Original sin

The third possibility, which is related to the second, is that grace—the partaking of divine nature—is a contradiction, because no being can act except through its own nature.  This is the most powerful objection to the doctrine of grace, because its premise is actually true of most objects.  Suppose God wished to give intelligence to a stone, and to do this He caused thoughts to take place inside that stone.  Perhaps He could do this, but one should seriously doubt that God had thereby given the rock a mental life.  What would make the thoughts God creates belong to the stone, as opposed to belonging to some kind of ghost that God has put in the same spot?  One could say that the rock’s nature is its one principle of unity, so we only count those acts that take place inside the rock as “rock acts” if they are acts of rock nature.  I myself think this reasoning is valid, so it follows that even God could not make a rock think.  Nor could God make a rock fly, even though He could cause it to move through the air, because “flying” means “moving through the air through one’s own natural act”.  Couldn’t we say the same thing about grace, namely that although God can create divine thoughts, He can’t make them our thoughts?  Here we come to a crucial distinction between things and persons.  A thing has only one principle of unity:  its mode of operation specified by its nature.  A person has two such principles:  his natural mode of operation and his subjective unity of experience.  The latter principle, called by Kant the “transcendental unity of apperception” is entirely different from essential unity.  It comes from the fact that I can premise every piece of knowledge that I have with the phrase “I know that…” and refer to the same “I” in each case.  From the point of view of transcendental unity, some of my knowledge might come from naturally human modes of knowing, and some of it might come from supernatural modes of knowing.  This distinction between nature and person, introduced by the Cappadocian Fathers, is crucial to Christian theology.  It allows Christians to state the mysteries of the Incarnation (one person with two natures) and the Trinity (three persons in one nature) precisely.  It also shows why grace is a real, logical possibility.

If men don’t have to lack grace, then the reason for its lack must be contingent, i.e. historical.  Either God just decided not to offer His divine assistance to us, or He did offer it, and we refused.  Pure reason can’t tell us which it is.  The doctrine of the Fall, of course, is simply the assertion of the latter possibility.  Adam and Eve were given primordial grace but rejected it through sin, and we’re all paying the price.  Because the doctrine of original sin regards evil as non-necessary, it should arguably be regarded as an optimistic idea.

The Fall and natural history

There are two major objections to this claim.  The first objection is that it is contradicted by the evidence of evolutionary biology, which suggests that there was no original human pair, but rather a slow evolution through imperceptible changes between lower primate and modern man.  However, if one accepts my argument given earlier that ontological species distinctions are meaningful and exist, than during this empirically continuous progression, there must have been an actual first human—the first one to cross the threshold.  Of course, the first two may not have been the Y-chromosome Adam or the mitochondrial Eve identified by geneticists.  Genetics has, however, definitively established one piece of the Biblical narrative—namely, that the present human race all descends from one small group.  This group lived in Africa some 50,000 years ago.  True, the genetic diversity of the human race indicates that we descend from a group of a few thousand, not two.  Remember, though, that the first true humans (e.g. “Cain” and “Seth”) were surrounded by humanoids with whom they could successfully mate.  In any event, the claims “there was a first man”, “there is a man from whom all humans are descended”, and “there is a woman from whom all humans are descended” are all true, and no version of the doctrine of the Fall requires anything more.

3 Responses

  1. […] readers.  Today, Catholics celebrate Mary’s having been preserved from original sin, which, as I indicate in my essay on that topic, was a blessing not only to her, but to all of us. The other, more interesting objection is that […]

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