Do you really, truly believe that "The Flood" and the creation of "Adam and Eve" were actual events? Such tales are part of the creationist mythology, which is anti-science and anti-reason. To anybody who doesn't take Christian dogma literally, this sounds like pandering to the literalists, unless, of course, you truly believe the dogma, which I find inconceivable. But if you don't, why do you write like you do?
-- S., Durham, N.C.
I believe the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and Noah are true, but I don't believe the events described really occurred. How can that be? Fictional stories can have true meanings if they speak to the truth of the human condition. The Adam and Eve story speaks to the truth of our freewill and our desire to live in a world where that freedom is both real and powerful.
Adam and Eve chose to eat from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and in so doing, they gave up life in the Garden of Eden for life in the real world, where their choices made them fully human and fully accountable. That's a true message about freewill, even if there are really no talking snakes.
The story of Noah is about the consequences of human sin for the Earth and the biosphere. We can destroy the world by our reckless polluting and violence, and God decides after the flood not to intervene in our human destiny.
Both of these stories are true and important, and it perplexes me why some people seem to take a fundamentalist or nothing view of the biblical text.
The Bible is the most important book in human history, precisely because it teaches us in that gray zone between "It happened exactly as it was written" and "nothing in it could be true because some of the stories are impossible." Give the Bible a chance to speak to you in the language you can accept, and you may be surprised at how much it has to teach you.
Why are Catholic priests called "Father," when Matthew 23:8-12 says that no one but the Father in heaven is to be called Father?
-- R., via email
The passage in Matthew you cite must be read in a symbolic way, otherwise Catholics could never call their own fathers by that name. In fact, the meaning of God as Father only makes sense if it carries with it the love and respect we should accord to our own human fathers. What Jesus was teaching was something we might call spiritual fatherhood.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul calls Timothy his son in I Corinthians 4:17 and II Timothy 1:2. In 1 Cor. 4:14-15, Paul writes to the Corinthians: "I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel." The same idea is taught by Peter in I Peter 5:13, in which he calls Mark "my son," and John in 1 John 2:1 (where he refers to his listeners as "my little children") and 1 John 2:13-14 (in which he calls the men of his congregation "fathers").
Catholic priests naturally assume a kind of spiritual fatherhood, which is reflected in their title. It's not usual for a priest to refer to a parishioner as "my child." Your question does raise for me a lifelong gripe. Most people called my friend Tom Hartman, Father Tom. Only when addressed by his official title was he called by his last name, Monsignor Hartman. Tommy, my favorite form of address for him, never objected in the least to being called Father Tom, but I did. I didn't feel it was sufficiently respectful of his vocation.
I was never called Rabbi Marc, only Rabbi Gellman. The one person who called me Rabbi Marc suddenly was transformed into a frog, but it might have been just a coincidence.
Today, many rabbis like to be called Rabbi and then their first name. I know it's a term of endearment and intended as an act of love, but clergy in their official capacities are all like priests. They're like shamans in traditional cultures. They enter the forbidden realms of death during funerals, and in the case of priests, they administer the sacraments of the church.