In thinking about myth, I wrote last time about the sometimes limited ability of words to fully describe. This, of course, doesn’t hinder words from evoking the indescribable. A favourite example comes from William Wordsworth –
That’s an eight line, non-description of what is intangible, but it’s also a matchless evocation of what Paul Tillich called “the ground of Being-itself”. For me it’s infinitely more meaningful than anything I can remember reading when I used to own books of ‘systematic’ theology.
I also wrote that “many people regard their own religions as fact, but the religions of others as myth, a recipe, as we know to our cost, for division, suspicion, dislike, fear, hatred and violence.” I can’t help but be somewhat amused when there are some Christians who, if they read about the Buddha, discover that he is said to have remained totally motionless under a fig tree for 7 weeks. He was assaulted by the armies of the evil demon Mara, but the deadly arrows fired at him were transformed into flowers. He was then unsuccessfully subjected to the blandishments of Mara’s three seductive daughters. Finally, when challenged as to his right to sit there, the Earth herself roared in response and bore him witness. Well now, say these readers, this is obviously ‘mythical’ – it’s been made up – things like that just don’t happen.
But here’s a thing. When some of these same people read about Jesus casting a hundred demons into a herd of pigs, who immediately pour themselves over a cliff and perish in the sea, they claim that this is historical fact. They say the same about an earthquake that struck at the instant of Jesus’ death, causing graves to be opened, and “the bodies of many saints who had died were raised”, who then went wandering through the streets of Jerusalem. Ho-hum ! It’s an age-old tale. Mine is religion, yours is myth. Mine is fact, yours is fiction. Mine is believable, yours is bunkum. I can’t be bothered any more with such myopic, parochial, double-dealing prejudice. What’s sauce for the goose must also be sauce for the gander.
For me, the Bible begins with myth in Genesis, and a mythical element can be found throughout it, right up to the concluding, cosmos destroying and renewing Book of Revelation. Whenever there are supernatural beings and events, we’re entering, in my view, the realm of myth. I’ve no problem, however, with Jesus, as a man of his time, being regarded as a healer and exorcist, in accordance with how things were then perceived and understood. How else would he have attracted a following?
But when it comes to ‘nature miracles’ and ‘raising the dead’, I part company. I recall Jesus being reported as saying, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, and no sign will be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet”, (the book of Jonah featuring one of the multitude of world-wide, mythical sea-monsters). I’m inclined to take Jesus at his word, and to regard the supernatural stuff as ‘pictorial parables’, designed by the gospel writers, to make various religious points about the person and mission of Jesus. I’m happy to take on board such points, while letting supposed ‘factualities’ go.
So I don’t regard myself as a theist, or as an atheist, or as a deist, but as a ‘transcendentalist’, who can see past the now scientifically exploded limitations of materialism, to the awesomeness and ultimate meaningfulness of whatever it is that lies beyond, and which every now and again, (as with Wordsworth), can enter into ‘awareness’. The cosmos is neither good nor evil. It simply is what it is, and I am glad to be part of it. Out of it I ‘e-merged’, and back into it I’ll be ‘re-merged’ and, with that, I’m content.