This is the 2nd post in this series based on the short story, “A Life-giving Myth, ” by Fr John Breck from his book, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME. The first post is A Life-giving Myth (I). The story is basically a lecture given by a college professor which offers some profound insights into the nature of Christian thinking and theology. Breck argues in the story that there is a good and proper understanding of “myth” which is helpful for the Christian to know when reading Scripture. Myth doesn’t mean fantasy or fiction, but is rather offering theology in narrative to help reveal the mystery of God. “Myth” opens our heart and mind and the Scriptures to the truth which is being revealed to us in a language which helps get us beyond human limitations – which is made possible through art (icons), poetry (hymns), symbol and ritual. So in the story, the professor lectures:
“People usually read the Bible as though it were a history book or a scientific account that details how God created the world (‘in six days,’ as bad exegesis would have it); how he chose and delivered the Hebrew people from an implacably hostile world; sent his Son from heaven to dwell as a man among men; tolerated his Son’s crucifixion as a vicarious death that frees us from the consequences of our personal sin, and by his ‘descent into hell’ destroyed the power of death; then raised his Son from the tomb and exalted him into heaven, a location conceived as somewhere ‘up there’ or ‘out there.’ These are the basic elements of God’s saving work, presented in Scripture and interpreted in various ways of preachers and teachers in our churches and seminaries. The faith of most of us is shaped by these traditional elements, whether or not we accept them as ‘fact.'” (pp 219-220)
The story’s professor says if we want to understand Scripture we have to be prepared to understand myth – how the narrative takes us to a deeper level and meaning. For example, Old Testament narratives reveal Christ to us. If we read the Old Testament only as history, we miss its point. The texts are pointing beyond their literal meaning to the Kingdom of God, to Christ, to the Holy Trinity and to the eschaton in which Christ is revealed to all. A purely literal reading of the text will cause us to miss the depths of what God is revealing about history and about creation and about what it means to be human. Genesis is not trying to offer a scientific explanation of creation since in the modern understanding of “science” since science really only considers materialism whereas Genesis is offering a spiritual understanding of the empirical universe.
The story’s lecturer continues:
“This kind of perspective has also influenced – and deformed – our understanding of miracles. Rather than receive them as ‘signs’ of the presence of the Kingdom of God within the world, we see them as exceptional occurrences that suspend or otherwise defy natural law. In working miracles, we think, God breaks the rules to perform some extraordinary exploit that we request or that he sees as necessary for the spiritual progress and enlightenment of his people.” (p 220)
Scriptural miracles are showing us that our world has an interface with the transcendent, with the divine, with all that is holy and glorious, with all that God is revealing to us. If we only seek out the “magic” of the miraculous (defying nature), we fail to see the miracles are revealing God to us. We end up caring more about the gift than the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Miracles are a potential window into heaven, into paradise, where we can see God. For Breck’s professor, what we need is to have revived in our hearts and minds a godly sense of myth, to help us see beyond the literal. The empirical world can be studied by science because of its predictability and the laws of nature which govern the physical world. The miraculous is not mostly a breaking of the laws of science as it is the breaking into the empirical world by transcendence. We come to realize something more than the material world actually exists. That’s what miracles do, but sadly and too often we try to change them into magic, a way in which we believe we can control these mysterious powers. Just as quantum mechanics has revealed the empirical world is not fully grasped by Newtonian physics, so too Christianity points out there is mystery fully present in the empirical world. And for many scientifically trained people the very problem with miracles is it leads people to want to practice magic to control things, and for them that reduces miracles to mere superstition as they don’t believe nature can be controlled by magic.
“A good example of mythological imagery is provided by the Exodus tradition. This foundational experience in Israel’s history is recounted in different versions by the author of the book of Exodus and by the psalmist. In both, cases, the Exodus from Egypt can be fully understood only as a typological myth, a pre-figuration of the deliverance of God’s people from captivity and death to freedom and eternal life. As a literary trope it unites the two Testaments – Old and New, First and Second – so thoroughly that the Church Fathers could only conceive of the Bible as a diptych: two complementary panels that are self-referential and completely interdependent. The major bond between the two Testaments is precisely ‘myth’: the unifying story of Israel’s call and saving vocation, fulfilled in the incarnation and saving mission of the Son of God.” (p 222)
The Old Testament reveals the New, and the New Testament is foreshadowed in the Old. The narrative of the Old Testament prepares us from the events of the New, and the New Testament reveals the meaning of the Old. “Myth” here is not fiction, but the narrative which ties together not only the two Covenants, Old and New, but also heaven and earth, the spiritual and physical, the living and the dead, Creator and creation, humanity and the world, sentience and inanimate, consciousness and existence.
“This explains the reason why the first chapter of Genesis must be read symbolically. Its purpose is not to reveal historical fact. It is to affirm that the one true God is Creator and Lord of all things in heaven and on earth, things he has delivered into the hands of those created in his own ‘image’ and ‘likeness.’ It’s pointless, therefore, to look for scientific confirmation of the creation events as Genesis describes them. If for example, the account declares that the sun and the moon were created after the earth and its vegetation, it is primarily to counter worship of the sun by Israel’s pagan neighbors. The author of the account never intended for it to be read as a scientific recital of actual events in their historical sequence. The first eleven chapters of Genesis and much else in the Hebrew Scriptures can only be properly read and understood as ‘myth’ in the sense that I have defined it. It is an example of ‘sacred history’ whose purpose is to draw mind and heart to recognition of the God of Israel as the one and only Lord of the universe, and to worship him accordingly. Biblical myth thus unites history and eternity, and its ultimate purpose is to lead us beyond the limits of space and time, to open our eyes and hearts to transcendent reality and ultimate Truth.” (p 223)
The purpose of the Old Testament is not mostly to give us history or science, rather its very purpose is to help us see God and to recognize God’s own activity in this world. To look to the Bible for science and history is to lose sight that it is revealing God to us, it is using history to reveal transcendence to us, to open our eyes to the Kingdom of God, not to teach us material science. This is how understanding myth and poetry can uplift us to see the transcendent God in the words of Scripture.
Science has tried to carve out its role as studying the empirical universe and thus limiting its study to materialism. The fight between science and religion is between those who won’t accept the limits science imposes on itself and those who want to impose on science a narrative that is beyond what science is claiming for itself. Some want the Bible to be “science” but it can never be that by the very definition that modern science imposes on itself. The very nature of the Bible – a revelation from, about and of the transcendent – is outside anything science can deal with. It is a narrative that guides believers in their understanding of the empirical universe (that which is the limit of scientific study). Science is trying to reveal all the mysteries which are found in the empirical universe. If science embraces an overarching narrative, it is a narrative that is limited to the empirical order which science studies. Its conclusions can’t be beyond what the physical world can reveal. Science cannot offer that narrative which guides believers in understanding the created order, though scientific discovery can cause believers to have to re-imagine their narrative because of the marvels it discovers.
“This was the approach adopted by the early Church Fathers, and it needs to be our approach today as well. It means also that the Christian narrative, from the call of Israel to the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, needs to be conceived as myth in the true sense: a narrative that opens eyes of faith to the presence of eternity within our time and space, and to the working out within that framework of our salvation.” (p 233)
The Bible does not limit itself to speaking about space and time, but rather its context is God and how space and time occur within the God in whom we live and move and have our being. Creation speak about the Creator. Science can and does teach us about creation, but it cannot speak to that truth of the transcendent reality to which creation is a witness. The Bible speaks to us about the transcendent God who is ever attempting to reveal Himself in ways we can comprehend – which means in and through the created order. We can marvel when science reveals some hidden truth which helps us know the Creator, but we can also marvel when science simple reveals something about material creation, when science unlocks some mystery about the empirical universe. Believers may be able to use scientific insight to better understand God’s revelation, but science will never be able to do that.
Next: The Transcendent Myth
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