Sullivan uncorks nuggets like this:
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?
I find myself helpless in the face of such gibberish. If original sin is a mystery, then how does it make sense of whatever predicament Sulilvan imagines we are in? How does believing that humanity’s moral sense is as much a product of evolution as any of our other endowments render human life paradoxical? Who, exactly, thinks we can master the universe with our minds (whatever that even means)? And where does Genesis warn against doing that? A more plausible reading suggests that Genesis was warning against disobeying God.
As I noted in this previous post, there is no fact of the matter regarding the meaning of original sin. If Sullivan can get other people to go along with his rather unorthodox understanding of the concept that they are all welcome to it. But I would note, as in the previous post, that a skeptic can reasonably wonder whether the concept of original sin, as presented by Sullivan, is contributing anything at all to our understanding of the human condition. If the doctrine is completely untethered from anything the Bible actually says, and exists solely as some vague acknowledgement of the fact that humanity often falls short of its highest ideals, then what is it telling us that we did not already know?
But that is an aside. There is very little in Sullivan’s post that merits a response, but he does manage to raise one interesting question. One of Sullivan’s readers, responding to Sullivan’s assertion that anyone with a brain can see that Genesis was not meant literally, and that the text “screams parable,” pointed out that, actually, rather a lot of people don’t agree at all with that. Literal interpretations of Genesis are pretty common these days. Here is Sullivan’s reply:
Christianity is not and never has been defined by a majority of American believers in 2011. It has existed for two millennia in countless forms and incarnations, if you pardon the expression. My own dismay at what passes for Christianity today is not exactly a secret on this blog. I can agree with Coyne on this and still find him crude and uninformed about the faith he has such contempt for.
But Sullivan is not just placing himself in opposition to a majority of American believers in 2011. He is also placing himself in direct opposition to the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church. It is not as though atheists, motivated by a desire to make Christians look foolish, came up with the idea that Adam and Eve were real people who actually sinned. We’re not the ones who wrongly discerned historical content in what certainly seems to be an ancient myth. As we saw in yesterday’s post, the reality of Adam and Eve and the transmission of their sin through “ordinary generation” was, for most of Christian history, central to how most people saw themselves, and it was an idea promoted by virtually all of the great Christian theologians. Yet Sullivan denounces them all as brainless. Hence my description of his views as arrogant.
That’s not the interesting part, though. Sullivan’s statement got me wondering about the question of how Christianity is defined. I would argue that Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, is defined solely by what communities of believers say it means. There is no objective standard or Platonic essence to which you can refer. There is no basis for saying, with regard to how a particular community practices Christianity, “You’re doing it wrong!” unless that statement is just short hand for, “I don’t like the way you’re doing it.”
Fundamentalists are often criticized for acting as though they are the only ones practicing authentic Christianity. That criticism is well-deserved. But it is no better when more moderate Christians assume the same pose, acting as though they are the ones who really understand what Christianity is all about. When skeptics address themselves to culturally dominant versions of Christianity, exposing its beliefs as unwarranted and perhaps even dangerous, it is not a serious reply to say, “But you haven’t criticized real Christianity, as practiced by myself and a handful of other sophisticates.”
Politically I’m all in favor of religious moderation. If we’re stuck with religion as a serious social force, far better it be the sort of faith that is flexible with regard to doctrine. Intellectually, though, I don’t find it to be much of an improvement over what the fundamentalists offer. Sullivan’s understanding of original sin is, so far as I can tell, something he simply made up. I can find in it not the slightest connection either to the Biblical text, or to traditional Christian teaching.