Taking his cue from Ross Douthat’s similarly-themed piece in the New York Times, Sullivan goes after my attack on Mark Shea’s piece in the Catholic Register. I criticized Shea for “metaphorizing” the story of Adam and Eve, that is, admitting that it can’t be literally true but giving other explanations of how it could be figuratively “true.” In Shea’s case, he conceived of the Original Sin as some dude thinking an evil thought while sitting around drinking coffee. That, he claimed, doomed the rest of humanity to eternal sin and the need for expiation, requiring Jesus to come down to Earth and be crucified.
That’s a dumb scenario, of course. Better to give up the whole myth of original sin and expiation than engage in such ridiculous intellectual contortions. And, as I said in my earlier post on Douthat, the mental gymnastics of apologists determined to save their myths deserves no more respect than does the tenacious stupidity of fundamentalists.
At any rate, Sullivan makes this accusation: " I am one of many deluded fools who thinks that the account of Genesis was meant to be taken seriously. From the outset it was an obvious metaphor, and intended to be seen as such!
There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn’t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally. It’s obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable. Ross sees the exchange as saying something significant about the atheist mindset – and I largely agree with everything he says, except his definition of “fundamentalist” doesn’t seem to extend much past Pat Robertson. It certainly makes me want to take Jerry Coyne’s arguments less seriously. Someone this opposed to religion ought to have a modicum of education about it. The Dish, if you recall, had a long thread on this subject in August. No one was as dumb as Coyne." ***
What was Sullivan smoking when he wrote this? Among the people who have taken the Genesis story seriously are not only the fundamentalists he decries, but the theologians Thomas Aquinas and Augustine (who believed in Adam and Eve), many Popes, and nearly every Christian in the history of Christendom—at least until 1859. Many of my friends were taught that the Genesis story was true when they were churchgoing kids.Were these people brainless, as Sullivan implies? Were they simply impervious to the obvious metaphor?
Yes, I have read the “fucking thing” (it doesn’t take long), and yes, to many modern ears, aware of what Darwin found, it sounds metaphorical. But not to all of them. Nor did the story “scream parable” to two millennia of Christians, some of them living among us right now.
Finally, if Sullivan has an ear so finely attuned that it’s able to detect which parts of the Bible scream metaphor and which scream “literal truth,” then perhaps he’d grace us with his wisdom. Does he, for example, think that the virgin birth of Jesus, Jesus’s status as God’s son, and his crucifixion, Resurrection, and imminent return “scream metaphor” as well?
Is heaven also a metaphor? What about God himself? To my ear, those things scream “fiction”, which is the secular equivalent of “metaphor.” The thing about “sophisticated” apologists like Sullivan is that they always avoid telling us what Catholic doctrine they see as literally true. They know they’d look pretty bad if they said, for example, that crackers and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.
Like Ross Douthat, Sullivan misses the point. Of course the Bible sounds like fiction, because it is in its entirety. Good Catholics like Sullivan try to save their religion by reading those fictions as metaphors. You could do the same thing with any scripture, or any myth. But if he really considers himself a Catholic, then surely there’s something in Scripture that Sullivan sees as really, truly true. Could he please tell us what that is?
Unfortunately, Sullivan doesn’t allow comments on his website, so I can’t post this there. Perhaps, because he reads this site, he’ll come over here and grace us with his opinion. And perhaps he’d explain why, even if Eden didn’t exist, he’s so sure that there’s God and baby Jesus?
(For a very strong critique of both Sullivan’s piece and Ross Douthat’s similar views in the New York Times, see Jason Rosenhouse’s superb response at EvolutionBlog. Jason shows that there’s no support for Douthat’s view that the Adam-and-Eve story was part metaphor and part truth, and he completely demolishes Sullivan’s claim that hardly anyone ever took that story as gospel over the whole history of Christianity).
Anyway, Sullivan is clearly ticked off and just as intemperate as before. He’s come back at me at the Daily Dish in a piece called ”Must the story of the fall be true? Ctd.” He repeats his views that he “can agree with Coyne on this [the sad state of modern Christian apologetics] and still find him crude and uninformed about the faith he has such contempt for.”
His response is notable for two things. First, he doesn’t really respond, but merely reproduces, without much response, several comments made by readers on this site. So he’s been reading the posts and comments here, but is too cowardly to respond—and of course he doesn’t allow any comments at his own site.
Second, he tries to defend Original Sin in a bizarre and incoherent way. I reproduce below his full defense, a lovely piece of obfuscatory apologetics:
I would argue that original sin is a mystery that makes sense of our species’ predicament – not a literal account of a temporal moment when we were all angels and a single act that made us all beasts. We are beasts with the moral imagination of angels. But if we are beasts, then where did that moral imagination come from? If it is coterminous with intelligence and self-awareness, as understood by evolution, then it presents human life as a paradox, and makes sense of the parable. For are we not tempted to believe we can master the universe with our minds – only to find that we cannot, and that the attempt can be counter-productive or even fatal? Isn’t that delusion what Genesis warns against?
The answer to his last question is “no.” Saying that we are creatures with evolved and culturally-derived morality (yes, Andrew, that’s where our moral imagination came from, not from God), and can be both good and bad, is hardly a “paradox”. And how is it “fatal” to try to master the universe with our minds? We’ve done a pretty good job of it so far. We sure haven’t mastered it with our nonexistent “souls”—or with a belief in baby Jesus.
He goes on:
"The Fall and the Resurrection are the bookends of that paradox. It could well be, as my lapsed Catholic reader believes, that we have become morally better over 200,000 years, that gain is possible, that our better angels can progressively master our raging beasts within. But part of that was fueled by religious evolution, as Bob Wright has brilliantly laid out. So it’s possible that the Fall does indeed lead to the Resurrection, but that it is only finally fulfilled by humankind’s ultimate, universal embrace of a loving God through the aeons of time. Doesn’t Christian eschatology strongly hint at exactly such an ultimate resolution? You just have to let go of certain neuroses when you read and ponder texts about profound mysteries rendered into stories. That’s why doubt fuels faith. It prevents you from fixating on a particular pattern of thought that blinds you to the richness of other interpretations of the same, basic truth."
First of all, Wright certainly does not show that humans have become morally better over the last 200,000 years. He gives no data on that point, asserting only that scripture has become more moral since the early days of polytheism. But even if Wright is correct (and I don’t think he is), that says nothing about whether such putative moral improvement has anything to do with validating the Christian myth. In fact, if we’ve become progressively better over time, then why do we think there was a “Fall”? And even if there was a Fall, why does that give evidence for Sullivan’s belief in God, Jesus, and the Resurrection?
All Sullivan is doing here is confecting a post facto story to justify his Catholic beliefs. But the story is unconvincing. He has not come close to answering my main question: how does he know that certain parts of the Bible—like Adam and Eve and the Fall—are to be taken metaphorically, while others—like the existence of God, Jesus, the Resurrection, and the expiation of sin “through the universal embrace of a loving God”—are true. Once again, he’s cherry-picking, and he’s plenty mad that I called him out on it. And like many “sophisticated” believers, he absolutely refuses to divulge what he believes.