Death and Darwinism: A Patristic Approach
It’s all but impossible to overstate the theological importance of the doctrine of the Fall. Most basically, the Fall is what allows Christian theology to meaningfully draw a distinction between the world’s present state and its proper state, i.e., between how the world is and how it ought to be. Without recourse to the Fall, there are essentially just two interpretations of our world to choose from: nihilism on the one hand (there are no ‘oughts’ in reality; all ‘ought’-claims are therefore mere expressions of power or preference), and dualism on the other (there are two opposite but equally legitimate ‘oughts’ in reality, either of which one may reasonably and ‘ethically’ choose to prefer).
Thanks largely to the ubiquitous influence of Nietzsche on postmodern thought, the former route has been that taken by the majority of prominent 20th century philosophers. As John Milbank and others have argued, this ‘nihilistic’ Nietzschean rejection of metaphysical ought-claims is what unites thinkers as otherwise diverse as Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida. And, as Milbank and others have somewhat more controversially argued, this rejection of metaphysics is itself rooted in a prejudice which underlies the thought of both Nietzsche and his postmodern heirs: namely, that reality is fundamentally violent and internally conflicted.
It is certainly true, at any rate, that this prejudice gave rise to Nietzsche’s own disdain for metaphysics, which followed directly from his conviction that “the world is the will to power—and nothing else besides!” For Nietzsche, the world is in actuality nothing but a cacophonous play of flux and warfare, and so to think ‘metaphysically’ about the world is really just to conceal whichever its features one finds inexplicable or unpleasant (while dubbing sacred whichever of its features happen to serve one’s interests). The only honest and “yes-saying” way to approach the world, argues Nietzsche, is with a self-deprecating refusal to tame its hideous disorder: that is, to refuse to really distinguish good from evil, sacred from profane, prelapsarian from postlapsarian.
And so Nietzsche’s hatred of Christianity makes perfect sense. By asserting that our world exists in a deeply corrupted state, Christian theology refuses to attribute ultimate reality to death, ugliness, and evil (which ‘exist’ only as negative parasites upon the original life, beauty, and goodness of creation). It stubbornly insists that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the self-sacrificial love of Christ is more fundamentally true to reality than, say, the egotism of Donald Trump; that the beauty of marital consummation is more fundamentally real than hideousness of rape; and so forth. But if Nietzsche is correct in deeming violence more real than peace, love, and beauty (or even if he is correct in deeming violence real at all), he is certainly also correct in finding Christianity pathetic and dishonest.
Which brings me back to the subject of the Fall. The Fall is the means by which Christian theology accounts for the disparity between the purported character of God and the tragic state of our world. As David Bentley Hart quite correctly notes, Christianity requires one to stubbornly
see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. … Christian thought from the outset, denies that (in themselves) suffering, death, and evil have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It claims that they are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may—under the conditions of a fallen order—make them the occasions for accomplishing his good ends.
But if reality is not fallen, there is no legitimate way for one to distinguish between the “two realities” Hart describes: the true and false, the good and evil, the original and the damaged. And any theology which forfeits (or even fails to properly emphasize) its claim that reality has been really fractured in some way—not by the design of a capricious and manipulative God, but by the abuse of free human agency—is a theology devastated by Nietzsche’s critique. That is, if the current, death-ridden state of our world is in any sense the true or original or divinely intended state of our world, then Christianity is every bit as cowardly and ridiculous as Nietzsche accused it of being.
But there is an at least apparent problem here. Following Darwin, it increasingly appears that the world’s strife, death, and corruption in fact have been present and endemic from the world’s beginning, entering the world prior to not only the sin but even the emergence of homo sapiens. And thus, by all appearances, Christianity’s account of an original ‘Fall’ into sin and death is essentially gibberish.
There are a number of possible solutions to this problem offered (indirectly) by the Greek fathers, who set about interpreting the Fall and its consequences in various creative and daring ways. It’s obviously beyond the scope of my knowledge and space to present their views at length, but I hope, in the remainder of this essay, to gesture toward several possible approaches to Darwinism that lie within the bounds of patristic orthodoxy. I’ll do so by briefly presenting four surprisingly relevant insights we find in the fathers regarding creation and its Fall.
First, according to many of the church’s fathers, the precise nature of the Fall’s occurrence is not something about which we can speak with much theological or dogmatic certainty. We know that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin,” but very few fathers purport to know exactly how this occurred (Rom. 5:12). To offer just a few examples: Gregory of Nyssa explicitly prefaces his speculations about the Fall’s consequences with an acknowledgement that they are only “conjectures and similitudes”; this being the case, he urges his readers to not receive them “authoritatively.” Similarly, Maximus the Confessor offers “two possible explanations of how [the Fall] came about,” leaving these two, mutually incompatible explanations open to orthodox belief. In the West, Augustine pondered a number of theories regarding the Fall’s occurrence over the course of his vast theological career, but never settled conclusively on any one of them. And so forth. This open lack of certitude among the fathers regarding the precise ‘how’ of the Fall must be kept in mind as we think through the Fall’s relation to Darwinism and death.
Second, several of the fathers explicitly suggest that due to the Fall’s cosmic and epistemic consequences, we cannot in any adequate way know or comprehend what came ‘before’ its occurrence. As Augustine puts it, the redeemed mind “recalls its Lord” and knows that it formerly fell from grace, but “has totally forgotten” and “cannot even be reminded” of the Edenic happiness it knew before somehow falling in Adam. Gregory of Nyssa heavily implies a similar disjunction between pre- and postlapsarian reality throughout books 16-18 of On the Making of Man (and really, throughout the entirety of his corpus). And the poetic theology of Ephrem the Syrian, perhaps most forcefully of all, not only involves but logically requires a radical epistemic distance between our world and Paradise. This is because for Ephrem, as Sebastian Brock notes, “Paradise was not to be situated in time or space; rather, it belonged to a different order of reality.” Thus, in Ephrem’s words, “The tongue cannot relate the description of innermost Paradise, nor indeed does it suffice for the beauties of the outer part; for even the simple adornments by the Garden’s fence cannot be related in an adequate way.” And while Ephrem grants that we can speak in figurative and analogous language of our Edenic home, he frequently points out that we can only do even this much because Paradise graciously “[clothes] itself in terms that our akin to [us].” Sergius Bulgakov is therefore adopting one quite viable patristic (not modernist) approach when he writes that
neither the past of the world when man was without sin nor the new heaven and new earth of the future age can be known from the life of the present age, for they are separated from the present age by a certain transcensus. From this point of view it becomes understandable and natural that, on our earth, no traces of Eden or of the edenic original state of man can be found. They are in fact not found in our world, although this does not mean that there were no such traces in the past or even that they do not exist even now —in the depths of the world’s being if not in its empirical reality. Adam’s fall was a catastrophe that changed the fate of the world. It was an impenetrable wall that separated his original state from his later state, so that in the later state one can no longer find traces of the original state (except in obscure anamnesis, slumbering in the human soul).
And Hart elaborates upon this same patristic sentiment: “The fall of rational creation and the subjection of the cosmos to death is something that appears to us nowhere within the unbroken time of nature or history … it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.” The Christian is by no means obliged to take as strong a stance here as do Hart or Bulgakov, but the stance they represent is evidently patristic in its pedigree and hence available as an orthodox option.
Third, and somewhat more crucially, according to certain patristic accounts of the Fall, God’s foreknowledge of sin allowed certain consequences of Adam’s sin to sequentially precede the sin itself. As Conor Cunningham puts it, “Creation was intended to be perfect, and this eternal intention is its true nature; but God’s foreknowledge of man’s sin eschatologically ordered creation toward Christ and thus to perfection.”
Perhaps the most profound elucidation of this view is offered by Gregory of Nyssa in books 16-18 of his On the Making of Man. Having raised the question of how God, who is utterly impassible and neither male nor female, is aptly imaged by passible and gendered humans, Gregory suggests that the “creation of our [human] nature is in a sense two-fold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction [of sex]” (16.8). In other words, as Cunningham summarizes, “because God knew of man’s future sin, and that it would lead to death, he bestowed on man the ability to procreate, thus saving him from extinction.” Gregory spells this out clearly:
perceiving beforehand by His power of foreknowledge what, in a state of independence and freedom, is the tendency of the motion of man’s will He devised for His image the distinction of male and female, which has no reference to the Divine Archetype. (16.14)
The division of humanity into sexes is thus not part of what Gregory calls God’s eternally intended “first creation” (which will exist only in God’s creative intention until its eschatological actualization), but of God’s “second” creation (which God brought into actual existence in light of His foreknowledge of human history and sin). Gregory goes even further: God implanted not only the division of sexes into humans in light of His foreknowledge of sin, but also the “animal and irrational mode [of procreation] by which [humans] now succeed one another” (17.4). And the various passions which incline us to sin, Gregory asserts, “issue as from a spring” from the “animal mode of generation” implanted in us from the beginning (18.1-2).
To a large degree, Maximus follows Gregory in these speculations. While he is happy, like Gregory, to speak at times of Adam falling from a paradisal state and into corruption, he makes clear in his Ambiguum 8 that he does not understand such a fall to have necessarily happened in a literally sequential fashion. In addressing the question of how man fell into a state of passibility and corruption, he raises “two possible explanations of how this came about,” the latter of which is quite similar to that of Gregory:
One possibility is that God, at the very moment humanity fell, blended our soul together with our body on account of the transgression, and endowed it with the capacity to undergo change, just as he gave the body the capacity to suffer, undergo corruption, and be wholly dissolved. The other possibility is that from the beginning God, in his foreknowledge, formed the soul in the aforesaid way because he foresaw the coming transgression, so that by suffering and experiencing evil on its own, the soul would come to an awareness of itself and its proper dignity, and even gladly embrace detachment with respect to the body.
What we find in both Maximus and Gregory, then, is a willingness to sequentially place various effects of the Fall prior to their cause. One is free to find this line of speculation uncompelling, but it cannot be called foreign to patristic tradition. And while, admittedly, Gregory and Maximus never extend their speculations quite far enough to accommodate today’s Darwinian data, it seems obvious that they open the door for post-Darwinian Christians to do so responsibly. Once literalism regarding the sequence of the Fall and its consequences is understood as non-crucial, there is ample room for theology to understand itself in light of evidence of prelapsarian death.
The fourth and final point to keep in mind is perhaps the most important of all, inasmuch as it demonstrates that even if one is committed to a literally sequential Fall into sin and death, there is nevertheless still room for Darwinism in patristic theology. For a sizable majority of the fathers, it was not from an actual state of immortality that Adam fell, but a merely potential one. According to one venerable Greek patristic tradition, man was created “between mortality and immortality,” as the bridge between animal and angelic creation. This notion runs at least as far back as Irenaeus, who thought Adam and Eve to have been created as naturally mortal spiritual children en route to immortality. In ‘falling,’ Adam turned away from this upward trajectory and toward his “naturally” mortal trajectory of sin and death. As Athanasius writes in On the Incarnation, “[God] gave [human beings] a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise … besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven.” Similarly, John of Damascus avers that God gave Adam the commandment in Eden “with the promise that should he let reason prevail, recognizing his creator and observing his Creator’s ordinance … then he would become stronger than death and would live forever.” Conversely, if Adam failed to observe the commandment, “then he would be subject to death and corruption.” Damascene finishes by explaining that “it was not profitable for [man] to attain incorruptibility while yet untried and untested” as did the angels (since this would result in his being eternally trapped in sin after the Fall).
The significance of this commonplace patristic teaching—that “[God] did not make [man] mortal, nor did He fashion him as immortal”—lies in the fact that it leaves wide open the possibility, perhaps even probability, that the animal creation below humanity was not graced with immortality upon the world’s creation. After all, for most of the Greek fathers, animalistic passions were inextricably tied to mortality and sexual procreation. If animals procreated sexually prior to Adam’s fall, there is every logical reason to think that they died or at least were mortal before it as well (though Augustine’s conjecture that prelapsarian animals died in a less predatory way than they now do remains plausible). And if animals were mortal before the Fall, there is no inherent problem with the suggestion that homo sapiens arrived at the end of a naturally mortal hominid chain with the potential for immortality—a potential that homo sapiens lost when it tended toward matter rather than God.
The foregoing ought to indicate that Darwinism poses no necessary threat to patristic theology, even if one is committed to a sequential reading of the Fall and its consequences. The fathers’ thought is more than capacious enough to accommodate whatever biology, geology, and prehistory tell us about our lineage. And while this essay has necessarily only presented the thought of the fathers on the Fall in a cursory way, it has hopefully succeeded in opening up vistas for meaningful conversation between contemporary Darwinism and patristic theology. Such conversation serves not only to help us better understand the natural world we inhabit, but also the theological vision passed down to us by the fathers—a vision which we are called to both preserve and keep vibrantly alive from age to age.
1 And really, even this form of dualism appears to be little more than a sheltered and subtle variation of nihilism. To postulate, as the Manicheans did, that two coeternal, coexistent, and equally ‘real’ forces exist alongside one another — one ‘good,’ the other ‘evil’ — is really just to deny that either force truly transcends the immanent frame of finite reality. These warring forces may function as two big and powerful beings among littler and less powerful beings, but neither is ‘real’ in a unique or self-subsistent way. As such, these forces can conceivably exist only within an ontological frame larger and therefore ‘more real’ than themselves, a frame which exists beyond and hence transcends them both. And this commits dualism to belief in a nihilistic, fundamental plane of reality beyond both good and evil.
2 See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), as well as David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003).
3 David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 60-61.
4 I happily acknowledge that this claim (if correct) rules out the possibility of any extreme brand of Calvinism being true. For if, as Calvin claimed in Book III of his Institutes, God coercively foreordained the Fall for his own “pleasure” and eventual “glory” — and thereby also ordained all the deaths, rapes, disasters, and infant-damnations which are its consequences — then the Christian saga of creation, fall, and redemption is really just one, hideously enormous fiction (i.e., fantasy), and the divine and human actions which occur within it are really just instances of one, hideously enormous act of divine self-gratification.
5 Gregory, On the Making of Man, 16.15
6 Maximus, Ambiguum 8. This short work can be found in its entirety on pgs. 75-78 of On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings of St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 2003).
7 Augustine, On the Trinity, XIV, 21, trans. Edmund Hill.
8 St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, trans. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 51. Emphasis added.
9 Ibid., 99-100. Emphases added.
10 Ibid., 156.
11 Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 171-172.
12 Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 102.
13 Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and the Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 399.
14 Unless otherwise noted, parenthetical citations below are to this text.
15 Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, 391.
16 The perplexing question this raises, obviously, is whether Gregory’s view does not somehow implicate God in the Fall. Gregory and Maximus both wrestled indefinitely with this question, but, as far as I’m aware, arrived at no final answer. See On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 75n.
17 Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 76.
18 Space didn’t allow for another example in the paper, but John of Damascus speculates further along these lines in On the Orthodox Faith II, 30. Troublingly, but importantly for our purposes here, he suggests that Eve was created due to God’s foreknowledge of the Fall.
19 See Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, 379-380, as well as M.C. Steenberg, Irenaeus on Creation: The Cosmic Christ and the Saga of Redemption (Leiden: Brill Academic, 2008), 121-123, 126.
20 Athanasius, On the Incarnation: Saint Athanasius, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 52. Emphasis added.
21 John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, II, 30. Emphases added.
23 Ibid. Emphasis added.
24 Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, II, 17. Quoted on pg. 59 of Hymns on Paradise.
25 Again, see John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, II, 30. There is also every reason to think, in light of both Romans 8:19-22 and the cosmically-geared theology of Maximus, that humans had the potential (and now, in Christ, again have the potential) to lead not only themselves but ultimately all creation into deification and immortality. Their fall resulted in a gradual corruption of both their own race and the cosmos (cf. Gen. 3-11, as well as Athanasius’ elegant narration of the Fall in the early chapters of De incarnatione), but the second Adam has come and re-opened the door that the first Adam failed to enter.
Athanasius, Augustine, beauty, Conor Cunningham, Damascene, David Bentley Hart, Deleuze, Derrida, Donald Trump, Ephrem the Syrian, Foucault, Gregory of Nyssa, Heidegger, John Milbank, John of Damascus, love, Manicheans, Maximus the Confessor, metaphysics, Nietzsche, philosophy, postmodernism, Sebastian Brock, Sergius Bulgakov, sex, theology, violence