Original Sin, Again

The big original sin debate goes on. Ross Douthat has weighed in, as has Andrew Sullivan in this post. Both gentleman go after Jerry Coyne. Jerry has already stolen some of my thunder by replying himself (here and here.) He’s a much more efficient blogger than I am. Still, I’ll throw in my two cents.

Douthat writes:

Shea touched off the dust-up by arguing that there’s nothing particularly radical, at least from the perspective of the Catholic tradition, about interpreting the first books of Genesis as a “figurative” account of a primeval event, rather than as literal historiography that requires that two and only two human creatures were on the scene when mankind exchanged our original innocence for disobedience and shame.

The problem, though, is that people like Shea do not treat the early books of Genesis as purely figurative. Instead they tell us that parts of the stories are historical (Adam and Eve were actual people, whose actual sin had major repercussions for humanity) while other parts are merely metaphorical (contrary to the seemingly clear statements of the Biblical text, Adam and Eve were not the first two humans and their sin did not consist of eating a forbidden fruit.) Those of us on the skeptical side are merely asking how we can distinguish the historical bits from the figurative bits.

More generally, I can understand taking the story literally as the fundamentalists do. I can also understand the atheist approach of treating the story as an ancient myth that never had any claim to authority, and whose major assertions have now been refuted by science. I can even understand the approach, favored by writers like Karl Giberson and Marcus Borg, that says the Adam and Eve story is purely fictional, but nonetheless has important spiritual truths to impart.

What I cannot understand is the approach defended by people like Douthat, in which we arbitrarily declare certain parts to be historically accurate and certain other parts to be merely metaphorical.


The Bible describes the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:4-7:

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up–for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Saying there “was no one to till the ground” prior to Adam’s creation certainly does not sound like figurative language. It sounds instead like a straightforward statement of historical fact. Is it really something the Biblical scribe would have written were he imagining that Adam was selected form among a large population of Neolithic farmers? I’m more likely to believe the statement, “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,” is meant figuratively, but even here it seems clear that the intent of this verse is to explain the creation of Adam’s physical body. Thus, the creation of Adam was not simply a matter of adding something to a body that was already there.

That, in a nutshell, is the basic issue. Endlessly repeating, “It’s meant figuratively!” does not solve the exegetical problem. It’s hard to fathom the model of Biblical inspiration that allows the scribes to get it right about the creation of Adam and his subsequent fall from grace, but get it wrong about whether there were other people around when Adam was created. Moreover, I think we are entitled to ask why figurative language would be used at this point in the story. It is, after all, partly describing an actual historical event: the creation of a real man called Adam. Even if you think later parts of the story, about the serpent and the fruit perhaps, are metaphorical, it still does not make sense that the scribe didn’t think to mention this prior population of hominids.

Douthat writes:

It was a peculiar spectacle, to put it mildly: An atheist attacking a traditionalist believer for not reading Genesis literally. On the merits, Coyne is of course quite correct that some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict what science and archaeology suggest about human origins. (For instance, the claim that Adam and Eve were formed from the dust of the ground and a human rib, respectively, not from millennia upon millennia of evolution, the suggestion that they lived in a garden near the Tigris and the Euphrates, not a hunter-gatherer community in Africa, and … well, you get the idea.) But then again some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict one another as well, in ways that should inspire even a reader who knows nothing about the controversies surrounding evolution to suspect that what he’s reading isn’t intended as a literal and complete natural history of the human race.

But Coyne’s point had nothing to do with chiding a traditionalist believer for not reading Genesis literally. Coyne’s point was that the traditionalist believer was reading Genesis in a way that did not make sense given the plain statements of the text. Summoning forth a large population of hominids from which Adam was drawn, for example, is not a matter of interpreting some portion of the story figuratively. It is instead a matter of inserting something into the text which flatly isn’t there. Indeed, it is something that seems flatly contradicted by what is there.

Let us also note that the Bible does not “suggest” that Adam and Eve lived in a garden near the Tigris and Euphrates (as opposed to the view supported by paleoanthropology). The Bible is actually quite specific about the location of the garden:

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Once again, there sure doesn’t seem to be anything figurative about any of this. It’s hard to imagine the point of this detail if it wasn’t to persuade us that the garden was a real place, situated among landmarks that would have been familiar to the people of the time.

Douthat now provides a standard list of Biblical contradictions:

In Genesis 1-2, for instance, we have not one but two creation accounts, which differ from one another in important ways. In Genesis 1 God seems to create “man” as male and female simultaneously, on the sixth day before he rests from his labors. But then in Genesis 2 he creates Adam alone, lets him name all the animals and roam Eden long enough to get lonely, and only then creates Eve from Adam’s rib. Or again, in Genesis 1 we have God saying “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth” several days before he creates humankind. And yet in Genesis 2 we’re told that at the time God forged Adam from the dust of the earth, “no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up.” And so on.

The same pattern extends to the books that follow. As Coyne says, taken on its own the account of Eden and the Fall implies that Adam and Eve are the only human beings in the world, and the story of Cain and Abel makes no reference to further creations happening in the next county over. And yet then we have this:

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.

But where are these wives and cities coming from, if Genesis is supposed to be a just-the-facts account of the creation of the world? For that matter, who are all these people (not one or two, but plainly lots and lots of them) Cain is so worried will find him and kill him for his crimes? Coyne’s claim that the Bible offers “no evidence that Adam and Eve were anything but the ancestors of all humanity” only holds true if you engage in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2 and then stop reading there. If you continue to Genesis 4 (which is just a few pages later!), the text strongly suggests that other human beings were somehow contemporaneous with the first family, and that the human race probably didn’t just descend from Adam and Eve alone.

There is much to criticize here. First, Douthat is being pretty casual about discarding monogenism, but that particular tenet is central to traditional Catholic teaching about original sin. Indeed, this argument got started when people like Edward Feser and Kenneth Kemp (as we discussed in this post) tried to defend monogenism even in the face of modern science. (Their defense was based on the idea that there were plenty of hominids prior to Adam, but that they were not human beings because they lacked souls.)

But the more serious problem is that Douthat is trying to transport people from Genesis 4 back to Genesis 2. Perhaps if he had read to Genesis 5 he would have noticed this:

When Adam had lived for one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died.

Those other sons and daughters are never named in the text, but they certainly resolve the question of Cain’s wife. We merely assume that Cain married one of his sisters. And considering the long life spans described in Genesis there was ample time for all of these sons and daughters to create a sizable civilization before Cain killed Abel. That, at any rate, is how the fundamentalists resolve the sorts of conflicts Douthat thinks are so significant.

You might protest that the text gives no indication of a long time span between the birth of Cain and Abel and Cain’s subsequent crime. But it also gives no indication of other people being around when Adam was created, so that hardly seems like much of an objection.

Douthat now presents his dramatic conclusion:

Now one can draw two possible conclusions from these difficulties. One possibility is that the authors and compilers of Genesis weren’t just liars; they were really stupid liars, who didn’t bother doing the basic work required to make their fabrication remotely plausible or coherent. The other possibility is that Genesis was never intended to be read as a literal blow-by-blow history of the human race’s first few months, and that its account of how sin entered the world partakes of allegorical and symbolic elements — like many other stories in the Bible, from the Book of Job to the Book of Revelation — to make a theological and moral point.

But this is just bizarre. If Genesis 4 assumes the existence of people never previously mentioned, it is not reasonable to conclude that those people were actually there all along, even back in Genesis 2. The far more plausible conclusion is that the story in Genesis 4 was never meant to be part of a continuous narrative with what came before. The author of Genesis 4 plainly expected us to be familiar with Cain’s wife and he assumed a large population. Genesis 2 seems equally clear that Adam was the first human. This apparent conflict does not at all suggest that figurative language is being used to make a moral point. It suggests instead that we have different stories form different Jewish tribes being edited together in an attempt to unify separate traditions.

This has nothing to do with suggestions that the compilers of the Bible were lying or whatever. Quite the opposite, actually. It suggests that these stories were so important to the tribes that possessed them that the editors had to sacrifice perfect literary coherence in order to preserve them all. The attitude, one suspects, was that all of these stories revealed important aspects of the truth and needed to be preserved.

But for all of that we are still left with the problem of separating the historical from the figurative. Continuity issues in Genesis 4 do not help resolve the scientific conflicts in Genesis 2.

Andrew Sullivan’s post is mostly about heaping derision on Jerry. The post is notable solely for this jaw-dropping statement:

There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the f*cking 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.

Sullivan is joking, surely. The parts of the story we are arguing about; the reality of Adam and Eve, their status as the first people, their actual sin and its consequences for humanity, and the transmission of that sin by descent; have been taken literally by Christian authorities for centuries. For heaven’s sake, most of the religious opposition to Darwin, especially from the Catholic Church, was based on Genesis 2 and not on Genesis 1. That Darwin’s vision of natural history conflicted with the Biblical account of Adam and Eve was considered a grave problem.

Here is historian David Livingstone, from his book Adam’s Ancestors, which details the history of the idea of pre-Adamites:

Regardless of how differently the Garden of Eden may have been conceived from ancient times through the medieval period to more recent days, and no matter the differences in computations of the creation date of the earth, the idea that every member of the human race is descended from the Biblical Adam has been a standard doctrine in Islamic, Jewish and Christian thought. In this respect, if in no other, the catechisms of the seventeenth century Westminster divines that “all mankind” descended from Adam “by ordinary generation.” People’s sense of themselves, their understanding of their place in he divinely ordered scheme of things, their very identity as human beings created in the image of God, thus rested on a conception of human origins that assumed the literal truth of the biblical narrative and traced the varieties of the human race proximately to the three sons of Noah and ultimately to Adam and Eve.

That seems clear enough. That’s an awful lot of people who didn’t think the text screamed parable. None of them had brains, according to Sullivan. Livingstone goes on to write:

And yet, for all these hints at alternative European readings of human origins, they remain largely just that: mere hints, fleeting glimpses, prevenient traces of a monumental heresy still to find full voice. The idea that Adam might not be the progenitor of the entire human race and that there might be non-adamic peoples in existence found expression in print by only a handful of writers. Because of the dangers associated with such speculations, open advocacy was exceptional.

A monumental heresy. Sullivan, it seems, is trying to whitewash the history of Christian thought.

I’m sure by now I am trying readers’ patience by constantly returning to this issue. I apologize for that, but the tremendous arrogance of people like Douthat and Sullivan is highly irritating. Their arguments do not represent any improvement at all over what the fundamentalists offer. Indeed, in some ways they are a step backwards. The issue is not literal versus figurative or fundamentalist versus moderate. It is whether your reading of Genesis is true to the text. Figurative interpretations must still make sense in light of what the text says. Douthat and Sullivan are not providing a plausible figurative interpretation of the Biblical story. They are simply discarding the uncomfortable bits, and replacing them with what they wish were there.

Comments

  1. #1 Amenhotepstein
    October 6, 2011

    Theologically, though, the non-adamic peoples are not a problem today, since they were all wiped out in the Noachic flood. Only descendents of Noah, who was a descendent of Adam, have survived to the present day.

    Of course, biologically, there is absolutely no evidence that humanity went through a bottleneck of 8 people as recently as 4000 years ago, so we can throw the story of Noah and the flood on the Biblical junk/metaphor pile as well!

  2. #2 Theophile
    October 6, 2011

    Amenhotepstein said:

    “there is absolutely no evidence that humanity went through a bottleneck of 8 people as recently as 4000 years ago”.

    Hi Amenhotepstein, the reason for the flood was the DNA corruption going on with angel genes in the mix. The Bible says Noah was “perfect in his generations” so technically he was a direct descendant of Adam, however his sons wives most likely were carriers of these corrupt DNA, which could account for almost any variations in the human gene pool we see today.

  3. #3 Dan McPeek
    October 6, 2011

    What exactly are (the) “spiritual truths” I always hear
    mentioned? Is there a list somewhere? Or are they kind of like those wonderful “family values?” Since I don’t believe in spirits, hence
    no spiritual needs, I guess I wouldn’t have much use for them there
    “truths” even if I found ‘em!

  4. #4 Amenhotepstein
    October 7, 2011

    @Theophile

    Then we have to hypothesize a purifying effect of Adam’s DNA. Since Noah’s ancestors themselves almost certainly married women from non-adamic groups, and yet – as you say – Noah was “perfect in his generations”, then Adam’s alleles must be dominant. Perhaps the purifying gene is located on the Y?

    If this is the case, Shem, Ham and Japheth’s children would be freed of that vile influence and would be perfect, and there wouldn’t be any more of those non-adamic temptresses around to further corrupt their genomes!

    I’ma gonna check out the Human Genome Y-chromosome map and look for some candidate genes!

  5. #5 Collin
    October 7, 2011

    “It was a peculiar spectacle, to put it mildly: An atheist attacking a traditionalist believer for not reading Genesis literally.”

    In my experience, it’s quite common. I’m surprised it took so long for anyone else to realize this strange trait. And it’s not just Genesis. It’s usually the chapters about war.

    It amounts to saying “If there is no God, then God is a warrior. I know that because the Bible, which I don’t believe, says so.” And they don’t seem to realize how illogical this is.

  6. #6 Birger Johansson
    October 7, 2011

    Naah. Yahweh used nanotech to retroactively insert the current diversity into the human genome, just as he created the dinosaur fossils in young rock as a practical joke on researchers.

    Also, there was a lot going on with Lilith and her demonic offspring, messing up the human genome and thus making a nanotech fix even more urgent :)

    Different tribes each contributing to a mismatched collection of tales describing human history? Finally a rational explanation that fits.

  7. #7 Iain Walker
    October 7, 2011

    Theophile (#2):

    the reason for the flood was the DNA corruption going on with angel genes in the mix. The Bible says Noah was “perfect in his generations” so technically he was a direct descendant of Adam, however his sons wives most likely were carriers of these corrupt DNA, which could account for almost any variations in the human gene pool we see today.

    This is tongue-in-cheek, right? Because a genetic bottleneck of 8 individuals including some with “corrupt” DNA is still a genetic bottleneck of 8 individuals. It’s still the same tiny pool of variation whether any of their DNA is “corrupt” or not.

    And what the hell is “corrupt” DNA anyway? DNA is DNA.

    Collin (#5):

    It amounts to saying “If there is no God, then God is a warrior. I know that because the Bible, which I don’t believe, says so.” And they don’t seem to realize how illogical this is.

    No, it’s “If the bible is a reliable document when it comes to describing God and God’s actions, then God is a narcissistic genocidal monster. Therefore, either God is a narcissistic genocidal monster, or the bible is not a reliable document regarding God and God’s actions.”

    It’s a perfectly valid argument of the form:

    A -> B
    Therefore B or -A

    (because by modus tollens, A -> B entails -B -> -A)

    There’s nothing illogical about it.

  8. #8 Pierce R. Butler
    October 7, 2011

    Theophile @ # 2: … his sons wives most likely were carriers of these corrupt DNA…

    You mean Noah, pure-blooded Noah, allowed his boys to shack up with any dirty mongrel bitches they wanted? What the Gehenna sort of traditional biblical family values was that?!?

  9. #9 David Ratnasabapathy
    October 7, 2011

    Theophile:

    … the DNA corruption going on with angel genes in the mix.

    Since chimpanzees are, what, a 95% DNA match to humans, I wonder if they’ve got angel genes too?

  10. #10 Loren Amacher
    October 7, 2011

    Jason, IMO this is the definitive and ultimate response to the nonsense of both Douthat and Sullivan. Congrats, and thank you!

  11. #11 eric
    October 7, 2011

    Collin @5: It amounts to saying “If there is no God, then God is a warrior. I know that because the Bible, which I don’t believe, says so.” And they don’t seem to realize how illogical this is.

    Whtat atheists are claiming is illogical is reasoning like this:

    “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,”… not metaphor.

    “…when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up…” metaphor

    “…for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth…” not metaphor

    “…and there was no one to till the ground…” metaphor

    “…but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground…” not metaphor

    “…then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground…” not metaphor

    “…and breathed into his nostrils…” not metaphor?

    “…the breath of life…” metaphor?

    “…and the man became a living being…” metaphor if you believe in pre-adamits, not metaphor if you don’t.

    THAT level of arbitrary back-and-forth, Collin, is what is irrational.

    Now, I personally don’t object to either a literal or metaphorical reading of the text. But I do object to this seemingly arbitrary decision about which bits are which. And I really object to the person making this arbitrary decision then claiming that their own personal selection of metaphor/not-metaphor is the one obvious correct interpertation.

  12. #12 Deepak Shetty
    October 7, 2011

    I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn’t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally.
    I think Andrew Sullivan would have a lot to say to Matthew and Luke who take the trouble to trace Jesus’s genealogy. Tsk tsk all these bible writers – fundamentalists or brainless?

  13. #13 Koray
    October 7, 2011

    I actually do object to use of any metaphors by bible writers; it’s stupidly dangerous. You’re writing a precious document that is meant to survive thousands of years and be translated to hundreds of languages. You have to be absolutely clear in your writings; there cannot be any ambiguity in, say, as to whether Mary was a virgin or just a young girl.

    Since humans are fallible they cannot have been responsible for this job. All they can write down should have been “direct quotes” from Yahweh.

  14. #14 Les Lane
    October 7, 2011

    It’s actually easy to understand how religious people interpret the Bible. They employ apologetics. They begin with conclusions and interpret the Bible to support their conclusions. Since everyone’s conclusions are (at least) slightly different, individual interpretations of the Bible are (often highly) idiosyncratic. Religions form around standardized sets of apologetics.

    The theologically oriented will pay attention to interpretations of others. Most of the apologetically oriented however will assume their personal apologetics to be superior.

    The hazard of apologetic thinking is its tendency to override analytical thinking which can (and does) lead to bizarre interpretations of the real world.

  15. #15 Phiwilli
    October 7, 2011

    Several years ago Sullivan posted an extended dialogue between him and Sam Harris (very polite and respectful on both sides). Sullivan’s bottom line, as I recall, amounted to: my religion for years has and still does just mean too much to me, provides too much comfort, guidance, assurance, et al., for me to seriously consider abandoning it!!!

  16. #16 Jeffy Joe
    October 7, 2011

    My reaction to the “genesis is a metaphor” tact is always, “What about the begats?” If these aren’t meant to be seen as real people, why put together the whole family tree? What does reading page after page of begats help me to understand metaphorically?

  17. #17 eric
    October 7, 2011

    Jeffy Joe @16: Beowulf and I think the Odyssey do the same thing, reporting lineages of characters. And the Greek myths have the old legend of how the titans begat the gods. I think it was a pretty common part of oral traditions, and the presence of this device probably can’t be considered evidence one way or the other for whether the storyteller and audience considered the story to be fiction or non-fiction.

  18. #18 Jeffy Joe
    October 7, 2011

    Eric – good point about the other myths. As another example, I guess Tolkien wrote extensive genealogies for characters, and no one believes in hobbits (at least I hope not). But the apologists aren’t just saying it’s a story, but that it metaphorically reveals deep truths about the universe, so it’s more than a story. I think the question still stands, what deep truth is being revealed in a solid page of “Jimmy begat Tony, Tony begat Frank…”

  19. #19 Lenoxus
    October 7, 2011

    Jeffy Joe @ 18:

    I think the question still stands, what deep truth is being revealed in a solid page of “Jimmy begat Tony, Tony begat Frank…”

    From a literary point of view, the raw, heart-pounding excitement of the geneologies is sufficient justification.

  20. #20 eric
    October 7, 2011

    But the apologists aren’t just saying it’s a story, but that it metaphorically reveals deep truths about the universe, so it’s more than a story. I think the question still stands, what deep truth is being revealed in a solid page of “Jimmy begat Tony, Tony begat Frank…”

    That the people listening to the story are deeply connected to the people in the story. Their history is our history. The listeners should love what they love, hate what they hate. That the lessons contained in the story apply to the listeners because they’re from the same tribe. Etc…

    As for why there’s a whole page of that, I think a better question is why our modern culture has such a short attention span that we get supremely bored if a page goes by without sex or explosions. ;)

  21. #21 Erp
    October 7, 2011

    The genealogies probably served several functions:

    1. To explain different cultures. Many of the names are eponymous. Esau also called Edom is the supposed ancestor of Edom while Jacob also called Israel is the supposed ancestor of Israel, two cultures that are adjacent and somewhat similar, so the people, at least of Israel, considered the respective ancestors brothers (I would love to know what myths the Edomites had).

    2. A variant of this is to explain the relationship amongst the various groups that made up Judah/Israel (families, clans, and tribes).

    3. To justify one’s position within the society. This is more the later genealogies of the priestly families since to be a priest during and post the exile supposedly required descent from Aaron and ideally from Zadok who was said to be high priest in Solomon’s time (I suspect their was some creative writing going on). Note this is also the reason for the two genealogies for Jesus. Both have him descended from David (one through most of the kings of Judah and one through a minor son of David) and both are to justify the respective gospel writer’s claims that Jesus was the Messiah, heir to David (however Matthew and Luke don’t seem to have compared notes).

  22. #22 Lenoxus
    October 8, 2011

    eric @ 20:

    As for why there’s a whole page of that, I think a better question is why our modern culture has such a short attention span that we get supremely bored if a page goes by without sex or explosions. ;)

    I myself have little use for car chases and the like, but I still think that if endless “begats” aren’t dull, then nothing is.

    I would likely feel differently if I knew anything about most of the people the names refer to, of course, and it’s quite possible that the earliest listeners to the geneologies would have known some of that. If I created a list of random romantic couplings between Star Trek characters, any Trekkies reading it might laugh, groan, or whatever (pretend for a moment that such lists don’t already exist), but others would be bored out of their skulls.

    As far as the actual purpose of the Bible’s geneologies, Erp’s ideas seem closest to the truth.

  23. #23 Koray
    October 8, 2011

    Lenoxus, yes, the begats are utterly pointless. So is Numbers (how many donkeys? really?). So is Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. where Yahweh is repeating “You’ve turned away from me! You’ve sinned! I’m so frikkin’ mad I’mma open a can of wrath on you! I’mma have my homies Babylonians cut you!” FOR PAGES AND PAGES.

    It’s a really bad book.

  24. #24 Tony61
    October 9, 2011

    The roman catholic church has a hierarchy that determines the interpretation of scripture. So the short answer as to how you know which biblical passages are metaphor and which are actual is “the pope tells you.”. It’s a faith thing. and it’s the pope’s prerogative to change his view, as he has done with heliocentrism and evolution as science has come out and shown the previous worldview to be in error.

    Yes, coyne is correct to take issue with sullivan about the catholic church changing its view of the Fall… They certainly viewed it literally at one time. My hunch is that sullivan is a cultural catholic but has only a cursory knowledge of the history and catechism. But “real” catholics know that faith in the pope’s teaching is paramount.

    Aquinas said “to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary; to one who has no faith, no explanation is possible.”. I lost my faith a long time ago but, unlike sullivan, i know the history and teachings of my former religion.

  25. #25 386sx
    October 9, 2011

    @Andrew Sullivan There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative?

    Well actually, there are some people who do not regard it as figurative. Ooookay, glad I could help, I guess. *shrug!*

  26. #26 JimR
    October 10, 2011

    @18 Jeffey Joe
    The Hobbits have been discovered in Indonesia, so Mordor must be Lemuria renamed. Gandalf assumes the christ character after coming back in white. That’s as close to a supreme source of the magics that is mentioned in LotR. There are a couple of levels of begats, even more in the Appendix. I really wonder which parts to take on faith or figuratively. My Faith in the Tolkien religion is weak at best.

    I wonder which future, new religion will use photographic evidence as proofs of miracles. In some of the end of the world movies it is quite possible to imagine a religion based on viewing the Transformers. With supply shortages, only the priest class will be able to view on a severely curtailed basis. Heretics will be appropriately dealt with.

    I like the multi-tribe origins of competing, but complementary, tales. At the annual tribal conference, Joe S. Phat told them the true tale, and each speaker carried back his oral version. It is easy to see how divergence entered the WORD.

  27. #27 eric
    October 10, 2011

    I myself have little use for car chases and the like, but I still think that if endless “begats” aren’t dull, then nothing is

    I’d chalk part of it up to 20th century sensibilities. Our songs are 2.5-2.5 minutes long compared to the symphonies and epic poems of previous centuries. We prefer the 2-hour stage version of Les Mis to the 800-page book version (well, that might have something to do wit quality…). When Umberto Eco spends two pages describing a single wooden door in Name of the Rose, people skip over it. They’d rather see the movie and be over and done with the whole thing in 90 minutes or less.

    I’d also chalk part of it up to the availability of other entertainment. You have a lot of other things you could read and do. I imagine that back in the 1000’s BC, sitting around campfires, storytellers were probably actively looking for ways to extend their stories. Nobody wanted the story to end too soon. “Your poem’s too damn long” was probably not a complaint Homer ever heard. :)

  28. #28 Lenoxus
    October 13, 2011

    Bit late, but I wish to defend my lack of interest in Biblical geneologies as more than a
    lack of patience, as Eric implies. Without any knowledge of what the names represent, the list is as close to being objectively tedious as something subjective like tedium can be. It’s not like Umberto Eco describing a door, but like me writing. “The door was a door. The door was a door. The door was a door. The door was a door. The door was a door. The door was a door.” etc. But with just enough variety that your eyeballs can’t simply glean that I copied and pasted the same sentence repeatedly.

    The lack of variety makes slightly more sense for a literal geneology than for artistic or entertainment value. That said, I suspect there may be in-jokes. Certainly, the bit of geneological “information” that comes at the end of the tale of Sodom and Gomorah is a rather transparent yo-momma joke, for example,

  29. #29 Collin
    October 14, 2011

    @11. As far as narrative statements like those, I would of course call them all metaphors. The dilemma is what to do about the commands. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just pointless. I would tend to select the good ones as ethical principles, and I can see how you’d find that hypocritical. If you start with a Biblical definition of God, you do get horrendous results.

    People like me have a preconceived “un-read” concept of God — which of course can’t be explained (perhaps not even to myself) — and through this filter the Bible is not only metaphorical, but in some places flat-out wrong.

    So there’s a communication breakdown. I feel like saying you don’t know what God is, but you’re not with me on the “is”.

    P.S. Lenoxus, you’re talking about the pillar of salt? I think you’re right. I’ve been puzzling over that for years: If something was going to hit her and turn her into salt, wouldn’t God say “watch out, behind you”? Why would God tell her not to look back? As part of a joke, a paradox like this might make sense. I still don’t get it though.

  30. #30 386sx
    October 14, 2011

    The dilemma is what to do about the commands. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just pointless. I would tend to select the good ones as ethical principles, and I can see how you’d find that hypocritical.

    You can do that with any book. I would propose that the reasons you choose the Bible over other books is because 1) Other people talked you into it and you went along with their pretend authority on the matter for no good reason. 2) It’s a convenient way of focusing your superstition into one convenient handy dandy portable idol. 3) You talk to pretend people that pretend tell you they are in the Bible.

  31. #31 Wow
    October 14, 2011

    “As far as narrative statements like those, I would of course call them all metaphors. The dilemma is what to do about the commands”

    The commands would be coming from people talked about in narrative statements, yes?

    So if those narrative statements are metaphorical, the entities described are also metaphorical and the commands coming from those metaphorical entities are not commands. They’re just what a metaphorical entity would command if they’d actually existed.

  32. #32 Lenoxus
    October 19, 2011

    P.S. Lenoxus, you’re talking about the pillar of salt?

    I wasn’t being terribly clear, but I actually meant Genesis 19 verses 36 to 38 (New International translation):

    So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

    Of course we know that those tribes were not named after specific patriarchs, and even if they were, this “origin story” is pretty transparently meant as an insult. I almost hear the laughter of the first to hear this tale, gathered around a campfire long ago…

  33. #33 Johnny
    November 2, 2011

    Fantastic post I very much enjoyed it, keep up the good work.

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