In the time since the shooting of Gabby Giffords and 13 others on 8 January, I’ve been trying to keep up with the updates on her condition. The vitriol from both sides has been hard to ignore. It has also been disappointing. I have avoided comment, since there has probably been more than enough said too quickly, and with not enough thought by some. Amongst all the things that I have read, I have come across one helpful perspective and reminder from a Christian (this article from Jim Wallis in the Huffington Post, HT: John Fea with brief comment) and one from an atheist (this article from Michael Ruse in The Chronicle, HT: John Fea without comment from his weekly “Sunday Night Odds and Ends” post) I’ll give a brief taste of each here, and recommend you try a more detailed reading of each.
First, from Jim Wallis’ post calling for Christians, and all Americans to search their own soul:
A central calling for Christians is to be peacemakers. Peace, we understand, is not simply the absence of current conflict, but the presence of a just community. In the midst of tragedy and violence, I believe this means every Christian must ask themselves: “How am I responsible?” What more can we do to bring peace to this world as the Prince of Peace has called us to do? What are the situations and environments that allow this kind of hate and violence to grow? How can I not only stop conflict, but also be a part of bringing about a just community that displays the positive presence of peace?
As many have already said, we must honor this tragic event and Gabby’s national service by reflecting deeply on how we speak to and about one another, and how we create environments that help peace grow, or allow violence and hatred to enter. Many of us who would never consider violence of the fist have been guilty of violence in our hearts and with our tongues. We need to be able to relate to others with whom we disagree on important issues without calling them evil. The words we say fall upon the balanced and unbalanced, stable and unstable, the well-grounded and the unhinged, alike.
It can be easy to simply turn the station when violence breaks into our world. It can be even easier to do so when it happens in another community, not ours. But it would be an even greater tragedy now for the violence against Gabrielle Giffords and the others wounded and killed in Arizona to become another passing event — a blip on the social media screen of our lives — rather than something that changes us. Instead of viewing this shooting as something that happened to other people in another place far away, this could be a time to tie us closer to our neighbors across the country. … As we continue to pray for Gabby and the families of all those who were so brutally attacked, let the soul searching begin.
And now from Michael Ruse, on why he as an atheist sees the Christian concept of original sin makes so much sense in light of the shootings. (I’m giving a longer taste of this, since I found his argument nuanced, and very interesting, given his atheist perspective.)
As it happens, there is one thing that I have been thinking about recently that does seem relevant. That is the Christian notion of original sin. As I have said many times in my pieces, I am not a Christian or indeed a subscriber to any kind of religious belief. I am an agnostic or skeptic and to be candid pretty atheistic about the claims of major religions—virgin birth, resurrection, eternal life, and that sort of thing. I am not about to change now, even though the perceptive author of Job saw truly that great afflictions tend to turn people towards belief rather than away.
But I do think that the great religions grasp important truths about human nature and about existence generally, and original sin is one of them. The classic analysis is due to Saint Augustine (around 400 A.D.) who argued (and he knew from personal experience) that we all have a propensity to sin—to be unkind or unfeeling and more. How could this be if we are the creation of a good god? Augustine replied that it goes back to Adam and to his act of deliberate disobedience in the face of God’s explicit commands. Ever thereafter, we (the descendents of Adam) are in a sense tainted. We have a propensity to do wrong and by God we do do wrong. As Saint Paul presciently said: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7:19) …
So I don’t think it wrong or stupid to think of America—not just this last week, but again and again when crazy, evil people kill with such easily available firearms—in terms of original sin. There is something tainted and wrong about our society. And, without having any final confident answers about the apportioning of blame, I am simply not going to take an answer that simply puts all guilt on the actual perpetrators. The individuals are to blame for their evil acts. Many or most are deeply disturbed psychologically, but that does not absolve them. However, I refuse to believe that a society that makes guns so readily available and that uses such heated rhetoric in debate has nothing to answer for. We humans are not isolated individuals. We are all part of a society. A superorganism if you like. And as such we are all in it together and we are all guilty.
Of course, the tough-minded will point out that the whole story of Adam and Eve is pure fiction, and I agree. In important ways we have to take the notion of original sin metaphorically. But that is no big deal. Most of science is metaphor—force, work, charm, attraction, repulsion, genetic code, natural selection, arms race, selfish gene, Oedipus complex.
I myself have long thought that original sin fits beautifully into an evolutionary analysis. We humans have evolved with an interesting and complex mélange of selfishness and propensity to cooperation, or what biologists call altruism. We had to be selfish to survive the struggle for existence, but at the same time (like wolves) we have taken the route of working together and so we have biological inclinations this way too. Humans are good (as the Christian says) but we are tainted also (as the Christian also says).
As it happens, there is an alternative strand of thought in Christian theology that endorses something along these lines in contrast to Augustine. Although not put in an evolutionary context, this is very much the thinking of Irenaeus of Lyons (around 200 A.D.). He was worried that putting everything down to Adam’s sin made the Christian story of the Incarnation and Resurrection very much a story of a response to an unfortunate (but not determined) act of disobedience. The Christian story therefore seems to be the emergency pickup response: “Plan B.” Irenaeus saw original sin as part of the original human condition—something one expects from immature beings like humans. God made us in some kind of developmental way, knowing from the first that He would have to intervene to save us. Although Irenaeus no doubt thought in terms of a literal Adam and Eve, he made it possible for the modern Christian not to think so.
My aim here is not to delve into Christian theology. Rather it is to say that I, a non-believer, find original sin an incredibly insightful idea when thinking about the events of the last week. Also, to stress that it is only one part of the story. We humans have a propensity to good as well. And this was surely shown, both in itself and in its message, by our President in his healing speech that he gave in Arizona. That is why, as a very new American, I now share the shame. But also why I don’t want to opt out either.
Thoughts? Reaction? I was particularly interested that an atheist finds our idea of original sin so compelling.