[T]he problem we have with “sophisticated” theologians and smart religious people like Douthat is not that we think that fundamentalism is the best interpretation of religion, but this: there is no rational basis for seeing part of the Bible as literally true and part of it as metaphor. As our increased understanding of the world gives the lie to bit after bit of the Bible, the rational conclusion is that it’s all doubtful, especially in the absence of historical evidence for parts still widely seen as true, like the divinity and Resurrection (or even the existence!) of Jesus.
It's truly bizarre to say that there is no rational basis for a mass of ancient texts to include both empirical truths and metaphors. I mean: there is no rational basis to draw a distinction between the parables Jesus told and whether he existed at all? Really? Again, I'm struck by the coarseness, ignorance and stupidity of Coyne's argument. A reader is on the same page:
To answer your most basic question: yes, yes, the story of the fall must be true. Otherwise, the rest of Christianity falls apart.
First, there is plenty of evidence that Eden was thought of as a real place. Genesis 2:10-14 gives an actual location, and there have been plenty of archeological investigations. I always find it interesting that the answer to this is "well, the Flood of Noah wiped out the Earth as it was known, so it's no use looking." And when the archeological pursuit changes to Noah, there is also scant evidence that it actually happened.
But, more importantly, the internal consistency of Christianity depends on the fall being real. Original Sin is bound up in the Fall. In fact, it is the act described in Genesis – eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – that is the Original Sin. If that Original Sin did not happen, and instead it was some "other" sin as Shea argues, then this is just a matter of moving the goal posts. "It wasn't that sin that we all know about, silly, it was another one, which we know nothing about." (As a side note, I have enough problems with a god who is so unjust as to condemn all of mankind for the sins of one man; but to say that we don't even get to know what the alleged sin was? That's just arbitrary and capricious.)
If there was no Original Sin, and that is what it means to say the story of Genesis is not true (I'm sorry, I cannot accept Shea's argument that is essentially "no, not that one, another one"), then how could Jesus of Nazarath be Christ the Redeemer? What was he dying for if not to forgive our Original Sin? If the story of Genesis is no more true than the feats of Hercules, how can anything that follows be considered true? More importantly, Christianity has always drawn a straight line from the Fall to the Resurrection (the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, etc). Without the Fall, the entire story of the Gospels becomes suspect. (Another side note, I've come to believe that the idea of Jesus of Nazarath preaching about the Kingdom of God, that His Kingdom was not of this Earth, was a post hoc rationalization because the prophesies of the Messiah speak of an actual Kingdom, here on Earth.)
Now, all of that said, this is only true if you wish to believe the supernatural aspects of the Bible and the story of Jesus of Nazarath. It is entirely possible to look at Jesus of Nazarath as a man, a philosopher (possibly even a healer, in the Ancient world there is a lot that we don't fully understand), and accept his teachings as such. In fact, I'd point out that Confucius came up with the Golden Rule some 500 years before Jesus of Nazarath, and it may have existed as far back as ancient Egypt or the time of Hammurabi. That is, afterall, what Thomas Jefferson did with the Jefferson Bible.?
By the way, I say all of this as someone who was raised Catholic and left the Church for a variety of reasons, the logic of the mythology being among the reasons. Mostly though, I believe human history suggests that we are not fallen but we are risen, or rather rising. I believe we all struggle to be better, that we can strive to be our best (and in a sense, perfected – individual perfection is different than societal perfection). It is much more comforting to me to believe we have come up from the muck and are working towards something better, than to believe we were once something "better" (and really, based on the actual story told in Genesis, I cannot believe we were better in that form) and have no chance to get back there.
I would argue that original sin is a mystery that makes sense of our species' predicament – not a literal account of a temporal moment when we were all angels and a single act that made us all beasts. We are beasts with the moral imagination of angels. But if we are beasts, then where did that moral imagination come from? If it is coterminous with intelligence and self-awareness, as understood by evolution, then it presents human life as a paradox, and makes sense of the parable. For are we not tempted to believe we can master the universe with our minds – only to find that we cannot, and that the attempt can be counter-productive or even fatal? Isn't that delusion what Genesis warns against?
The Fall and the Resurrection are the bookends of that paradox. It could well be, as my lapsed Catholic reader believes, that we have become morally better over 200,000 years, that gain is possible, that our better angels can progressively master our raging beasts within. But part of that was fueled by religious evolution, as Bob Wright has brilliantly laid out. So it's possible that the Fall does indeed lead to the Resurrection, but that it is only finally fulfilled by humankind's ultimate, universal embrace of a loving God through the aeons of time. Doesn't Christian eschatology strongly hint at exactly such an ultimate resolution? You just have to let go of certain neuroses when you read and ponder texts about profound mysteries rendered into stories. That's why doubt fuels faith. It prevents you from fixating on a particular pattern of thought that blinds you to the richness of other interpretations of the same, basic truth. Another reader begins by quoting me:
"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."
It certainly does not scream parable to the STAGGERING MAJORITY OF CHRISTIANS here in the U.S. Yet you call Jerry dumb. He's not, he's criticizing Christianity, and religion in general, as it actually exists, as it is actually practiced, as it is actually believed by most of your brothers and sisters in faith. Jerry is very well educated in religion, I dare say he has a better grasp of what the average Christian believes than even you, Andrew, which is why you can't seem to get on the same page with him and many of the rest of us.
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. Another reader points to the historical record:
You asked, "There's not evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative?" Indeed, Origen of Alexandria argued in the third century CE:
"Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars? And that the first day, if we may so call it, was even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, "planted a paradise eastward in Eden," and set in it a visible and palpable "tree of life" . . . . And when God is said to "walk in the paradise in the cool of the day" and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events." (On First Principles, 4.3.1)
Origen has been unjustly maligned over the decades of course. Moreover, his assumptions about the nature of scripture are not exactly modern. His qualms are not primarily scientific. Instead, they don't jive with how he views God. In fact, he finds a number of places in scripture that cannot be historical or that record events that could have happened but did not. To him, these are placed there by God on purpose, not to trick us but to force our thinking mind to dig deeper. If this isn't "literally" true, then in what way is it true?
Because Truth lurks behind truth. Another reader:
Mark Shea makes a valid point when he suggests that aspects of the human capacity for evil remain a metaphysical mystery that religious discourse (as opposed to "newspaper" language) is uniquely suited to describe. But he and Coyne are still talking past each other. Coyne's point is simply that given what modern science — i.e. archaeology, anthropology, paleontology, genetics, etc. — have shown about the origins of the human species, a story that places the first two humans ever in a paradisaical garden in the vicinity of Mesopotamia ca. 6000 years ago cannot possibly be true. Full stop. Thus the story of how humankind acquired its capacity for evil can also not be traced to something these two fictitious people specifically did — any more than the domestication fire can be traced to one Titan named Prometheus ca. 1000 BC in northern Greece. Because sophisticated Catholics like Shea or Flynn (or you) want to flexibly gloss the words "primeval event" in the catechism to reconcile Genesis with modern ideas about human evolution doesn't mean that the literal view doesn't still need to be challenged.
The crux of the argument is the idea of "original sin" — however it came about — and Coyne is correct in pointing out that the whole edifice of Christian theology rests on the idea that all humans are born with an innate moral defect that is the source of our predilection as a species to be cruel, violent, dishonest, etc. That idea doesn't necessarily fall apart with a more metaphorical reading of Genesis, but how metaphoric do we have to get here before a text gets so blurred and warped that there's really no point to holding on to it any more?
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. A final reader:
There was an excellent discussion in this debate on NPR's Talk of the Nation program a few weeks ago. Presenting the position that the Genesis account had to be literally true was the head of the Southern Baptist Convention Albert Mohler. As someone raised within Southern Baptist churches (albeit in the Western US), I can attest that such positions are representative of this strain of Christianity – specifically, that the Bible in its current form is the absolute, perfect, literal, inerrant word of God as dictated to its authors whose only role was as stenographers.
As Mr. Mohler described on the program, his view of Christian theology falls apart without a historical Adam and Eve, who chose to sin against God and thereby brought death into being. Without their sin, redemption through Jesus was unnecessary, and if death preceded the Fall of Man then God's creation was imperfect from inception which negated God's perfection. So while you and others may accept the scientific truth of nature and the origins of the Earth and of mankind on the Earth and try to fit your theology to incorporate that truth, many, many others with great influence do not, and insist that our understanding of science must fit to their theology.
Indeed. And I have been arguing against them for quite a long time.