Almost any culture, ethnic group or civilisation, since time immemorial, has a creation myth—to explain the existence of life and help people to cope with the hardships and the mysteries of living. Generally, myths are more or less elaborated stories of the birth of the Cosmos and of humanity itself. For Jews and Christians, the myth of Adam and Eve, already present in older religious traditions, is the opening key of the Bible. Myths have evolved into the most intricate theological speculations which present an obvious danger: when they tend to ossify and are seen as real facts, instead of pointing upward to an ultimate reality, they actually debase it. Literalism is, and always was, a source of religious misunderstandings, sectarian splits, even wars. Together with its twin brother, fundamentalism, it obscures the transcendence of the story—what was just a myth is able to spread fear and irrationality, even in a faith that has as one of its core messages: “Fear not!”
“Our innate tendency is to egotistically save ourselves, because we are born self-centred. Our work for salvation implies that, with God’s grace, we override our basic instinct of self-preservation and give ourselves up for the good of all, like Jesus.”
JOSEPH REBELO, EDITOR
The doctrine of original sin is an essential truth of the Christian faith. The traditional understanding of the account made in Genesis 3 of the original sin and consequent punishment by God, expelling human beings from Eden, has contributed to shape our world-view and negative understanding of human fragility, sinfulness, painful work, sexuality, suffering and death— and hasn’t helped us to accept them as part and parcel of our human condition. A theological explanation of Jesus’ death as expiation for humankind’s sinfulness may suggest, among other things, that God had to correct His original plan for humanity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 385–421), summarizing the Catholic theology on the issue, presents original sin as a “disobedient choice of our first parents”, “a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man”, an act through which man “scorned God”, lost “the grace of original holiness” and “the world is virtually inundated by sin”. It is a ‘safe position’ considering that even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he was still the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had to admit that “[t]he inability to understand ‘original sin’ and to make it understandable is really one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology and pastoral ministry”.
The development of critical interpretation of the Bible and, especially, the progress of science, made a revision of our classical notion of original sin long overdue. The myth of Adam and Eve has been read literally for too long, forgetting that is an etiological story aimed at making sense of some puzzling realities. The doctrine of original sin as a “fall” through which death enters in human history (Wis 1: 3; 2: 24), which through Rabbinic The ology influences St Paul (Rom 5: 12), is not unique in the Bible. There’s another tradition, common to other oriental cultures, that mortality was present since the beginning: it can be traced in God’s decision not to allow man, “to take fruit from the tree of life” (Gen 3: 22), after realising he had acquired knowledge.
Taking science into account, Daryl P. Domning, a professor of anatomy at the College of Medicine, Howard University, Washington DC, in this issue’s Special Report, proposes a reformulation of the doctrine of original sin in evolutionary terms—not as a “fall in our prehistory”, but a “tendency to act selfishly” from the dawn of life. Original sin would stand for human self-centredness. It is the original selfishness (survival of the fittest) inscribed in our DNA which we share with all other beings and which acquires a sinful character with the development of intelligence in morally responsible beings. Our inherited tendency to act selfishly is reinforced by societal sins. We could add that the amount of those sins can even become a “structure of sin”.
Since the beginning, therefore, God “knew that we would eventually need an incarnate example of perfect, divine altruism to show us how to transcend our original selfishness and even the limited, self-interested sort of altruism that evolution can create”, says Daryl P. Domning. Human fullness and salvation happen as we follow the path of Jesus. A central paradox in His teaching that challenges our human pathos is: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16: 25; cf. Lk 9:24). Our innate tendency is to egotistically save ourselves, because we are born self-centred. Our work for salvation implies that, with God’s grace, we override our basic instinct of self-preservation and give ourselves up for the good of all, like Jesus.