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The Experience of Myth

heaven_hellA growing consensus regarding the sacred narratives of religion, called myths, is that we must take them literally or else toss them out as bad science and obsolete fictions. Those who would rather not fuss with interpreting the myths are content to simply believe them, and those who can’t with intellectual integrity believe the myths are content to leave them be. In either case the deeper insight contained in them is ignored and rendered mute.

It’s difficult for some to open their minds to the possibility that myths might not be records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, but not ignorant superstition either. But what other choice do we have? Things either happened just as the myths say they happened (or will happen) or they didn’t (and won’t). Either reality is arranged according to the metaphysical architecture testified to in the myths (with a literal heaven and hell, for instance) or it’s not – right?

Actually, the answer is no: this simplistic either-or logic is exactly wrong. In fact, as I will try to show, the mental orientation responsible for casting our alternatives in such a dualistic fashion is part of what the myths intend to expose and help us overcome. I say “intend” and not “intended,” because myths are living narratives and not mere curiosities of the past. The challenge in being human is essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago, and myths are transcultural maps that reveal the paths ahead – one that leads to heaven and another that leads to hell.

If it sounds as if I have just slipped into a metaphysical reading of myth with my reference to heaven and hell, I want to assure my reader that this is not the case. To explain, let’s begin where myth itself was born, in the state of persistent ambiguity called the human condition. The prefix ambi translates as “both,” and ambiguity refers to how our situation – the human condition as it impinges on me here and you there, wherever we happen to be – sets us at a place where the path can go in one of two directions.

On the one hand, this ambiguity might collapse into opposition and eventual conflict: the “both” are seen as fundamentally opposed, unconnected, divided, and separate. If the process of our individual ego formation was particularly difficult and we came into personal identity under conditions of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or other trauma, our path might naturally fall to a lower course where everything is cast into antagonism. We are now in the realm of lower consciousness, a realm of distrust and suspicion, of hostility and retribution. This is hell.

When we fall into lower consciousness, as the mythic Adam fell out of his garden paradise, our ego becomes possessed by the passions of insecurity and aggression, intent above all else on getting our share and guarding what is ours. In hell, everyone lives in a state of desperate isolation, tormented by insatiable craving and captive to our own self-destructive compulsions. Our relationships are in chronic conflict, as we are incapable of opening ourselves to one another in empathy and love.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of our human condition might resolve into paradox and communion. In this case, the “both” are seen as fundamentally related, connected, united, and whole. Just as the path into hell might feel more natural to us if our ego identity was forged in adversity, the rise to a higher course is likely easier when our sense of self had been nurtured into formation by more provident higher (i.e., taller) powers. We are now in the realm of higher consciousness, a realm of trust and compassion, of generosity and freedom. This is heaven.

When we rise into higher consciousness, as the mythic Christ (whom the apostle Paul named the Second Adam) rose from the garden tomb, our ego completely transcends the deadly entanglements of insecurity and conviction. We are truly free to give of ourselves, to share what we have with others without concern for returned favors. In heaven, everyone lives in a state of inclusive community, offering our contribution to the greater good and truly caring for one another. There is enough for everybody, and goodwill abounds.

The timeless myths can help open our awareness to the critical turning-point of this present moment, to the choice we have in every new situation. We are familiar with the popular misreading of myth, where believers look forward to heaven in the next life, when their enemies and unbelievers are condemned to suffer forever in hell. Supposedly this is scheduled to happen after we die. But who is it, really, that dies?

In all the major wisdom traditions it is ego that must be transcended – released, surrendered, and overcome; specifically the “I” who believes everything turns around “me” and owes me what is “mine.” As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24

We make choices every day that either cast us down into the hell of lower consciousness, into opposition and endless conflict; or raise us up into the heaven of higher consciousness, into paradox and sacred communion with all things. To live in heaven, we must “die” to selfish ambition, drop our holy convictions, and even give up our desperate longing to be saved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.    – Luke 17:33

The sacred narratives of religion are neither literal records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, nor bad science and obsolete fictions of a superstitious past. They speak a timeless message, but only when we are ready to hear it.

I guess this is as good a time as any to listen.

 

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Easter Reality

Religious high holy days are anchored deep in myth and symbol. These are times when true believers – as well as the larger number of unaffiliated and “occasional pilgrims” – step into the sacred stories and reflect once again on the miracles of old. Too many of them probably do this out of family obligation or annual custom, gazing on the holiday symbols with the wondering eyes of their youth.

The following day, however, they will be back at it – back at life in the real world. No miracles here. No angelic visitations, virgin births, voices from the clouds or revived corpses in the news. It used to be that these and other miraculous events were regarded as signs, still very much set in story and not encountered in contemporary life, pointing to a higher realm of being that supports this one.

Signs are significant because they signify things. Meaning is all about reference – this pointing to that, one thing leading to another, and all of it making sense in the Big Picture. Once upon a time (here I go telling a story) people lived inside a Big Picture, and mythology served the valuable function of pulling them back from the daily distractions of secular life and reorienting them in a single coherent system of meaning.

I say “once upon a time” because people today generally don’t live their lives with a Big Picture in mind. If there is one, it’s the rather cold and indifferent cosmos of science, now somewhere on an unfathomable timeline between BANG and FIZZLE (or maybe CRUNCH). For quite a while, as modern religion was losing its market share in the intellectual landscape of the Western mind, church leaders blamed science for the vacancies in their pews. Empirical skepticism (“I’ll believe it when I can measure it”) was accused of producing secular atheism (“God can’t be measured, and therefore doesn’t exist”).

But here’s what really happened.

The sacred stories began losing currency, not because they were scientifically discredited, but rather because they became increasingly irrelevant to daily life. And as the symbols lost their power to signify, the metaphors closed up on themselves and degenerated into “miracles.” Consequently the Big Picture that had oriented human beings for so long fell apart. Now – occasionally, on high holy days – we pause to fetch from the wreckage those dim reminders, those alien curiosities from another age.

So what becomes of these articles of religious nostalgia? If symbols need stories, and stories need other stories; and if all these stories (the collective mythology of a culture) comprise the Big Picture that once made life meaningful, what purpose is there in dusting the icons, pressing the vestments, and singing the hymns if we don’t really know it as our truth?

I didn’t say “believe it,” for we can make ourselves believe just about anything. There are a lot of true believers who talk a lot about god, read their Bible religiously and do their best to take it literally. If the biblical god doesn’t bust through the starry canopy and talk to us as he once did, it’s only because we live in the Last Days and he is busy preparing for the Final Judgment.

As for Jesus, Christmas got him into our world and Easter got him back out. It all happened a long time ago, but he’s coming again. Just you wait. In the meantime – and it is a mean time – we have to keep the faith, resist the devil, legislate for (our) religion, and guard our stuff.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “God – Guns – USA.” Now that’s a very small picture, which can be found all around the planet today. Just insert another god and a different tribe, and that truck might be driving down the road in Syria or Kenya or North Korea.

What can Easter mean in a time when evidence of god is lacking but the testimony for god is all too out-spoken and dogmatic? Just because it’s “in the Bible” doesn’t automatically make it relevant. After all, the Bible is testimony, not evidence. Furthermore, it’s a very special kind of testimony – not exactly the eye-witness accounts as many true believers defend it these days, but creative testimony, poetic testimony.

As mythology, the Bible wasn’t written as retrospective journalism on objective miracles and actual encounters with a supernatural personality. Rather, it issued from the creative imaginations of people just like you and me, inspired by the realization that their lives (just like ours) opened up to a greater mystery.

In those moments, in those places, and in the company of those rare and illumined ones who seemed to live in unbroken awareness of this mystery, the everyday world was touched, elevated and glorified with a higher significance.

Jesus came with a message about compassion, charity, and unconditional forgiveness. He not only talked it but he walked it as well, living it out in his dealings with others – in the company of his friends, in his encounters with strangers, and in the presence of his enemies.

It wasn’t long before the authorities caught wind of his growing reputation and grew uneasy over his dangerous influence on the people. Dangerous because he was waking people up from the trance of personal self-interest, religious orthodoxy, and militant nationalism.

The authorities were nervous that this trouble-maker might shift the axis of control that protected their privileged position as deputies of god and brokers of salvation. They quoted scripture in self-defense, accused Jesus of going against tradition, and at last succeeded in charging him with heresy, atheism and disturbing the peace (also known as the trance-state of spiritual sleep). He was executed and his followers disbanded.

But then, maybe among a small band of his discouraged survivors, memories were recalled and weaved together in stories. In recalling his words they remembered his message, and as his message reignited their hearts they realized that his vision was still short of fulfillment. The spirit of Jesus was not gone but now lived in them. The torch of his cause was theirs to carry forward.

An empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes are not evidence, but only the absence of evidence. They are signs, metaphors, and symbols opening out to a greater mystery. They say, “Not here.” But where then? Exactly where is Jesus alive?

Up in heaven, if you believe in heaven. In the sacraments of the Church, if that’s your thing.

I would say that if what we are calling the spirit of Jesus is not evident in the way we live and treat each other, then we’re still waiting for Easter.

 

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Embodied Faith

Tillich: “The history of faith is a permanent fight with the corruption of faith, and the conflict with reason is one of its most conspicuous symptoms.”

“Reason” as a term referring to a faculty of human intelligence has an interesting history of its own, both on the human-evolutionary and individual-developmental scales. Its ascent in the evolution of our species gave us new powers for critical thinking and rationality. It’s not that reason is any more reality-oriented than faith, but it moves less by wide leaps than smaller logical steps, connecting dots into patterns of meaning.

The relationship between mystery and meaning helps illustrate the essential differences in faith and reason. Faith is your primary response to mystery – to what I’ve been calling the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality. It’s a very here-and-now phenomenon and has to do with the quality of your experience in terms of how open, grounded, centered and trusting you are to the greater reality in which you live.

Awareness at this level is beyond words (ineffable), not just because words are fixed and the mystery is fluid, but also because this experience is processed in a deep, preverbal part of your brain.

When you were still in the womb, reality was registered in your nervous system as providential or inhospitable, depending on the sensory-intuitive information it was picking up from your uterine environment. And because all organisms are equipped with a survival drive, the general tenor of your resulting nervous state was somewhere between agitation and calm, distress and composure, anxiety … and faith.

Your brain’s primary task is to regulate the internal state of your body and continually match this state to its external environment. Such adaptation is what Darwin called “fitness.”

According to this definition, faith is a deep response to reality rooted in your very physiology. Anxiety or faith are felt at a level far below verbal processing, deeper even than conscious awareness. How you feel is the way it is – I could say “for you,” but it really doesn’t matter. This is why there is such certitude in this kind of knowing: no argument is needed to make the point.

Reason takes it start from this place of direct knowing. The nervous state of faith is preverbal, subconscious and inarticulate until the mind can begin to represent it somehow. The earliest forms of art, dance, song and poetry were likely creative expressions of the human experience of reality – as vast, sublime, frightening, and awe-inspiring. These were the first products of reason in its attempt to translate pure experience into communicable forms of representation. This was also the birth of meaning.

As it develops, reason takes these products of its own creative effort and puts them together in more complex patterns. Eventually – and it doesn’t take long at all – a complicated web of cross-referencing associations is generated, expanding up, out and around the ineffable mystery of your present experience. This meaning is tribal and personal, and its all about orienting your experience within the larger web of collective metaphors, values and concerns that make up your cultural world.

One of the important terms in your culture’s web of meaning is the mythological god. He is responsible for creating the cosmos, calling your ancestors to a special destiny, providing for your salvation, protecting you from harm, showering you with blessings, and finally taking your soul to everlasting life. At one level – at the imaginative, creative, and metaphorical level – such belief in god can promote a “blessed assurance,” a profound and confident trust that everything is going to be okay.

In a time when human culture was still in its creative-artistic phase, the mythological god was completely compatible with reason. It made sense to speak of a supernatural personality who made the world, who watches out for those he favors, and intervenes on their behalf. But when human evolution moved into a logical-rational phase, something had to be done about myth, the mythological god, and the traditional organization of life around one’s relationship and obligations to him – now formally called “religion.”

The progressives have always been in favor of putting down the stories and taking life more seriously, as enlightened and sophisticated adults. Conservatives, on the other hand, typically preach the necessity of holding on to the traditions and preserving the values of our forebears. If the myths and the mythological god don’t seem any longer to be compatible with our contemporary scientific worldview, then it only exposes how far we have fallen in our sin.

Faith now becomes inseparable from a literal Bible, an objectively real god (up there, out there), along with the orthodox doctrines, denominational creeds, and ordained authorities appointed to defend them as absolute truth. This is what Tillich means by “the corruption of faith.” What is basically a primary nervous state and existential stance in reality – open, trusting, present and receptive – gets retooled into an exercise in intellectual by-pass where we are pressured to believe and confess things that require an outdated worldview to make any sense at all.

Progressives also need to move past the point where they criticize mythology as childish and culturally retarded. There’s often a sour smell of self-congratulatory pride in their dismissive comments, and not enough genuine appreciation for the creative imagination and how metaphorical theology can still speak to our deep human need for grounding in a providential reality.

Truth is in the myths, but not when they are taken literally. At least not any more.

 

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