Andrew Sullivan is a mush-brained metaphorizer

I’m sorry for the insult in the title, but I’m just reciprocating Sullivan’s latest invective.

For a Catholic, Andrew Sullivan often has rational opinions.  But his latest attack on me in The Daily Dish, “Must the story of the fall be true?”, isn’t one of them. And since he calls me “dumb”, and uses other strong language, I think I’m entitled to respond by saying this:  Sullivan is a deluded Catholic who not only adheres to fairy tales, but seems to know very little about the history of his own faith.

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?

h/t: Tulse


  1. josh
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Just a nit to throw on the pile of bad logic dragging Sullivan down, but he’s gobsmackingly wrong in a literary sense too. The Genesis passages don’t ‘scream parable’. They don’t have the structure of a parable at all. Parables don’t generally feature named people (Adam) and specific times (In the beginning…), they usually have the form, ‘Once there was a rich man…’ or some equivalent. They don’t have an ongoing narrative like Adam being created, passing various important events like the creation of Eve and the Fall, having children and dying. All of which of course continues into Cain and Abel, the Begats, Lot, Babel, Noah, etc. All of which, in traditional Catholic teaching, leads straight to Jesus as Coyne keeps pointing out. Parables have only enough story to illustrate their short, didactic message, often spelled out explicitly by an explicit narrator. Nothing in the Eden story reads like a parable.

    This is a relatively minor quibble since Sullivan could have argued it was intended as an allegory or otherwise symbolicly, which would at least be more consistent with the form. (Coyne’s points would still stand.) It just shows how completely Sullivan is talking out of his ass.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes, what are we to make of Luke 3:23-37?

      Was Luke speaking metaphorically when he claimed Jesus’ lineage down not JUST to Adam but to God himself?

      Funny that…seems to be rather important to the whole story. His “lineage”.

    • Aratina Cage
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      Parables don’t generally feature named people (Adam) and specific times (In the beginning…), they usually have the form, ‘Once there was a rich man…’ or some equivalent.

      However, the name Adam (and also Eve) seems to have been deliberately chosen because it could be understood in the way you describe for a parable.

      • josh
        Posted October 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        I would say the etymology/meaning of the name can support a more symbolic reading. I wouldn’t call that reading a parable though.
        ‘Adam’ can have the generic meaning ‘mankind’ and its root means ‘earth’. So it could be that at some point in time Adam was understood as a less specific ‘beginning’ of humanity. (That would still be substantially in conflict with an old earth and evolution.) Of course it could equally be true that the story of a first human already existed and the name was attached as a ‘clever’ pun. Similarly, the connotation ‘earth’ bring up the question: was there an earlier story of a man made from clay to which the name was appended, or was the clay detail added in later repetitions based on the name?

        Which all just goes to show that it is an old story based on an older oral tradition with an unknown number of additions, subtractions, edits and typos for unknown political and personal reasons. So when Sullivan or anyone claims there IS a correct original interpretation, much less that they know it, they’re plainly full of it. Nonetheless, we do know that various parts of the story have been taken literally by Abrahamic believers for millenia. For centuries Catholic doctrine emphasized the weak, corruptible and secondary nature of women based on Eve. And if you go and make the story purely symbolic then it becomes a purely symbolic story about how women suck. Way to go Catholic apologists.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      This is a relatively minor quibble

      actually, I would argue that it isn’t minor at all.

      You have hit on the primary thing that is what is wrong with theologists claiming they can decide which passages in a literary text are parables or not.

      they, in fact, do not apply any rules at all.

      it’s all entirely subjective to them.

      Andrew does well to demonstrate just how subjective it is.

      What happens when we DO apply standard rules to these texts?


  2. FootFace
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    How frustrating! On Sullivan’s site, he quotes his critics, but fails (refuses?) to address their criticisms.

    For instance, after quoting a reader who recaps Jerry’s point that no literal Adam and Eve means no basis for the Fall and nothing for the Resurrection to atone for, Sullivan says only, “And eveything science has taught us about our genetic nature shows indeed intrinsic tendencies toward evil, as well as incipient and perhaps accelerating movements toward the good.”

    That’s it. To me, this reveals contempt for his readers. Was your critic right? Wrong? Have you changed your mind? Did your critic miss the point? How? Aw, who cares! It’s all a mysterious, mystical mystery.

  3. Kevin
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Sullivan:

    Billy Graham.
    Albert Mohler.
    Michelle Bachmann.
    Governor Goodhair (Rick Perry).
    Sarah Bag-o-Hammers Palin.
    Virtually every other leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the Presidency.
    Bill O’Reilly.
    40% of the American citizenry.

    That’s who.

    Kindly take your gross distortion of the facts and shove them up your already well-lubed….

    • Steersman
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      The first part of your post is probably a good point. The last part probably qualifies as a serious and sexist and totally irrelevant ad hominem.

      • Kevin
        Posted October 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

        I suggest you look up the definition of “ad hominem”.

        You will discover that I did not, in fact, tell him he was wrong because he was …

        Definitionally, my comments were as far away from an ad hom as you can get.

        You’re stupid/fat/ugly/whatever, therefore your argument is invalid = ad hom.

        Your arguments are lacking in factual basis + a very mild insult couched in an ellipsis = no ad hom.

        I might add “with a porcupine” and still not achieve an ad hom. Because I did not attack his IDEAS on the basis of a personal characteristic.

        • Steersman
          Posted October 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

          Ok, I stand corrected: it wasn’t technically an ad hominem, more along the line of “gratuitous verbal abuse” – not that Sullivan himself has much of a claim on the moral high ground on that point.

          And I see that, as you suggested:

          In order to become a fallacy, the insult would need to be given as a reason for believing some conclusion.

          However, still seems to me that the insult was either irrelevant or a case of “pointing out a [presumably] negative characteristic or belief of the person supporting” another set of beliefs and hence virtually tantamount to an ad hominem. I’ve seen that Myers, Dawkins and Coyne have all indicated that they’ve been the targets of verbal assaults if not physical threats primarily from religious fundamentalists “unhappy” with their atheism. Yet I expect that religious apologists – such as Feser, Flynn, Sullivan and Vallicella – don’t receive any such, particularly from atheists or agnostics. I would think that people in the latter two groups would want to try to maintain their largely unblemished record on that account.

  4. FootFace
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Yes, but Sullivan doesn’t care about American Christians and their legendary misinterpretations.

    He says, “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.”

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      Countless? For most of those two millenia it only existed in five or six incarnations, each one ensuring – by political power and the use of violence – that it was the only incarnation in the vicinity.

      The denominations only started multiplying after it became illegal to kill people for heresy.

  5. Dawn Oz
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to Jerry for his spirited reply (pun intended). The perfect re-post – give us a person who can divine the metaphorical from the literal……..I’m waiting……

    Sullivan lacks the first virtue – courage – he makes outrageous claims without the backbone to face his opponents.

  6. Steersman
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    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.

    They will be dragged, kicking and screaming, yielding one literalism after another – “putting away childish things” [“Ok, ok, ok. I’ll give up the soother but let me keep the lollipop – please?”], into adulthood. Eventually, one hopes.

    But I really don’t see anything inherently wrong in reading various passages in the Bible metaphorically – a very important step in the right direction as a matter of fact. Particularly in light of Dr. Coyne’s own recent acknowledgement:

    And we should put away the whole Bible as a childish thing, save for the stirring literary bits and whatever good moral lessons it teaches that happen to coincide with our secular ideas of what is good.

    And Dawkins lists some two pages of “Bible-inspired phrases and sentences …. from great poetry to hackneyed cliché, from proverb to gossip” [pgs 383-385]

    And finally, Loren Eiseley used the metaphor of Eden to great effect:

    Symbolic communication had begun. Man had escaped out of the eternal present of the animal world into a knowledge of past and future. …. The Eden of the eternal present that the animal world had known for ages was shattered at last. Through the human mind, time and darkness, good and evil, would enter and possess the world. [The Immense Journey; pgs 120-121]

    The problem arises when the concession that one part of the Bible is metaphor conceals a hook, i.e. the implied acceptance of or insistence on the literal truth of another part. For an amusing example of which consider this from a philosopher, Bill Vallicella, whom Edward Feser references in Feser’s own attempts at trying to find some justification for a literal Adam and Eve in light of evolutionary biology:

    Man’s “fallenness” is a spiritual condition that can only be understood in a spiritual way. It does not require that the whole human race have sprung from exactly two animal progenitors that miraculously came into physical existence by divine agency and thus without animal progenitors. Nor does it require that the transmission of the fallen condition be biological in nature.

    “Ridiculous intellectual contortions”, indeed.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      The problem arises when the concession that one part of the Bible is metaphor conceals a hook, i.e. the implied acceptance of or insistence on the literal truth of another part.

      and, since it is clear that any valued metaphors or literary devices in that collection can actually be found elsewhere, in books that DON’T contain such hooks….

      I say toss the whole thing.

  7. will
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    It can be very irrational what “non-traditional” Christians will and won’t allow themselves to believe. I have a friend, Tammy, and while at Starbucks drinking lattes I questioned her about her beliefs. Yes, she believes in God and an afterlife. She only occasionally goes to Church but prays to Jesus regularly. Then, to my surprise I found that she believes that Mary’s virgin birth and the visiting angel Gabriel is a “metaphorical” story.

    Metaphorical for what?? It’s core Christian doctrine that Christ was an immaculate conception. It’s like the whirling CENTER of the entire conception. Not only was He born without the taint of sexual sin — it was imperative to the story’s LOGIC that Christ be part-God part-human. But Tammy had her own (vague) beliefs. A virgin birth cannot be literally true, she told me. It’s obvious mythology.

    I’ve found that many Christians have worked out an inchoate crazyquilt patchwork of tradional and non-traditional and New Agey and irrational beliefs – an “a la carte” approach — that somehow seem to comfortably co-exist in their own minds. Andrew Sullivan believes in a (somewhat unorthodox) Christian God yet he rejects entire stories as “metaphorical” — stories that sometimes form the very texture and substance of Judaism and Christianity.

  8. FootFace
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Actually, it’s MARY, and not Jesus, who was conceived immaculately. But the point’s the same.

    • Posted October 7, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      Yep. NonCatholics often confuse the virgin birth (of Jesus) with the immaculate conception (of Mary), since they have different theological significance that need not interest anyone who doesn’t believe such nonsense.

      The virgin birth was to confirm Jesus’ godhood status, like many other godmen of the time. It’s part of the expanding Christology developed by the authors of gMatthew and gLuke.

      The immaculate conception, if I understand it right, was to break the supposed chain of Original Sin, that would have otherwise contaminated Jesus, at the conception of his mother Mary. This also sets up the veneration of Mary, since she was a sinless person in her own right (according to the doctrine, of course — I think she’s just a bit of midrash). It’s apparently a much later development, and there’s no hint of it in the Bible itself.

  9. Tim Harris
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Straight from the Sullivan’s mouth, pure and unadulterated:
    ‘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?’

    Diawl! (Welsh for ‘the devil!’) Can he not see the pitiful triviality and infantile banality of the ‘lesson’ he supposes Genesis to teach? But like most Xtians I know, little Andrew has never recovered from the shock of Sunday School. (His arguments in the dialogue with Sam Harris showed this, too.)

    He also praises ‘Bob’ Wright’s dreadful book on the ‘evolution’ of religion.

    • 386sx
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      For someone trying to clarify his position, he’s awful fast and loose with the “angels” bit. Nobody knows if he means real angels, metaphoric angels, puppy angels, what! WTF with the angels routine!

      • Kharamatha
        Posted October 7, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

        Sea angels are best angels.

  10. Posted October 6, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Frankly, I think many in the clergy see the whole Bible as metaphor.

    The joke is that “the believers are in the pews and the atheists (or agnostics) are at the pulpits”

    I grew up Catholic and as I got to be an adult, I found that the official Church position was that the Bible was some sort of “scrapbook” for what people thought of AT THAT TIME. Of course, passages that were consistent with official church teaching (which were not necessarily related to the Bible) were explained away; one example of this was the mistake of translating the Hebrew word for “young woman” into “virgin”. The church holds that this mistake was a “divinely inspired” mistake!

  11. randyextry
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Says Sullivan, “And eveything science has taught us about our genetic nature shows indeed intrinsic tendencies toward evil, as well as incipient and perhaps accelerating movements toward the good.”

    I think with “mush-brained” you are being far too kind.

    “Intrinsic tendencies toward evil?” Has he learned his genetics from Mary Midgley? This is, as they say, Not Even Wrong.

    It’s truly fascinating what religion can do to an otherwise intelligent mind.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if we should recommend Sullivan read Pinker’s latest book?

    • Kharamatha
      Posted October 7, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      Muoha ha ha ha! Moo hoo hoo! Mwow hwow hwow hwow hwow!

      Oh, excuse my evil.

  12. Tulse
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m re-watching That Mitchell and Webb Look, and this sketch seems appropriate.

    • Posted October 7, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink

      By Vectron’s knees, you’ve got it!

      • Posted October 7, 2011 at 3:05 am | Permalink

        I second that! Never have Truer Words been Spoken, by Vectron’s Home Confinement Ankle Bracelet.

  13. Posted October 6, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    I enjoy reading Sullivan’s political views, even when I disagree with them.

    I just wish he’d move his bewildering Catholic apologia along with his Trig Palin conspiracy theories to another blog, cause I’m really tired of reading those.

    Gotta take the good with the bad, I guess.

  14. Diane G.
    Posted October 7, 2011 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    WooHoo, what a rollicking, bracing, laugh-riot of a thread, beginning with JAC’s latest kick-ass post! Bravo, everyone!

    (Fancy way to say “subscribing.”)

  15. SinSeeker
    Posted October 7, 2011 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    Perhaps Andrew Sullivan has never heard of “The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth,” published in 12 volumes from 1910 to 1915? It’s where the term “fundamentalist” originally came from, before it developed its more modern pejorative meaning. I think he’ll find a lot of “deluded fools” in there, many of whom would have been highly regarded theologians in their day.

    I’d particularly recommend “The Early Narratives of Genesis” by James Orr or “The Doctrinal Value of the First Chapters of Genesis” by Dyson Hague. There’s not a lot of screaming “parable” in those little gems. The “Decadence of Darwinism” by Henry H. Beach is also good for a laugh.

    As Hague says: “The Book of Genesis … contains the authoritative information given to the race concerning these questions of everlasting interest: the Being of God; the origin of the universe; the creation of man; the origin of the soul; the fact of revelation; the introduction of sin; the promise of salvation; the primitive division of the human race; the purpose of the elected people; the preliminary part in the program of Christianity.”

  16. Kharamatha
    Posted October 7, 2011 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Quoth God, “‘Twas not intended to be a factual statement.”

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