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The Truth of Symbols

25 Dec

Tillich: “Symbols cannot be produced intentionally. They grow and they die. Symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.”

Christmas Day provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the important symbols from Christian mythology – the virgin birth of Jesus. Tillich observes that symbols, like this one, are not inventions of the conscious (intentional) mind, but rather emerge out of a part of the human psyche that the psychologist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. The career of a particular symbol, then, cannot be scheduled, managed or predicted. It rises and falls, grows and dies according to its degree of relevance and effectiveness. What can be said of the virgin birth?

Let’s first acknowledge and set aside three opinions in our contemporary culture regarding the validity of this symbol. On one side are the “moderns” who have been sufficiently educated in the worldview of scientific materialism to reject the virgin birth as a biophysical impossibility. The study of genetics has shown that an individual’s sex and other fundamental traits require the cooperation of a mother’s egg and a father’s sperm. Unless the holy spirit contributed a male gamete, Jesus couldn’t have been a male human being.

Well, then, no big deal. Jesus wasn’t fully human – what’s the problem? According to popular Christianity today, his humanity was just a convenience anyway – a “put on” for the sake of accomplishing what needed to be done for the salvation of the world. His true nature was divine, as an incarnate god, or an avatar as in Hinduism where a deity manifests him- or herself on earth and sheds the costume once the work is done.

Orthodox Christianity, however – as distinct from popular Christianity – has insisted from the beginning that Jesus was fully human, even as he was fully god. How this adds up has never been clarified to the satisfaction of logic or reason, but that’s beside the point. In order to accomplish his work, Jesus had to be both human and divine, and fully both. That doesn’t answer the problem of his genetic inheritance as a human being, however, but that’s where “faith” comes in. You must simply believe and accept it as true.

On the other side of the contemporary divide, then, are those who take the virgin birth literally, not as symbol but as fact. It happened just as the Bible says it happened. The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the first half of the twentieth century was leveraged on this key doctrine, along with several other non-negotiables of true doctrine. Your salvation depends not just on what Jesus accomplished on your behalf but on your agreement with these particular dogmatic statements.

A third position in the debate represents an attempted compromise between the scientific skeptic and biblical literalist. Here’s where verses in scripture are reinterpreted and justified in light of what we know happened or what might have happened historically.

What Genesis calls a “day” of creation should really be translated to mean only a period of time, not a 24-hour period. The parting of the Red Sea was likely caused by seismic activity or powerful cross-currents of wind that have been noted in that part of the world. Jonah could have survived in the belly of the whale due to a generous pocket of air which is occasionally swallowed by sea mammals when they break the surface to breathe. And the Greek word for “virgin” is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew, almah, referring to a young woman of child-bearing age.

But justifying the Bible stories by science or stretching science to accommodate the Bible stories really only corrupts both. So here’s a fourth position on the virgin-birth symbol, one that I’m recommending.

Religious mythology and scientific theory are not two ways of coming at the same questions we humans have about the universe. But neither is mythology about things we can’t explain scientifically. Furthermore – it should be said – a myth and its internal reference system of symbols can be falsified according to scientific standards but still be true in a different sense.

For example, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is fiction, even very good fiction, but it is not something that happened to an actual man named Ebenezer Scrooge in nineteenth-century England. From the historical perspective, it is not a true story. But Dickens himself did observe the plight of poor families in his native land and was personally moved to sympathy for their hopeless condition. Thus we might scavenge some historical value out of this admittedly fictional tale, interpreting it in light of Dickens’ social context and his own moral conscience.

But here’s the real point: it doesn’t matter whether or not Scrooge was an actual accountant, or that Dickens had a sociopolitical motive for writing his story. The ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, and those visitations by the three spirits of Christmas who reveal to Ebenezer how his choices and attitude in life ripple outward to affect others and determine the future – all of that happened. Or rather it happens, in the story, every time we read it or listen to it read.

Truth, in this deeper sense, has nothing to do with historical facts or scientific evidence or even common sense. Truth refers to the power of a story in pulling back the veils of assumption, ignorance, prejudice or indifference that obscure our perception of reality. It is not solely for the purpose of entertaining an audience or making kids sleepy in bed. Myths are true to the extent that they wake us up – break the trance – and force us to reconsider our current beliefs and where we are going in life.

So was Mary a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Yes – in the myth. Did shepherds hear a heavenly host announcing the birth of the savior? Yes – in the myth (as told in Luke). Did a star guide the quest of oriental kings to Jesus? Yes – in the myth (as told in Matthew). Such literary devices were ways that these ancient authors connected heaven and earth, god and humanity, east and west, one social class and another.

The other Gospels (Mark and John) don’t have a virgin birth, shepherds or wise men in their storylines. They employed different devices, different symbols. If they succeed in opening our eyes and help us see reality differently, then they are also true.

It’s difficult to say whether the symbol of the virgin birth is alive or dead in our time. If we can regain the appreciation for stories we had as children and allow the myth to pull us in and work us over, it may stand a chance. Maybe it can still provoke in us the same response it produced in its original community.

Otherwise it’s up to the skeptics and fundamentalists to pull apart its last fiber and let it die.

 

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