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February 25, 2015 | Jeanna Boase

The Mystery of Adam 1: The Reduction of Reason in the Debate

The Mystery of Adam 1: The Reduction of Reason in the Debate

Aaron Riches

Among Christians there are two borderline positions on the existence of Adam in the face of the scientific evidences. While at first they may be perceived as opposed to one another, both in fact share a common logic of reduction, one that reduces, in turn, faith, reason and reality. Let us examine both of these positions.

The first uncritically embraces the findings and hypotheses of evolutionary theory and contemporary genetics, accepting them with Promethean certitude. According to the first position, Christian faith, if it is to remain valid, must find a way to fit itself into the putative “iron laws” of reality set down my modern science. To be an adult, educated Christian, one must modify the faith of the tradition, carefully fitting it now around a surer “truth” of reality as continuously determined by modern science. Thus the traditional Christian view of Adam as the father of all humanity and protagonist of the first human sin must go. This is because, at least since the publication of Francisco Ayala’s “The Myth of Eve: Molecular Biology and Human Origins” in 1995,[1] and now overwhelmingly with the 2003 publication of the Human Genome, the best scientific evidence seems to contradict the traditional teaching of the Church: the human race derived from an ancestral population of no less than 10,000, and certainly not a single ancestral couple.[2] In light of this “reality” determined solely by science, whatever the genealogical link between Christ and Adam in the Gospel of St. Luke, whatever the doctrine of St. Paul, whatever the Church’s profession for two millennia, whatever the confession of the most ancient Christian liturgical traditions: Adam can no longer be thought of as a personal agent or a protagonist of history.[3] The old view is superstitious and science has spoken. The narrative account of Adam in Genesis may be “a poetic and powerful allegory”[4] about God bestowing a spiritual and moral nature on humanity, but it cannot be that Adam himself is a real figure of personal and historical density. If, then, the Bible and Christianity are to remain “credible”, the faith must be rethought to fit the surer truth of contemporary scientific discovery: the Adam of Genesis never really was.

The second border position is an inverse expression of the first. Rather than taking the data of scientific evidence as its Promethean certitude to which everything else must be reduced, it takes these data from the Bible itself. For protagonists of this view, the Scriptures are not treated as a collection of textual forms and linguistic meanings, a web of several genres the understanding of which involves multiple levels of meaning (cf. Gal 4.24), which hold together and take take their full meaning only when they illumined by the person of Jesus Christ.[5] Rather, those holding the second position take the Bible as a book of essential data that exist and are “true” on the same exact plane of reason as the “truths” of modern science. Existing exclusively on this singular plane of meaning, the data of Scripture must perfectly “correspond” or “concord” with the “truths” of modern science; if not, it must be that science is in error. The idea in all cases is to re-legitimate Christian faith by proving that it alone “scientifically” credible according to the predetermined reduction of reason to the limits of modern scientism, and therefore cases of non-concordance are instances when modern science is in error and in need of biblical correcting. These Christians are “saltier” than the first: their faith has not lost its savor in the sense that they are not ashamed to appear foolish in the eyes of the world for the sake of the Gospel. Neither are they abashed to profess the absolute truth of Scriptures against the secular wisdom of the age. Nevertheless, the method by which they make their profession tends finally (although unwittingly) to harbor all the self-secularizing and self-modernizing elements of the first position.

For the Apostles and Fathers, the truth of faith concerns the unimaginable gesture of God’s own incarnation as the ultimate response to the mystery of the total human experience. “Christ, the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of His love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”[6] For proponents of the two border positions, the truth of faith is otherwise: it is not so much concerned with the divine response in Jesus to the unquenchable human desire for meaning before unreduced reality, as it is an attempt to amass data saturated already with the reductions of wisdom of the present age.

Faith in Jesus, therefore, for the two borderline positions, is unrecognizable as an encounter with the mystery of being that responds to the deepest cry of the heart. On these borderlines, the “truth of faith” has been suffocated to the point that it has ceased to respond to the experience of being human at all. For the one, the limited questions of modern science provoke a rethinking of faith, while for the other faith itself is reduced as a narrow answer to an immanent and truncated problem. In both cases the encounter with Life as a presence, a presence that moves us with “groanings too deep for words” (Rm 8.26) is sidelined. To this extent, the second position, based in Scripture as it is, is as equally unbiblical and untraditional as the first, while both abandon the true breadth of reason and faith.

The failure here is essentially two-fold: (1) these positions fail “to perceive modernity’s own ‘myth’… its own grand narrative of a Scientific Material world where human happiness is arrived at by material and technical progress”;[7] and (2) they are both outside of the “analogy of faith” (cf. Rm 12.6), that is, “the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.”[8]

By contrast, to think about Adam from within the analogy of faith, from within this “coherence of the truths of faith,” is to begin with the incarnate core of the Christian claim: the person of Jesus Christ, who “fully reveals man to himself.” This is where St. Paul begins in Romans 5.12-21, where he outlines Christianity’s essential doctrine of “original sin” through an account of the relationship of Adam and Christ. Here “the centre of the scene … is not so much Adam, with the consequences of his sin for humanity … as it is Jesus Christ and the grace which was poured out on humanity in abundance through him.”[9] From this concentration on the historically particular person of Christ and on the concrete event of his Paschal Mystery, the prior density of Adam and his deed are illumined. Paul is not speaking of “Adam” as an empty figure or general idea, but of this “particular person, Adam, who stands at the origin of humankind and with whom the history of sin begins.”[10] Only as such, as the person at the origin of humanity and protagonist of the first sin, is Adam “a type of the one who was to come” (Rm 5.14). From this vantage point, the reduction of Adam to a metaphor or an abstraction is dubious, since the Christian claim is at its core incarnate, personal and historically concrete.[11] Christianity is not a timeless morality or a gnosis of abstract divine truths, it is a historical reality rooted in dramatic events in which, so Christians propose, the destiny of humanity as such is at play. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rm 5.19).

But if the analogy of faith does not allow us to reduce Adam to mere abstraction, nor does it allow the first two chapters of Genesis be bandied about as a scientific treatise, as if their aim was to provide objective “data” of a modern scientific nature. The Christian claim is entirely different, a different way of knowing. It “is a wholly human fact according to all the factors of human reality, factors interior and exterior, subjective and objective.”[12] This means that in Christianity the subjective and interior factors of human experience cannot be dismissed, neither can they be only poetical or mythical. Indeed, for Christianity, no factor of the human experience is a mere misstep on the path to genuine love and knowledge of reality. Rather, for Christians, all the factors combine to evoke the totality of the whole. Experience combines with knowledge, historical fact with aesthetic form, myth with scientific intuition, to contribute to the total sum of all the factors that constitute the human. This is why testimony and experience form such a crucial part of the Christian story, not only as a fact of the past, but as an experience and an encounter which the Church still claims for herself today. By contrast, these borderline positions on Adam have allowed science to “engulf their entire gaze,”[13] to determine their self-definition and to define their totality of the real.

* * *

If Christianity claims to address all the factors of human reality (interior and exterior, subjective and objective), then a reasonable approach to the existence of Adam must value and pursue all of these factors.

Consequently, where is reason in the question of Adam to be found for us? As rational beings, writes the philosopher Roger Scruton, we look for connections and harmonies because “we want the world to make sense to us, and to answer our questions not merely in the way the laws of nature answer the enquiries of a scientist, but in the way the laws of harmony answer the aspirations of the musician.”[14] When tested with honesty, we sense that, as Scruton says, “our reason over-reaches the bounds of science, and this is not a deficiency in our reason but a limitation in science.”[15] Contrast Scruton here with the late and brilliant evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould: “After all, life existed on earth for 3.5 billion years before we arrived; why should life’s causal ways match our prescriptions for human meaning or decency?”[16] There is indeed a deep meaning to his question, though he is asking it rhetorically. Yet in posing the question at all, he acknowledges the central tenet of the human experience: a cry for love and meaning in the face of the mystery of the whole. As the poet William Sharp wrote:

O hunting heart, shall you find it, with arrow of failing breath,
Led o’er a green hill lonely by the shadowy hound of Death? (15-16)[17]

Indeed, the most basic element of human experience is “this laceration … this openness that is like a cry to Heaven … this appeal to what really transcends us …”[18] The Christian claim is simply that Jesus Christ himself, this first-century Palestinian-Jew, is both the end and source of our hunting heart, an openness in us that cries to heaven. Christ is both the one whose call constitutes this desire of our human heart, setting it in motion, and the one who alone corresponds to, and so fulfills, this mysterious longing we discover within ourselves. As Pope John Paul II used to say, Jesus Christ is the “answer to the question that is every human life.”[19]

Thus, the conversation about Adam immediately moves to higher ground when the Christian again acknowledges that unreduced reason reaches beyond the bounds of science, that it acknowledges her total human experience, and that it points to Christ as the source and end of her “hunting heart”. Moreover, that to examine Adam from within the Church’s analogy of faith is to understand him as someone again, a one who implicates us personally and theologically as Christians. So while Adam still remains impossible to define as a graspable, scientific fact, and may ever remain paradoxical, we are permitted to seek his face with the following understanding:

  • Within the “analogy of faith” there is a paramount incarnate and theological connection between Adam and the God-Man, Jesus Christ (formulated not only by St. Paul, but also in the genealogy of St. Luke and robustly in the liturgical tradition of the Church).
  • This incarnate, personal and historical character makes Adam irreducible to mere metaphor or abstraction, but also to an object of scientific knowing or study, just as he is impossible to “fix” on the ever-changing historical timeline of human origins.
  • The Scriptural reality of Adam need not “concord” perfectly with the unfolding scientific narrative of the origins of human life to be true; neither can the reality of Adam be used to disprove current scientific knowledge regarding the origins of human life.
  • Adam is placed at the beginning of the Sacred Scripture so that love might bear a human face and a name, so that it might be “personal.” Our Lord has a face and a name: he is the person of the Son. So likewise in this story of God’s intimacy with the human creature at the origin of human history, this love-with-a-face-and-a-name truly had God as his father, and so was the first creaturely “son of God” (Lk 3.38)
  • Both borderline positions unwittingly embrace modernity’s most sinister answer to all transcendent and human questions: that the human is defined as an economy of process and chance, if she is anything at all. Thereby she is destined, like the face of Adam, to “be erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”[20] In this way, it is no coincidence that in both positions his true face – that threshold between interior and exterior, that promise of intimacy with the divine paternal source – is erased in the marathon to scientifically justify his existence.

 The unreduced Christian claim, from within the analogy of faith and an understanding of all the factors of reality, emancipates subjectivity before the question of the existence of Adam, and restores the principles of truth, reality and reason to the debate.

[1] Francisco J. Ayala, “The Myth of Eve: Molecular Biology and Human Origins”, Science, New Series, Vol. 270, No. 5244 (Dec. 22, 1995), pp. 1930-1936.

[2] On the scientific impossibility of a first couple, see Dennis R. Venema, “Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for. Human-Ape Common. Ancestry and Ancestral. Hominid Population Sizes”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 62/3 (2010), pp. 166-178; Dennis Venema and Darrel Falk, “Does Genetics Point to a Single Primal Couple?”, BioLogos Forum (April 5, 2010), on line at: http://biologos.org/blog/does-genetics-point-to-a-single-primal-couple; and Francisco J. Ayala, “The Myth of Eve: Molecular Biology and Human Origins”, Science, New Series, Vol. 270, No. 5244 (Dec. 22, 1995), pp. 1930-1936. On the fall and science, see Denis Alexander, Creation and Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?, Second Edition (Oxford: Monarch, 2014), pp. 316-365.

[3] There are many liturgical hymns, both of the Greek and Latin traditions that sing of Adam in terms irreducible to a mere idea. Perhaps the most famous of the Latin tradition is the Exultet, sung at the Easter Vigil, which invokes the “truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” But the tradition is perhaps even deeper, at least when we consider that mediaeval Latin Christians popularly celebrated the feast of Adam and Eve on December 24, and a mere idea cannot have a feast day. To this day Orthodox Christians celebrate Adam and Eve on the Sunday before Christmas when they celebrate the ancestors of Christ going back to Adam.

[4] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007), p. 207.

[5] Cf. St Bonaventure, Beviloquium, prologue, 2: “no one can begin to comprehend it [the Bible], unless that person has first been infused with faith in Christ the amp, the door the very foundation of all Scriptures.” In Robert J. Karris, O.F.M., ed. Bonaventrue Texts in Translation Series, vol. 9, Breviloquium, trans. Dominic V. Monti, O.F.M. (St. Bonaventure NY: Franciscan Institue Publications, 2009), p. 2.

[6] Gaudium et spes, 22.

[7] Jonathan Pageau, “Most of The Time The Earth Is Flat,” Orthodox Arts Journal (July 16, 2014). On line at: http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/most-of-the-time-the-earth-is-flat/

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 114.

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Saint Paul: General Audiences (July 2, 2008 – February 4, 2009), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), p. 90.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger, “In the Beginning … ”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), p. 71. Cf. N. T. Wright, “Romans”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), p. 526: “Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose male, Adam, had been given a commandment and had broken it”.

[11] This is not to say that all the texts of Scripture are best understood as historical, they are best understood according to the genre they imply. Cf. C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguaistinc, Literary and Theological Commentary (Philipsburg, NJ: P. & R. Publishing, 2006), pp. 5-38. The person of Job, for example, is not linked by Scripture itself to the historical genealogy of Jesus, neither is there any indication, in the way there is with Adam, that the historical existence of Job is internal to that of Christ.

[12] Luigi Giussani, Why the Church?, trans. Viviane Hewitt (Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 2001), p. 20.

[13] Pageau, “Most of The Time The Earth Is Flat.”

[14] Roger Scruton, as quoted in Mark Dooley, Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach (New York: Continuum, 2009), p. 30.

[15] Roger Scruton, as quoted in Mark Dooley, Why Be a Catholic? (New York: Continuum, 2011), p. 35.

[16] Stephen Jay Gould, “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” The New York Review of Books (June 12, 1997). On line at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1997/jun/12/darwinian-fundamentalism/.

[17] William Sharp [aka Fiona MacLeod], “The Lonely Hunter,” in Sébastien Salbayre, Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud (eds), L’analyse stylistique: textes littéraires de langue anglaise (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2006), p. 122.

[18] Fabrice Hadjadj, “Brève réflexion sur le transhumain,” « Parvis des Gentils », Paris, UNESCO, March 24, 2011. Full text in French, on line at: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1347313.

[19] John Paul II, Homily at Camden Yards, Baltimore, October 8, 1995, as quoted in George Weigel, George Weigel, ‘Diognetus Revisited, or, What the Church Asks of the World’, in Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2008), pp. 64-84, at p. 76.

[20] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 422.
[div id=”blockquote”]This study asks a pressing question: If humanity emerged from non-human primates—as genetic, biological, and archaeological evidence seems to suggest—then what are the implications for Christian theology’s traditional account of origins, including both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin? The integrity of the church’s witness requires that it constructively address this difficult question. This three-year project is designed to help the church wrestle with the theological implications of contemporary scientific models. The starting point for this project is not one of advocacy for a particular position, but a respectful engagement of scientific research, while maintaining the primacy of a profound commitment to theological orthodoxy. [end-div]


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