Andrew Sullivan engages with the Adam and Eve question – whether they existed – after an NPR story on a few thoughtful evangelicals doing what thoughtful evangelicals in the end must do: repudiate Biblical literalism, and make a place in the pews for some simpler mind.
All this is terribly obvious, and I was raised with a faith that had no problem with the fact that there is no evidence, anywhere, for Adam and Eve outside the literary tradition in which they were created. To me this matters about as much as the fact that there is also no evidence for the existence of the Brothers Karamazov or Father Zosima – a fictional character who also “wrote” one of the greatest spiritual autobiographies of all time. I have recently – like most people, I suppose – had reasons for melancholy about man and woman and marriage, and still when I hear things like Peter Gabriel’s song “Blood of Eden” – saturated with Genesis and Jung in equal parts - I find its validity in no way impugned by the fact that the human genome project cannot trace us back to a single (human) ancestor.
As I say, I was raised with this. My father, who was a priest, thought of Original Sin not as some mechanical thing derived from Adam – how pathetic, really, that Adam is considered the first sinner, that Eve is not given credit for this merely because she is a woman – but a description of the truly fallen state of all mature people: to be filled with unfulfilled desire, to know failure, to feel broken and insignificant despite all efforts at wholeness, to be forced into humility by a reality you would but cannot change. I think this is true, and I do not believe this guilt or inadequacy we feel in ourselves is the creature of religion. I think it is the suffering religion – and much of human culture otherwise – attempts to alleviate. For me all the satisfactory answers to the problem have the form or force of a religion.
Both fundamentalists and skeptics – who in so many ways are so similar – will object that an entire theological edifice has been built on this foundation. No Adam and Eve means no Original Sin, which means no need for a compensatory Redemption. It also means that death cannot be ascribed to man’s disobedience, but that it is part of God’s plan.
I answer that the theological edifice is not necessary to the religion – that the religion consists of things beyond our rational efforts to understand them. The rationalizations of religion change from age to age. The rationalization for the Crucifixion has certainly altered in time: one early Orthodox interpretation thought the Crucifixion was paying a debt back to the devil – God bought mankind back from the Devil at the price of being the devil’s sport on earth – hence the term redemption, which means “buying back,” and specifically the purchase price to free a slave. Anselm however removed the Devil from the equation, and made God have to buy us back from himself – from his own notions of justice which demanded punishment. This is actually a profound reconciliation of justice and mercy in one individual – you yourself offer mercy, while taking the penalty the rule requires – but it is not necessary to believe in Adam and Eve for this, and it is not necessarily an exhaustive description of the meaning of the Crucifixion either. The Crucifixion to me makes even more sense as an image of nature – the destruction and regeneration of nature is crucifixion and resurrection in other form.
Sullivan notes how stuck the Catholic Church is on this issue, seeing that it has authoritative pronouncements which peg it to a historical interpretation of Adam and Eve. This is really only a problem for a small class of Catholic theologians who believe – against all evidence – that the Church is really incapable of error. Very few Catholics believe this. And even the serious conservatives, when challenged, are required to whittle down the notion to absurd paltriness. When I recently asked a conservative Catholic about various contradictions in the Church pronouncements, he quickly backpedaled: from “the magisterium consists of the ecumenical councils and the encyclicals and declarations of the popes pertaining to faith and morals,” he quickly had to eliminate certain councils which were merely “pastoral” and not dogmatic – then also certain teachings, such as the ban on usury, did not pertain to “morals,” nor did the fact that the Catholic Church in its councils established slavery as a punishment mean that it was morally acceptable or authoritative – it was just prescribed by dogmatic councils, that’s all. That the hierarchy of the Church would make a lousy moral authority is clear enough to anyone who bothers to look at the evidence – which is, admittedly, only a fraction of the populace. There is a reason why the Church does not put all its “authoritative pronouncements” into a book or up on its website to be read by all – because they are embarrassing and contradictory. Indeed, the Magisterium isn’t even really sure which pronouncements really are authoritative, and what authoritative really means. It all depends on who you ask.
But this science and religion stuff needs to get settled – on the side of science – sometime soon by someone with religious authority. The reason, ultimately, why science must be incorporated into any real theology is that the alternative is a deceptive God. Creationists must defend a God who not only created the world in six days six thousand years ago, but also seeded the world with ubiquitous evidence that He did no such thing – apparently to deceive people. He made the world six thousand years ago, but then put stars more than six thousand light years away from us, as simple geometry via parallax can prove; he then wrote on the earth in streambeds histories of earthquakes from hundreds of thousands of years ago, and put chemicals on earth which seem to have started their decaying into other chemicals millions of years ago, and also created genetic distributions, mutations, and combinations impossible in a few thousand years. What good explanation can there be for this thoroughgoing scheme of deception? What does it say about the God of the Creationists that He is the most thoroughgoing liar that can be imagined, who demands that humans accept evidence from a book undistinguished by obvious divine signs, and ignore the evidence written in the stars and stones and even on their own flesh?
I know a parallel problem from my own spiritual development: believing in a moralistic God, I found it incomprehensible that this God could really love the despicable human beings I saw, who if nothing else did not live up to his Law; but some of those people, for various personal reasons, I loved as dearly as I loved anything in the universe, my father for example; and so I was trapped into an incoherent theology, where I worshipped a Being less merciful, less generous, and less loving than I was. You cannot have as your image of wholeness and greatness and beauty something less whole and great and beautiful than yourself: this is putting an oak into a thimble. This is the Creator of the Creationists: his work on the earth is to construct a deceptive framework of evidence all around us to ensnare anyone who uses their brain. He is less noble than the vast majority of us. If this is God, then let us not worry much about him, for we are better than he is – it is better to be a human being under nature than the servant of such a petty liar.
But in the meantime, how such a concept of God perverts the Creationists! All that we can hope for from them are system-preserving lies, or ignorance, which alone are in keeping with the principles of their theology. The inquisitive ones eventually – probably with some suffering – must abandon the thimble or renounce their nature as oaks.