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The Biology of Sin (A Review)

The debate around the proper interface between science and faith has widened in recent years beyond the confines of creation versus evolution. Nearly every area of human life is now contested. Matthew Stanford, an expert in psychology, neuroscience and bio-medical studies has spent most of life wrestling with a particular aspect of this debate : the question of how our biology interacts with our sinful behaviour. His latest offering, The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped aims to deal with what he sees as the lack of of informed discussion on how the brain functions and how that should be understood in light of what the Bible teaches about human nature and personal responsibility.

The book is for anyone struggling with sin, which of course means all of us. As he says at the beginning, “People who have done very evil things are more like you and me than we may want to admit. Most have dreamed of better lives for themselves and desperately want to change but don’t know how”. As individuals it is particularly helpful to know the dangers of allowing certain sins or behaviours taking root in our lives, especially where we may have specific biological dispositions to certain actions.

A clearer understanding of the nature of sin, in all its manifestations and dispositions, should also help us support other people. Stansford helpfully observes that, “sin is a ruthless beast: crouching at the door, waiting to consume us all. When we encounter those whom it has overcome, we should feel sorrow rather than self-righteous pride”. It is therefore not surprising that a book such as this is particularly helpful for church leaders who may find themselves dealing with members in the congregation struggling with deeply ingrained sins.

The central thrust of Stanford's thesis is that sin is both a spiritual and physical condition. At birth we are spiritually dead, separated from God with no hope of spiritual life because of the original sin of Adam. We have also inherited from Adam, our biological father, a physical aspect of sin. Stanford calls this “sinful DNA”. As a result of our sinful biology at birth, our physical and mental inclinations are only for self, and as we grow they continue to be self-focused. In relation to God, there is simply no good in us, neither spiritually nor physically. Our fundamental biological and spiritual preference is toward sin.

The good news is that though sin affects our body, mind and spirit, through Christ all followers of Jesus receive a new mind of Christ and the Spirit of God now lives in us. Simply put, out biology is no longer our destiny in Christ. However, because we have the same bodies, practical change in our lives, becoming who we already are in Christ, takes time. Hence the need for a proper understanding of the biology of sin. A key point here is that in order to provide effective pastoral support to those recovering from sinful behaviour, we need to ensure a whole body support, spiritual, mental and physical remedies.

With that foundation set, Stanford then proceeds to discuss the biological aspects of sin by focusing on certain examples, effortlessly combining social and scientific evidence with biblical reflections. For example, in discussing anger, we are reminded that scientific research shows that most of the activity for anger takes place in the brains's amygdala and prefrontal cortex (PFC). Those with bursts of anger usually have an abnormal or dysfunctional PFC. This biological aspect means that part of our anger is hereditary. And yet anger has a spiritual component because human anger reflects that we are made in the image of God because God himself does get angry at sin.

The book offers similar reflections on lust and adultery, addictions, anti - personality orders, addictions and homosexuality. In all these cases, its general thrust is that all sinful behaviour are partly biological in terms of being hereditary and having a neurochemistry dimension. This conclusion, rather than diminishing the seriousness of sin actually amplifies it because it reminds us that total freedom is only available through Christ who alone has the power to complete recreate us anew. Jesus is able to frees us spiritually now and ultimately will give us total physical freedom in the new heaven and new earth. Because change is possible in Christ, we need to point people to Him and at the same time be ready to offer physical and social support. For all followers of Jesus, change comes when we recognize that sin can never complete us the way Christ can. We must seek to develop an attitude of submission, renewal of the mind, confession and forgiveness

The book is very easy to read and quite insightful and cogent in many parts. For example, in discussing adultery, he points out readily that we are all created for sexual intimacy. Noting that there are three independent biological systems that are at work within us - the attraction, romantic and attachment. These systems are held together through neural chemicals. The independence of the system largely explains why marriage, adultery and divorce occur. The biological nature of the processes means that there is a sense in which some are more biologically vulnerable to sexual sins particularly through the impact on the base level levels of testosterone. But Stanford is quick to observes this does not mean we don't have a choice. The PFC is the brakes of the brain and allows us decide whether we wish to be influenced by the social and environment factors. The Word of God in particular is able to renew our minds and ensure that we are not ruled by our neural chemicals.

The book is also particularly helpful in reminding us that sin is destructive; it undermines relationships and debilitates families. This is even worse when sin is hidden and then becomes exposed. It produces a violent shock wave that damages everyone in its path as demonstrated by the three stories of the drug addict, personality disorder and the homosexual man. The church should cultivate a community where people can confess their sins and find healing and grace in Jesus.

The weaker areas of the book relates sadly to the topical issue of homosexuality. Stanford observes that homosexuality is a complex phenomena that result from an interaction between biological predispositions and environmental triggers. He rightly observes that the biological science is murky, and he is very clear that people can be delivered from homosexuality, with the church having an explicit role to extend grace. Unfortunately, despite Stanford attempt at a helpful balance, he does not critically discuss the challenge to the "DNA" argument which has been paraded in some quarters. Stanford seems to simply take it for granted that homosexuality has a DNA component , when in fact the proof of a gay gene has not been forthcoming. Indeed, there has been a growing consensus that it many never be found. Similarly, the author seems to nod the theory of sexuality as a continuum without clearer evidence for that belief or careful attention to the social drivers for such a theory. As one reads through some areas of Stanford's book it is not clear which bit is heresay and which bit is verifiable evidence - on this thorny issue.

In terms of improvements, it would have also been good to see more reflections on Christology. As I read through book, I got a better appreciation of the incarnation and sinless life of Christ. Stanford notes that Jesus conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin did not share in the guilt of original sin. After living a sinless life, Jesus offered himself as a perfect sacrifice and took upon himself the punishment for sin that was meant for us. By being born of the Holy Spirit, Jesus by-passed the guilt of original sin. By living sinless he overcame actual sin or the biology of sin. At the same time, the book gave me fresh appreciation of another aspect of the work of Christ, which is not discussed. Namely, Jesus had an inherently corrupt DNA and yet through dependence on the Holy Spirit lived a perfect life. 

Another area where I thought more could have been said related to positive physiological effects. Stanford notes that a subset of people are indeed born more impulsive and less fearful than others and that, because of this, they are more likely to become involved in antisocial and criminal behavior. Then he observes that “While receiving Christ by faith fully transforms us spiritually, it does not alter our physical bodies. Physically, we all still struggle with sin; and the journey toward sanctification lasts a lifetime”. It is an important point, but isn’t there a point to be made here though that becoming a Christian may also have physiological effects in re-wiring our brains in a positive way? Surely neural plasticity works both ways (I have Nichola Carr's reflection in his book, the Shallows in mind here)! I have yet to hear Christian reflections on this issue, but Stanford is perhaps far better placed to offer views on it!

Finally, two minor quibbles. First, one area that could have been improved is the presentation. The heart of the book is undoubtedly chapter 9 where he reminds us that biology is not destiny. It would have probably been helpful to have put that chapter before the examples, given that the examples sit more or less independently. The second issue is that there is a bit of data mining in places with conclusions seeming forced in places. For example, in one place he says, “the presence of antisocial personality disorder in biblical times suggests that the disorder is not simply the result of modern cultural or societal influences, since ancient Israel and twenty-first century America are very different, but is further evidence of an underlying biological basis to the disorder”. The biological assertion is not easily deduced from the evidence presented. But perhaps the reviewer is being pedantic, I will leave the readers to judge!

All that said and done, this book is thought provokingly and well worth the read though for its lack of clarity in one or two areas I can only harshly give it 3.5 stars rather than probably the 4 stars it deserves. But the more I re-read it the more I appreciate the book, so perhaps my rating will improve over time! Watch this space!

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2016

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