dialog 38:4 (Fall 1999) 303‐305.
RESPONSE TO MY RESPONDERS
The thesis of my article is the statement that human beings are "'by nature limited and unfinished,' ambiguous works‐in‐progress that think, feel, and act in ways‐both positive and negative‐substantially determined by the evolutionary legacy of millions of years." To anyone who accepts some modern form of neo‐Darwinian natural selection as the best current scientific explanation for the development of our species (and I assume that that would include most of the readers of this journal) that statement ought‐in my view‐to seem self‐evident. The implications of that evolutionary understanding of human development for any theological formulation responsive to it are, however, vast. I will first spell out those implications more fully before responding directly to my five responders.
In evolutionary understanding there is no "fall" from primal innocent perfection. There is, rather, an exceedingly slow development from original undifferentiated matter/energy toward an increasingly complex proliferation of both inert and living forms. This development is not "directed" by any yet more transcendent "being" or immanent life force. Development, especially for life forms, results from the unpremeditated and unplanned cumulative "natural selection," over many thousands and millions of years, of gradual, minute, random, step‐by‐step changes that favor gene transmission.1 The effect of this evolutionary process has been the awesomely rich and diverse emergence of more than 1.2 million identified and named living animal species (800,000 of them insects, 100, 000 of them molluscs, 47,000 of them vertebrates including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals) and 250,000 identified and named living plant species. There are probably many more yet unknown, perhaps as many as 3‐5 million species in all.2
Of all of these species, only one, to the best of our present knowledge, namely, the human species, has developed a very large brain and with it the mental capacity for self‐transcendence, i.e. the ability not only to think and act, but the ability mentally to step outside of itself, to observe itself feeling, thinking, and acting, and to pass judgments on what it observes.3 As the emerging field of evolutionary psychology has begun to establish, natural selection has also hardwired human beings with numerous "innate epigenetic rules of moral reasoning"‐what appears to be an "ensemble of many algorithms whose interlocking activities guide the mind across a landscape of nuanced moods and choices."4 These innate rules, emergent in human beings out of millions of years of natural selection, "the inherited regularities of mental development," according to Edward O. Wilson, "are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which we represent the world, the options we open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make.5 Moreover, they display themselves in moral sentiments and issue both in ethical codes and in religious myth and ritual.
As a consequence of evolutionary development we have become a species that feels empathy for others in pain and a moral obligation to help them. We feel conflict about how far we should permit the pain of others to affect us and how great our obligation is to help them. We conceive of a moral agent (or agents) somehow managing the universe and holding us accountable, and we are drawn to form communities with others to address that moral agent and gain its favor. These proclivities natural selection has favored in us, preserved for us, hardwired into us. They helped our ancestors to survive. According to Wilson,
In evolutionary understanding, it has been the development of a large complex brain and of innate "algorithms" which have "created" moral consciousness, engender moral sentiments, and structure moral reasoning, all of which has led to the sense of a gap between what is and what ought to be and to the resultant feeling of estrangement from self and world which the Bible calls by the term "sin." Philip Hefner has written:
Human beings appear universally to perceive a gap between the way things are and the way they believe things ought to be. In a pre‐scientific world Christians interpreted this gap in terms of a "fall" from primal perfection and innocence. In their interpretation God had created a "very good" world, but that world was spoiled and corrupted by self‐assertive human rebellion. As a result, humans suffer estrangement from their Creator and from their own better nature, an estrangement that issues in thoughts, feelings, speech, and behavior both defiant toward God and harmful to the world and its inhabitants. Feeling hateful resentment toward God, humans come to believe (we can now say, through psychological projection) that God hates them, and they engage in endless stratagems to regain God's good will and favor. The church itself has often enough colluded in such futile efforts, the Lutheran Reformation standing as their outstanding repudiation.
While acknowledging the estrangement they experienced in themselves and observed in others, Luther and the Reformers denounced the attribution of malevolence to God and the obsession with attempts (e.g., indulgences) to alter God's attitudes through human manipulation. They exposed the wrathful God as a human invention, a projection onto God of human resentment that the world is not what it ought to be. In fact, the Reformers declared that God's will and promise are stable, sure, and unchanging, and unremittingly accepting and compassionate toward the world of God's own creating power. The estrangement humans experience is wholly theirs, not God's. In Jesus God has presented God's self as accessible and benign‐a tiny baby gurgling at its mother's breast; a friend of children, widows, and outcasts; an advocate for human freedom who refuses to use power to protect himself or to retaliate against those who send him even to his death. The Christian gospel, in its Lutheran refraining, is a comforting word of ultimate acceptance for humans exactly in their estrangement, fear, resentment, and rage.
Although the impetus for my article came from both personal and professional experience, it is the emerging field of evolutionary psychology (formerly: sociobiology) that provides the larger intellectual context in which I ask the question of whether "sin" continues to be a useful and accurate theological term or whether, given our modern understandings of the origins of the human species, it may mislead and harm more than heal individuals and communities.
I am well aware that the common strategy engaged by colleagues (and the one I normally use!) for addressing problems with the traditional understanding of sin has been to reinterpret it and claim that reinterpretation as its true biblical meaning. Paul Tillich, for example, writes that "the term has been used in a way that has little to do with its genuine biblical meaning."9 He offers the Hegelian term, "estrangement," a term which he asserts is implicit in biblical interpretations of the human predicament. Yet, he writes, "'estrangement' cannot replace 'sin.'" Even after it has been reinterpreted, the term "sin" must continue to be used, "not only because classical literature and liturgy continuously employ it but more particularly because the word has a sharpness which accusingly points to the element of personal responsibility in one's estrangement."
But "sin" for Tillich is clearly not what Christians traditionally understood it to be. Nor is it for Peter Garrison. After commending his own "biblical psychology" and quoting Psalms to me contra my focus on human identity as limited and flawed, Garrison himself defines sinners as "imperfect people" and sin as "dysfunction." Apparently faulting me for discrediting the concept of a wrathful God by describing it as our projection onto God of the punitive feelings and attitudes we have experienced from other humans and know in ourselves, Garrison himself goes on to deny that God will condemn us for sin: "We are free to sin and be sinners (i.e., imperfect people) without fearing God's wrath." It seems that the only difference between Garrison and me is that I question the value of the continued use of the term "sin," while Garrison's reverent allegiance to the letter of the biblical record compels him to continue to use the word even if with a meaning almost identical to my own. I am reminded of the atheist philosopher Walter Kaufmann's comment on Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, "Surely, the beliefs and disbeliefs of our two most celebrated Protestant theologians are much closer to mine than they are to those of millions of their fellow Christians, past and present. But, like Bultmann, they say No in ways that sound like Yes."10
Although I will not concede that my thought about sin is as binary or unexamined as Cheryl Kirk‐Duggan infers from my brief and therefore not wholly nuanced article, I thank her for reminding me and our readers of the varieties of voices‐"womanist, feminist, mujerista, and liberationist"‐that "name, analyze, and live with sin," a term which Kirk‐Duggan defines as "that which breaks relationship with others and thus God." Perhaps naming their experiences of injustice and oppression as "sin" lends them the accusing sharpness that Tillich valued in the term, but I propose that the profound critical analysis of "context, culture, gender, socioeconomics or class, family and early environmental realities, along with the individual persona" offered by these voices is itself the reflection on "sin" most strategic to the reduction of domination systems that deny and suppress human personhood.
John Hoffmeyer reflects a similar passion for justice for the oppressed in his suggestion that my critique of sin evidences his (and my!) "position of privilege" in an affluent "land of unbounded possibilities." He endorses anger, rage, and Martin Luther King's far more dispassionate "dissatisfaction" as powerful motivations to transform society. I propose unconditional acceptance of ourselves and others and, following Walter Kaufmann, "regret" at the harm humans do to one another, while suggesting that guilt and rage are more likely to immobilize than to motivate toward healthy change. I further propose that human beings will show themselves capable of outstanding "heroism, courage, patience, and care" when "the conditions are right for our virtues to flourish." What conditions cause virtues rather than vices to flourish? It's not clear that anger and, even more particularly, guilt and rage will create the conditions for virtues to shine. In Christian understanding, those conditions are created by the liberating gospel word of forgiveness. In secular terms, dissatisfaction with the status quo and regret for one's own complicity in its inequities must be linked to acceptance of self and others if virtue in the service of liberation is to prevail.
Hoffmeyer cites a quote from Epictetus to illustrate why he serves as a poor witness "for the defense against the charge of being 'callous.'" Quoting out of context is always risky, however, as much here as it would be for a Stoic to quote Jesus' criterion for discipleship in Luke 14:26. In fact, Epictetus does not oppose detachment or indifference (apatheia) to love or care for family, and criticized a father who confessed he was unable to give care to his sick daughter because he was so distraught about her condition (Discourses 1:16). For Epictetus, as for Albert Ellis, a healthy detachment is a requirement for genuinely loving action.
Despite Margaret Alter's critique of "psychology," her own therapeutic sensitivities are evident in her argument for the doctrine of sin as a "blessing" that "offers grace" by helping humans face the reality "that something is wrong" and that we lack the capacity to fix it. By defining sin as "at base resistance to finitude" she reveals how closely her views correspond to mine. Our single difference seems to be her resistance (following Tillich) to relinquish the term itself. When I suggest relegating the term "sin" to the company of other theological terms now obsolete, it isn't because I fail to recognize that there are ways to redefine it which Alter and I (and other responders) would largely affirm. The fact, however, seems to be that despite more than a century of critical scholarship and the salutary contributions of Tillich and others to its redefinition the term remains so tainted in popular piety by its associations with affronts to an "angry God" and its obsession with individual misdeeds that I doubt it can be rehabilitated. We need a religious language that most efficiently "offers grace" and liberation. My language of limitation and finitude does so, even to the point of clarifying why we lack the "power to choose to eliminate our resistance to finitude." We lack the power, not because we are rebellious against "God," but because evolution has endowed us with brains that can contemplate infinite perfection as well as the truth of our own inability to attain it. Neither the "fall" nor our mothers did this to us; it is a product of the evolutionary process.
I regret that Robert Benne found reading my article such a numbing waste of time. I say "numbing" since so much of his response seems directed only quite indirectly toward me. He lumps me with "depleted" 19th‐century liberals, Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, Bishop Spong, traumatized Missourians,11 and New Age versions of "healthy‐minded religion." Despite the fact that I have defined humans as "ambiguous" creatures "with enormous potential for good or evil," who "think, feel, and act in ways‐both positive and negative" and who "do great injury to each other," he has read in my article a view of human nature I do not recognize as my own, a view naively innocent of the heights and depths of human motivation and behavior.
Benne dismisses my article with a quote from H. R. Niebuhr. Another Niebuhr has written of the "not very lovely" character of people "in the mass." He cites the "criminal indifference on the part of the strong to the fate of the weak" as exemplified, for example, in the "lust for power and the greed for gain" which he sees as "the dominant note in business." Interestingly, referring to the lack of sympathy exhibited by the middle classes for the plight of workers exploited by their employers, Niebuhr attributes their callous disregard for the needs of the poor and for the larger moral problems of society, not to demonic willfulness, but to a cognitive deficit: "The middle classes are in fact quite incapable of any high degree of social imagination." In terms reminiscent of Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr notes that "people are not as decent in their larger relationship as in their more intimate contacts." It is "only by viewing them at close range" that one can "maintain confidence in them":
Niebuhr saves himself from cynicism "by knowing individuals, and knowing them intimately."12 In this Niebuhr describes the experience of therapists and pastors. This is not everything to be said about human nature, but it is a start. It is not so much by resort to philosophical abstractions or dogmatic assumptions as by knowing one another intimately that we may come to decide whether saving the doctrine of sin is worth the effort.
1Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: Norton, 1986).
2Scott Freeman and Jon C. Heron, Evolutionary Analysis (New York: Prentice‐Hall, 1998) 732f.
3Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 74.
4Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998) 254.
5Edward O. Wilson quoted in Ken Gewertz, "A 'Consilience' of Science and Poetry at PBK Exercises," Harvard College Gazette (July 1998) 5. For an introduction to the current scholarly research providing evidence for Wilson's generalization, see Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (Oxford: Oxford, 1992).
6Wilson, Consilience, 258.
7Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 125.
8It should be noted that Jews do not interpret Genesis 3 in terms of a fall into sin, least of all into an Augustinian "original sin."
9Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957) 46.
10Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic (New York: Meridian, 1979) 97.
11Has Benne forgotten that the same confessional prayer that vexed my childhood was standard for virtually all Lutherans in North America prior to publication in 1978 of the Lutheran Book of Worship? See Service Book and Hymnal (1958) 1.
12Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Turned Cynic (New York: Harper & Row 1980 ) 94f.