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Colossian Blog
March 18, 2015 | Jeanna Boase

The Fall of the Fall: A Brief Political History

The Fall of the Fall: A Brief Political History

William T. Cavanaugh

There is a general cultural assumption in our society that any antagonism between science and theology is inherent in scientific method. The great secularizer is science, it is often thought, because the fancy or sheer unprovability of theological belief eventually runs into scientific fact. We can no longer take the Fall story seriously, for example, because it is just a story. So the story goes.

For those who are invested in a more fruitful dialogue between science and theology, however, it is helpful to know that secularization is not the inevitable result of science. And one way of loosening the grip of the story told above is to show that secularization—including the secularization of science—has causes that are non- scientific. The eclipse of the Fall has roots that are political, not scientific; it contributes to the rise of the modern state and to the divorce between theology and political science and between theology and natural science.

In pre-modern Western society, the Fall marked the difference between the way things are and the way things are meant to be. The biblical narrative of the Fall occupied a foundational place in traditional Christian political theory. The Fall was seen as either the reason that coercive government was necessary or a significant factor affecting what was possible in human government. This emphasis on the Fall should not be misunderstood, however, as an example of Christian pessimism about human nature that has been overcome in more secular, Enlightenment-influenced societies. In traditional Christian political theory, the primary referent of human nature is a pre-Fall phenomenon; human nature consists of the capacities instilled by God in humans at creation. The clear consensus among patristic and medieval commentators was that human beings are by nature sociable creatures that are inclined to love their fellows. Augustine, for example, writes that “since every person is a part of the human race, and human nature is social, each person also has a great and natural good, the power of friendship.”

As Augustine also says, however, “The human race is, more than any other species, at once social by nature and quarrelsome by perversion.” The distinction between nature and the perversion of that nature is crucial for Augustine and for the Christian tradition as a whole. In the story of Adam, God teaches us both what we ought to be and what we have come to be because of human choice. The story of the Fall, therefore, is not simply a claim about the evil that lurks in human souls and the necessity of coercive government to make human social life possible. The Fall is also a lesson about the way humans ought to be and behave, based on the way that humans really are, the way that they were created by God. The Fall is not a pessimistic doctrine, but, on the contrary, gives humans hope that the evil that people do to one another is not natural, that is, is not simply inscribed in the way things are from creation, and is therefore not simply inevitable. Though Christian thinkers saw human coercive government as instituted by God, the consensus was that that coercive government is not natural, but rather a divine response to human sin.

The eclipse of the idea of a Fall of humankind did not have to await the rise of evolution and the prestige of the natural sciences; it was eclipsed in the early modern attempts to create a new naturalistic science of politics. Niccolò Machiavelli is often considered the first modern European thinker to attempt to establish politics on some basis other than theology. Machiavelli was not only contemptuous of the influence of Christianity on politics; more broadly he sought to establish politics on an empirical basis, that is, on what is rather than on what should be. The Fall is simply absent from Machiavelli’s political theory. The English tradition of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke—who had a much more direct influence on the American political system—tended to replace the Fall with a story about the “state of nature.”  Hobbes famously founded the legitimacy of his sovereign on a state of nature that was said to be a war of all against all; surrendering our natural liberty to the government was necessary to keep people from killing one another. Locke had a somewhat more optimistic view of human nature, but he too had no room for the Fall in his political theory. Nature was simply the way things are, and coercive government was a natural institution.

Hobbes and Locke are rightly considered founding fathers of modern political theory because both paved the way for the public authority of the Bible to be supplemented, and eventually replaced, by Nature as the secure foundation of knowledge. The eclipse of the Fall in early modern political theory coincides with a new, unitary conception of nature. The Fall marks a division between two kinds of nature, the way we are and the way we are meant to be. The Fall is therefore crucial to an eschatological concept of nature; nature is not simply there, inert, its constant properties to be investigated and codified into constant laws. The Fall marks the fact that nature has a goal, a telos; there is nature as it is and nature as it will become, the latter of which is revealed by reflection on the original, prelapsarian condition in which God placed us, which in turn reveals God’s intention for us. Modern science often rejects teleology, believing the nature of matter to include only the way things are, and not the way things ought to be. The new “science” of politics also collapses the two natures into one; the way things are is revealed by the state of nature, which politics can ameliorate but not essentially alter. The Fall is “naturalized,” and many of the features of fallenness now simply coincide with creaturehood.

The important point is that there was nothing inevitable or “natural” about this process of naturalization. The eclipse of the biblical Fall story was not simply the putting away of childish stories in favor of hard data; the eclipse of the Fall was at least in part political, not scientific. The fall of the Fall is part of the secularization of politics, but secularization is neither inevitable nor the simple subtraction of a supernatural worldview from some more basic, natural residue. The “state of nature” upon which Hobbes and Locke built their political theories is based not on any empirical testing, but rather on prior political decisions about what kind of government and political economy needs justification. The state of nature replaced the Fall with a story of human origins that is no more empirically-based and no less susceptible to being labeled “mythological” than the Genesis story. The claim to know “nature” and what is “natural” is, for Hobbes and Locke, a political move that, no less than medieval appeals to Scripture, attempts to invest political authority with authority that comes from a non-political source.

The eclipse of the biblical Fall had significant advantages for the justification of the authority of the nascent modern state, which was busily freeing itself from ecclesiastical influence and appropriating land, judicial powers, rights of appointment to ecclesiastical offices and benefices, and tax powers and revenues from the church. The movement of politics from a scriptural to a “natural” basis meant less reliance on the church for its expertise in biblical interpretation. More importantly, the eclipse of the Fall removes the eschatological proviso that the medieval commentators read in the Genesis story. The Fall meant that coercive political authority, for Augustine and the tradition that followed him, was not natural or permanent but a temporary remedy for sin until Christ, the true ruler’s, return. Political authority, though instituted by God, lived always under the judgment of the way things were meant to be, which was, of course, also God’s judgment. In contrast, the state that emerges from the “state of nature” is simply a response to the way things are, and therefore a natural, permanent, institution.

In the long run, much of what comes to be called “science” will follow the path that “political science” followed: divorced from theology and from the church, and tasked with investigating a reduced nature that has been stripped of any eschatological or teleological reference. The Fall will be discarded as a quaint myth, and evolution will appear to be guided by purely immanent processes. I suggest, however, that the divorce of science and theology in the West has been promoted, at least in part, by non-scientific factors. There is a political history of science in the West that needs to be told.

 

[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 projectfunded by BioLogos, 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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One of the reasons Jim Klima sent his son to Front Range Christian School (FRCS) in Littleton, Colorado, is that he knew the school taught that God created the earth in six days. After his son attended a symposium offered by the school where a proponent of evolution explained his views to students, Klima attended a follow-up session later that evening. “We had an interesting discussion over dinner,” he laughed. Why would a Christian school that holds to a young-earth creationist point-of-view invite an evolutionist to address its students? “It’s foundational to who we are,” explained FRCS head of school, David Cooper. “Yes, we’re a young-earth creationist school, but if we’re going create Christian scholars who will be respected and heard, they’ve got to be able to engage in the scientific dialogue with meaningful knowledge. At the same time, we also want our students to learn how to discuss sensitive issues in a way that honors Christ.” To that end, FRCS partnered with us at The Colossian Forum and offered a day-long Symposium on Origins featuring two scientists: Dr. Todd Wood, a young-earth creationist and Dr. Darrel Falk, who believes God used evolution to create the earth. “We want our community to be able to speak their convictions with boldness and courage, but also be able to hold love as part of the process too,” Kevin Taylor, director of the school’s Veritas et Caritas Institute and a Spanish teacher said. “When the world looks at the church, I’d like them to see it appealing because we behave virtuously and civilly in a world so polarized.” Why Teach Evolution? Many Christian schools embrace young-earth creationism, likely for the same reason as Klima: they want an alternative to the evolution that is being taught in public schools. However, when those Christian-school students graduate and head off to college—even to some Christian colleges—they are expected to have at least a rudimentary understanding of evolution. Christian colleges such as Calvin College, Taylor University, Spring Arbor University, Seattle Pacific University, Point Loma Nazarene University, Samford University, and others generally teach from an evolutionary perspective in their science departments, as do virtually all non-religious affiliated colleges and universities. Introducing evolution to Christian-school students is not without its challenges. Head of school Cooper acknowledges resistance from some parents. “We ask them to be patient, to trust us, but I know it’s difficult for some,” he said. Teachers also approach it with mixed feelings. Leslie Bloomquist, who teaches advanced placement biology at FRCS, covers a large unit on evolution with her ninth-graders. “If I didn’t, my students would have a very hard time taking their standardized tests required by the state because there’s just so much evolution on those tests. But I don’t feel real comfortable teaching it.” Though not every state includes questions about evolution on their mandatory student assessments, an increasing number do. In a 2005 questionnaire sent by Education Week to twenty-two states, seventeen reported at least one question on their tests specifically mentioned evolution—some tests had as many as seven questions about evolution. How Do We Have This Conversation? At the FRCS symposium, approximately 250 middle and high-school students listened to Wood and Falk explain their views on origins and then question each other. Students also met in small groups to share their own thoughts on science and faith and interact with the scientists. “There’s definitely disagreement on this topic among the students here,” eleventh-grader Carissa Van Donselaar explained. “This event has helped us learn how to talk about our opinions without fighting each other, and that’s so important because the image that non-believers have of Christians is that we’re always fighting over something.” Both Wood and Falk have been meeting privately for the past three years with The Colossian Forum, putting to test the ministry’s belief that “all things hold together in Christ.” Both believe the other is not only wrong, but harming the church as they promote their respective views of origins. “Todd believes my views could lead students away from faith, while I believe the young-earth creationist view makes it easy for scientists to dismiss the Christian faith altogether, and we really need a Christian presence in the larger scientific community,” Falk explained. “It has not always been easy because, in a way, Darrel Falk is a mortal enemy of creationism,” noted Wood. “In fact, sometimes our discussion gets quite heated, but we’ve been able to have these difficult conversations and still remain friends.” Both credit TCF for providing a God-honoring process for dealing with conflict. “Our role is simply to remind them what they already believe, which is that the gospel is relevant and powerful—especially where there’s conflict,” Michael Gulker, president of TCF, said. “Rather than being a threat to the faith, conflict actually gives us an opportunity to let the gospel work in us and in our culture in ways the culture can no longer imagine. 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Upcoming Event: Evolution and the Fall Panel Discussion
May 9, 2017 | Jennifer Vander Molen
Upcoming Event: Evolution and the Fall Panel Discussion
If there was no historical Adam, what happens to the doctrine of the Fall? How does the evidence for evolution change our understanding of the origin of sin—and does it even matter for Christians in their everyday lives? If you're in the Grand Rapids area, join us on May 11th at 6:30pm for a panel discussion hosted by Eerdmans Bookstore and The Colossian Forum. The discussion will center on the new book Evolution and the Fall and its implications for Christian education and discipleship. Our panelists will be James K. A. Smith from Calvin College, Michael Gulker from TCF, Pastor Ken Lucas from Crossroads Bible Church, and Rev. Dr. Stephen Holmgren from Grace Episcopal Church. If you attend, you can purchase a discounted copy of Evolution and the Fall. We will provide a free gift with each purchase of the book at this event. For more information, visit this event page. Hope to see you there!