It’s been a while since I wrote here in my blog. The past few months I have been frantically working on my thesis, and I haven’t had time to think. Now I have a little break for Christmas and New Years before the final push to finish. I defend January 20th; the end is in sight! But now I have a chance to write about something other than optical forces in complex beams of light.
I love science and I love my Catholic faith, but the interplay between the two is challenging to say the least. The stories in my faith are full of supernatural miracles that seem impossible from a scientific point of view. On the other hand science apparently fails to describe how I consciously experience life and love, and why I (sometimes) feel a connection to God when I pray. My questions surrounding these topics were reignited when I went to mass on December 8th for the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
This church feast day centers on Mary, who embodies many of the issues between science and the Catholic faith. We Catholics believe that Mary, a human, was the mother of Jesus and thus the mother of God. This is a totally mind-blowing(or crazy!) idea when you think about it, and it raises tons of hard questions and problems. For instance, how could the infinitely powerful God “fit” in the finite body of a little human baby?
Today, I’ll just focus on the aspect of Mary celebrated in the feast of the Immaculate Conception that she was conceived without Original Sin. In another words, Mary was miraculously preserved from the imperfections that cause the rest of us to have a tendency to do bad things. I remember as a kid thinking this was really unfair, but now my main issue is with Original Sin. What is this Original Sin?
Original sin motivates the Christian story, and it is defeated through the life of Jesus. We believe that the world is broken and incomplete, which is actually pretty easy to believe when I watch or read the news. In Christianity this brokenness is explained by Original Sin, which is essentially the source of the dark side of our human nature. We believe that God became human to allow us to transcend this imperfect state. Jesus’ life of love and self-sacrifice opposed the dark side of human-nature. Naturally, this lifestyle didn’t go so well for him, and Jesus was killed. However, the good news of the Christian faith is that Jesus rose from the dead(another crazy idea!), defeating evil and Original Sin, and showing us the way to a new and better life!
But wait a second! Why would a loving God create a broken world in the first place? The answer I learned as a child is that God created a perfect creation and the first humans, Adam and Eve, brought in the darkness, death, and evil by sinning. We all know the story: God told Adam and Eve not to eat the apple so they ate it, and now everything has gone to hell. I never really liked this story because it makes God seem like a strict ruler instead of a loving God. Even worse, it totally goes against evolution. There was death well before there were humans (for example the T. Rex ate other dinosaurs). Furthermore there wasn’t an abrupt start to humans, instead we evolved from a common ancestor of apes and humans.
Although it’s often thought otherwise, the Catholic Church actually endorses evolution, but I think there is still work to be done in reconciling our faith with our scientific knowledge. The Church teaches that the creation story in the bible should be viewed as a mythic story which imparts a truth about the world without necessarily having historical accuracy. But I have wondered for years how the story of the introduction of Original Sin, “the Fall”, could remain if there was no historical Adam and Eve? The question persisted so this break I searched online, and I found an article that provides an alternative viewpoint that I found very satisfying.
Dr. Daryl P. Domning and Dr. Joseph F. Wimmer take on this issue in their article “Evolution and Original Sin: Accounting for Evil in the World ” from the Washington Theological Consortium. Domning also wrote a related article in the America magazine, “Evolution, Evil and Original Sin” (but I haven’t read that one yet). Their main point is that we should wholeheartedly embrace evolution, which they argue explains the origin of Original Sin in a richer way than the literal interpretation of the Adam and Eve story. I found the article very refreshing because the authors are not afraid to consider things that seem to go against the faith.
Their article describes how the process of evolution itself leads toward a sort of selfishness that in humans we identify as Original Sin. Roughly, evolution works through chance and natural selection. Organisms reproduce with random changes or mutations, and then natural selection only allows some of those offspring to go on to reproduce. This process inherently favors those organisms that act in a way that ensures their own survival. If for some reason an organism acts opposed to its survival then it will probably not get a chance to pass that trait on. Domning and Wimmer argue that this mechanism is the basis for sinful behaviour in humans.
However, Domning and Wimmer go on to describe how God gives all of creation great freedom through evolution, and that this outweighs the selfishness that naturally arises from the evolutionary process. Each organism, by living out its life, freely contributes toward creation. These contributions lead to the astonishing diversity of life on earth through the beautifully simple process of evolution. From this viewpoint, selfishness and Original Sin are side-effects of the freedom that God gave us.
I find this viewpoint satisfying and empowering. First of all it makes me happy that it fits with evolution which I know to be true. But more importantly it helps me to come to terms with evil in the world. God only allows evil because he loves us enough to set us free! Now the Christian faith has even more meaning for me, because it reminds me that God did not abandon us in our freedom but sent his son to save us. Jesus gives us hope that we will be able to break free from our natural selfishness. I feel empowered because I feel that I have a role to play in creation. I can freely choose to follow Jesus and contribute to a new creation where love overcomes evil.
I still have questions and things that I don’t understand about the faith, and about science. That’s OK. Asking questions and seeking to understand makes the faith our own and gives it meaning. I believe that God loves me and is happy when I seek to know Him better. I hope that this story of my grappling with belief encourages you to grapple with the questions about faith that don’t make sense to you. For my friends who aren’t religious, I hope that my story encourages you also in your search for meaning.
Please comment! You’re perspectives help me to grow.