This is something new

This is something new October 5, 2011

Both Ross Douthat at the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast link to a piece I wrote for the Register on whether Evolution (specifically polygenism) constitutes a threat to Catholic theology. Not a common experience for me.

The remarkable thing is that they both agree with me contra the flat-footed atheist fundamentalist Jerry Coyne that the story of the Fall is not supposed to be read as a newspaper account and they basically grok the fact that atheists like Coyne are, indeed, fundamentalists who read the Bible in a literalistic way–only for the purpose of imposing atheist fundamentalism rather than Christian fundamentalism on it. Sullivan’s rejoinder to Coyne is particularly tart.

I can, of course, cavil at some of the infelicities in both pieces. I would insist for instance that the story of the Fall *is* true. What it is not is *factual*, because telling the story of the Fall as a newspaper account instead of a myth is about the worst way in the world to convey what actually happened in that (thoroughly historic) moment when our First Parents destroyed our communion with God.

But basically, they both get the same point, and I’m glad of it. Atheist fundamentalists, like Christian fundamentalists, could really do with an introduction to the way in which Catholics read their own sacred texts rather than stamping their feet and shouting, “It isn’t in the Book!” The Bible is not supposed to be the Big Book of Everything.

Also, in case you haven’t read it, I really do recommend you go read the fine piece by Mike Flynn which occasioned my piece.

Also, Flynn’s hilarious attempt to get the denizens of Coyne’s comboxes to use their intellects rather than worship them is both instructive and hilarious. He writes as “Ye Olde Statistician” (keep scrolling down to see the full exchange) and wipes the floor with these poor shallow snobs.

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  • Mark writes: “I would insist for instance that the story of the Fall *is* true. What it is not is *factual*, because telling the story of the Fall as a newspaper account instead of a myth is about the worst way in the world to convey what actually happened in that (thoroughly historic) moment when our First Parents destroyed our communion with God.”

    And this has been my point all along re: Santa Claus. Just as God (our Father) knows we are little children who need the story of the Fall told in a thoroughly true but mythical way so that we will focus on the truth of it instead of on the extraneous and possibly confusing details, so do we, in imitation of Him, know that our children need the story of Christmas told in a way that fully captures the sheer excitement and greatness and wonder of the Incarnation at a time when their children’s minds can’t quite fathom the wholeness and awesomeness of it–and hence, the mythic elements.

    Fiction IS truth. It is truth expressed in story. And as anyone who has ever said “Truth is stranger than fiction” realizes, the whole reason to express truth through the medium of fiction is that in fiction truth must conform to rules and parallels and details and imagery and metaphor, which highlights what is true in a way that, as Mark says, is sometimes more appropriate than a newspaper account could ever be.

  • Ugh. The comments on Douthat’s article are beyond depressing. I seriously doubt anyone’s going to be convinced of anything in that forum.

  • I distinctly recall Sullivan referring to you as a “sinister Ratzingerian” once many years ago, which I think is one of the best non-insults ever. I want a business card that lists my occupation as Sinister Ratzingerian.

    • Mark Shea

      Actually, I referred to myself that way, jokingly, and he quoted me.

      • Now you’d have to be a Sinister Benedictine, which just doesn’t sound as cool. You don’t even have to be an albino to be a Benedictine.

  • victor

    Wow! Congrats! I hope both of those articles drive tons of traffic to the Register site and to this blog! It’s about the hits, man!

    • Mark Shea

      Nothing coming this way. And I don’t benefit from spikes at the Register.

  • LorenzoCanuck

    I had to stop reading those comments on Coyne’s blog; their sheer self-imposed ignorance hurt my brain.

    Yet, I know many atheists in real life and they’re certainly not as daft as this. Is this just another case of the Internet making everyone dumb?

  • The last reply to YOS on that comment thread reminds me of Rodney Dangerfield’s teacher’s comment in Back to School: “Whoever did write it doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.”

  • Martial Artist

    It is difficult to believe that Coyne so much as read (or at least so much as understood) Mike Flynn’s article. It doesn’t seem to register with him that Mike is making the point that Adam and Eve were not the first humanoids, they were the first humans, possibly arising out of the population of the first humanoids, the distinction being awareness of a dichotomy between right and wrong. A ‘Net friend of mine who blogs, an orthodox Episcopalian canon lawyer, wrote a hypothetical explanation along similar general lines to what Mike Flynn wrote in the article to which Coyne is replying. It seems to me a promising speculation, but correct or not, Coyne comes across as less than adequately literate in English.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • nate

    One can notice a number of annoyances the atheist has when it comes to Catholics.

    1) They are annoyed that we don’t read Genesis as forensic evidence, and have a much more nuanced approach to the Old Testament than assumed.
    2) They are annoyed that we don’t necessarily advocate Intelligent Design.
    3) They are annoyed that we aren’t Cartesians (whereby we would advocate a strict mind/body substance dualism) and that we aren’t Gnostics (whereby we would further advocate that the material side is ‘bad’).
    4) They are annoyed that we eschew theological voluntarism (whereby we obey God because God is God and God can say and do whatever he wants!), and instead promote a notion of morality that is grounded in the nature of reality and reason.
    5) They are annoyed that we have conceptions of being and goodness whereby we don’t respond to the problem of evil by saying ‘everything happens for a reason.’
    6) They are annoyed that we don’t think God looks like Morgan Freeman.
    7) And most importantly, they are annoyed that we don’t hate sex.

    I can understand the annoyance. I would imagine that it would be difficult to have an argument with us Catholics, when we constantly respond, “But I don’t think that.”

    No fair.

    • Margaret

      Wait… Are you saying God doesn’t look like Morgan Freeman?!??

      • Ed Pie

        No: George Burns.

        What are they teaching kids these days? (:

        • Margaret

          I’m so confused… It’s bad enough that Gandalf = Magneto and Saruman = Count Dooku = Count Dracula. Keeping all the old actors straight is tough.

    • Hey, that’s a good list. Before I became Catholic I thought Catholics believed every one of those. Whew, then I learned something, thank God!

      Mark, congrats on the attention! You write good stuff, you deserve it.

  • Sarah

    I read some of the comments in the NYT article and all I can say is Aaaargh!
    My own background is in literary studies and it makes me so frustrated when people complain that if we don’t read Genesis as a literal scientific account then we can’t read any other part of the bible literally either. Commenters like this are actually betraying the fact that while they may be literate, they don’t know how to read. Being able to tell one genre from another isn’t that hard. You don’t read poetry the same way you read a novel, so you don’t read Genesis the same way you read Isaiah, the Psalms or First Corinthians. They’re all written in different genres and therefore use use language differently. Trying to find meaning without taking this into account is like complaining Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” taught you nothing about how flowers pollinate.

  • jkm

    I was schooled in the distinction between *fact* and *truth* by a brilliant young man in a 3rd-grade CCD class I was teaching back in the early 70s. We were discussing the story of Noah, and some of the kids had seen a recently televised “documentary” about the discovery of archaeological remnants of the ark on Mt Ararat. “It proves the Flood was true!” they insisted. Others were equally impassioned, but skeptical. “No way was there ever a Flood that took out the whole planet!” they claimed. “The Flood never happened!” Into the fray stepped this “Daniel come to judgment” who said quietly, “It doesn’t matter whether the ark really existed or the Flood really happened,” he said. “The point is, the *story* is true. God saved people from their own stupidness.”

    I have used that 8-year-old’s insight on many an occasion to silence the arguments of those who confuse facts and truth. Out of the mouths of babes.