Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Historical Adam, Redux

A few weeks ago I noted Alvin Plantinga's ability to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end whenever he wades into murks waters of discussion around the relations between something called religion and something called science. The biblical texts seems to suggest that humanity descends from an original pair. Evolutionary theory holds that evolution occurs across communities of organisms. It makes utter nonsense of both the biblical texts and the neo-Darwinian evolutionary synthesis to try to "read" the two accounts together. An individual pair is not a large enough community for evolution to occur. When you only have an individual pair, it's called inbreeding. That's right: inbreeding. Despite a few difficulties with matching up historical narratives up against the law texts (see 'Cain's Wife' and some good questions here about what Noah's children got up to), the Bible also condemns inbreeding. The Book of Leviticus has some rather harsh things to say about men who 'approach', 'lie with', or 'know' immediate female relations.

Plantinga contributed to a series of articles on the topic of 'The Historical Adam'. Another author, Daniel Harrel, has called readers attention to Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 5, Verse 12 where we read:
'Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.'
The problem brought to our attention regards an apparent difficulty with the idea of sin: if it isn't coherent to believe that the human race 'falls' into sin through a single individual, who passes this moral infection on their progeny, then either the biblical account is wrong or evolutionary theory is wrong. Either/or; no two ways about it.

That's the best ThinkChristian, with its bizarrely assured subtitle, 'No such things as secular', was able to do. An entire Christian tradition of reflection on the saeculum, this middle age, between the two coming of Christ, just tossed off like Don Quixote's dish of fritters. No wonder they are grasping at pseudo-scientific answers to scientific questions.

The tone of my prose should tell you I find spectacles in which the blind lead the blind bothersome. Evangelical Christians pride themselves on being 'biblical', faithful to the text, etc., etc., and so on, and so on. It's annoying, especially in this instance, when they can't do the exact thing they claim they always do.

The natural evolutionary history of the human race from its pre-human origins is inscribed in rockfaces, ossified in primordial rock strata, preserved beneath the silt on sea-beds, and read out of genetic code. It does not take a brilliant scientist or biblical scholar to realize the Apostle doesn't mentioned any of these. Nor does it take a huge imaginative leap to question whether Paul has the sort of natural history of the human race within which an evolutionary account of humanity's origins might fit.

There is absolutely no reason this should be difficult.

Let's get biblical. What is Paul actually talking about in Romans? (Everyone open your Bibles to the Book of Romans, after the Acts of the Apostles, and before the First Letter to the Corinthians. If you don't have a Bible handy, it can be read here: Romans.) So begins today's reading:
Chapter 1: Paul says hello; says he longs to visit Rome; and says God isn't pleased with the human race. Might have something to do with sex.

Chapter 2: Paul says God's going to be judge us; says God's entitled to do so; and says the Law of the Jews doesn't justify self-righteous hypocrisy. Some stuff about circumcision.

Chapter 3: Paul says God is faithful; says human beings are faithless; and says the man Jesus Christ fulfilled the requirements of faithfulness to the Law. God his concerned with everyone now, not just the Jews.

Chapter 4: Paul says Father Abraham was justified by faith; says he wasn't circumcised either; and points out cutting your foreskin off is not going to get you into heaven. Good thing Jesus rose from the dead.
So we come to Chapter 5, not having heard a single thing about the distribution of fossils between different strata of rock, methods of carbon dating, or the difficulties of extracting a viable DNA sample from remains over a few thousand years old. Not a peep.

If I didn't already think this way of thinking about 'the historical Adam' was completely wrong, now would be a good time for me to start.

What does Paul mean by sin anyway? The Letter to the Romans presents him as a typical Law-loving Jew, who thinks it's probably not a good idea to carve images in the form of anything in the heavens above, on the earth beneath, or in the water below, nor to bow down and worship them. Recall the Ten Commandments? He has some trouble with 'unnatural' sexual relations, thinks God is the God of everyone, and thinks Jesus Christ accomplished something truly exceptional. When he talks about sin, he seems to suggest sin is a label you attach to morally defective actions, that all human action is morally defective, and that human beings stand justly condemned before their righteous Creator.

If you continue on reading the chapters that follow, you discover that human beings can be reconciled to their Creator through the sacrificial acts of the man Jesus, who he makes a great kerfuffle about by labeling ''the Second Adam'. In the Second Adam, humanity gets the second chance they lost in the fall of the First Adam. (Thanks for nothing, First Adam.) That second chance means that two people are at war inside all those who believe in Jesus: a 'old person and a 'new person'. I'll stop here. Standard Gospel stuff, right? Before everyone was going to hell; now only most everyone is going to hell. A few people are getting the equivalent of a Get Out of Jail Free card.

At what point does any of this become verifiable via the equipment and methods of modern, natural scientific study?

I ask again, if I put myself under a microscope, am I going to see an 'old man' and a 'new man' duking it out inside me? Are there international standards for measuring the moral defectiveness to which the Apostle adverts in the opening chapters his Roman epistle, like their are for measuring the tensile strength of a carbon filament? These are very fine metaphors for expressing existential distress. Does it follow they must also be scientifically verifiable?

Lord have mercy on our souls. These people do not read their own holy books. The offending verse 12 from Romans 5, which I quoted above, says not only that sin entered the world through Adam. It adds that death came on account of sin. The problem reconciling the fall of Adam into sin with the fossil record is a walk in the park compared to the problem of explaining how no fossil record ever reveals that living creatures never died.

And no, it's not because they never died that fossils are absent from the record.

If this madness continues any longer, Evangelicals will build a Creationism Museum and petition to have a six-day creation given equal time alongside evolutionary theory in high school sciences classes. Oh. Wait...

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