Redeeming Sin?

Social Diagnostics Amid Ecological Destruction

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Ernst M. Conradie
Religious Ethics and Environmental Challenges
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     290 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ernst M. Conradie begins this work by declaring his intuition that “the deepest roots of ecological destruction may be found in a three-letter word: sin” (xi). He therefore wants to contribute to bringing Christian sin-talk (back) into the public discourse about the roots and possible solutions of the “wicked problem” (xvi) of ecological destruction. Such an undertaking includes a dual critique: a kind of theological social diagnostics of the roots of ecological destruction, as well as a (self-)critical take on Christianity (xi)—Christianity may be both a part of the problem and of the solution. Conradie sees that Christian notions of “what has gone wrong in the world” are subject to criticism and possible need of revision because of the cognitive dissonance between standard narratives of evolutionary history in the public domain and traditional Christian notions of human origins, the “fall” of humanity and original sin.

As a piece of systematic theology the work is highly welcome and well worth a read. Conradie manages to articulate theological questions precisely in an interdisciplinary context, and avoids reductionist and simplistic answers. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how much the work manages to contribute to the re-vitalizing of Christian sin-talk in the public sphere and the global effort of countering ecological destruction. We might hope that it will be quite a bit.

The first chapter presents a “root cause analysis” of ecological destruction situated primarily in an African context. The description of this method is a little sloppy, but we can get the point. Conradie traces a tragic historical development via the cognitive, agricultural, and industrial revolutions, fueled by technological invention to modernity (6-8), where humans “are destroying the world around us” (19). He acknowledges that Christianity (and its fellow Abrahamic religions) in several senses has contributed to this tragedy, for example by notions of domination over creation, infinite progress and prosperity. Still, Christian talk of sin as an ultimate cause can be heard as a useful perspective on ecological destruction, while allowing for penultimate descriptions of sin as a cause of ecological destruction by pointing to phenomena that can also be described in a secular language, such as sloth, greed, and oppression.

Chapters 2 through 5 consist of multidisciplinary engaged analyses of different systematic theological questions and obstacles to the doctrine of sin. Guided by the question in the title of chapter 2–“Where have things gone awry in evolutionary history?”–Conradie identifies and discusses some “package deals” on the plot of what is wrong in the world, whence, and why. They are presented as types and not as historical analyses of the thinkers they are linked to (quite necessary disclaimers given the style of his argument!). The first type is the “Manichaean-Darwinian-capitalist” (!) plot. This plot assumes that good and evil are equally original traits of all the world and human history. “That there is a saint and a sinner in all of us is [simply!] the result of our biological and cognitive makeup” (62). The ethical result may typically be an indifferent “survival of the fittest” capitalism or a plea to conquer our bad biological inheritance by means of rational ethical behavior. The second type is the “Augustinian-Marxist” (!) plot. Here the assumption is that the material world was created “very good” (although perhaps not [yet] perfect), but through some kind of historical event or process sin/evil entered the world with devastating effects. Conradie is attracted to this plot, noting its social and pedagogical implications with grace (equality!) for all, and especially for the weak and marginalized. The third type is the “Pelagian-liberal” plot that shares some of the problematic historical assumptions of the Augustinian one, but takes a more positive view of what capacities are left intact after the “fall” of Adam. Current humans can be matured and perfected away from evil through willful choices made on the basis of information and education, and the point of grace is to “make it easier to do good that is already possible on the basis of…human freedom” (79). A fourth type (or perhaps just a comment on some details in the other types) is the “Irenaean-Whiteheadian-Bretton Woods” (!) version. Here the “fall” is seen not as a move down from an original height of bliss, but as falling “upwards” from a state of child-like innocence and immaturity towards maturity and an eschatological telos. This picture seems to be easier to adapt to current models of evolutionary history. Sin is more like a sum of many movements in the wrong direction than like a punishable one-time loss of something before possessed. Conradie’s critical perspective is that sin in this model threatens to be inevitable (although there may be versions in which the emergence of sin is still viewed as contingent), and evil and suffering are shadow sides of good, to such a degree that God is ultimately cruel in intending it used this way as part of God’s original plan.

Conradie’s attempt in this book to hold onto some kind of Augustinian-like posse non peccare (that it was at some time in some way possible not to sin, in contrast to the present mess where we all sin inevitably) is the best try I have read. He avoids ad hoc-solutions to where and how the “fall” happened that remains faithful neither to the biblical myth (Genesis 1-3) nor to scientific findings, and still he does not succumb to theologically questionable implications of the more clear-cut Manichaean, Irenaean, and Pelagian versions. A main move is not to locate the “fall” at some (single) fixed point in history. Instead Conradie says that at many emergences of new levels of complexity in the evolutionary process leading to possible bifurcation in good and bad continuations, things went wrong, each time influencing what followed, but also (at least on pre-human levels) leaving what follows genuinely open, thus retaining the contingency and avoidability of sin.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gunnar Innerdal is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at NLA University College in Bergen, Norway.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ernst M. Conradie is senior professor in the Department of Religion and Theology at the University of the Western Cape.


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