Pell V Dawkins on #QandA - An Insider's Response (Part 2)

During a meeting this morning my wife and I exchanged a brief conversation between ourselves. It went a little something like this…
Adam: “I really need to go to the toilet.”Megan: “You should have gone beforehand”Adam: (With a smug smile because I knew that’s exactly what my wife would say) “You’re so predictable.”Megan: (With lightening quick wit) “So are you.”
I’ll return to this momentarily.

Richard Dawkins writes the following in The God Delusion
The sin of Adam and Eve is thought to have passed down the male line – transmitted in the semen according to Augustine. What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor? Augustine, by the way, who rightly regarded himself as something of a personal authority on sin, was responsible for coining the phrase ‘original sin’. Before him it was known as ‘ancestral sin’. Augustine’s pronouncements and debates epitomize, for me, the unhealthy preoccupation of early Christian theologians with sin. They could have devoted their pages and their sermons to extolling the sky splashed with stars, or mountains and green forests, seas and dawn choruses. These are occasionally mentioned, but the Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin.[1]

(I suspect it was deliberate that Dawkins included seven “sins” to conclude this little diatribe.)

Ignoring Dawkins summary of the doctrine of original sin momentarily I want to focus upon his accusation that early Christian writers were preoccupied with sin. Having read this passage before attending the debate with Cardinal George Pell on Q and A, I was waiting to hear if “original sin” would make an appearance in the discussion. Of course, it did. But guess who mentioned it first?


In his very first answer of the night.

Four times!

The first occurrence appears at just over three minutes into the program.

I thought I would check out other debates available online to see if this pattern reappears. The ‘dialogue’ that took place with Archbishop Rowan Williams at Oxford University is well worth viewing in its entirety, and here again "original sin" comes into the discussion. Dawkins raises it but this time he's a little more restrained, saving it until about the 52 minute mark to bring it in. In another debate with Bishop Harries he refers to it, under its related title “The Fall”, at a little over 11 minutes into an hour long discussion.

Now to return to the conversation with my wife; this is one we’ve had many times in our 12 years of marriage and so I was definitely fishing for my wife’s response in the first instance. I got the response I was expecting, but her witty retort to my irony-laced suggestion that she was predictable surprised me and put me firmly back in my place (as my wife is want to do from time to time). It was not her that was predictable it was me.

I suspect something very similar is going on for Dawkins. It’s not Christian writers that are preoccupied with sin, it is him. His debating partners are forced to respond in some way once he’s brought it in to the discussion, but on all three occasions mentioned it is Dawkins who introduces it.

I suspect the reason he keeps bringing it into the discussion is that he’s treating this doctrine as his secret weapon. In all three (Pell, Williams, Harries) his opponents all agreed that humans evolved biologically (here’s where Pell should have learnt from Williams and simply replied “yes” and left it at that, instead of saying “probably” with a high-schoolers attempt to explain how). Dawkins moves on to Adam and Eve. What are we to do with them? Well the story is a part of a creation myth. OK, so what are we to do with original sin? If there’s no “real” Adam and Eve then there’s no way that “original sin” can be transmitted from father to child, father to child, and so on and so on. If there’s no original sin, then there’s no need for a saviour from sin, and so there’s no need for the Christian religion. 

Dawkins rests his case.

Dawkins brings the doctrine of original sin into these debates, not because he’s interested in resolving this dilemma that theologians who believe in biological evolution now face, but for purely polemical reasons (i.e. he just wants to win his argument and he thinks this will do it).

Returning to Dawkins understanding of original sin it must be said at the outset that Augustine did suggest that original sin was transmitted through the semen of the father onto the child. Strictly speaking it was because of the lust of the father, rather than some sort of 5th Century understanding of genetics, by which it was transmitted. In essence there is no procreation without sexual intercourse, but sexual intercourse always occurs for lustful reasons. In fact, it would be easier, I suspect, if Dawkins was right and original sin was passed genetically through semen, because then we wouldn’t have the legacy that Western Christianity is still trying to shake off that “sex always equals lust”. In the words of my Masters supervisor
[Augustine’s] theory of the transmission of original sin through lust is without foundation in the biblical literature, and must be dismissed as bizarre. Augustine’s twisted evaluation of human sexuality is a distortion for which we are now paying a high price in the Church’s inability to cope with the wild reaction against Augustinian sexual repression which surged through twentieth-century literature and culture.[2]
So, we can say to Dawkins; “We agree. This is not the way original sin is transmitted. It is bizarre. It should be refuted. We need to find a better way to describe it.” But saying that does not cause all of Christian theology to fall to pieces. This is not the “smoking gun” that Dawkins. I suspect, hopes it to be.

What it does do, however, is highlight the fact that many Christians are too reliant upon the first few chapters of Genesis for their understanding of what it means to be human in relation to God (theological anthropology) and too reliant on Genesis 3 for their understanding of sin. This is what I think Dawkins plays to. Interpreting the stories of Adam and Eve as symbolic parts of a creation myth does not destroy our understanding of humanity and sin, rather it requires that we look beyond Genesis 1-3 for a more comprehensive understanding of the human condition. There is a very simple and logical solution to that very problem.

It is to look to Jesus Christ.

He defines what it means to be human in relation to God in his very life. He, and not Adam, shows what true humanity is and can become. He is the image of the invisible God. From understanding his perfection we can then in the light of his obedience move to understand, in a much better way than the creation narratives could ever reveal, our own disobedience.
Only when we know Jesus Christ do we really know that man is the man of sin, and what sin is, and what it means for man.[3]
We don’t move from “sin” to “redemption” theologically, we go the other way. This is counterintuitive because it is counter-chronological. But it does provide us with a much surer footing from which to build upon.
We must not attempt to articulate a doctrine of the Fall as a foundation for the gospel, arguing from Adam to Christ: rather we must see the doctrine of the Fall as a necessary implication of the gospel of salvation, arguing from Christ to Adam. A Christian doctrine of the Fall cannot therefore be simple extrapolated from Genesis, but must be articulated... as Genesis is understood in the light of the gospel, that is, in the light of the New Testament.[4]

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion  (London: Bantam Press, 2006). 251-52.
[2] T. A. Noble, "Original Sin and the Fall: definitions and a proposal," in Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges, ed. R. J. Berry, and T.A. Noble, (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009), 109.
[3] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010). IV.1 389.
[4] Noble, "Original Sin and the Fall."


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