dialog 39:3 (Fall 2000) 237f.

On Sin: Response to George Murphy
Gary Pence

George L. Murphy (dialog 39/2, Summer 2000) worries that I may make E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins my theologians. In my "Response to My Responders" (dialog 38/4, Fall 1999).  I do not do so. I write there that "the implications of [a neo-Darwinian] evolutionary understanding of human development for any theological formulation responsive to it are . . . vast." I then write that "I will first spell out those implications," and‐quoting Dawkins and Wilson‐I describe evolutionary development in contrast to the biblical "'fall' from primal innocent perfection." All this is by way of clarifying the problem: How do we re-interpret Christianity in theological formulations responsive to these scientific proposals? In search of theological formulations, I cite Hefner and Tillich, both of them theologians who have attempted their own responses to the problem modern science poses for traditional theology.

Murphy appears to agree with my definition of the problem.  He acknowledges that "what we know and what we can surmise about human evolution make the traditional picture of a fall from a state of perfection to one of depravity quite implausible." But even though he calls for "some radical re-evaluation of the ideas of original righteousness and original sin," his own proposal‐"human beings turning off the right path from the time they first became moral agents and resisting divine guidance and correction from that point on"‐is no response at all to "what we know and what we can surmise about human evolution."

It is no response because it imposes a religious myth on the evolutionary process which‐just as much as the myth of the "fall"‐is incongruent with that process. Instead of a primeval fall from perfection into depravity, we are to think of a primeval "turning off the right path" so that all of us subsequent humans "are on the wrong road," "were all born on the wrong road," and are "traveling on the wrong road in the wrong direction." And we remain stuck on this mistaken trip to oblivion or worse because‐like the proverbial male driver lost on the family's summer vacation‐we resist asking for directions.

Unfortunately, however, although Murphy's proposal eliminates the concept of an original perfection, it appears to rest on an assumption of pre-moral innocence somehow spoiled by the emergent human's first act of moral agency. This "turning off" the right path is no different from a "fall." Murphy merely substitutes a lateral spatial metaphor for a vertical one, and neither squares with how moral and religious consciousness has, in fact, emerged from the evolutionary process.

According to evolutionary psychology, natural selection has produced a human species endowed with "innate epigenetic rules of moral reasoning" (Wilson) that regulate human behavior. Those human rules, like the behavioral codes of other animals, follow a tit-for-tat reasoning that evolutionary psychologists call "reciprocal altruism." It is very like the moral bean-counting that Christians identify as legalism. In pursuing such pragmatic, prudential legalism, humans have neither "fallen" nor "turned off the right path" any more than other animals that exhibit reciprocal altruism have done so. They are simply acting according to their nature, a nature bequeathed to them by the evolutionary process. And, as I suggest in my articles, when humans came to conceive of God, the God of their imagining exhibited the same legalistic moral algorithms innate in humans. Much of the biblical language about God reflects that same evolutionary legacy. Heaven and hell as ultimate rewards for "right" and "wrong" behavior constitute the apotheosis of that evolutionary development.

In my view, however, the Gospel is the Bible's alternative vision of a reality grounded in unconditional generosity and compassion. It is not so much a repudiation of reciprocal altruism, which serves its own useful purpose in the scheme of things (else why would natural selection have preserved it?), as it is a creative extrapolation from "kin selection," the evolutionary mechanism by which an individual is willing to sacrifice self for the sake of family members. In its biblical transformation it becomes a vision of relationships that relativizes tit-for-tat morality and subordinates it to a profoundly motivating and sustaining love.

To be sure, the old legalisms are wired into our brains and will not easily be supplanted. But we humans are, in fact, working on that project. We aren't lost, and we aren't hell-bent on destruction. We aren't sinners "resisting divine guidance and correction." We are merely struggling works-in-progress, immature and often frightened babes growing only by fits and starts into the fullness of the Gospel. From this perspective the traditional doctrine of sin is not only useless, it is abusive.