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Edwards, Denis. “Original Sin and Saving Grace in Evolutionary Context."

Denis Edwards is concerned with rethinking the doctrine of sin and grace in light of biological evolution. He begins with the insights of Gerd Theissen, Sallie McFague and Philip Hefner. According to Edwards, Theissen argues that the common features of science and theology can be articulated through evolutionary categories. Religion manifests the “central reality,” God. Christianity offers the principle of radical solidarity which runs counter to natural selection. The pull in us towards anti-social behavior has a biological foundation, while the work of the Holy Spirit is in the direction of pro-social behavior, helping us see strangers as kin. Theissen supports these points by referring to the three great “mutations” of Christian faith: biblical monotheism, New Testament Christology, and the experience of the Holy Spirit. Edwards then criticizes Theissen’s work in terms of both biology and theology: for example, are natural selection and culture, and natural selection and the way of Christ, each so sharply opposed?

Sallie McFague finds the pattern for divine immanence in creation in the story of Jesus: the universe is directed toward inclusive love for all, particularly the oppressed. As Edwards sees it, her “Christic paradigm” extends God’s liberating, healing, and inclusive love to non-human creatures. McFague understands nature as the new poor. She finds consonance between natural selection and Christianity, since evolution is not only biological but cultural, and since it is essential that human culture contributes to the welfare of all life on earth. But she finds dissonance between natural selection and Christianity, because neither cultural nor biological evolution includes solidarity with the oppressed. Instead, God suffers with suffering creation, since the world is God’s body. But, Edwards asks, is McFague too negative, even moralistic, about natural selection? Is the Christic paradigm opposed to natural selection or does it define God’s creative action in and through evolution?

According to Edwards, Philip Hefner sees the human being as a symbiosis of genes and culture. Religion is the central dimension of culture. In view of the ecological crisis we have brought about we need a theology of the human as created co-creator. Hefner views original sin in terms of the discrepancy in the information coming from our genes and our culture, including a clash in us between altruism and genetic selfishness. He also suggests that original sin can be understood in terms of the fallibility and limitation that are essential to human evolution and freedom. Though these are good, they are always accompanied by failure. The religious traditions carry altruistic values, particularly trans-kin altruism, and the biblical commandments ground altruism ultimately in God.

Edwards believes that Hefner’s evolutionary insights genuinely illuminate the human condition and the Christian understanding of concupiscence. He argues, however, that discrepancy and fallibility are not in themselves sin. Instead, following Rahner, he distinguishes between the disorder of sin and the disorder that is intrinsic to being human. The former comes from our rejecting God. The latter results from our being both spiritually and bodily finite; it is a form of concupiscence that is morally neutral and not in itself sinful. Our existential state is constituted by both disorders. Edwards finds Hefner’s insight as bearing on our natural, but not our sinful, disorder: the structure of the human, though a fallible symbiosis of genes and culture, is not in itself sin. In addition, Edwards suggests that our genetic inheritance can carry messages essential for human life while culture and religion can carry messages of evil. This means that selfishness and sin cannot be identified strictly with our biological side, and unselfish behavior cannot be identified entirely with our cultural side.

With regard to grace, Edwards writes that, while altruism is a radical dimension of divine and human love, it does not express the ultimate vision of that love. Indeed, indiscriminate calls to altruism and self-sacrifice can function to maintain oppression, as feminist theologians have stressed. Moreover, in a trinitarian doctrine of God, love is revealed most radically in mutual, equal, and ecstatic friendship. So, though Hefner sees altruistic love as holding the status of a cosmological and ontological principle, Edwards sees persons-in-mutual-relations as having this status. Drawing on the writings of John Zizioulas, Walter Kasper, and Catherine Mowry LaCugna, Edwards suggests that if the essence of God is relational and if everything that is springs from persons-in-relation, then this points towards an ontology which he calls “being-in- relation.” Moreover, such an ontology is partially congruent with evolutionary biology, including its stress on cooperative, coadaptive, symbiotic, and ecological relations. Contrary to Theissen and McFague who tend to oppose natural selection and the Gospel, Edwards wants the “Christic paradigm” to view God as continuously creating through the processes of evolution.

Still the struggle and pain of evolution leads Edwards to face the challenge of theodicy. Following Thomas Tracy, he first suggests that natural selection needs to be considered in non- anthropomorphic and non-moral terms as an objective process in nature, like nucleosynthesis in stars. Theodicy is no more intense a problem for natural selection than it is to all such processes, including death when understood as essential to evolution and life. The trinitarian God who creates through natural selection needs to be understood not only as relational but also as freely accepting the limitations found in loving relationships with creatures. The Incarnation and the Cross point to a conception of God related to natural selection through unthinkable vulnerability and self-limitation. The God of natural selection is thus the liberating, healing, and inclusive God of Jesus. This God is engaged with and suffers with creation; at the same time, creatures participate in God’s being and trinitarian relationships.

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