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St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Ancestral Sin and Genetics

Today over lunch a friend and I discussed the problem of sinful behavior and where it arises in us. I made the point that to call a certain sinful action "genetic" can in fact be a statement in great concordance with Christian theology. For example- and today it is the most controversial example- the allegation that certain persons are born with a predisposition to homosexuality. We hear talk of a "gay gene" and such, and then hear further talk of how such a gene's existence (assuming it does exist) is "proof" that such behaviour is "natural" and should be accepted. This idea- of genetic predisposition (or environmental or social or what have you)- is sometimes met with hostility from Christians, for the understandable reason that it seems to absolve persons from responsbility; or, as with the "gay gene," remove any sense of sin from the behavior at all: because we all know that anything "natural" must be "good."

Yet this genetic predisposition is not only not in total variance with proper theology, it fits rather handily with it, if properly understood and approached. The Scriptures teach, and the Church has always understood, that human nature, while inherently good when it was created, and remaining good in essence, is now corrupted, fallen through sin. This is the concept of original sin, or, as the Eastern Fathers would have us phrase it, ancestral sin. To quote St. Symeon the New Theologian:

"In this is expressed the very mystery of our Faith, that human nature is sinful from very conception. God did not create man sinful, but pure and holy. But since the first-created Adam lost his garment of sanctity, not from any other sin but from pride alone, and became corruptible and mortal, all people also who come from the seed of Adam are participants of the ancestral sin from their very conception and birth. He who has been born in this way, even though he has not yet performed any sin, is already sinful through this ancestral sin" (Homily 37.3).
I might take this opportunity to note that, whatever may be said by some, the Eastern Fathers are hardly any less harsh in their understanding of "original sin" and man's condition outside of Christ than other theologies. There is no room in St. Symeon for Pelagianism. Ancestral sin is as damning a thing as any Western conception, and begs for a Savior just as earnestly. St. Symeon explains further elsewhere: "If now man has become corrupt and mortal in nature, he cannot by the power of free will alone become incorruptible and immortal. And from the time of the banishment of Adam from Paradise, that is, from the time he became corruptible and mortal by reason of his transgression, even up to this present day, not a single man has ever been incorrupt and immortal" (Homily 38.2).

So then, humanity is in a definite state of corruption- corruption that exists as both "moral" and "physical": for the two are intwined and cannot be separated. Our predisposition to sin is not merely a matter of "mind" or a moral faculty abstracted from genetics and the body; sin and death have wound themselves into all of humanity. Thus it is entirely possible that even our genetic makeup can lead us, as it were into particularly sins. Our "genetics" do in fact lead us into sin. And not only is our nature corrupted, but with us our environment, which can act as a further instrument against us.

Does this mean that we are hopelessly locked into our behaviors? Or worse, because they come intrinsically for us, are we excused in glorifying them, and embracing them as natural? No- because the story, as it were, does not end here. Against the corruption of humanity and his wavering will, morality broken by fallen genetics, the grace of Christ Incarnate stands, as offering freedom from these sin-induced bindings. But first it must be said that just because a certain behavior comes "natural" to us, that it is good. When we realize that we are in a fallen state and that our true humanity and true realization of our nature- and what is truly natural- lies in Christ, we cannot consider all of our impulses "natural," and certainly not good. Some people must struggle with temptations to violence, or to steal, or to lie. These things come "naturally" to them- but they are not good! And, they are not truly natural, for our true nature is recovered and shown forth in Christ. If our nature has become corrupt, we cannot simply assume any impulse is "good" because it is an impulse.

Christ put on our condition, as St. Maximus explains: "Rather, He became the 'sin that I caused'; in other words, he assumed the corruption of human nature that was a consequence of the mutability of my free choice. For our sake He became a human being naturally liable to passions, and used the 'sin' that I caused to destroy the 'sin' that I commit" (Ad Thal. 42). Christ, in taking on humanity, worked the destruction of sin, and re-created humanity, free from death and sin. This grace extends to all of humanity, and is the means by which men may become free from sin. So we are not hopelessly bound to our condition, because Jesus has broken those chains, and opened humanity into true life. He has restored free will in His own will. For He does not absolve personal responsibility, but rather His grace provides the real grounds for it. Repentance is enabled by Him. Our personal volition (which is not totally destroyed to begin with, though fatally weakened and incapable outside of Christ) is enabled through Him.

Thus, however our genetics are shaped up, and to whatever depths the freedom of our wills have fallen, the Incarnation and Redemption of Christ offers the counter-balance, the ultimate antidote to determinism. Where Adam has fallen, Christ is risen.


Blogger Doug said...

Great post. Thanks so much. I'd been thinking about this issue a lot recently and you summed it all up so nicely. The quote from St Maximos is wonderful.

12:21 PM  

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