“Humans need stories—grand, compelling stories – that help to orient us in our lives and in the cosmos. The epic of evolution is such a story, beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context.” (174)
- Ursula Goodenough The Sacred Depths
of Nature (1998)
“What does mythical-narrative language contribute? Something that, although it is contained in my empirical reality, is usually not visible. I use the gospel, or other religious traditions, to say something that is vital to me. I use myth and mythical speech because I need it.” (151)
- Dorothee Soelle The Window of Vulnerability
"At the root of myth is a praxis, a way of being within the world that expresses itself in a corresponding way of feeling and approaching reality, including the Supreme Reality that wraps all things around; God.” (215)
- Leonardo Boff The Maternal Face of God (1987)
“We do not particularly care whether Rip van Winkle, Kamar al‑Zaman, or Jesus Christ ever actually lived. Their stories are what concern us: and these stories are so widely distributed over the world ‑‑ attached to various heroes in various lands ‑‑ that the question of whether this or that local carrier of the universal theme may or may not have been a historical, living man can be of only secondary moment.” (230‑1)
- Joseph Campbell The Hero with a
Thousand Faces (1968; 2nd Ed)
It was once thought that ‘myth’ referred only to stories that weren’t ‘true.’ In the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of science and scientific history (a researched account of the past, as opposed to traditional stories about the past) threw what we now call ‘mythology’ into question; its truth value was investigated and found wanting—at least as regards its account of things that might actually have ‘happened’ at some point in the past. In the last half of the 20th century, however, there was a reconstruction of the value and meaning of mythology; as evidenced in the quotes above. ‘Myth’ came to be seen as something much deeper than a mere account of the actual historical past. It was seen to be a vehicle for human self-understanding and as a repository of cultural wisdom about the human situation. Mircea Eliade, Ernst Casirrer and Joseph Campbell were among the most popular promoters of this move to rehabilitate the idea of myth. I would argue that this ‘rehabilitation’ was actually a reclamation of an earlier understanding of the stories that constitute mythology; an understanding that was fractured by the rise of the historical sciences and their emphasis on ‘what actually happened’ in the past. While the contribution of the historical sciences is important for understanding the objective world in which we live, the return to mythology in the late 20th century reaffirmed the existential, subjective and spiritual value of these stories.
This reconstruction has often been embraced by theologians and spiritual writer and used to re-assert the value of the stories and poetry and narrative prose found in the Bible. Writers such as Leonardo Boff, Sallie McFague and Dorothee Soelle were among the writers that I read in the 1980’s and 1990’s who used the idea of ‘myth’ as a way of reclaiming the Bible as a narrative about ‘big’ questions; the Bible as a symbolic and metaphorical text that revealed the nature of the human spiritual quest in ways that worked in a realm well beyond the question of its ‘historical’ accuracy. These writers all accepted the Enlightenment critique of the Bible as ‘myth’ in the sense that it wasn’t ‘true’ in the scientific historical sense—most of what is related in the Bible never happened. What they argued, however, is that the Bible is true as myth in the rehabilitated sense of that term of stories from which we can glean truths about human nature, our subjective experiences of growth, brokenness and salvation, and our existential experience of the world around us.
This reclaiming of myth also happened in Neo-Pagan circles and in writings on Celtic spirituality. In The Once and Future Goddess (1989), Elinor W Gadon said that “Myth is a paradigmatic narrative by which a community tells the story of its beginning.” (146). Moyra Caldecott said in Women in Celtic Myth: Tales of Extraordinary Women from the Ancient Celtic Tradition (1992) that:
“Myth is multi-layered, like life, and to get the most out of it we have to be aware of many different elements at once. ... In fact, the myth-maker’s truth is just as valid [i.e., as that of the scientist or historian] but of a different kind. It carries the conviction of a true note in a beautiful melody, and it illustrates the true dynamic of our lives behind the superficial structures..” (1)
“Like a detective, the myth-reader follows clues eagerly, learning all the while. Unlike a detective, however, we very rarely solve the mystery, for that is not what the myth-maker intends us to do. His or her task is to make us notice the mystery – to make us stop taking things for granted, to look, to question, to wonder.” (2)
In neither of these writers – as in their Christian counterparts – is there any pretense that the stories in the mythologies in which they are seeking meaning and gleaning wisdom are in any way ‘historically’ or (worse yet!) ‘literally’ true! The a-historical nature of myth is accepted and wholeheartedly embraced. While there might be historical events alludes to in myths, this is the least important dimension of the tales. It is from this starting point that these writers are able to seek and find wisdom and insight into the human condition in the myths they are studying and accepting as the narrative anchoring of their spiritualities.
Unfortunately, there was another movement afoot in the 20th century that reacted negatively to the Enlightenment critique of mythology and that then did not participate in its reconstruction in the late 20th century. That movement is called Fundamentalism. From the outset, this fanatic’s ideology set itself against the wisening discoveries of the Enlightenment. Finding their sacred texts attack by historical science, those who became Fundamentalists simply refused the insights of the Enlightenment and would not allow that their Bible was in error when considered as an historical text. In response, they promoted an interpretation of the Bible as ‘non-mythological’ and as ‘literally’ true. Ironically, Fundamentalism also seemed to accept the Enlightenment’s bias toward the value of researched history over ‘mythology’ (i.e., uncritically received texts’) but were unwilling to see that the Bible was a mythological text like so many other ‘scriptures’ from around the world. While Fundamentalism was perfectly willing to see other cultures’ and other religions’ texts as ‘myth’ and therefore as ‘untrue,’ they separated the Bible out and put it on a pedestal; they attempted to isolate their own mythology and keep it untouched by scientific historical evaluation. They created a literature of self-justifying analysis of the Bible that portrayed all the major events in the Bible – from the Creation through the Exodus to the Death and Resurrection of Jesus – as ‘proven historical facts’ (as one young campus evangelist insisted to me a few years ago). In this way, Fundamentalism locked its adherents into a spiritual as well as a cultural ghetto that has had an incredibly negative impact on 20th and now 21st century religion and spirituality. The politics of Fundamentalism has had a devastating impact on everything from education and the arts to the public’s understanding of science as well as social and economic policy.
Fundamentalism has now arisen in other religions, such as Islam and Hinduism, and there is no gauging the ill effects this is likely to have on humanity’s religious and spiritual progress in the coming decades. Cultural isolation and religious elitism are always a manifestation of Fundamentalism; ‘our’ culture’ – because it reflects ‘our religion’ – is better; more sacred, more worth promoting—than ‘yours.’ It always strikes me as ironic that Augustine in The Confessions wrote that the literal interpretation was just the beginner’s way of getting to know what the words and sentences meant, and that a deep spiritual understanding of Scripture only arises once you get the literal level down and move beyond it, into metaphorical, symbolic and allegorical interpretation. Yet the 20th century saw the emergence of a whole movement that prioritized the idea that Bible as ‘literally’ true, and now the 21st century will have to deal with the crippling spiritual and socioeconomic fallout from Fundamentalisms in all three of the major western religions. What is this slavery to the literal word of the text? Why does it seduce so many people?
These questions are too much to be dealt with in this blog. However, what I’d like to do is to approach the issue of mythology from an earthen and scientific spiritual standpoint, and say a little about how mythology – even the mythologies of major religions like Christianity – can contribute to our post-supernaturalist spiritual quest. The religious re-appropriation of myth that I summarized at the beginning of this blog respects the Enlightenment’s praxis and critique of mythology. My particular interest is in how we can tap into the wisdom that is encoded in mythology in the service of a naturalistic mysticism and an earthen poetics and philosophy. Once you move out of Plato’s Cave into the Light of the Sun; i.e., once you give up your superstitions and learned misconceptions about Earth & Cosmos and embrace the revelations of science—what role might mythology play in your life? Do you discard it completely; as merely reflecting ancient belief systems that are no longer valid or valuable, or do you glean mythologies for the sparks and embers of wisdom that they may contain?
I think that to totally eschew mythology – which includes the Bible, the Torah and the Koran as well as the texts of all other religions, living or dead – is to loose three thousand years of spiritual reflection on what it means to be human. Granted, this corpus of texts generally encodes and reflects a supernaturalist view of the ‘Creation’ and human nature, yet behind this façade, I argue, is preserved basic insights into what it has meant for the writers of these texts and the tellers of these stories to be human. Because we are all human beings – animals dwelling in the physical world; the Earth & Cosmos – whether or not we hold to supernaturalist or naturalistic beliefs, the stories told by religious cultures must have had some relevance to the human condition for them to be edifying and inspiring. Religions that loose sight of our being biological creatures in a world made up of matter and energy, tend to be dysfunctional and therefore unhealthy for their adherents. Extreme sects tend to burn themselves out, and loose their appeal when their lifestyle is shown to be unhealthy. Religions that have survived for a long time, despite their problems and the social and existential ills that have stemmed from their practice and institutionalization, must have been on the whole ‘healthy’ for their adherents to practice, or they would have died out. The mythologies of successful religions may well encode sparks and embers of a very human wisdom, despite the framing of the stories in supernaturalist assumptions and the veil of superstition explanations for various phenomena.
What I hope to glean from mythology – and this includes the Bible as much as Homer or the myths of the Celts – is not any insight into a supernatural being or beings, but insight into the human condition. I seek tales and poetry that say something about the choices we human beings have to make in order to live a spiritually positive and healthy life. Some of these stories are dark and deal with distressing and tragic themes. Others deal with human culpability and responsibility in the face of overwhelming odds or in the face of ethically difficult choices. Not a few are good at revealing the dimensions and pervasiveness of human brokenness. Many of mythological stories inspire me to a new openness to possibilities and urge me to new heights of consciousness. They tend to break through my insensitivity to the familiar and show me that it is possible to encounter the mysterious and the sublime in the course of my day to day existence. Epiphanies may arise out of the ordinary if we are awake to the possibility. Good mythic stories help us deal with loss, grief and suffering. They also allude to what a transformed self might look like and how we might experience a transformation. Then there are those stories that insist that self-transcendence and self-transformation is possible and give us symbolic and metaphorical ciphers for that experience. Ultimately, a mythological canon of stories will inspire those who read and meditate on its tales to the thresholds of wholeness and integration; i.e., the essence of the experience often referred to as ‘salvation.’
I never ask of such stories if they ever ‘happened,’ unless I’m actually engaged in historical study. That is, I never concern myself with whether they constitute an ‘historical’ account of some event on some day in some particular year, as that is the least important dimension of a mythology. But this is what Fundamentalists fail to see! And this failure is what is ruining so much religion today. It is certainly valid to ask of mythic stories “did this ever happen?” When you do an historical analysis of the Bible without the blinders of self-justifying piety on, you soon come to realize that most of the stories in the Bible never happened; at least in the way that they are related. One of the milestones in the spiritual life is to see and accept this—and then to move beyond that question to the more important issues that should be concerning you. The study of mythology – like the study of great literature – can be a boon to spirituality and actually improve the quality of our lives, but only if we can avoid the seduction of literalism and the trap of Fundamentalism. The texts of human mythologies are so much richer than the Fundamentalist will allow—and religion will only survive if it turns away from that fallacy and returns to a more literary, aesthetic and spiritual reading of its texts.