One skill all educators need to cultivate is the ability to segue from where a conversation may be to where you need it to go. In my Sunday school class last Sunday, we were up to Romans 7, and the casual conversation before we began was about a computer in the church that had stopped working (the motherboard had gone bad).
As the conversation progressed, I saw an opportunity to segue, by putting the interpretation of Paul’s terminology in the way I did in the title of this post: is sin a hardware problem, a software problem, or both?
Christian thinking about this topic in relation both to the Bible and the perspectives of contemporary biology is notoriously fuzzy and vague. Many Christians in fact talk about sin as a problem inherited from parents, as though it were something genetic. I’ve even heard people suggest that this was the reason for the virginal conception: sin is passed on by the father. Obviously this viewpoint is an attempt by women to associate sin with the Y chromosome, which they lack, and thus assert their own impeccability.
At any rate, few people when pressed on the details are eager to maintain a viewpoint of this sort. But the very fact that it exists at all is an indication of something important: many modern Christians are aware of the need to relate their traditional views to contemporary science, but don’t know how.
What Paul referred to as the “flesh” and the NIV renders “the sinful nature” is easily misunderstood, and even if understood in a manner that Paul intended, may well need to be rethought or even abandoned in light of the progress we have made in understanding our own natures.
Nevertheless, I doubt that anyone would find themselves thoroughly unable to relate to the experience Paul describes in chapter 7 of Romans – of finding ourselves believing something is right and yet doing something else, or believing something is wrong or unhelpful and doing it anyway. And however secularized, most people find they cannot do without classic terminology such as “evil” as a way of describing at least some of the things that human beings do some of the time. And so even if one thinks about the categories in very different ways, the human predicament traditionally referred to by terms such as “sin” does not evaporate with our progress in understanding human biology, psychology and morality.
One key aspect of the matter that seems crucial to change among Christians is the tendency to depict natural instincts as inherently sinful. Even some ancient rabbis recognized that what they referred to as “the evil impulse” was not something inherently evil in and of itself, but in fact a set of instincts and drives without which we could not survive, but which, if allowed to dominate and control us, get us into trouble.
There, of course, we arrive at the heart of the matter: we have instincts the following of which would not be “evil” or “sinful” in any meaningful sense were it not for the fact that we human beings have the capacity to reflect on our actions and their effect on others. And that development should not be downplayed or dismissed. It is part of what makes us human. Ignoring either the biological impulses that we share with other higher organisms on this planet, or our distinctive (although probably not entirely unique) ability to choose not to follow them and to contemplate what effect our actions may have in the future, are having in the present, or did have in the past, would be to deny part of who we are.
By bringing evolutionary biology into the picture, we can actually hope to make progress in thinking more clearly and in more appropriate ways about some of these topics. We an understand that the impulses the following of which we may regret are “hard-wired” into us by evolution for a good reason: our own survival. Yet we can also as a result understand how those instincts often might move us towards self-destruction in our contemporary way of life, in which an endless supply of goodies made with refined sugars hijack instincts that evolved to cope with scarcity, so as to make us not only fat but sick and eventually dead. That “sin” leads to death is perhaps not a notion we need to discard entirely.
Statistics show that scare tactics used by Christians to try to keep young people from having sex are not in fact effective. I wonder whether explaining in a scientifically-informed way about these matters, and about ways in which one human impulse – the sex drive – has the potential, left unchecked by other considerations, to lead one to act in ways that can be at odds with other human impulses, such as the desire to genuinely connect with one other person, and to experience the intimacy that fidelity makes possible.
Thinking of “the sinful nature” or “the flesh” in a manner that is uninformed by our understanding of biology and psychology is problematic. But I wonder how often people simply rebel against any idea of restraint because they consider it quaint, old fashioned, or perhaps permanently tainted by the legacy of certain forms of religiosity.
When it comes to the tensions between the various facets of our human existence, I wonder how many things Christians open to input from the natural sciences could agree on with other perspectives.
Let me conclude by returning to Paul. His language of “flesh” and “soul,” however much it may be used in conversation with Greek thought, still seems to be fundamentally Jewish in character. These do not seem to be, for Paul, separate substances from which human beings are composed, one of which is excellent and one of which is base, crude and defective. “Body” and “mind” are all aspects of human existence, what we today would call a psychosomatic unity. The desire to do what is right, and the temptation to do what is wrong, connect across such divisions, and today we know that the mind is intrinsically connected with things that go on in the brain – which is part of our bodies, despite our tendency to talk as though things were otherwise. Whether we use older terms like “sin” or not, I think we all find what we are persuaded that we ought to do to be at odds with other deep-seated impulses within us.
Perhaps Paul’s thought is neither as incomprehensible nor as irrelevant from the perspective today’s thinking as might be assumed.