Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Myths

“In everyday speech the word ‘myth’ is taken to mean an untrue historical story, whereas its real meaning is a true non-historical story.” Life Conquers Death, p. 17

For all its evocations of the modern world and the lessons of history, for all the concreteness of its writing, John Arnold’s Lent Book is really a sacred story, a myth disguised as an essay. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that ancient myths were the treasure house of human wisdom, that the human soul is a weaving of tales. To relegate myth to the nursery, as we do today, while real adults build inanimate machines and manage inanimate money is unhealthy. “Inside each one of us,” Jung said, “lives a two million year old self.” When humanity cuts itself off from this rich past, we really do become dangerous infants, wielding power without benefit of wisdom. We cling to being young, although we are in fact very old.

The Gospels address the tension of time. They are a myth set in history. This may be one of the mystical reasons that Jesus must be both fully God and fully human in order to live the question that God sent him to address. As human, Jesus inhabits history. As God, he inhabits all that lies outside history. His miracles symbolize the tension between time and not-time, between mortality and immortality, between brokenness and wholeness, between what humans think is factual and what God knows to be true.

The spiritual world, being more mythic than scientific, (although like science, the spiritual world does have laws), is both universal and particular. My dreams come to me alone, but because they contain material that has informed the human species for millennia, they will speak their truth in different ways to other people. Liking the efficiency of uniformity, Western culture is impatient with this kind of multi-valence, feeling it to be “wishy-washy” or not incisive enough. Western cultures want answers, once and for all, (even the Bible harps on that phrase), and in our relentless rejection of ambiguity, we rejected the slowness of myth in favor of history, the “true” story of events and natural science, the “true” story of the physical world. As history, the Deuteronomic tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures posited the theory that idolatry was the reason for human suffering. When people turned away from God, bad things would happen. Thucidides, for his part, removed all mythic gloss from his tale of the Peloponnesian Wars and revealed the brutishness of men. On the side of science, Thales of Miletus posited water as the primal element of life and Copernicus moved us to revolving around the sun. Idolatry, brutality, water and orbit are extremely useful ideas. The Deuteronomic historian has helped me to understand that it is not must my clinical depression that makes me unfulfilled by retail therapy, but the fact that I have put my heart upon idolatrous things. Thucidides wrote one of the finest arguments against war we have ever seen. Thales of Miletus has been helpful to my understanding of the history of the earth, how earth’s first living organisms did indeed live in water and in evolutionary terms, how risky it is to live on land. Since Thales did not have the benefit of a laboratory, he shows that great knowledge is possible through careful observation and the contemplation of what is observed. Copernicus gave me humility.

Neither the Deuteronomic historian, Thucidides nor Thales nor Copernicus had much use for myth. Myths are notoriously imprecise. Myths, unlike theories, have many characters. Joseph Campbell did us a disservice in The Hero with a Thousand Faces when he raised up the hero archetype above the others, as if any myth could have a "main" character. The Hero is but one aspect of the human person. True myths are far more polyvalent than that, just as the human is more than his ego. Hero tales, like egos, draw sharp lines between “good” and “evil.” If Arnold is correct and Adam and Eve are less bad than merely precocious, tasing unripe knowledge for which they were totally unready, “good” and “evil” may be far less useful categories than generally supposed. Good and evil are projections. Immature egos deal with their likes and dislikes by projecting them onto external figures and situations, by dividing reality up into categories small enough for their emergent intellects to grasp. Real myths ask not that we grasp, but that we let go. Myths are less judgment than reflection. They give me the words to live as myself. They give me the way to live with others. They show me as I really am: healer, killer, lover, predator, selfless and selfish at one and the same time.

So Jesus was a myth who appeared in history. Go read Rudolph Bultmann if you don’t believe me. As history, as mammal, Jesus learned from nature. Jesus also learned from the wise ones of his culture, from his mother, his father, the local rabbis, the scriptures, but he was also God in ways it is harder for us to understand, because our culture confuses God with something idolatrous called “Master of the Universe” or some such assumption. Appropriately to our youth worshipping culture, Jesus was not elder, but ephebe, a young adult called to wisdom by a young and impetuous society defined by the adolescent quest to have its own way, and fascinated, as adolescents usually are, with violence. His message to us was a loving invitation to die to all that and grow up, but in the terrifyingly literal adolescent mind, that invitation resulted in his being put to death in the most violent of all ways as if to say, “There, God. Can you take THAT?”

We have been living with that question, and God’s answer, ever since.

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