Original Sin – October 2001

Question: Traditional theology ascribes sin to a fall from a previously perfect state. Scientific evolutionary theory suggests rather a struggle from an imperfect prehuman but perhaps innocent state towards a more ethically aware and responsible state. The end result is the same; imperfect and fallible beings doing their best in a complex world. As I understand it process theology sees God as experiencing and luring evolving humankind towards the higher state, but scientific materialism sees no purpose in evolution. The process view seems attractive to me as a scientist who experiences God in a way that is somehow beyond the limitations of rational thought. Can you explain how process theology deals with the idea and origin of sin, and the apparent absence of any purpose in evolution?

Publication Month: October 2001

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This is an excellent question especially in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All of us agree that the killing of masses of people who have done nothing to deserve death is a terrible evil. Many go on to call the perpetration of this evil a sin. Although “sin” is a theological, rather than a philosophical, term, it is an appropriate term for process thinkers generally to use — and certainly for process theologians. Nevertheless, it needs to be used carefully.

In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as “sin” is “harmartia,” which means “missing the mark.” Whitehead describes every occasion as having an initial aim, often missed in the final form of the subjective aim. This missing is more characteristic of complex occasions such as moments of human experience than elementary ones. Hence, the role of sin is primarily in human events, and even among those, more in those of adults than in those of children. We may judge that it has become greater as society has become more complicated and shaped experience in more complex ways. The question suggests this.

Why do we so often miss the mark?  In general terms, this is because every occasion of human experience is influenced not only by God’s lure but by many other factors. Among these, one’s personal past plays a large role. The divine lure is in the direction of taking more account of others. The pressure of the past tends to concentrate attention on one’s private future. The divine lure calls for that response, often in tension with established habits, which is best in the new situation. Established habits work against the needed change.

Emotion is another important factor. When we are bullied or attacked, we feel anger. We have had a national experience of such anger recently. This is a natural and healthy feeling that may help us to deal with our situation. But it often expresses itself in actions that our own principles and beliefs do not support. Certainly, it may blind us to the divine impulse within us.

There are other tensions. Our ideals are shaped by particular traditions. Our teachers and ministers, and especially our parents, instill these ideals in us. These ideals usually pull us beyond ourselves, but they frequently call us to devote ourselves to one tribe, one community, one religious tradition, one nation, even at the expense of others. The divine call would expand our horizons still further, but social expectations and pressures work against a full response. Thus our sincere beliefs, often our religious beliefs, resist the call of God. We are persuaded by the ideals into which we have been socialized that we ought to act in ways that in fact, at a deeper level, are in tension with God’s purposes for us.

Today, it is especially important to recognize that much evil is done in obedience to sincerely held convictions. In all likelihood, this is the case with those who flew planes into the World Trade Towers. They genuinely believed that this was a virtuous action. A process theologian will be convinced that, at a deep level, these persons also experienced a call to spare the lives of innocent people. But in their conscious experience, I suspect, this voice was drowned out by the assurance of their friends and associates that they were doing God’s will.

This phenomenon of doing evil with a clear conscience in accordance with the highest ideals of the group whose opinions one respects is not a new one. Christian history is full of it. The Crusades are a commonly cited example. Those who killed witches and tortured heretics, at least in some cases, believed they were doing right. Hundreds of millions of children over centuries were taught by conscientious adults to regard their sexual desires as dirty and sinful. Gays and lesbians still suffer at the hands of righteous Christians.

Religious traditions are by no means the only ones responsible for such horrors. Nationalism has caused millions of people to kill each other. A young man is expected to be prepared to give his life for his country in the process of trying to kill other young men who are giving their lives for their countries. All are celebrated for their heroism and virtue. No doubt many of these young men have felt some pull toward recognition of the humanity of those they were fighting, and thus some doubt about the virtue of killing them. But usually this has been drowned out by the demand for total devotion to one’s own nation. Almost certainly, more evil has been done by persons who think they are doing good than by those who set out intentionally to do evil.

Of course, this does not mean that conventional morality is always at odds with God’s purposes. Sometimes it embodies hard-won wisdom that helps children discern what is truly good. But the good is often the greatest enemy of the best. And intense commitment to the established good often blocks God’s call to broader horizons and adventurous novelty. With these comments in mind, I’ll go back to the question of the origins of sin. No doubt there has been some missing of the mark since life began, perhaps even before. But sin implies a kind of responsibility we do not impute to actions apart from the emergence of consciousness and even of self-consciousness. Primal peoples were no doubt aware of missing he mark, although the focus was more on the objective damaging of relations than on the subjective state of individual persons, which is the proper locus of sin.

The Bible associates the emergence of sin with the movement from a gathering society (the Garden of Eden) to the domestication of plants and animals. There is little doubt that this domestication required a domestication of human beings also, which introduced new tensions into personal life. It created types of property for which there was competition, and therefore violent struggle, and it turned many human beings into property as well. Much of the evil in human relations began with this fateful change. Even so, these ancient ancestors thought more of objective evil than of subjective sin.

It was in the first century BCE, during what Karl Jaspers has taught us to call the axial period, that individuals in a number of civilizations became fully aware of themselves in their subjectivity and inwardness. At this point there was heightened awareness of the unsatisfactory nature of this internal condition and of personal behavior that was undesirable. In most cultures the explanation of this wrong behavior was ignorance. In Israel, on the other hand, the focus of attention on God’s will led individuals to recognize that they often disobey when they could do otherwise. In this context, the idea of sin became important. Once it arose, it could be read back into the behavior of those who had acted without this particular form of consciousness. It could also be increasingly subjectivized, so that, by the time of Jesus, the emphasis could fall on feelings and attitudes and desires, even when they were not acted on.

To a large extent, from a process point of view, the “mark” is broadening the horizons of concern, in biblical terms, loving more neighbors more nearly as one loves oneself. Missing the mark, therefore, has to do with keeping the circle of concern narrow. It would be going too far to say that if people always widened the circle, conflict and evil would be avoided. The greatest widening that is possible in most concrete situations would fall far short of the universal concern of God. It would still leave open the conflict of one group with others. Greater intensity of concern for one’s own family and community is healthy and necessary as well as dangerous and destructive. The ideal of a world in which we loved all neighbors as ourselves remains a very distant lure!

The questioner suggests that the scientific view is that our task is to outgrow our primitive heritage. No doubt there is some truth to this. But it could be understood to mean that the process of civilization has made us less sinful. This is extremely doubtful. Our primitive heritage certainly limited horizons of concern, largely to the tribe and its immediate environment; and as time has gone on, the importance of extending concern more widely has greatly increased. Our heritage from our past may be one of the obstacles to doing so. But much that has developed in subsequent times has been designed to focus concern and loyalty on narrow goals. Even our religious communities are often guilty of this. And as noted above, civilization brought into being many of the destructive tensions that have heightened the problem of sin. It is better to focus on our society than on our genes as we seek to understand sin and reduce its power in the world.

Finally, although process theology has a definite and important place for sin as voluntary failure to fulfill the call of God, we need also to recognize that, like so many concepts, an emphasis on sin can do, and has done, great harm. Much of the explanation of many objectively evil acts is to be found in social and personal circumstances over which the actor had no control. Quickly labeling the actor as “sinner” has led to forms of treatment that do not express the understanding and love to which we are called. This labeling may be a greater sin that the original act.

When sin is identified with violation of God’s will, and that will is understood to be embodied in a set of rules, the legalism that results can be very destructive indeed. We are encouraged to silence God’s call instead of developing sensitivity to it. Of course, most violation of the rules is not out of sensitivity to God’s purposes, and much of it expresses sin as well as uncontrollable conditions. But no set of rules can be more than a very general indication of the typical nature of God’s call, and many such sets include social prejudices that have nothing to do with that call. This has been especially true in the area of sexuality, but the problem is by no means limited to that. The New Testament tries to free us from this close association of sin with obedience to law, but unfortunately Christians fall back into this legalism again and again.