Monday, September 29, 2014

How to Understand Fr. Barron's Statement "Adam-- Don't Read it Literally"

I know this issue comes out of nowhere. And in a way, I might be reigniting the controvery with my post.

But I quoted Fr. Barron, and someone replied that he was heterodox, as he believes the theory of Hans Url van Balthasar that we have reason to hope hell is empty.

I think that theory is mistaken, but, to my knowledge, there is no papal teaching against it.

In Googling the issue, I came across the blog controversy surrounding Fr. Barron's video "Misreading Genesis.

(Click here to watch the video from the relevant part).

The accusation made against Fr. Barron is that he does not believe there was a literal Adam-- understood to mean, that he does not believe that there was one first man, from whom the whole human race is descended, and through whom Orginal Sin originated.

His exact words were:

Adam. Now, don’t read it literally. We’re not talking about a literal figure. We’re talking in theological poetry.

Examples of objections can be found here and here.

I wanted to write this blogpost, because I feel like this issue might stain Fr. Barron's reputation for orthodoxy, and I didn't see any one try to defend him.

So I thought it would be good to try to explain to people who you can treat Adam as a literary character and still accept all the dogmas of the Faith.

To understand the point Fr. Barron is trying to make, let's contextualize his words.

Fr. Barron is trying to discourage a word-for-word reading of Genesis. So yes, the "don't read it literally" is to be expected.

What would a "literal reading" mean with respect to the passage being discussed at 5:48ff?

If we were to read Genesis absolutely literally, according to the passage invoked at 5:48 ff -- we would have to believe that the first man was ACTUALLY named Adam, that he ACTUALLY named ALL of the animals.

So tens of thousands of years ago, when the first creature with a rational soul appeared on the face of the earth, he was somehow named Adam-- (did God name him? Hm, good question), and somehow he had the language, the vocabulary and the imagination to give names to every single living creature he encountered.

So all the mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, insects and sundry invertebrates, he named them and he remembered all their names.

This is what a literal reading of Genesis means in the context of the video.

To be the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the papal Magisterium that requires that literal reading.

A bit of common sense suggests that this was most likely not the case.

If Adam had literally named all the animals, how would we have known that he did this?

Now it's possible that Adam might have passed down the story through the centuries, and that his descendants might have preserved the story, and that the Holy Spirit might have preserved the story intact.

But  we have no evidence of this happening. If the Holy Spirit had accomplished such a feat, wouldn't Revelation have made that known?

Wouldn't Revelation have mentioned that Adam transmitted his story to his son, to his son, and so on?

There's no mention of such a transmission.

Now the Holy Spirit could have made a special revelation to Moses, or someone else, giving confirmation about the name of the first man, and the most important events of his life.

But again, there was no mention of this in the Bible.

So what we're left with is a story that is not based on any eyewitness account.

In this sense, Genesis is not historical. It's about the past, and contains truth about the past, but it's not based on the witness of the past.

The French language would be better suited to express the difference. In French the adjective "historique" refers to events that actually happened.

Genesis refers to events that actually happened.

But the adjective "historien" means relating to the science of history, that is, of gathering documentary proof of events.

And in this sense, Genesis is not "historien"-- it's not based on an actual experience or relationship with the past.

Now, I can anticipate the objection: but he implied that Adam was not a literal figure.

I will tell you what "Don't read it literally" does not necessarily mean.

It does not necessarily mean: there was no primal pair of humans.

It does not necessarily mean: there was no Original sin.

What Fr. Barron is trying to do is cast Adam as a literary character-- a character who is based on a real human, but who is nonetheless a fictionalized being.

 Let me explain by making an analogy with historical figures who are fictional characters.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare's historical plays.

Are we supposed to take Shakespeare's portrayal of these figures in a literal way?


Do we expect them to be historically accurate?


If we treat these persons as literary characters in the context of Shakespeare's plays, are we denying their historical existence, or everything that happened to them?


Henry V, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra. These figures all existed in time, but their literary depictions are not necessarily accurate in terms of the details. They did not all said what Shakespeare reported them to have said, nor did they do all that he reported them to do, although in the main he got the broad lines correct.

And so I think this is how Fr. Barron is approaching Genesis: as a fictionalized account of a historical personage: the first man.

Just because it's fiction doesn't mean it's not historically true: that at some point in time, a first man came to be, he sinned and damaged his relationship with God, and through his sin introduced evil in the world and then began to produce the human race.

When Fr. Barron implies that Adam is a literary character, he's correct: We do not know who the first man was.

That first man did not leave any documents or witnesses.

We don't know his actual name (if he had one!).

We don't know at what time in the past he was created.

We don't know how many kids he left.

We don't know how long he lived.

We know absolutely nothing about him as far as any witness of history can report.

What we do know of him is what the Spirit revealed through this fictionalized account of Creation.

Stories don't emerge sui generis.

They spring from some human brain.

The person or people who came up with this story had no access to the details or events surrounding Creation.

So they made up a character named Adam to stand for the first man.

It's not heretical to say that Adam, as a literary character, is not literally the first man.

We don't actually know who that man was.

The story of Genesis helps provide some details-- sketchy details.

But they're not details based on eyewitness accounts the way normal history is produced.

So that Adam in Genesis is not the literal first man. He's a literary construct.

Does saying he's a literary construct deny all the truths of the Faith?


No more than saying Shakespeare's personages are literary constructs denies their historical existence-- or what they did.

And so I think this explanation resolves the controversy about Fr. Barron and his reading of Genesis. He's not denying any dogma.

He's just trying to get people to stop reading Genesis as an eyewitness account of history, and more as a literary text that has some insight on what happened at the beginning of Creation.

And if you understand that, then you can see how he can tell people not to take Adam literally, but still accept the dogmatic truths in Genesis.