Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration

Mahoney, David
Georgetown UP (2011)
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Believe it or not, the Roman Catholic Church has not officially accepted the science of Darwinian polygenism and natural selection. Even as late as Pope John Paul II, evolution is only "more than a hypothesis" but the Catholic Catechism sticks grimly to the twin concepts of 'Original sin' and "Fall". 

Mahoney sets out to explore the theological consequences of accepting evolution without ever explicitly saying that he accepts it himself but one has to assume this, otherwise the book would be a hollow sham. He will be in trouble enough for his pains as it is, pointing out that there is no exegetical and theological foundation for the doctrines of 'Original sin', 'fall', concupiscence, atonement and a Catholic salvation monopoly.

The starting point for 'original sin' is the story of creation in Genesis 3 but this is now widely accepted as an etiology, a description of how things are, not a prescription for how things should be; it is an explanation both of our natural ability to choose badly. Mahoney does not make the argument that we can hardly be condemned for choosing badly when we were created imperfect so that we were free to choose to love. The problem of confusing an etiology with a divine command in Genesis is compounded by a miss translation from Greek into Latin of Romans 5.12 which says that "through Adam all have sinned" instead of saying "since Adam all have sinned". The obvious absence of this miss translation in the Greek world explains why the Orthodox Church has never had any truck with 'original sin' and 'fall'. Saint Augustine, in his epic battle with Pelagius concerning human moral freedom, seized upon this verse of Paul to develop a doctrine of 'original sin' transmitted through sexual intercourse to all people from the original Adam and Eve; because Adam rebelled, we are all in rebellion which Baptism only partly mitigates, thus leaving us with the intrinsic tendency to sin, known as concupiscence. But if there is no Adam because we are descended from at least a cluster of creatures prior to homosapiens, then there is no original sin and fall, and no concupiscence.

But if there is no 'fall' what is the point of Christ's atoning sacrifice. Mahoney, in the weakest portion of his book, maintains that the Last Supper was not sacrificial but in a much stronger section shows that the Crucifixion itself need not be an atonement but is, rather, a death in order to conquer death in the Resurrection. We have been saved from death, not sin. We have not lost a sense of sin but gained a sense of proportion; what people today need is a sense of purpose. As Gaffney says: "Sin is not paradise lost but paradise ungained". Human problems of bewilderment and finitude are bad enough without the concept of sin.

Going back a stage, the incarnation was too big an event to be a "rescue job" or, to put it another way, did God really fail so miserably in creation that 'he' had to try again? 

The ideas of universalism and altruism are very closely linked with ideas of corruption and atonement. Altruism, says Mahoney, originates in the divine life of the Trinity, operative in creation and in our createdness in the divine image, operative through Christ. He sketches the long tradition of incarnation without fall, equivocal in Aquinas but definite in Duns Scotus but overwhelmed by the early Church's wholesale adoption of the Jewish obsession with sin and sacrifice, entrenched by Augustine and Luther. The idea that altruism reflects our life in Christ easily leads to the concept of universalism espoused by Barth and Rahner. The notion that we are all corrupt, on the other hand, leads to the design of escape mechanisms but not, of course, for everybody because there are always those more sinful than us!

The problem with universalism is that it calls into question the concept of moral choice but Mahoney neatly posits that those who deliberately and chronically refuse to make right choices will not be damned but will simply die, not benefiting from Christ's conquest of death.

Mahoney raises the perfectly credible possibility that doctrine is not such a lapidary discipline as we would like to think. Augustine was tortured by the guilt of his sexual lust; Luther imagined terrible sin; and Newman was a pessimist. Moreover, there is much greater ecclesiastical power in proclaiming corruption and providing a monopoly escape route than there is in proclaiming a natural altruism and universal salvation.

For all its weaknesses and for just a little wishful thinking, this is a wonderful book which deserves to be read and to be rewarded with just a little genuine humility from the Magisterium.