Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Is the Bible History, Myth, or Dream? Part I

It is not the most dramatic dream I have been given, but the lesson it taught changed the way I read Scripture.

In the dream I was a brash spiritual adept who lived on the ground floor of an apartment building. A wise old man ordered me to ride the elevator to the roof and take care of some flying lizards that were dive bombing the roof garden. I said I would gladly do so and took the elevator straight up. When I arrived on the roof, however, I realized that I was literally in over my head. No sooner was I there than two flying lizards, one red and one green, began teasing and attacking me from above, scratching and clawing with such relentless swiftness and precision that I could barely keep myself from being cut to shreds, much less deal with them. Suddenly the old man materialized at my side. Giving me a knowing look, gently and calmly, he captured both the lizards and put them to bed in a corner of the roof garden. There they lay, the red lizard and the green lizard, all cuddled up under their blanket, and they were purring. Then the wise old man handed me a stake and said, “Now kill them.” I said, “I can’t. They’re too cute.” Taking the staff out of my hand, the wise old man dispatched them at once. He looked at me and said, “The rules are different in the spiritual world.”

Perhaps the greatest confusion in our culture today is the conflation of the inner and outer worlds, a tendency to regard the literal as the only dependable truth, to shy from warfare within the soul, but embrace war in the world without. In a way, this is only to be expected. The last two hundred years in Western Culture have been all about flexing the muscles of human power. The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the triumph of the Machine. We all know how the great discoveries of the physical sciences gave to the material world an authority that it had not previously possessed. The ability to mathematically describe the natural world felt like explaining it, as if all the secrets of nature were now unveiled. Patterns that were once only intuited by storytellers and patient observes could now be efficiently graphed and quantified. Statistics gave men the tools to design according to probability and make the ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number a little more real. At the same time that the physical sciences began unlocking so many mysteries, the traditional spiritual mysteries, the world of symbol, metaphor and multiple meaning grew vaguer and more insubstantial. When the rational disciplines of mathematics and science made possible a single correct answer for all times, the polysemic textures of story seemed only wishy-washy. Dreams were better understood as electro-chemical discharges than as sendings from a Divine source beyond the scope of scientific explanation. Intuition, synchronicity, all those tools of the mystical understanding of reality were increasingly rationalized as mere coincidence. The Bible was perhaps hardest hit, becoming a primitive attempt at historiography rather than a series of ambiguous tales about God.

Joseph Campbell did not like the Bible. In his view, it was not myth, but monster. For him it had an ancient and ruthless authority to enforce repression and violence. It was a set of tribal texts that, in the name of God, cut us off from our own human nature, from a healthy relationship with our bodies, a story that was not fit to enter the future.

Can any of us regulate what will or will not enter the future? Or is the “future” in this sense like heaven, a Tomorrow-land pie in the sky where all will be resolved and revealed?

Consider last Sunday’s passage from the prophet Isaiah:

Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

I am fascinated that in this ancient, tribal text, it is the restoration of the natural world that trumps the world of war, that the mighty engines of destruction are mere candles to be extinguished. Therein lies a lesson for me. When I can defeat the enemy within, I may have less need to take on the rest of the world. More tomorrow.

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