A Life-giving Myth (I)

“A Life-giving Myth” is the title of a short story in John Breck’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  It is the last and longest story in the collection.  The stories are OK, but in some of them the “story” is superfluous as  is the case “The Life-giving Myth” where a professor is giving a lecture and the content of the story is the lecture.  It easily could have been presented as an essay.  It was my only favorite in the collection of stories.    In this series of  three posts I want to highlight the things from the “story” which seemed so profound to me.

“… those who have drifted away from the faith under secularizing pressures, or because we in the Church have done a poor job of opening their eyes to transcendent reality, and to the presence in creation and in their lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.” (p 218)

The Church leadership and members should remind themselves constantly that our real goal is to open the eyes of everyone to that transcendent reality who is love and who cares about all of creation, namely our God.  The Church too often reduces itself to defending Tradition, maintaining customs, opposing countless sins and human failures.  The Church sometimes sees the job of leadership as to be police rather than pastors (shepherds)- enforcing rules, disciplining the unruly, imprisoning in hell non-conformists.   The Church gets reduced to law enforcement as well as being involved in judgement and even punishment of sinners, rather than in their salvation.  Another unfortunate development is when the Church is willing  to be the hiding place for anyone who is afraid of the 20th Century (even though we are already in the 21st!).   Clergy can act as if their only real concern is that someone unworthy might try to touch God and the clergy come to think that their main purpose is to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Clergy, canons, iconostases, asceticsm can be used as little more than the tools to keep the unworthy away from God, so that the laity remain forever exiled from God because of their sinfulness.  AND, at times clergy act as if their main message is to make sure the laity are aware that they (the laity) are deservedly exiled from God . In this thinking, Heaven is the goal but it will always be far beyond the people’s reach because they are unworthy.

Breck instead envisions a transcendent God who in Christ is imminent and accessible to humans:

“Eternity in fact is ever-present.  it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe.  It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.”  (p 232)

The claim of the Gospel is that God is always drawing us to Himself to embrace us, love us, share His divine life with us.  The whole of Orthodoxy is based in one idea that God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  God wants us (especially sinners!) to come to Him.  God came to earth to gather us together, not to cause us to flee from His presence.  The purpose of Liturgy and ritual and Scripture is to make God accessible to us – to make the transcendent break into our lives.

And for this reason Breck tries to rescue the idea of “myth” as a way of seeing how God is making Himself known to us and accessible to us.  Scripture is theology under the guise of narrative as the Fathers said.  Myth in this thinking does not mean “fiction” but provides us a way of gaining insight into reality.  God uses “story” or narrative to convey divine and eternal truths to us even in our sinfulness and despite it.

“Such myths use symbolic metaphorical language to express relationship between heaven and earth, between God and human kind, that ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing.”  (220-221)

How often the Patristic writers warned us that our language is inadequate for understanding God, and that if we think too literally, we not only do not understand God but rather turn God into an idol of our our making, in our own image, to suit our own purposes.   Poetry and myth, the languages of Scripture try to lead us beyond the limitations of our own experience and to take us to the unknown, to God as God is and chooses to reveal Himself to us.  Poetry and myth both remind us that God cannot be apprehended by human concepts and language.

“…every aspect of our life, every atom of our physical being, every movement of our heart is directed by him (God) teleologically toward a single goal:  the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.  Thus we can affirm that he not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; he shares actively and decisively in them.  He ‘knows’ them in the biblical sense of participation.  There is no human suffering, for example, that he does not share to the very depths.  As Isaiah declares of the Lord’s Servant, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.‘  This is as true a characteristic of God as his creative energy that ceaselessly brings things from non-existence into being.”  (pp 230-231)

God does not leave us to history, God enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of it.  God accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order and what is happening and is going to happen to humanity, the world and the cosmos.  Nothing that happens or that He allows to happen has no impact or effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God and God in the incarnation makes sure of that!   History and our experience of it become imbued with divinity, and thus become something more than mere materialistic events, they become the stories of God, they are turned into God’s Word.  The Word becomes flesh, but in that process human life becomes the Word as recorded in the Scriptures.  Myth in this sense is not fiction but human life revealing divinity and divinity working in and through humans and human history.  We can never fully understand how the transcendent God can not only touch creation but becomes part of it.  That is the real sense of Christian myth – our world touched by the transcendent because God is revealing Himself to us and in His Light we see light.

Christianity is not meant to be a self-help program to allow us to succeed or be satisfied with material creation.  Christianity is not trying just to help us get to heaven.  Rather Christianity is God’s own presence in this world, enabling us all to become united with God, here and now – to experience heaven on earth even in the midst of sin and suffering and death because Christ has overcome this world.  Christianity is revealing this world as our way to union with God.

We really don’t need the Church to tell us how far we have become separated from God, alienated from the divine, exiled from Heaven.  We can experience that perfectly in our daily lives.  What we need is for someone to show us the way to reunion with God, to show us what communion with God looks like, and enables us to become deified.  That is the purpose of the Liturgy, of icons, of ritual, symbol, or poetic hymns.  It lifts us up to heaven and makes heaven present on earth.

Next: A Life-giving Myth (II)


Theosis of Man vs. The Apotheosis

As an American Christian, I am influenced by two sets of values: the teachings of Christ and the claims of ‘the greatest nation on earth.’  There is a contrast in notions of kingdom, greatness, wealth, goodness, peace, and power.  The parables of Christ offer an image, however metaphorical they may be, of a godly kingdom. America’s mythology offers its own view of life on earth and in its own realized eschatology.  Consider the following and contemplate the differing values of greatness and heavenly rewards:

Luke 16:19-31                                                     The Apotheosis of

Lazarus and the Richman                             George Washington

Apotheosis of George Washington

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumpt-uously every day.  But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.  So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.  Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’  But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.  ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’  Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, ‘for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’  Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’  And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ 

Truth is Truth and Other Myths

One of the amazing things about science is its ability to constantly test its “dogmas” and a willingness to change some of its most “sacredly” held views about life or the universe.   Of course since scientists are human, science has its own resistance to change, even in the face of factual evidence, but because it doesn’t have a closed canon of scripture which it must defend, science does not have a revealed truth, but only a discovered truth.   Since new discoveries are being made continually, “truth” in science is always up for debate.   So we find Kenneth Chang writing in the 1 December 2008 NY TIMES  that A New Picture of the Early Earth has emerged – ideas of held by geologists as “true” a mere 20 years ago are being replaced by new conclusions drawn from new data.

the common thinking until recently was that life could not have emerged on Earth until … about 3.85 billion years ago. …

That is no longer thought to be true.

“We thought we knew something we didn’t,” said T. Mark Harrison, a professor of geochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. In hindsight the evidence was just not there. And new evidence has suggested a new view of the early Earth.

Here we see how science views “truth.”  Truth is something discovered by scientists AND it is an interpretation of those discoveries.  “Truth” is thus testable and mutable. The facts can change, and the interpretation of facts can change as well.  Thus in science it is acceptable to conclude that something that once was thought to be true later be disproved and a new idea of truth emerges.  Thus Dr. Harrison can say with scientific comfort, “we thought we knew something we didn’t.”

Religion has a slightly different view of “truth.”  For the major Western religions, truth is something revealed to us by God, not something we discover by human means.  And truth is embedded in Scripture and the Scriptures are closed – cannot be altered or added to.  What can change though is our understanding of the Scriptures.   For example both Christians and Jews read the Tanakh/Old Testament, but interpret those scriptures in decidedly different ways with Christians accepting that Jesus is the key to unlocking the truth of the scriptures.

Dr. Harrison, as a scientist can readily admit that the new evidence means what scientists taught as truth has been shown to be incorrect.  The new evidence now available  is “‘completely inconsistent with this myth we made up,’ Dr. Harrison said.”

Notice how easily Harrison as a scientist can say that what they taught as truth turns out to be a myth scientists made up.  In science all “truth” is an interpretation of the known evidence; and, for something to be true it must be testable, experimentally provable or disprovable.  For science, Truth is not some sacred revelation which must always be accepted.   Thus if science bothers to look at the book of Genesis as science, it uses its own measure of truth to test any claims of Genesis as science and no “truth” discovered there is ever off limits to further testing or disproof.   If a claim cannot be tested in some fashion, it cannot claim to be “truth.”  Science does not approach the Scripture as “truth” in the same way a believer might.   And to be honest, scientific truth is mostly a threat to “biblical truth” only if one tries to read the Bible literally or as science.   Biblical literalists and Creation scientists are threatened by the word “myth”, scientists are not, and neither are those who recognize the Bible as a source of truth but not as science. 

Science has an innate ability to question its own theories and ideas, and even to declare as myth things it once held to be truth.  Science thus sees the world differently than does religious faith.  Christians understand Scripture to be a sacred revelation – revealing God and the meaning of life, not necessarily offering “truth” as science defines it or dissects it.questioning-genesis3

Believers might find some comfort in scientist admitting their ideas of “truth” change and are changing – science as the invincible truth that will disprove the revealed truths of faith is shown to be far more tenuous than it cares to admit.  Biblical literalists and Creation scientists need also note that the admission that what science taught 20 years ago about the formation of planet earth is myth, does not translate into a support for Creation Science.  For what the scientists have come to realize is that the conditions for life on earth stretch back in time even further than was imagined, giving even more time for the process of evolution to work its way to the present.   . “‘This means the door is open for a long, slow chemical evolution,’ Dr. Mojzsis said. ‘The stage was set for life probably 4.4 billion years ago, but I don’t know if the actors were present.‘”   If what science now believes to be true holds up under scientific scrutiny, the chance of evolution having occurred becomes more credible.  For the believer it only means that we might be given a glimpse into what chemical and biological processes God put into effect to bring life into existence.   The fact is that once God created matter, He fashioned the universe using that matter and limited His Divine Power to work with and within the laws of nature which He created to carry out His Divine Plan.