Tag Archives: virgin birth

Truth In Christian Mythology

One of the challenges in clarifying a post-theistic spirituality has to do with the fact that its principal concern – what I name the present mystery of reality – is impossible to define. While it is always and only right here, right now, any attempt to put a name and definition around it only manages to conceal the mystery under a veil of meaning.

Our need for certainty might be temporarily satisfied, but in the meantime the curtain of mental tapestry has separated us from what’s really real.

If we could acknowledge that this is what we’re doing, these veils would stand a better chance of parting before the mystery and facilitating a fresh encounter of our mind with reality. But while constructivism makes such an acknowledgment central to its method, orthodoxy, in every cultural domain and not only religion, cannot admit this either to its constituencies of believers or even to itself.

Our mind has a tendency to fall in love with its constructions, to get lost in its own designs. Meaning is something we can control, since it is, after all, our peculiar invention. Mystery – not even “on the other hand” since this puts it on the same axis as meaning – requires an open mind, not one boxed inside its own conclusions.

Our best constructs don’t amount to final answers but better – deeper, larger, and farther reaching – questions.

With the rise of science, the truth of our constructions of meaning (called theories) has become more strongly associated with how accurate they are as descriptions, explanations, and predictions of what’s going on around us – that is, in the factual realm external to our mind. (Even the scientific understanding of our body posits it as something physical, objective, and separate from the observing, analytical mind.)

In the meantime and as a consequence of this growing fascination with objectification, measurement, and control, we have gradually lost our taste and talent for a very different kind of narrative construction. One that doesn’t look out on a supposedly objective reality but rather contemplates the grounding mystery of existence itself.

Myths have been around far longer than theories, and one of the early mistakes of science was to assume that these ancient stories were just ignorant efforts at explaining a reality outside the mind.

Deities and demons, fantastical realms, heroic quests, and miraculous events – the familiar stuff of myths: such were not validated under scientific scrutiny and had to be rejected on our advance to enlightenment. Religion itself fell into amnesia, relinquishing its role as storyteller and settling into the defense of a supernatural realm above the natural realm, or (trying to seem more scientific) a metaphysical realm behind the physics of science.

Otherwise, religion agreed to keep its focus on morality and the life to come.

The theism-atheism debate is relevant here and only here, where the factual (i.e., supernatural, metaphysical) existence of god makes any sense. Theists insist that their stories are literally true and the mythological god is real, while atheists claim they are not, for obvious reasons. Theists profess the necessity of believing in god’s existence as a matter of faith, whereas atheists rightly point out that believing anything without the evidence or logic to support it is intellectually irresponsible.

They are both at a stalemate. We need to move on …

Post-theism provides a way out of this predicament by challenging us to put aside both metaphysics and physics as we reconsider these timeless myths. Their truth is not a matter of factual explanation but mystical revelation – or if you prefer, artistic revelation, precisely in the way a true work of art presents us with an artifact to contemplate and then draws back this veil on a present mystery. This mystery is the here-and-now experience that inspired the artist to begin with.

As revelation, however, it is not a look at someone else’s past experience of the here-and-now but offers a spontaneous insight for the beholder into the deep mystery of This Moment.

To show what I mean, let’s take the central myth of Christianity which has been summarized by orthodoxy in the doctrines of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But whereas Christian orthodoxy has attached these exclusively to the historical figure of Jesus, that is to say, to a person in the past, we will regard him instead as an archetypal figure, as an instance of what Joseph Campbell named The Hero.As Campbell demonstrated, this Hero has ‘a thousand faces’ reflecting the divers cultures and epochs where his (and her) stories are told – stories that can be interpreted and understood archetypally as about ourselves.

The Hero, then, is our ego, or the self-conscious center of personal identity that each of us is compelled to become. My diagram illustrates this journey of identity with an arching arrow representing the linear path of our individual lifespan. Personal identity is not something we’re born with, and its character cannot simply be reduced to our genes and animal temperament.

Quite otherwise, identity must be constructed, and its construction is a profoundly social project involving our parents and other taller powers, along with siblings and peers who make up our cohort through time.

Just as the Hero’s destiny is to serve as an agent of cultural aspirations (a struggle against fate), progress (a counter to the stabilizing force of tradition), and creativity (as an instigator of new possibilities), so does his or her path chart the trend-line and opportunities associated with our higher evolution as a species.

Briefly in what follows I will translate the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as representing three primary stages in the Hero’s Journey each of us is on.

What I call the grounding mystery of reality is all that has transpired to bring forth our existence as human beings. This refers not only to the causal sequence of events leading up to us, but each distinct manifestation of the universe making up our present nature as physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious individuals.

From our position of ego consciousness we look ‘down’ into the ground of what we essentially are.

As mentioned earlier, it is our socially constructed center of separate identity (ego) that arcs in its journey out, away, and eventually back to the grounding mystery. Because personal identity is socially constructed and independent of genetic inheritance, the start of its journey is represented in the myths as something of a vertical drop from another realm. The Hero may simply show up, but frequently in myths its advent comes about by way of a virgin birth.

Staying with this natal imagery, our best description would be to say that ego is spontaneously conceived (or ‘wakes up’) in the womb of the body.

The longer process of ego formation involves the attachments, agreements, and assignments that conspire to identify us as somebody special and separate from the rest. Our tribe provides us (or so we can hope) with models of maturity, responsibility, and virtue, in the taller powers of adults who watch over us; but also in the construct of a personal deity who exemplifies the perfection of virtue.

In my diagram I have colored the construct of god with a gradient ranging from purple (representing the grounding mystery) to orange (representing ego consciousness), in order to make the point that god is not merely another being, but the personified ground of being as well as the exalted ideal of our own waking nature.

But at the very apex of ego’s formation, just as we come to ourselves as special and separate from the rest, another realization dawns: that we are separate and alone. In the heroic achievement of our unique individuality we also must somehow accept (or otherwise resign to) the full burden of our existence as solitary and mortal beings.

In the Christian myth this is represented by Jesus on the cross when he cries out, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?!” (Mark 15:34)

As a narrative mechanism, the cross thrusts our Hero away from the earth but not quite into heaven either, where he hangs in a grey void of isolation, exposure, and abandonment. This is the crucial (‘cross-shaped’ or ‘cross-over’) point that can lead either to utter despair, a desperate craving for security and assurance, or to the breakthrough of genuine awakening.

Which way it goes will depend on our ability to sustain this shock of loneliness and look not away but through it to a transpersonal view of life.

It’s not a coincidence that Jesus’ followers recognized his cross as central to his vision of the liberated life. It was a visual depiction of his core message (gospel) concerning the necessity of dying to one’s separate and special self, whether that specialness is based in a felt sense of pride and superiority, or in shame and inferiority. Both, in fact, can equally fixate ego on itself and keep us from authentic life.

Only by getting over ourselves can we enter into conscious communion with others and with the greater reality beyond us.

Entering into the authentic life of a transpersonal existence brings us to the third stage of our Hero’s journey: resurrection. This isn’t a recovery of our former life but an elevation of consciousness to the liberated life, to what I also call our creative authority as individuals in community. In the Christian myth this higher state of the liberated life is represented in the symbol of an empty tomb, which plays opposite to the virgin womb as the locus of our Hero’s ‘second birth’, set free from the constraints of insecurity, ambition … and belief.

From a post-theistic perspective, one gift of the liberated life is a grace to live in full acceptance of our own mortality, of the passing nature of things, and of the deep abyss in the face of which our most cherished veils of meaning dissolve away.


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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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The Truth of Symbols

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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