September 28, 2003
Belief, myth, and jack#$%

David is still not happy with the answers he got to his problems with "the faith thing," and I have to admit I'm not entirely happy either, although for a slightly different reason. I understand the distinction Kynn is drawing between factual belief and mythic truth, and I tend to agree that believing that parts of the Bible are myth isn't incompatible with being a Christian. But, for reasons I alluded to in my comment on Kynn's post, I can't agree that faith has nothing to do with what you believe to be factual truth. Even a myth describes reality as you experience it, or it has no resonance. That's why I'm not completely buying the line from Kynn, Rob, James etc. that factual issues don't matter, you can just look at the Gospels and recognize them as Truth.

I seem to be ventriloquizing a lot for Telford lately, as he has no time to blog these days, but I think his point of view is instructive here. As in most things, he's in between the fundamentalists and the liberals when it comes to the factuality of the Bible. He's perfectly happy to call large parts of the Bible myths -- the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and so on. He's also happy to admit to the mythologizing of Jesus, and that certain events described in the Gospels probably didn't literally happen. Yet last spring, he got on my case to research the historical evidence for Jesus, in particular the resurrection. Because as far as he's concerned, if the resurrection didn't literally, factually happen, Christianity has no foundation at all.

I haven't been impressed with what I've seen of the evidence so far, but I understand why he felt this matters. Because, far from expressing eternal truth, the resurrection turned life as we know it upside down. In a way, it brought to the extreme the inversions of the natural order that Jesus preached during life: the last shall be first, the exalted shall be humbled, and slaughtered idealists will turn out to be immortal. Just how radical an idea this is I think was expressed well by Will of the late, lamented blog Mysterium Crucis. He explained why he disagreed with efforts to downplay the divinity of Jesus and see him simply as a moral philosopher:

Because, let's be honest, if He's not God, then Jesus is a pretty crummy philosopher.

Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Render unto Caesar. If you read the teachings of Jesus divorced from the context of his Godhood and divine mission, it's all pretty impractical. At its worse, it's self-evident nonsense. Take this little gem: the meek shall inherit the earth. Sure Jesus, whatever you say. Now if Jesus is God, and he can personally back up those words, I'll believe it. Barring that, the meek ain't gonna inherit jack sh!t.

Exactly so. Even if you take the "inheritance" metaphorically rather than literally, it goes counter to everyday experience. Consider other, non-Christian sayings floating around: Nice guys finish last. The good suffer and the wicked prosper. I'd rather be a live sinner than a dead saint.

Or consider other mythologies. The ancient Greeks left a body of myths that resonates with us to this day, but the cosmos they describe is very different from the Christian one. The gods are petty and selfish, with no great love for humanity, and all are subject to the whims of Fate. Buddha's view was in a way even darker: life is suffering, the material world is an evil illusion, and you can only escape by total detachment. There is no loving Creator in Buddhist mythology; so rather than embrace God, Buddhists literally embrace nothing. Jung was right that there are common threads in all mythologies, but there are also significant differences.

Indeed, that there could be an all-good God ruling the universe is far from self-evident, and was far from self-evident even to the ancients. The Psalms and the Book of Job show how even the writers of the Bible struggled with the idea. And it's something I'm constantly struggling with myself. I thought of this especially lately when I was dealing with a person who's been intermittently harassing me, and was trying to figure out how to deal with it in a way commensurate with loving your enemies. Telford, trying to buck me up in an email, told me to "... take comfort in knowing it is God loving through you."

But that's exactly the problem: I don't know that. And this is where believing that there's actually an external being out there, as opposed to a cool myth or archetype or whatever, makes a difference. I have to answer the voice in my head that tells me I'm a chump, a weakling, a masochistic moron, if I try to love people who clearly want to hurt me. I have to say why Ayn Rand and Nietzsche had it all wrong. My favorite line from the Methodist sermon that I never blogged was when the pastor was explaining what the Holy Spirit gives to a person: the ability "to love even when it hurts; to love when all is darkness and all is black."

The earliest Christians, after all, had to deal with darkness and persecution 1,000 times worse than I do. I very much doubt that their willingness to be imprisoned, tortured and killed for their faith came from their belief that the resurrection was a really cool myth. They had to believe that Jesus wasn't just a good guy but that he was a victor, a conqueror of sin and death. Otherwise, their martyrdom would just leave them in the same dust heap as other dead idealists.

So really, the question, "Why should I believe the Gospels are true?" isn't answered by recasting them as myth and metaphor. You still have to explain why you believe in them even as myth and metaphor. You have to explain what truth they tell. And you have to explain why we should follow them, even when they can lead to death or worse.

Posted by Camassia at September 28, 2003 02:15 PM | TrackBack

"But, for reasons I alluded to in my comment on Kynn's post, I can't agree that faith has nothing to do with what you believe to be factual truth."

I still think we're not connecting here, for some reason. I don't think I said there was no connection, but I think that "faith" is something more than just "belief."

That is not to put down belief, or faith. They are different things, but one is not necessarily lesser than the other. (They are, I think, lesser than love.)


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on September 28, 2003 03:05 PM

Maybe look at it this way: all of the Bible functions as myth, which is a good thing; myth delivers Truth. Some myth (the Garden of Eden) is entirely metaphorical; other myth (Before Abraham was, I AM) is factual, but not empirically provable; other myth functions as myth even though it is historical fact. I think that we should look at the Resurrection as an example of this last kind--as the supreme example of all kinds, actually. You can afford to accept "Before Abraham was, I AM" on faith, for the simple reason that it isn't essential to believe it in order to have faith in the redemptive power of the resurrection--which IS essential.
There is some empirical evidence for the resurrection, so it is possible to believe that it really happened intellectually, as well as by faith. We believe that many things really happened that we never saw with our own eyes. But there are few things--like the resurrection--that rise to the level of myth because they resonate with our essential humanity.

Posted by: Rob on September 28, 2003 03:36 PM

I am reading the book Resident Aliens by Hauerwas and Willimon. In it I just came across a discussion of the Beatitudes that bears on what I have been saying about the mechanism of myth in the scriptures (although in a slightly different context):
"In Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly cites an older command, already tough enough to keep in itself, and then radically deepens its significance, not to lay some gigantic ethical burden on the backs of potential ethical heroes, but rather to illustrate what is happening in our midst. This instance is not a law from which deductions can be casuistically drawn; rather**it is an imaginative metaphor, which hopes to produce a shock within our imaginations so that the hearer comes to see his or her life in a radical new way.** [emphasis added] It is morality pushed to the limits, not so much in the immediate service of morality, but rather to help us see something new, **so against what we have always heard said, that we cannot rely on our older images of what is and what is not.** [emphasis added]

"We miss all this when we reduce the Beatitudes to maxims of positive thinking, new rules for getting by well."

So, I believe that the metaphorical content of the gospels changes us by our mere exposure to it, making faith ultimately not only possible, but inevitable, if faith is what we seek.

Posted by: Rob on September 28, 2003 05:36 PM

The question of faith and understanding seems to be kind of like the chicken and the egg -- we can't seem to say which came first. I like St. Augustine's description: "I believe that I might understand, and understand that I might believe." That's how it's worked in my life: intellectual understanding making me more open to the gift of faith, that faith giving me a basis from which to struggle on in my understanding of God, and that understanding then deepening that faith, in an on-going cycle.

Encountering the Bible without a grounding in faith is like seing a picture in black and white instead of color. There's a depth and a richness that's missing. Because Christians believe that Scripture is the word of God, studying the Bible is not like reading a book. It's having a conversation with God. I think that's why folks often seem to be talking past each other in discussions of biblical truth, because they're using the same terms with radically different meanings.

I don't know if it's possible to reason your way to faith, although I believe it is possible to reason your way to a decision to be more open to God. At some point even the most left-brained folks seem to need some kind of conversion experience to integrate their heart and mind.

To me, faith is both a gift from God and a deliberate decision. It's a gift that I have to choose to accept and use, in all its scary and wondrous potential.


Posted by: Regina on September 29, 2003 09:33 AM

I'm getting it! (from another post I left on Kynn's blog):

Thank you to everyone that has been patient with me on the faith/belief/trust issue!

I believe I am beginning to get your logic.

The defining moment hit me like a ton of bricks when I was reading a post from Cammasia and saying to myself "YEAH - you go girl! See, that's something I can buy... Well now just hold on a minuet there Davey... WHY CAN I BUY IN TO THAT?" ANSWER: I T R U S T Cammasia.

(fireworks go here - along with a lightbulb over my head)

Thanks again for not just telling me to "get with the program".

Posted by: David on September 30, 2003 11:47 AM
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