Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Christmas is a myth. Thank God.

On the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel atheists have posted a billboard featuring the three Magi approaching the manger. The text reads, “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason.” The sign saddens me.

“Myth” is not the same as “falsehood.” Myth is a narrative structure used to convey some of the deepest truths we humans can glean. Myths are not believed in but unpacked and lived.

The problem with contemporary religion is that it devalues myth and imagination, and seeks legitimacy in history and science. The power of Christmas is not that Matthew and Luke were historians (they can’t even agree between themselves), but that they were mythmakers. They used story, just as Jesus did, to convey a truth that science and history could not accommodate.

I am, of course, speaking as a nonChristian, but I say the same about the myths of every religion including my own. If I insist the Exodus is history I have to deal with a murderous God and a host of extraneous, harmful, and self-serving miracles. But if I accept it as myth I am dealing with the liberation of self from enslavement to power; the suffering is mine, the deaths are mine, and the liberation is mind. Myth is meant to lived rather than believed in; it is about the inner life not the political one.

The characters found in myths represent aspects of our own psyches. The Virgin Birth is neither a miracle nor a biological act of parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). It is a story about how something new and potentially redemptive comes into the world. As a myth Christmas speaks to all humans. As science and history it makes no sense at all.

If we reclaimed the power of myth, and understood its role in our lives, we could reclaim the world’s religions as keepers of myth and train clergy to be guides to myth who can help us live out the mythic and imaginal dimensions of our lives through acts of compassion and contemplative spiritual practice.

If I had the money I would post my own Magi billboards. But I would change the tagline from “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason” to “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate the Imagination.”

36 comments:

spiritedcrone said...

Great piece - thanks. If we could recover the art of reading myth we just might be able to read our our lives in much more positive ways! Have retweeted and sent to my FB page.

Jennifer said...

This is beautiful. Thank you for putting this into perspective. I find imagination is something we all need to nurture a little more along the way. My eight-year-old daughter is at the age where some of her friends are telling her Santa is not real. She comes home to ask my husband and I - and we answer with hurt and shocked faces, "Of course Santa is real!" Wonder and awe should never cease, no matter what age.

JC said...

Everybody knows that myth is different from truth and different from falsehood. Not everybody agrees on which stories fall into which category. It would be nice if we were able to say "myth" without being interpreted as criticizing, but there are things I think are true that I would be insulted to hear called "myths."

Diana Blair Revell said...

Thank God - and thank you! I'm sharing and sharing.

Edgewise said...

Myth, as well as any great fiction, can relate deep truths through allegory, metaphor, symbolism and a variety of other literary devices. However, the key word here is "fiction." Fiction/myth may not be the opposite of truth, but it is definitely mutually exclusive from fact.

Methinks you're having the wrong conversation. You're (politely) debating the claims of atheists, many of whom would not disagree with you. But the fact of the matter is that, by stating that these mythological stories make no sense in terms of history or science, you show that you have a lot more in common with these atheists than fundamentalists and other orthodox believers.

These atheists, by putting up their billboards, have little argument with you. They're a lot more concerned about the alarmingly high percentages of people in this country that believe in these myths as facts. Perhaps you have heard, there's a bit of a kerfuffle over teaching evolution in schools? It would be nice if the billboards said "You Know It’s a Myth. Myths have value for instructing us on matters of universal spirituality, but should not be taken as fact." However, I don't think they make buses that long.

I think you're being a little naive. Your true opposition lies among other (more extreme) believers, not atheists. It is fine to say that myths have value, but blind to ignore that there are millions of actual people who take these myths to be literal fact, and make decisions (including political decisions) accordingly. There is a difference between you and them, and you can't just blur the lines to make it go away.

Matthew said...

If it's all a myth, then what hope is there? If God is just "nature" or "reality," then it seems to me that God is a cruel sadistic bitch.

polyhymnia said...

I agree with both the OP and Edgewise. Thing is, I don't think OP is necessarily thinking of atheists as "the opposition". Rather, he's critiquing the effectiveness of their arguments.

The issue I have with it is that a rationalistic "you know it's a myth" argument won't touch the hearts of people who care about myth. It'll just make our world value myth a little bit less, which is not, in fact, what the atheists actually want to do with their billboard.

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks for all the comments. As to JC's notion that "everyone knows myth is different from truth," I disagree. As a student of Jung, Campbell, Neumann, Bachoven and a host of other similar scholars I find great truth in myth. When truth is limited to facts we are doomed.

As for Edgewise's notion that I have little in common with fundamentalists--mea culpa.Fundamentalists refuse to accept facts that disagree with their faith; I prefer membership in what President Bush dubbed the "reality based community." I just don't want to dumb reality down to materialism.

My point was that religion is at its best when it sees itself as a vehicle for transmitting myth and helping us find the truth in them. When the Virgin Birth is reduced to biology, both faith and science suffer.

And as for being a little naive, well, perhaps. But if you think I blur the line between myself and fundies you haven't read much of this blog.

I couldn't disagree more with Matthew. God for me is reality, and reality just doesn't care about me. The rain, as Jesus said, falls on the just and the unjust. My holy books are Job and Ecclesiastes and the Gospel of Thomas. What I really liked, Matthew, was your notion that God is a woman, even though She might be a cruel bitch. I don't think God is cruel, that implies a personality God lacks. But I wonder why you chose bitch rather than bastard. Most religions see God as a man. Are you a Goddess worshipper?

I also agree with Polyh that rationalist arguments rarely touch the heart. I suspect that the people funding the atheist sign aren't interested in my critique, or in salvaging myth at all.

Mo said...

I’ve been struggling with finding “the truth” lately. Then I was introduced with the concepts of Historical Truth vs. Mythical Truth. Knowing of my current struggle, a friend of mine sent me this blog. Thank you for helping on my journey.

Therese L. Broderick said...

I came to this blog through a link on Paul Oakley's Facebook page. Like "Mo," I thank you (and Paul) for helping me on my own journey of understanding. I am a non-militant atheist, a myth-affirming creative writer. I distrust facile dualities (reason vs. emotion, etc.). I am very intrigued by the proposal that religious leaders become teachers of myth. I want to read more of your blog entries. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and scholarship online.

Julie said...

this is a great reminder not to throw the baby out with the bath water, or in this case, the manger. In separating myself from a fundamental christian background I can easily dismiss encounters with all stories. It is nice to think about the possibility of engaging in the story as myth. So thank you :) I'm sure I'll explore this idea for the balance of the season.

HHsbvt said...

What is the true story? For most of us, our reality is the world of our mind, informed by data gathered through our senses. This may be our reality, but how real is it? It certainly does not endure.

Our instruments of perception, our senses, are imperfect to begin with, and thus the world of our mind informed by them may be more false than real. Hot, cold, happy, sad, good, and bad are mental notions relative to our sense perception. The same day is cold for one and hot for another, good for one, bad for another. We view the world though the glasses of our mental and sensual experience, yet ultimately these get in the way of truly experiencing. Vedanta tells us that which we presently perceive to be reality is more akin to myth, a falsehood, while we ourselves, the experiencers, are units of reality—souls. The phenomenal world may be real, but our perception of it is false, so false that it causes us to loose sight of our souls. The sense of the loss of our souls that dominates our culture thus serves to underscore the mythical nature of our perception of reality arising out of misdirected sensual and mental preoccupations.

As for the true story, the myth that leads us to our soul leads us to reality. Indeed, that so called myth may not be a myth at all, whereas our mental and sensual perception of so called reality may be mythical. It is not altogether false, rather an allegory for the absolute, a reflection of reality.

Swami
www.harmonist.us

HHsbvt said...

What is the true story? For most of us, our reality is the world of our mind, informed by data gathered through our senses. This may be our reality, but how real is it? It certainly does not endure.

Our instruments of perception, our senses, are imperfect to begin with, and thus the world of our mind informed by them may be more false than real. Hot, cold, happy, sad, good, and bad are mental notions relative to our sense perception. The same day is cold for one and hot for another, good for one, bad for another. We view the world though the glasses of our mental and sensual experience, yet ultimately these get in the way of truly experiencing. Vedanta tells us that which we presently perceive to be reality is more akin to myth, a falsehood, while we ourselves, the experiencers, are units of reality—souls. The phenomenal world may be real, but our perception of it is false, so false that it causes us to loose sight of our souls. The sense of the loss of our souls that dominates our culture thus serves to underscore the mythical nature of our perception of reality arising out of misdirected sensual and mental preoccupations.

As for the true story, the myth that leads us to our soul leads us to reality. Indeed, that so called myth may not be a myth at all, whereas our mental and sensual perception of so called reality may be mythical. It is not altogether false, rather an allegory for the absolute, a reflection of reality.

Swami
www.harmonist.us

HHsbvt said...

What is the true story? For most of us, our reality is the world of our mind, informed by data gathered through our senses. This may be our reality, but how real is it? It certainly does not endure.

Our instruments of perception, our senses, are imperfect to begin with, and thus the world of our mind informed by them may be more false than real. Hot, cold, happy, sad, good, and bad are mental notions relative to our sense perception. The same day is cold for one and hot for another, good for one, bad for another. We view the world though the glasses of our mental and sensual experience, yet ultimately these get in the way of truly experiencing. Vedanta tells us that which we presently perceive to be reality is more akin to myth, a falsehood, while we ourselves, the experiencers, are units of reality—souls. The phenomenal world may be real, but our perception of it is false, so false that it causes us to loose sight of our souls. The sense of the loss of our souls that dominates our culture thus serves to underscore the mythical nature of our perception of reality arising out of misdirected sensual and mental preoccupations.

As for the true story, the myth that leads us to our soul leads us to reality. Indeed, that so called myth may not be a myth at all, whereas our mental and sensual perception of so called reality may be mythical. It is not altogether false, rather an allegory for the absolute, a reflection of reality.

Swami
www.harmonist.us

Matthew said...

Truthfully, Rabbi Rami, what I believe is pretty close to what you believe. But to this Jesuit trained Catholic, the idea of a panentheistic, Spinozian God is a bitter pill to swallow.

It is a conception of God that has been whittled down to really nothing at all. A God that allows so much suffering so capriciously and unevenly distributed, with no hope for salvation, is a God unworthy of worship.

Carolina said...

Thank you, you've summed up my objection to that stance on the idiotic Christmas debate beautifully.

I think that acknowledging the power of myth will help atheists get what they want: a society full of people who think critically and carefully and are not psychologically dependent upon absolutist notions of morality. If you tell people, "Christmas is a myth, but myths are important," you're presenting to them a far more complicated reality than their rigid paradigm allows. You're encouraging them to think of the nature of myth and the nature of facts and how they interrelate. This will cultivate the critical thinking that many atheists say they want. (I certainly want it, too, for my part.)

People don't take well to the message that sign is REALLY expressing to them: that they're silly and unintelligent and unreasonable for experiencing Christmas in a meaningful way. Yet this is how atheists chose to evangelize (and make no mistake about it, they are interested in evangelism -- often for noble reasons, too). A better tack would be to encourage fundies to complicate their reality in the way I suggested so that they understand that religion is so much more than issues like the creation vs. evolution debate. It's so much more -meaningful-.

As for a pantheist God that offers no hope for salvation -- perhaps for you; but for me divinity is not conditional on something so simple. :) (I say this as a Jungian, though, in interests of full disclosure.)

polyhymnia said...
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polyhymnia said...

(Apologies for the repost. Blogger told me my comment was too long, so I retyped the part of it that I thought I had lost, and then when it showed up after all, I liked the retyped version better.)

Gaspar said...

Yes, the stories and books maybe myths, but the truth can be found based on the actions of those who belief in such stories and books. If good is produced based on the influence of such myths on peoples actions, then what harm is it to you?

Matthew said...

Carolina said:

"As for a pantheist God that offers no hope for salvation -- perhaps for you; but for me divinity is not conditional on something so simple. :) (I say this as a Jungian, though, in interests of full disclosure.)"

I'm sorry, I fail to see the divinity in a God that is responsible for this:

http://www.chinasmack.com/2010/stories/chinese-angry-usa-donated-more-to-haiti-than-sichuan.html

This nature-god you believe in does not love her children. Or rather, she loves some of them, and hates the others.

So maybe a supernatural God is far fetched, but if there is a 1% chance that such a God exists, I'm putting all my chips on the table.

Barry said...

Sorry, Gaspar, but I see mostly bad coming from the loudest proclaimers of their beliefs in the literal truth of their sacred books. I include among these the most fundamentalist Christians, the Taliban and their ilk, and Orthodox Jews in Israel who seek to exclude everyone else from Jewish and Israeli life.

My Muse and Me said...

It is so refreshing to read reason from the pens/computers keyboards of religious professionals.

However gently I visited this issue it was always difficult for my high school Old Testament students to wrap their heads around the distinction between myth and falsehood regarding comparative creation stories. I didn't dare visit it in the New Testament course. I like your reading of the Virgin Birth as a myth that speaks to all people on some level. But it is such a core belief for Catholics that sadly most see the options as either complete acceptance of the event as a miracle and don't feel any need for explanation or interpretation, or they see it as nonsense and on that basis they question the foundation of their very faith. If only people had more knowledge of comparative mythology and weren't so determined to see it as history. Nonethless....got to love the music it inspired. As I write I am listening to the messiah and practicing for our concert.
Conclusion, I love Christmas --- but feel bad for Joseph!

Gaspar said...

"Sorry, Gaspar, but I see mostly bad coming from the loudest proclaimers of their beliefs in the literal truth of their sacred books."
As do I, but such is the reality these religions choose to portray. I think it's no so bad what they believe as how much they push their beliefs on others, or expect others to succum to their totalitarian ways.

eashtov said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
eashtov said...

Shalom Matthew,

You wrote: "I'm sorry, I fail to see the divinity in a God that is responsible for this:

http://www.chinasmack.com/2010/stories/chinese-angry-usa-donated-more-to-haiti-than-sichuan.html"

If this is so, then Adonai/God as described in Isaiah 45:6-7 must give you much difficulty. Those verses are: "I am Adonai, and there is no other; I form light and create darkness, I make wholeness
AND CREATE EVIL, I Adonai do all these things.

Wholeness,
Jordan

Rabbi Rami said...

I don't know if anyone is still reading this thread, but to the idea of a God who is cruel, I suggest reading Hating God, the untold stroy of misotheism by Bernard Schweizer and Bart Ehrman's God's Problem.

AaronHerschel said...
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AaronHerschel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AaronHerschel said...

I sincerely hope no one is reading this thread anymore, as I have no confidence in any of what I'm about to say.

Still, I can't help myself. So here goes.

Dad: I wonder if you're making a mistake common to both modernism and humanism when you imagine that myth "represents aspects of our psyches." The entire idea of a psyche and of myth as universal psychological symbolism is, as you yourself have revealed with your mention of Campbell, Jung, et al, a notion derived from modern Western rational philosophy.

Applying this reading, you treat myth as English professors treat literature, and while--as an English professor--I find such a treatment easy to accept, it really is quite problematic, in that it essentially subsumes mythos in logos. Indeed, the argument is circular. To accept it, we must already have rejected myth as a mere reflection of the real, which we can only approach by rational interpretation. This reading murders myth by making it an object of analysis, and thus it replaces faith with critical distance, belief with the suspension of disbelief. Yet, isn't the power of myth its ability to become ecstatic? To live in and as reality?

When Augustus Caeser asked Virgil to write the Aeneid, he did so with the hope that the poem would reunite a fractured, squabbling Rome and legitimize the rule of the Caesers. This was an act of poesis: an act of "making," in which myth reshapes history, memory, culture, and politics. The Aenied may not be factual, but it is not a metaphor either. It does not reflect Rome, it is Rome. It is the story that must be believed for Rome to exist.

Myth is not a signifier for something else; it is an act of embodying, a "making real," without which, nothing is at all.

Grégoire said...

Claude Levi-Strauss once gave an interview on CBC radio (this was back in the 1970s). The host was a secular type, quite critical. Every time Uncle Claude started talking about mythology (the subject of the show) the host would interrupt him. "It's a lie!" the host would explain. "It's not a lie, it's a myth" replied Uncle Claude. They went back and forth this way for the full fifteen minutes, and in the end the time was up and the host still didn't get it.

The power of myth is often the ability to flummox the self-congratulatory and intellectually stagnant among us.

Peace! (on earth, and all that)

Geoff said...

Thank you, Rabbi Rami! You've given me a whole new way to look at religion and spirituality. The idea is to view religions as myth systems that help us ponder and make sense of the world. I'm okay with that! Instead of saying I'm an atheist or agnostic, accept religions but just realize that it's all myth - but rich and useful myth.

You'd have to ignore the fact that the religious people around you believe it literally. Then again, I'm sure many churchgoers don't really believe, but they sense that there's some "truth" or utility in the myth, and they want to be part of that idea and part of a seeking community. I think I do, too.

Therese L. Broderick said...

I am an average woman (not an academic or scholar), age 51, mother and wife. I am an atheist, but an atheist who respects the power of imagination, the value of emotions, and the limitations of reason/logic. I educate myself by reading widely.

I offer the following remarks about Myth. Which of these remarks would you strongly disagree with? Why? Would you agree with any of them? Why?

Responses by anyone -- ordinary mortals, academics, scholars, religious people -- are welcome.

1) I "love" certain myths or stories because I recognize in them images, places, actors, or narratives of feeling which correspond to images, places, actors, or narratives of feeling from my own life. I "love" the myth because the oral telling of it, or the verbal transcription of it, embodies my own emotions, re-activates them, re-minds me of the most dangerous emotional terrains I have visited. Those myths or stories focus me on what's really at stake in life, what cannot be escaped: the forces of survival; change; pain; betrayal; loss; death. The myth is "true" for me only in the sense that it is "felt" recognition.

2) The myths and stories which I love were, at their origin, the product of some other human being's mind/body interating with the physical world and with other people. That is, all myths and all stories originate in human sensory experience, in sights, sounds, tactile impressions, smells, and tastes. When I read a myth which re-minds me of my own life, I feel a sense of belonging and community with the other people who have told or loved the myth. I feel "understood" by those myth-makers and storytellers.

3) Human language developed as an attempt to communicate by comparison: comparing the more diffuse physical/emotional experiences of human life to the more direct sensory experiences of the human body. All human language derives, ultimately, from metaphors of physical sensation.

4) Myth and Story are elaborate systems of metaphor for physical sensation. Therefore, I "love" the myths and stories which somehow remind me of my own physical life, which embody my own body. Very egocentric!

(Much of 3 and 4 above result from my reading of the book Metaphors We Live By.)

Marshall said...

Post is only a week old, and everybody thinks everybody else has gone home. How can you have a party that doesn't last longer than that? Show a little stamina, people.

Aaron: wonder if you're making a mistake common to both modernism and humanism when you imagine that myth "represents aspects of our psyches." The entire idea of a psyche and of myth as universal psychological symbolism is, as you yourself have revealed with your mention of Campbell, Jung, et al, a notion derived from modern Western rational philosophy.

Some overwrought postModernist said the Pharaohs (Ramses n?) couldn't have died of cholera, because the bacillus wasn't discovered until the 19th century (true story, can't find the reference right now). Psyche and myth are natural products of human nature existing independently of modern theories about them.

Therese, re #2: myths are not the product of "some" authorial human mind, they are collective products of some human culture. By passing from hand to hand (mind to mind) they tend to loose personal idiosyncrasy and become a pure statement of the culture entity. Polishing a stone supresses the surface roughness and exposes the internal struture. Somebody wrote down some words, but the instantiation is just that, not the "myth" itself.

Secularists sometimes seem to think they can make up whatever Humanist Manifesto or Theory of Justice they like, or for which they can make the math appear to work. Terry Brooks is OK fantasy fiction story, but it isn't myth. Could be in few hundred years I suppose, but I doubt it will be.

Therese L. Broderick said...

Thanks for your reply! I would love to continue the conversation.

Is there really such a thing as a single "human culture" that, collectively, hones a myth or story, reducing idiosyncracies? Each re-telling or re-writing of a myth is an act by one person or one group who are, indeed, perhaps trying to please the power-holders or advance their own artistic agenda. In each re-telling or re-enactment of the myth, the tellers or actors might ADD details and idiosyncracies precisely for the purpose of pleasing the power-holders, no?

Haven't at least some anthropological studies shown that the notion of a "pure" or homogeneous culture is fantasy? That is, even so-called "primitive" or "pure" cultures may be highly diverse, populating anarchists, rebels, minorities, etc.

If a myth were honed to purity by a collective culture, why do so many people disagree about a myth's "meaning"? Why do scholars offer competing interpretations of any one myth? Why do some people (like me) in the culture NOT buy into some of my culture's prized mythology?

Isn't a written version of a myth just as valid in today's literate society as a spoken version of the myth? If scholars today no longer consider the written version of the myth to be "the myth," why do we allow different written versions of The Aeneid, Greek myths, Bible, etc.? If so, why do we even allow translations?

Marshall said...

@Therese ....always IMHO, of course.....I don't even play a doctor on TV....

No, there isn't a "single human culture". There's a great diversity of them, and the average individual participates in several. That's more or less my definition of "culture" .... YMMV.

Right, cultures are not selected for self-consistency. They are like a traveling circus, not like a doctoral thesis. Boundaries are smudgy and overlapping, like regional dialects, yet recognizable.

I don't say honed to "purity". In fact, I seriously do wonder what ARE they being honed to? (If we say "godliness" we will scare people, these days.)

Written transmission is as valid as anything. The important transmission is of Mind to Mind.

Therese L. Broderick said...

Thank you, Marshall, for sharing your insights with me!

Season's greetings to you!