The Demise of Original Sin – Hope or Heresy?

John Ashman

A theological time bomb has been ticking away since August 2011, the month in which Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration was published by Georgetown University Press.  The author, Jack Mahoney, is a Jesuit priest, emeritus professor of moral and social theology in the University of London and a former principal of Heythrop College, University of London. He is the author of several books, including The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition.

Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which he proposed his ideas of evolution, conflict has existed between his disciples and the claim of the Abrahamic religions in particular that God created the universe, including humans and other living things. Professor Mahoney credits one of the reviewers of his latest book with coming up with the best phrase to sum it up: it ‘represents a new stage in the encounter of theology with evolutionary thinking’.  In the recent past Christian apologists have sought to engage “militant evolutionists” by defending “the existence of God, the providence of God, and the unique status of God’s human creatures in an evolutionary context [i]”. Mahoney says that, ‘by contrast, the purpose of my book is to move well beyond this defensive approach to Christianity, and to explore positively the impact which accepting evolution has on Christian beliefs and doctrines as a whole [ii].”

The ground covered by this book is challenging, exhilarating and, potentially, revolutionary. Why revolutionary? The author provided the answer in his lecture at Gresham College: “I have little doubt that at least some of what I have argued for could alarm or distress a number of Christian believers and elicit strong objections.” And the reason for such reactions is that he believes that Christianity can dispense with: 1) the concept of original sin and fallen nature, and 2) the belief that Jesus’ death on Calvary was a propitiatory sacrifice offered to God to redeem a fallen humanity. Mahoney is at pains to emphasise that he is not doing away with sin or even going soft on it. Sin is not disobedience to God’s commands but, quoting Gabriel Daley OSA [iii], he says that in essence it is “a refusal to love”.

Of noteworthy interest to members of Quest is the implication this approach has for the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. If human nature is understood in an evolutionary perspective might it not be the case that different conclusions can be reached from those traditionally associated with natural law morality? This intriguing prospect was touched upon in the Gresham College lecture:

We can conjecture that [human sexuality] began in our animal forebears as the instinctive drive to reproduction which became adapted in their case to the need to provide an extended caring environment for offspring which required considerable time to develop. With the progress to hominization, or to becoming fully human, this sustained mutual support of parents for each other, which initially helped them bring up their children together, came to be appreciated as human values in their own right, expanding beyond the physical process of reproduction and upbringing to become a medium of inter-personal communication and sharing within a wide variety of personal and social contexts. Human sexuality was no longer simply animal sexuality. It has evolved into human sexual companionship, which could contribute to the personal and social enhancement of the individual persons involved. Thus, with evolution, this relationship between fully fledged persons is now capable of being exercised in numerous ways in society. This occurs most evidently in still sharing the capacity for the loving reproduction and upbringing of children, but now it is also capable of finding expression in a range of personal and social contexts through other forms of relationship between the sexes which express and are influenced by their mutual interest and attraction. [iv]

Implicit in the italicised text above is the promise of a better understanding of the emotional, psychological and social needs of LGBT Christians that could ensue from Mahoney’s premise. I had hoped that he would elaborate upon this in an article for the Bulletin, but in response to my request he politely declined on the grounds that he envisaged his time in the near future would be taken up with defending his views rather than finding an opportunity to explore them further and apply them.

I am left in no doubt that lesbians and gay men would stand to gain from further elucidation of the impact of evolution on Christian beliefs. Reviewers, and the author himself, have not been slow to explain that our understanding of not only Original Sin, but also the Fall, The Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Immaculate Conception, baptism as a washing from sin, and an all-male “sacrificing priesthood” would all require fresh consideration. Theologians will contest the conclusions of this book, but what is not in doubt is the fundamental conviction that Jesus has given humankind the ultimate interpretation of life’s significance, both here and in eternity.

i. Professor Jack Mahoney, Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration, Gresham College Lecture, 1st December 2011.
ii. Ibid.
iii. Creation and Redemption, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan 1988. Gabriel Daly is a leading Irish theologian.
iv. Gresham College lecture.

This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 63 (Spring 2012)