Andrew Sullivan gives up blogging

Andrew Sullivan and I crossed swords several times, most notably when he became enraged after I argued that the story of Adam and Eve was taken literally for millennia by many theologians and believers—and still is today.  In a statement that still makes me laugh, he argued this:

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.

Yes, I had read the fucking thing, and much other theology as well. My original response to Sullivan’s nonsense was here, and I have a longer disquisition about metaphor and scripture in The Albatross.

That exchange continued in two more posts, one by Sullivan and one by me.

But I still had a grudging respect for the man. He was a gay member of the Catholic Church, and was bold enough to stand up to it, as well as to be open about his homosexuality and his HIV-positive status. On the other hand, he was a member of the Catholic Church, and stayed a member. Still, I admired his willingness to call the excesses of his church, as well as his arguments for gay-marriage laws and the legalization of marijuana. He criticized political correctness and the excesses of the so-called social justice warriors, even though he was pretty much on the left.  I didn’t read him that often, but I know that Greg Mayer, who posts here, was a fan—even though Greg disagreed with some of Sullivan’s views. Finally, it was dead obvious that Sullivan worked very hard, not just to make money, but because he loved what he did. I admire that kind of dedication.

Now, however, Sullivan’s hanging it up. In a post yesterday at his site The Dish, he announced his retirement from blogging, and gave his reasons:

Why? Two reasons. The first is one I hope anyone can understand: although it has been the most rewarding experience in my writing career, I’ve now been blogging daily for fifteen years straight (well kinda straight). That’s long enough to do any single job. In some ways, it’s as simple as that. There comes a time when you have to move on to new things, shake your world up, or recognize before you crash that burn-out does happen.

The second is that I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again. I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book.

I want to spend some real time with my parents, while I still have them, with my husband, who is too often a ‘blog-widow’, my sister and brother, my niece and nephews, and rekindle the friendships that I have simply had to let wither because I’m always tied to the blog. And I want to stay healthy. I’ve had increasing health challenges these past few years. They’re not HIV-related; my doctor tells me they’re simply a result of fifteen years of daily, hourly, always-on-deadline stress. These past few weeks were particularly rough – and finally forced me to get real.

The rest of his piece is, well, pretty touching, especially when he talks about the community of readers he had, something that hits home for me. He promises to reappear in print in some other venue, and I’m sure that’s true. He has writing in his blood, and you don’t just give that up. And I completely understand his desire to respond to things thoughtfully rather than having to bang out pieces on a daily basis.

So, Andrew, I wish you Godspeed—and that’s a metaphor.

h/t: Ginger K.

44 Comments

  1. Nick
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Subscribe.

  2. Barry Lyons
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    The funny thing about Sullivan’s stance on Adam & Eve is that if he WERE correct, then it means Jesus died for a metaphor. Odd that Sullivan was unable to take that view to that next logical step. Wow, the Adam & Eve story is the “ground floor” of Christianity but Sullivan sees it as a metaphor! Boy, he’s not a very percipient Catholic, is he.

    • Ralph
      Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      I don’t follow this. Metaphor doesn’t mean myth or fiction, it means representation. If Eden etc is taken as a metaphor for something real (original sin, or whatever?), then what’s the inherent logical contradiction in believing that Jesus died for that real thing? It’s not dying for a metaphor, it’s dying for the presumed reality that the metaphor represents.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted January 29, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        “if Eden is taken as a metaphor for something real(original sin or whatever?)”

        It isn’t. The literal story of what happened in the garden of Eden is what original sin is based upon. It’s not based on an undefined, metaphorical interpretation. It’s explicitly a result of Eve’s despicable behaviour in eating a proscribed fruit. To describe the Eden story as metaphorical is to remove all the religious ‘justification’ for the idea of original sin.

        • rickflick
          Posted January 29, 2015 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

          I’m not so sure. Adam and Eve can be taken as metaphorical tokens for the general state of humans as sinners. Our instinct for selfishness. Eden was a stand-in for the fallen nature of man.
          Then Christ died for human nature, not the stand-in for human nature. It seems to work…if you believe that Christ is divine and the bible has a lot of myth in it.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      One theologian’s metaphor is another one’s literalism.

      In early Christianity, Origen (185 – 254) thought Adam & Eve were metaphors, while Augustine (354 – 430) definitely thought Adam & Eve were the real deal, although he allowed
      !*other*! Biblical tales (such as Jonah and the whale) to be metaphors.

      It was the Augustine who first introduced into Western Christianity the notion of an inherited guilt from Adam and Eve which necessitates the death of Jesus, while in Origen’s era there was a wide variety of other possible explanations whatever magic is worked by Jesus’ death. But in all of the earlier ones Jesus was largely seen as having defeated personal, individual, actual evil/sin, not any inherited guilt from Adam and Eve as Augustine thought. To this day, Eastern Orthodox churches reject Augustine’s theology.

      Augustine’s literal Adam is quite evident in many of his writings, most notably “City of God” (also a rather morbid and masochistic book). The relevant literalist quote from Augustine is

      God chose to make a single individual the starting point of all mankind. His purpose in doing this was that the human race should be united in a society of natural likeness and harmonious unity (City of God 14.1)

      The relevant metaphorical quote from Origen (writing a centure before Augustine) is

      Who would be so childish as to think that God was like a human gardener and planted a paradise in Eden facing the east, and in it made a real visible tree, so that one could acquire life by eating its fruit with real teeth or, again, could participate in good and evil by eating what he took from the other tree? And if the text says that God walked in the garden in the evening, or Adam hid himself under the tree, I cannot think that anyone would dispute that these things are said in the figurative sense, in an effort to reveal certain mysteries by means of an apparent historical tale and not by something that actually took place… ” (First Principles – 4: 16)

      • Posted January 30, 2015 at 3:26 am | Permalink

        God chose to make a single individual the starting point of all mankind. His purpose in doing this was that the human race should be united in a society of natural likeness and harmonious unity.

        Well, that worked!

        It’s interesting to note that Sophisticated Theology™ has been around from the start, doing the heavy lifting to reconcile the inevitable cognitive dissonance that comes with the worship of an invisible, nameless Supreme Being who created an amazing, fertile planet in an inconceivably elegant universe, but who seems to be continually surprised and frustrated by the lesser beings he “made in his image.”

        I don’t get the attraction of cafeteria worship, picking and choosing the bits one likes and leaving the rest. I mean, the need to rationalize a faith in order to hold onto it makes sense, but the reduction to metaphor removes all of the power and magic that makes the creator’s word into law: once I am free to reject the factuality of a large part of scripture’s claims, why should I take any of the claims to heart? Origen is basically saying that bible stories are meant to teach secular lessons. In other words, we use what we know is right in our hearts, and what is probable based on our own worldly experience, to cull banal lessons from a book supposedly written by the creator himself.

        I’m not saying Augustine was “right” in the sense that the human race sprang from a naked, navel-less Caucasian couple, but if one is not prepared to suspend disbelief for the stories in Genesis, what’s the point of doing so for the subsequent volumes that build on top of that foundation? The rabbis who edited the final stories included the absurd litanies of who begat whom for the sole reason of establishing a factual line of descent from Adam and Eve through to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to their present day. The writers of the gospels built on that work to establish the bona fides of their savior. If a believer doesn’t really “believe” in the narrative that establishes the savior’s authority – though I think most really do – then how in the world is s/he buying a story about immaculate conception, showy miracles and resurrection of an executed God-in-the-flesh? If anything, the Garden of Eden and Jonah – even Noah’s Ark! – are more “believable” than the stories in the final book in the series.

        And if it’s all metaphor, then centuries of oppression and bloodshed over metaphors are even harder to accept! And that’s saying something!

        • Posted January 30, 2015 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          I don’t get the attraction of cafeteria worship, picking and choosing the bits one likes and leaving the rest.

          This is actually what lead me to drop Catholicism. Ironically, I heard this admonition about “cafeteria Catholics” continually when I was growing up. “You either accept it all or you reject it all,” or so the saying went. It made sense, a pretty rational position. However, what’s left out is that they expect you to accept it all and there is plenty of fear and guilt built into the process to make sure you do accept it.

          The Church has the Magisterium and the claim is that they have some sort of hotline to the divine. What they say is law and they back it up with scripture. Somehow, this basic message has been buried by the sophisticated theologians and led to mental contortions trying to demonstrate what they want to be true to actually be true. Of course, when you analyze Church teachings, I can’t understand why you’d want them to be true either.

          • Posted January 30, 2015 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

            Theology, like original sin and eternal life, is a Christian invention. It took nearly four centuries for the early church to come to a consensus on the nature of God and Jesus, embodied and simplified in the Nicean Creed.

            The Jews, on the other hand, were far more concerned with what God required of them, and there were many answers, some simple (“What doth the Lord require of thee? Only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy god.), some detailed and legalistic (Mishnah, Talmud). But the Jews never believed that Adam brought sin and death into the world. To the contrary, God lies to Adam, telling him that if he eats of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he will surely die (Gen 2:17, 3:3). Actually, he is worried that Adam will go on to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever (3:22). There is no talk of sin, simply that having acquired knowledge humankind will have to leave Paradise and work for a living (the Hebrew for Paradise is Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden).

            Origen is right: this is metaphor. He is wrong, however, in believing that it is a metaphor of sin and death, rather than of the way of the world (lifelong toil, pain in childbirth, male domination, legless snakes). He can be excused for getting it wrong: Paul did as well (“Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”) Most of the Christians I know agree with Origen (there may be a selection effect at work here).

            ManOutOfTime, it is not correct that Abraham derives his standing by his descent from Adam and Eve, or even Noah, as everybody else is similarly descended. His authority comes from having been chosen to found the Jewish people. Nor were the authors rabbis: they didn’t exist until after the destruction of the second temple. The authors–or rather editors–were, presumably, scribes in the employment of
            priests. The actual authors are lost in the mists of time.

            To be sure, I’m in complete agreement with your final paragraph.

  3. Sastra
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    So, Andrew, I wish you Godspeed—and that’s a metaphor.

    Of course that’s a metaphor! It’s screams metaphor. Like this:

    GODSPEEEEEEEEEED!

    Best of luck to Sullivan. This time his reasons all make sense 😉

  4. Posted January 29, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Nice post. I found Sullivan generally pretty good; but off the rails on some things (e.g. the RCC and religion, generally).

    • Posted January 30, 2015 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      I subscribed to the first incarnation of the Daily Dish, before he went off to Time. Until now I wasn’t aware that there was a second incarnation.

      His adherence to the Church, in the face of its condemnation of his sexuality, always seemed to me to have elements of tragedy.

  5. bobkillian
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Gracefully said. And that’s a metaphor.

  6. Randy Schenck
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    The Catholics are masters at finding the excuses and endless changes in direction to maintain their faith. They even argue their way out of hell in many convenient ways including confession or a nod from the pope. Eventually, the metaphor is just a fiction.

  7. Simon Hayward
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I have enjoyed Sullivan’s writing for a number of years. He went off (goes off) the deep end periodically but always has the courage to fess up to his mistakes and to argue his position against a pretty opinionated (and paying) readership. For six days of the week I’ll miss him far more than the value I place on the annual subscription to the Dish. Sunday’s less so.

  8. nickswearsky
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I liked and read Sullivan’s blog most everyday (as I do here). His views on IQ and Race are amazing wrong,as were many other things. But, I agreed with him at times as well. After all, what fun is a log where everyone is in lock-step agreement, right? I am a little dismayed that he started his subscription service only a little more than a year ago, and many people renewed. Now he quits. I guess any service or business can end abruptly, but he was, I thought, presenting a serious model of a subscription based blog. I’d have preferred to see if sink or swim over the long haul. But, he must follow his bliss as we all should. I can’t fault him for that.

    That said, please don’t leave u, WEIT, ever!

    • nickswearsky
      Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      That said, please don’t leave us, WEIT, ever!

  9. Edward Hessler
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I would not have read this but for this post. Mr. Sullivan’s reasons are lovely–insightful, reflective and provocative since they are about things that matter (to him with some about things that have resonance with me. S-l-o-w reading is one and thinking about what I’ve read another.

    The long walk to the end of the world is surprisingly short and I hope his walk finds good winds at his back most of the time.

  10. Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Why does the Garden of Eden story “scream” metaphor? Because it’s full of magical nonsense that couldn’t have actually happened?

    So what makes it different from other magically nonsensical stories like Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to the apostles?

  11. Chris
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    As only an occasional reader of his I do find myself agreeing with a chunk more than I disagreed, even though those disagreements are absolutely fundamental! Still, his writing style was engaging and enjoyable, and that’s the first thing that I look for in an author. All the best to him.

  12. ladyatheist
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Good for him. Anyone who thinks nobody takes the Garden story seriously needs to get out more.

  13. Posted January 29, 2015 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    “Godspeed” –– it’s raining.

  14. Posted January 29, 2015 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  15. Posted January 29, 2015 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but wonder if the departure of Sullivan, a voice with which I very rarely agreed, will leave a vacuum of sorts in the blogosphere.
    He made me so angry once that I actually broke the keyboard typing a comment on one of his columns. But I hope his departure from the blogosphere doesn’t mean that his thoughtfulness gets replaced by the ruminations of some blow-hard Bill Donohue wannabe. That would be sad.

  16. Posted January 29, 2015 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Clearly, as a gay Catholic, Sullivan dismisses a lot of what the Church teaches and basically makes up his own religion (not that the whole thing isn’t made up to begin with). But why say you’re Catholic if you’re just going to disagree with certain aspects of the religion. This is one religion with an authoritative body that we can look to for what they actually believe. Regarding the Fall of Man, this is it:
    390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.264 Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents..

    So yes, they don’t claim necessarily that it was an apple that caused the Fall (but how often to they point this out in indoctrinating the young?). But what was it? And by what mechanism did God tell Adam and Eve what was good and evil? Note, in verse 395, they talk about Satan being a creature, so somewhere along the way, there is a claim of a literal event involving supernatural entities.

    • Posted January 30, 2015 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Note how many assumptions are built into this view that are dubious, too:

      – There is a significant time or event one can call “the beginning of the history of man”.
      – “First parents” denotes.
      – Something called “original fault” happened to them (and not to earlier life).

      Incidentally, I have it on the authority of several readers of Hebrew that the text does not say “apple”, but merely fruit.

      • Posted January 30, 2015 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        You are right. I have often seen the fruit depicted as an apple in artwork but I don’t see any translations of the Bible that don’t call it fruit.

        More importantly, how does “original fault” translate backwards through time? There is certainly no evidence that there are immortal creatures anywhere in the tree of life. What did the poor amoeba do to deserve death?

        • Posted January 30, 2015 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

          This is what happens when one religion adopts another’s mythology without understanding it.

          • Posted January 30, 2015 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

            The skeptic in me thinks that even if the early founders of Christianity understood Jewish mythology, accuracy wasn’t high on the priority list. More likely, Seneca had it right.

            • Posted January 31, 2015 at 6:49 am | Permalink

              Agreed, Seneca surely had it right with respect to established religion. Of course it took Christianity about three centuries to become established, during which it gave rise to as many different strains of thought as Judaism had over a millenium. (Elaine Pagels is perhaps the most accessible writer on that subject.) The association with secular power was used to wipe out that intellectual diversity. As usual, orthodoxy was the enemy of creative thinking.

  17. Ralph
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Thinking about Andrew Sullivan brought to mind one of the most complex and moving moments in the Aaron Sorkin series “The Newsroom”. The newscaster (the lead character in the drama) relentlessly attacks a (fictional) gay man who is a spokeperson for the Rick Santorum presidential campaign (Santorum is a real-life Catholic bigot). I hope that I can post this link without it embedding, it’s brilliantly acted, deeply uncomfortable to watch.

    • Ralph
      Posted January 29, 2015 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      sorry about the embed… if you click through twice, you can watch it on youtube.

  18. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    I like Sullivan a lot. I don’t agree with him on religion but he can be insightful and he doesn’t shy away from controversy. It’s too bad he’s hanging it up.

  19. scottoest
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Sullivan has one of the best blogs on the internet, despite my frequent disagreements with him.

    As an atheist, his blog is unreadable on Sundays (he devotes the entire day to faith-related writing), but aside from that, his writings were almost always interesting. And many of his atheist readers made a note (often lightheartedly), of pointing out how much they hated his blog on Sundays, haha.

    Among the “punditocracy”, Sully is a rarity: a person who isn’t afraid to admit when they were wrong, and changes their opinions based on new information. He published an e-book just last year, discussing how he managed to get the Iraq War so very wrong. He also genuinely grapples with ideas, instead of just quoting people who agree with him, and ignoring everyone else.

    His “Dissents of the Day” posts are often the best examples of his commitment to intellectual honesty. He hand picks dissents to respond to, but rather than cherry pick posts he can easily destroy, he really does choose thoughtful counterarguments – and has even modified his own views based on them. He doesn’t hide from criticism, even though some have construed his lack of a comments section that way.

    Faith continues to be his one big intellectual soft spot – the transcript of his e-mail debate with Sam Harris several years ago, displays that in stark relief (look it up).

    Sully infuriates me with his opinions about a half dozen times per year, but aside from that (and again, anything posted on a Sunday!), his blog is indispensable. If he really is quitting, it will be a loss.

    • ichiban
      Posted February 6, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      I just found the transcript between Harris and Sullivan, Sullivan had a link to it somewhere on his blog today. Holy crap did Harris destroy him. It was embarrassing.

      http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/debate-with-andrew-sullivan-part-two

      • rickflick
        Posted February 6, 2015 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

        Fascinating.
        The only objection I have to Sam’s essays is his rather confusing discussion of spirituality devoid of religion. I don’t understand quite what he’s talking about. Anyway, thanks for the link.

      • Posted February 7, 2015 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        I don’t agree that Harris destroyed him. I’d call it at best an honorable draw. Sullivan might even have decided it for himself if he were less wedded to his specific Catholicism and more open to a general deism. When Harris wrote,

        “While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us.”

        he left himself open to the response that, as we have yet to establish how the universe came to be, we cannot rule out that it is the product of an intelligent creator.

        I can’t agree with Harris here. I am an unabashed materialist. I expect that, at some point in the progress of neuroscience, we will understand how consciousness emerges from matter. I could be wrong, of course, and then I (or more likely some future generation) will have to deal with something very much like a soul, but I ain’t bettin’ on it.

        I think I have a better understanding now of Sullivan’s faith. Of course I cannot share it, nor, evidently, does he seem to be trying to persuade me to do so. His response to all of the obvious objections–it’s derived from his upbringing, if he’d been raised a Buddhist he’d be a Buddhist, etc etc–seems to be, I know and I don’t care. Excellent writer that he is, he conveys very well his deep emotional attachment to his church and his faith, leaving me only to decide whether or not to respect it. Believing as I do in freedom of thought, I have no choice but to do so.

        Harris too seems to respect Sullivan’s faith, but none of his arguments actually confront it. He continues to shoot at the low-hanging fruit of fundamentalism, as if that were the only kind of religion there is, even when faced with an undeniable counterexample. As a member of the choir Harris is preaching to, I found this sermon less than satisfying.

        And yes: thanks for the link.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 7, 2015 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

          “I can’t agree with Harris here. I am an unabashed materialist.”
          You are probably right. I think Harris was being overly generous. But, he does dwell often in the realm of mysticism of some kind based on meditation. I do think Sam clearly won this “debate” on the basis that Sullivan, in the end, was reliant upon a nebulous faith originating in childhood indoctrination. He could not really answer Harris’s questions.

  20. estraven
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Honestly, I won’t miss Sullivan a bit. I used to read him once in a while, but he never even managed to annoy me. As far as I’m concerned, good riddance.

  21. Posted January 29, 2015 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Whatever his daft ideas about what other people think about the tiresome Adam and Eve I completely empathize with his desire to

    “…read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book.”

  22. ichiban
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    For a guy who was such good friends with Hitchens (he often referenced him in his posts) and is gay (and at the forefront of the fight for gay marriage), I will never understand how he continues to consider himself a Catholic. His blog was insufferable on Sundays, but the rest of the week it was filled with good stuff.

  23. Roger
    Posted January 30, 2015 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    “Figurative” of what? It’s just a story. Maybe “figurative” of the things they were wrong about lol. I could write a metaphorical story about wrong things and that would make me a braniac apparently.

    • Roger
      Posted January 30, 2015 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      The Aeneid is figurative. There, I just proved something but I refuse to say what it is I’m proving.

  24. Michael5MacKay
    Posted January 30, 2015 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Sullivan self-identifies as conservative, but in a very British sense that doesn’t map very well onto American Republicanism.

    [As a Canadian, I’m the same way. I’m what we call a red Tory.]

    In the states you can tell that progress has been made when even [the rational] conservatives support you. The number or Republican-appointed federal judges ruling in favour of marriage equality makes it clear there’s no turning back that tide. Judge Jones’ ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover is the same. Judge Richard Posner, from Jerry’s hometown, is the same way.


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