VIII. Beginning

This paper has sought to explore and elucidate the human psychology underlying both the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace and the doctrine and theology of original sin. To the writer, it seems clear that an understanding of the mythical story of Eve and Adam's first sin based on the reality of human psychology is more valid than one based on a literal reading of Genesis. Such an understanding, however, can itself provoke psychological reactions that raise barriers to its consideration.

Can the Roman Catholic Church, which has invested the Genesis myth with its own reality through two millennia of non-scientific exegesis, not react intensely to an assault -- no matter how rational -- on such a long-held belief?

This new understanding obviously does not reproduce the teaching of the Council of Trent. As Schmaus observes:

If this conception were to prevail in the Church, it would mean not merely a reformulation of Trent's teaching but a profound change in its declaration of the faith. Such a transformation is not possible without giving rise to a contradiction in the self-understanding of the Church, and it cannot, therefore, be proposed either by the Church itself or by theology without the abandonment of dogma -- that is, without giving up what has been the mind of the Church up to now. A "rethinking" of this sort would represent such a decisive attack on the hitherto existing world of faith that the consequences would be incalculable. One could, of course, suggest that the necessary distinction made in theology between the manner in which the faith is formulated and the content of the faith furnishes legitimate reason for a change in the Church's thinking on original sin. [140]

More authoritatively, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 1973 declaration Mysterium ecclesiae, described all dogmatic definitions as historically conditioned due to the limited state of human knowledge and the different thought patterns in different historical periods. [141]

Let us not look only to Trent, however. Let us look also to Nicea, the council that defined the Church's fundamental confession of the faith. It is important to recognize that this present writing leaves intact the Nicene Creed.

The non-existence of original sin does not void the need for salvation. Is not personal sin, resulting from the effects of natural concupiscence, wounded emotions, and external influences, enough for us to be saved from? Salvation must still "come from God because it must come from a greater source of being and healing power." [142]

Even so, we are faced with a conflict that parallels the Galileo controversy. The conflict, at least in part, is commonly viewed as between religion and science; but, as Campbell notes, it actually has nothing to do with religion. It is simply a conflict between two sciences -- that of 4000 B.C. and that of 2000 A.D. [143] And just as in the Galileo case, the conflict results from interpreting Genesis as a scientific (and historic) document. In 1992, a papal commission found that Galileo had been unjustly condemned by ecclesiastical judges who were unable to comprehend a non-literal reading of Scripture. [144]

The state of scientific ignorance that led even Aquinas to support Augustine's doctrine of original sin is readily apparent today. In attempting to explain the loss of the location of Adam and Eve's garden, Aquinas wrote:

[A]lthough men have explored the entire habitable world, yet none have made mention of the place of paradise. ... The situation of paradise is shut off from the habitable world by mountains or seas, or some torrid region, which cannot be crossed; and so people who have written about topography make no mention of it. [145]

Three centuries later, Magellan circumnavigated the entire globe.

There can be no real conflict between science and religion because, as we noted earlier, God is the author of both physical reality and spiritual reality. Apparent conflicts exist only in our limited understanding. The Church's deficient understanding of the nature and authority of Scripture at the time of Galileo was at least equally deficient at the time of Augustine.

Schmaus observes that "when scientific progress faced theology with increasingly urgent new problems, it [theology] did not simply revert to now untenable positions but sought and won a deeper self-understanding. The crises which theology had to go through belong to those crises of growth which are an essential part of man's development even in his statement of the faith." [146]

Perhaps the occasion calls for more. Perhaps it calls for us to examine our faith itself -- not "the faith," the collection of doctrines we claim to know with certainty, but "faith," the theological virtue we are to fall back on when we can't comprehend the divine mystery.

A millennial experience of this depth may well be overdue.