Q: Given what we know about our still evolving brains (primitive parts that call for ‘fight or flight’ or some of the violent tendencies we see in our fellow primates), how are we to be held “responsible” for who and what we are? How is it “sin” when our biology dictates so much?
A: Wow, excellent question. Though I’m afraid my biologist wife is going to list off the ways in which I botch this answer! Biblically, I think we see this tension in the writing of St. Paul. In Romans 7 he writes, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul labeled this inner-dwelling desire, sin. Yet today, as you have said, many would point to evolutionary or biological impulses and call them, at least, morally neutral. For instance, Christianity has always advocated lifelong monogamous marriage. But biologically, we know humans desire multiple sexual partners. In the same vein, left to our own devices, our chief focus is survival—getting enough food to survive. And yet, Jesus tells us to give away what we have, to help all who are in need.
So, what are we to do? I would say that though every human being enjoys the full dignity of God’s creatures, we do have the choice of whether to be fully or less human. While biological impulses may draw us to live and act a certain way, God calls us to something bigger. This sort of echoes last week’s question about original sin and the fall. Our original sin was that we wanted to determine what was “good and evil.” Instead, being in communion with God means following God’s commandments, even when they seem difficult and even when they seem counter to our human nature.
I think this is particularly helpful to think about in our current political dialogue. As a country, it is tempting to honor and seek that which is strong and mighty, that which ensures our security, regardless of the poor and the “other.” And that’s not an unreasonable conviction—in fact it is quite reasonable. It is about survival. But doesn’t God call us to something bigger? Lives of compassion, even when we would rather look out for ourselves; lives of mercy, even when we are drawn to vengeance; lives of love, even when we feel hate from within.
Paul saw a “war” within himself, between his love of God’s law and his sinful desires. Amidst his struggles, however, he reminds us to whom we can kook for help: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”