increasing through the years with increased rebellion. Although I think this understanding of fall is insufficient, not taking into account pre-human violence, it does make the concept of fall more fluid, and opens it up to the possibility of happening in stages or over a long continuum.
Nik Ansell attempts to draw a connection between the call of wisdom in Proverbs 8, and the “voice of the serpent” in Genesis 3 [Ansell 2001, p 36]. Satan, in his understanding is not flesh and blood, and is not a fallen angel, but rather is an aspect of creation that “becomes increasingly distorted by the growth of human sin until it becomes a power that is totally opposed to the coming of God’s Kingdom,” becoming an “active reality that is external to human beings” [Ansell 2001, p52] This is an attractive idea, that does satisfy some of the evolutionary problems, and also the intuition we have that sin leads to further sin. Where it is weakest, though, is in dealing with the long history of pre-human brokenness, the long prehistory of the human race.
These interpretations, valid as they are, however, cannot exhaust the text of Genesis, which inevitably has also an historic component, albeit one that must be re-understood and reinterpreted in light of the complexities emerging from anthropology, paleontology, genetics, and also more recent studies in animal behavior. In this I follow Henri Blocher who argues that while Genesis has a highly complex literary and mythical structure that does not thereby rule out some form of historical reality and some historical reading as well. He says:
Such a combination of imagery (of whatever provenance) and a message about definite events is familiar in Scripture; one need only think of Ezekiel’s allegories, of apocalyptic visions, and of many of Jesus’ parables. It involves no tension. It should cause no embarrassment. Thinking otherwise is unwarranted prejudice,.. The problem is not historiography as a genre narrowly …but correspondence with discrete realities in our ordinary space and sequential time [Blocher 1997, p50].
If we allow an historical/realist edge to Genesis this immediately places us in conversation and potential conflict with science. Even when this narrative is no longer intended, ambiguous liturgical and theological references to Adam or Eve often throw up the suggestions of this history in some form or other. Within evangelical circles even those who are prepared to pay lip service to evolutionary history will sometimes exempt humanity. Thus I turn next to a method of interaction between theology and science which has been used recently in charting a similar theological problem—that of human uniqueness.
4.2 Theological understanding
I will argue then, that fallenness is real, it is a long process, as was becoming imaged, and it comes to live alongside perfection, even as dark energy and ordinary matter coexist This understanding of fall, I will argue, is possible to lie alongside the evolutionary history and our own experience of the world where the traditional fall fails, because becoming fallen can be a process, can be seen in some manner to afflict the whole creation, but becomes more potent with increasing intelligence and sentience and choice, so that in some manner fallenness becomes a story that is increasingly concerned with human becoming.
Imago Dei and fallenness are both most evident in humanity. Fallenness is manifest in the escalation of violence and revenge which accompanies human intelligence and community, in the seeming inevitability of sin. Imago Dei, although it too has been discussed mainly in relational and functional terms in the twentieth century, can be seen –in substance– in the greatness, especially moral greatness, to which humans can aspire. Together they constitute the core of theological definition of the person.
Where then does this leave us in terms of theological interpretations of fallenness and of origins, for they are related? We can easily look at this data and think that Genesis was wrong. There is nothing special about us at all, neither in our imaging of God, nor in our wickedness. In his Gifford lectures Van Huyssteen argues otherwise. He argues that the scientific data is sufficient to show there is a fluidity to our intelligence, and opening up of interconnected intelligences that is unique in humanity, but this conclusion is a judgment call, made after long and deliberate transversal indwelling of the multiple disciplines associated with human being. Van Huyssteen quotes the now extensive scientific evidence that suggests there has been a remarkable opening up of the human mind in the second wave of hominid progression out of Africa, the progression which encountered and eventually replaced Neanderthal. This is the mind that made the art in the caves of France and Spain. [Van Huyssteen 2006, p187f]
There is every scientific reason to accept that there are analogies to what we call the image of God, but they are in capacities which are in continuity with our ape precursors. Thus whatever work the imago Dei doctrine does, starkly separating us from animals is not the effect. Similarly with our tendencies to violence. There are peaceful hominids, and more peaceful mammals. Wolves, says Midgley are “by human standards, paragons of steadiness and good conduct.”[Midgley 2002, p25] With our closest relatives, the chimps—although our common ancestor was 5 million years ago—we share a violent inheritance. Their violence is more muted, not having the acute intelligence, the language, the drive, and the culture to exacerbate the greatness and the depth of it.
I argue, then, that just as imago Dei has some resonance in the primate record with the huge expansion of homo sapiens out of Africa and with the art of 40,000 years ago [Van Huyssteen 2006, p187f], so too fallenness may have some resonance with the increased domination and aggression of this progression of humans to the ends of the earth. Questions can be asked about whether in the newly developing spirituality of early humans there was also a cooperation with evil. This would fit with the presence of the serpent in the garden of perfection, representing an evil already present before humanity arrives, an evil that could not previously appropriate sentient beings, but that could nevertheless bring disharmony to a creation that remained inherently perfect.
There will be no place in the history to which we can point and say: that person is Adam, or that act constituted the fall. But there may be transitions and thresholds which will be seen to be significant, and perhaps which resonate with the biblical story.
Is there also a place or a time or an aspect of humanity that resonates with fallenness? Theology has largely deserted the landscape of the past, except in eccentric or fundamentalist ways. This has made the past incoherent.. Since Darwin there has been no coherent, generally believed theological understanding of origins. Existentialist, deconstructionist and eschatological renderings of Genesis have rendered the text immune to scientific interrogation, but they have not cleared the air, especially when the sciences are so seriously looking backwards; especially when there is such confusion about how we should deal with our human nature, in courts of law, in schools, and in peace-making.
Some recent theologians have argued that this is an artificial construct for the events of Genesis 3. I believe, however, that without entering into this territory in some manner radical evil—horrendous evil–is inexplicable. I think there is something important in this text that contributes to our understanding of evil. Something mysterious is associated with human becoming. Whatever it is, though, science tells us human becoming was not the beginning of violence, not the edge of innocence and not the beginnings of death.
The fall is as good a name as any, however, for the crisis that has been mirrored in many other tales of origins—like the African myth, Why the Sky is Far Away. Like many biblical concepts it resonates at various depths. When we sit with our violent nature, and the Genesis myth, with the long history of violence of various sorts, what does it all mean? Can we make a narrative that makes sense? At the very least there were transitions in our hominid development which could relate to fallenness.
There are many questions which we face: In particular, was there a crisis point over which humans stepped? Is our particular consciousness linked to a tendency to violence? Does caring and possessing link with a need to control others. Are hierarchical societies particularly violent? Is it possible to be human and not be violent?
The answers to these questions require a long period of sitting with the two stories, of letting the meaning of one wash over the other. Whatever they mean we can trace a series of moments of which we are vaguely aware in the biological record. They don’t prove a fall, but they do give corroboration of such a concept from another discipline.
- Long before humanity evolved there can be seen to be a pre-human “fallenness” to nature red in tooth and claw. Although the natural world is remarkably tuned to life at all levels of its existence—densely tuned—with increasing complexity and social interaction comes also the dark side of life—parasitism, deliberate cruelty of one animal towards another, viruses which kill more complex animals for instance.
- There was a fall of sorts before the dawn of humanity when some hominids became meat eaters. Eating meat may have been required for the big push upwards of our brains that enabled human consciousness. Conversely our enlarging brains made the tool-making that is required for regular meat harvesting possible, especially in animals without claws or strong jaws. But meat eating is necessarily more violent and grasping than plant eating. Were there more peaceful hominids which preceded humanity? The anthropological record suggests so. The intriguing difference between Gen 1:29 and Gen 9:3 also suggests this threshold. The fallenness, though nevertheless acceptability of meat eating, is suggested by the Isaiah vision of peaceable kingdom.
- There was a fall as well as a leap in intellectual capacity and expression in the first homo sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic period who drew magnificent images on the caves of Garas in French Pyrenees in France, and in parts of Spain, and who set out to bring all life on this planet under their domination [Van Huyssteen 2006, p146f] The same drive which seems to have enabled speech and the movement of peoples from one continent to another, was accompanied by violence and murder.
- Some authors like Daniel Quinn—no friend of Christianity–have argued that there was a Fall in the beginnings of agriculture, and the increased level of surveillance and territorial aggression, and dominion of the earth, that that required. In every case the fall brought with it an increase in greatness as well, an increase in the knowledge of good and evil [Quinn 1998]
- Michael Polanyi has asked whether, in the turn to technology, we have not taken again from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Another fall. [Polanyi 1952, p268]
- Lastly one wonders whether in the deconstructive turn, in the enormously increased transparency of the postmodern consciousness there has not been another level of innocence lost.
Seeing a multiplicity of Falls can also be a way of blurring the boundaries. The recent understanding of emergence as a phenomenon of all physical and living things helps us to understand that there are thresholds which may be very hard to isolate or even define, but that eventually a state of affairs exists which is ontologically more than that from which it emerged.
Thus homo sapiens eventually emerged from hominid precursors in a process that may have taken millions of years, but was eventually accomplished. If we see this progression as God’s creation it is no mistake that human consciousness emerged so slowly and God’s spirit is obviously present in all previous forms of life. But a threshold has been crossed. This threshold remains shrouded in mystery, and is evidenced only at a certain point when the material culture bursts onto the scene and is not destroyed by tens of thousands of years of subsequent duration. This evidence is found in the Upper Paleolithic cave art mentioned previously, dating from 40,000 years ago. In this art Van Huyssteen and others see evidence not only of modern human consciousness but of a religious sense-of shamanism–that has been ubiquitous in all homo sapiens [Van Huyssteen 2006, p161f] But even here there is room for doubt. Our constructions of what makes a human human may not be God’s. These humans, however, were undoubtedly like us, and were of a violent tendency. It was these surges of “humanity like we are” who replaced the Neanderthal and made their way to the furthest parts of the world.
Is it possible then to see this threshold as that of becoming human, and that the very expansion of human intelligence magnified the violence that was already present in the pre-human hominids out of which homo sapiens emerged? One theological interpretation of all this is to see the fall as an inevitable result of an expansive and curious and aggressive hominid endowed with enough inner drive to make the transition to language and speech and dominion of the whole earth, in a context where “fallenness” was already a part of the picture.
Another interpretation, which I tend to favor, adds a further dimension to this violent becoming. The serpent was already present in the perfect garden. A part of our history has humans making a conscious alliance with a preexisting evil. None of this is precluded by the biological realities, nor by our relative states of lack of innocence mentioned above. There is an element of temptation and dissonance and hubris at the heart of created reality—perhaps the dissident wisdom? The serpent does not cancel out the perfections, but the serpent is there, and is able to lure in the human in a way that non-speaking animals cannot be lured. Whatever the truth about the fall, as our forebears made the transition to humanity, we know that they did not come to it completely innocent. Shadows of this violence and indeed of image bearing can be seen in other animals. This means that we can affirm the coherence to theological concepts like imago Dei and fallenness, while nevertheless insisting that the separations that are endemic in our way of thinking are not fully justified, biologically or theologically. We are the same but different from animals. We are very much the same as one another. We all share the same violent past. .
If understood in this way we see in this first story there is something of the tragedy that accompanies all human sin and violence. There is both choosing and freedom but also inevitability, not in a deterministic sense, but in the sense that the values and greatness of which we are capable are a part of the same embeddedness in a particular evolutionary history that has brought humanity to birth. If we ask why are we violent? I believe the answer relates both to our biological origins extending millions of years before our appearance as homo sapiens, and also to some cooperation at the newly emerged level of spirituality with an evil that inexplicably predated human becoming. Thus violence which has its roots in our biological inheritance takes on a life of its own in cultural and spiritual domains. Yet to say that we have a given, human nature, is not to say that we are determined, nor that we must behave a certain way. It does not mean that we are born with a corrupted imago Dei. Rather it refers to a balance, a predilection, a vulnerability. Midgley asks:
what does it mean to say [humans are] naturally aggressive.? To the ethnologist it certainly does not mean that [they are] basically aggressive, that [this is their] sole or overwhelming motive. It means that [they are] aggressive among another things, that in [their] repertory of natural tendencies there is one to attack other members of [their] species sometimes, without being taught to, without needing to as a means to another end, and without always having what seems to be adequate provocation [Midgley 2002, p56]
But how does all of this affect us now. In part the answer is that we are genetically as our ancestors are and were. There is also unchartered territory, and perhaps an added level of explanation in our interconnection as a species. Blocher, for example, quotes CS Lewis:
…the separateness – modified only by causal relations – which we discern between individuals, is balanced, in absolute reality, by some kind of ‘interanimation’ of which we have no conception at all. It may be that the acts of sufferings of great archetypal individuals such as Adam and Christ are ours, not by legal fiction, metaphor, or causality, but in some much deeper fashion…there may be a tension between individuality and some other principle.[Lewis 1940 p75; Blocher 1997, p97]
Today we have more scientific and empirical evidence for this sort of interanimation. Reality is understood to be much more a seamless interconnecting web than it was in a pre-quantum mechanical universe. People like Rupert Sheldrake speak of morphic fields that connect us all, and connect us with other forms of life [Sheldrake 1995]. Interanimation may be another part of the puzzle, which is also not undermined nor precluded by scientific realties—the sense of interanimation may be more profound than we have ever previously, and certainly scientifically measured. It is consistent with John’s metaphors of the vine, the branches (John 15:5), the being “in Christ,” and “He in us.” (1 John 4:13) If a measure of interanimation is the case then we are absorbed into and deeply one with the decisions and actions of those who have gone before us, especially, as Lewis says, with archetypal individuals.
Looking at this history helps us to understand ourselves, and perhaps to be more compassionate of those who are caught up in violence, whether individual or corporate. It helps us to see that there are biological causes among the many other causes of violence that sometimes looks as though it is only social or spiritual. It helps us to see that we are all have basically the same inclination, and that this inclination is closely linked to our ability to have dominion, to speak, and to know. Criminals are not a different class. For them the natural human condition, bent somewhat toward violence, has tipped into a real acting out of a given human nature. That doesn’t make them so terribly different from any of the rest of us. Humane restraint at all levels of society should be the aim.
Lastly, what of redemption. The traditionally understood fall led to a distorted theology in which humans had made some easily avoidable mistake which we were now acting out, and had been miraculously rescued by Christ, almost as plan B. This leads to a gnostic sense that our true nature is in a spirituality that is beyond us or beside us. It makes us puzzled by the fallenness of the natural world around us, and by the unredeemedness of those saved by Christ. It makes us blind to the deep currents of violence that run in Christian countries and communities, even to the point of being justified by Christian belief and practice.
More secular existentialist and cultural explanations of evil tend to overemphasize the ease with which people are capable of not being doing wrong, and in particular, not being violent, and tend to separate the criminal from the ordinary person. Associated models attempt to endlessly manipulate the culture to find the conditions which will maintain the person in their original state of innocence and non violence.
Coming out of an evolutionary model gives a different view of Christ. Christ’s embodiment and embededness within the human race takes on a new character. Taking on human form was in itself a bearing of a form of violence, in the very state of being of homo sapiens. Marilyn McCord Adams speaks of Christ’s straddling of the human and divine life forms. She says, of God’s at-one-ment in Christ, that:
Talk of contagious holiness is a way of saying that when God smudges human boundaries, God in effect cancels the legitimacy of human grids in favor of Divinely established norms [McCord Adams 1999, p101].
In his resisting all violence Christ gives humanity a new hope and a new archetypal beginning, one that is in keeping with a new form of interanimation, united to him in Spirit, and not only to our primal beginnings. Christ unmasks the violence at the heart of human nature and human society. He takes the brunt of interanimate human violence, absorbing it in his person. He reveals the deeper moral law, the new life, the resurrection that emerges out of this relinquishing of violence, of the first impulse of humanity, a violent impulse that has been deeply linked to religion in almost all humans.
But this new beginning is a change at a level of embodiedness, rather than in a new spirituality that is remote from our embodied nature. In redeeming humanity Christ must also be redeeming the whole of the created order, that out of which humanity has emerged. This is consistent with Colossians. And with the new found sense of connection to the whole of life that has accompanied our ecological sensitivity. Christ’s redemption is still discerned only in its first fruits, but it can be seen as the hope of another way, another moral law, one that is able to cancel out the dark side of the evolutionary progression, one that is able to bring in the fullness of time, not only ourselves but all of created life to the peaceable kingdom.
In summary then, I am saying that we must take into account our evolutionary history when considering fallenness. Violence became a way of life long before we had the kind of intelligence and rationality we now have as a species. The Genesis myth speaks of perfection and of evil, and both, I think can be seen and experienced in the real world. It also refers to a fallenness in humanity. This may be interpreted in a number of ways, either as the inevitable result of our fluid rationality and intelligence, coupled with an already aggressive nature, or it may refer as well to some other alliance made with pre-existing spiritual forces. We may also rescue form the Genesis record, and from the biblical drama, a sense of connection as a species that goes beyond the sense we have of ourselves as isolated beings. Contemporary science has more justification for such a belief than modernist twentieth century scientific notions. Thus both imago Dei and fallenness can be understood as making sense in both scientific stories and in theological ones. And both can be seen as extending in part back into the primate and mammal history.
Social policy can take note of this biological inheritance by managing and anticipating violence and aggression, and by a corporate resistance of temptation. The church must see itself as the community of those who oppose violence because it is offering a redemption in the form of Christ who was born in human form, but also born from above, absorbing and canceling the dynamics of fallenness/violence that are the result of our animal inheritance and the human fall.
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