DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Myth

A common accusation for some two centuries has been that Christianity is untrue because it is only a "myth". In particular, the material in the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels of the Christian Scriptures are mythical - such as miracles and other stories. There is some truth in all this. But the concept of the mythical is both more complex and more useful than the accusers generally allow.

The word "myth" has been used and misused in a number of ways since it first became current. Most important, however, is the meaning generally attached to it nowadays.

Most commonly, if I describe a statement as a "myth" I usually mean that it's untrue. By that most people would mean something like, "It's untrue because it can't be proved." In doing so they are taking up a meaning which has become current over the last two or three centuries. 

A good example might be the "myth" of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In previous ages, this was regarded as an account in story form of what had actually happened soon after God created the world. This opinion could be held because the Bible was regarded as God's "word" - that is, God's revelation to mankind of absolute truth. Truth which comes from God, either directly to us or via the spoken or written word, can't by definition be wrong. Anyone who contradicted this absolute truth was by definition wrong.

Since then, Western measures of truth have swung more or less completely away from revelation to what is broadly termed "reason" as the primary source of truth. The scientific method is usually regarded as our most rigorous form of reasoned thinking. This perception has led to a shallow but widespread distinction between myth (untrue) and science (true).

The scientific method allows us to agree - albeit sometimes only after considerable debate and controversy - about "what really is". We all have differing perceptions of the world around us. Sometimes the difference is great, sometimes small. Every person is unique. The scientific method has been evolved over some centuries as a means of narrowing and reconciling those differences.

Those who use the scientific method tend to find it difficult or impossible to easily conceive of the kind of knowledge embodied in a myth as true. Likewise, those who use myths tend to regard scientific "truth" as sterile and limited. Some contrasts may help illustrate:

  • A scientific statement must be logical and rational . It is logical if it obeys the rules governing the use of language. It is rational if it fully and deeply questions its own foundations. The rules of logic don't necessarily govern the mythical form. It is as rational as science, but uses rationality in story form rather than in argument form.

  • Every term and calculation used in science must be as precise as possible. There is no resort to vagueness, and steps in calculation and argument are not missed out. A myth relies on allusion and "vagueness" for its effect. It calls upon people to use their imaginations about life and its deepest meanings. Precision is not the point.

  • Every scientific truth must be expressed in terms which can be examined and tested. A myth is not offered for testing in this way. It is to be received and reflected upon. Its truth is tested by life as a whole, not by narrow argument or cold fact.

  • In science, it must be possible to duplicate any conclusion by using the identical, well-defined steps by which it was first reached. In myth, conclusions reached may differ. The myth sets out to make a point for the community, but individual interpretations may differ.

  • Any scientific claim to truth must be opened up and offered for examination. Anyone - and particularly by those who have the skills, equipment and  credentials - is free to test any claim to truth. Secret or partially explained truths are by definition excluded from this criterion. Myths are as public as scientific truths. But they circulate only amongst those who find them meaningful. In the scientific sense, a myth can't be falsified.

  • Any scientific claim to truth containing an unexplained gap must be viewed with suspicion. This criterion applies particularly to claims which are very close to the frontiers of knowledge, or are based on incomplete findings or knowledge. A truth claim based upon incomplete evidence is to be dismissed until the gaps are closed. Myths, on the other hand, survive and maintain their attractiveness partly because they don't pretend to be comprehensive. Gaps and inconsistencies tend to be of relatively little importance.

  • Any scientific claim to new knowledge requires caution. Before it can be taken too seriously, it must be tested to the full. And if a claim is extraordinary, it must be backed up by extraordinary evidence. Myths are meaningful because they are to some degree fantastic. They attract because they are stories which, although they did not actually happen, nevertheless say something deep about the lives of ordinary people.

  • Claims issuing from inspired conviction are not scientific truth. Because every claim is approached with scepticism as a pre-condition, any "truth" must be revised whenever solid evidence contradicts it. All scientific conclusions are therefore necessarily provisional. Myths are what they are because they issue from inspired conviction - often a conviction which can't be expressed in strictly logical or rational form.

  • Coincidence is never acceptable as scientific evidence. It can be used as evidence only when it is shown by sound statistics to be the result of more than chance. In myth, coincidence is not only permissible, but an important device. It is a mechanism for adding force and colour to a story deliberately designed to convey deep human meaning.

  • Anecdotes are unacceptable as scientific evidence. Conclusions drawn from a single instance can't be called scientific, because [a] they can't be deliberately duplicated and [b] they can't be compared with other instances (usually using statistical methods). Myths, in contrast, are by nature anecdotal. That is, they use specific, often fictional, elements of life as the essence of their method.

Scientific criteria are the only known way of eliminating human differences of perception and our natural tendency to assert what we need to believe is true or what some "authority" tells us is true. This is not to say that something cannot be true which has not been tested in the above manner. But it is to say that every truth, including scientific truth, is open to doubt and scepticism and may be untrue. 

Myth is used to express truths which are not scientifically testable. They are in essence a fictitious or imaginary tale, narrative or explanation. So we might talk of "Norse myths" in reference to the tales told about Nordic heroes and monsters. Another usage would be to refer to a "myth of national superiority", for example. In this case, the "myth" would be a false explanation based on either spurious or insufficient data about human characteristics

In the New Testament the Greek muthos is used in direct contrast to logos or "word." The "myths" referred to in 1 Timothy 1.4 and 4.7, for example, indicate that God's logos is true while the myths about other gods are false.

More technically, the term is used by those who work in a branch of anthropology called mythology. These experts would usually call a story, tale or narrative a "myth" when it deals with the origins or foundations of a culture, religion or god. These myths are often about a time before "now" or before some point at which known history began.

In one sense, therefore, what we think of a myth depends a good deal on what we think of history. The more weight is placed on the value of "what really happened" the less weight can be placed on "what didn't happen but is in some sense true." The more objective data is assembled and analysed to form what is called history, the less room there is for metaphorical, mythical expression of human understanding.

The concept of myth relates to the Bible in the sense that the latter is often regarded as a mythical account of the beginnings of Christianity in a similar way that folktales tell of the beginnings of a culture or nation. The great debate today, as for the past two hundred or more years, concerns how much of the New Testament in particular is "myth" and how much is history. The word "myth" is, however, used in this context rather differently from its common usages.

A focus on the "myths" in the Bible began with the rise of Newtonian physics in the 18th and 19th centuries. The new science affected every part of Western society. The promise of physics seemed then to be that we would quite shortly penetrate the depths of the physical universe and discover laws which would allow us to manipulate nature completely. Nature was thought to work according to rules which made it potentially completely predictable.

The question naturally arose amongst Newtonian scientists and those who read their work, "Why, if miracles are events which contradict the physical laws of nature, do they occur in the Bible? This is supposed to be revealed truth direct from God. How come this revelation goes against the physical laws we have recently learned about? Which is true - the Bible or physics?"

As the debate raged on in Europe, the philosopher and theologian D F Strauss (1808-1874) used the term "myth" to specifically refer to biblical miracles. He thought that the miracles of the Bible are narrative stories used to express certain ideas. This was the only way, for example, to express the conviction that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah - a claim which is not open to scientific investigation. He supposed that there is some sense in which miracles could be called history, some sense in which "something happened".

But if so, whatever had happened had been built up into something which could not have happened exactly as it had been told. This resulted in a rash of "explanations" of miracles in terms of "what actually happened, even though the Bible says a miracle happened". So, for example, some suggested that Jesus didn't walk on water as the Bible says he did. What "actually happened" is that he was walking on a bar of sand hidden beneath the water. What the critics thought of as the simple and ignorant peasants who later became the Apostles would have taken this as a miracle. (And, although it is seldom mentioned, Jesus would have been content to play this trick on them.)

This questioning, scientific approach meant that God's intervention into nature - a cornerstone of traditional Christianity - was put in question. Science was providing fascinating and completely "true" information about the world. Traditional Christianity's claims were quite clearly "false" because they could not withstand scientific investigation. The debate about which approach should rule our minds continues to this day.

For some it seemed as though the early part of the 20th century delivered to them a technique of analysing the Bible which reduced the extreme tensions which had been produced by Strauss and many others - Form Criticism.

The work of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) in developing Form Criticism proved crucial in moving the debate along. It is an analytical method which focuses on sub-units of biblical text. It tries to identify the development of the New Testament from initial oral forms. It attempts to trace the development of these forms through to the final written documents we now have in the Gospels and letters of the New Testament. The world view which produced those texts was, thought Bultmann, radically different from the scientific worldview we hold today.

In Bultmann's opinion, accounts like the miracles of Jesus can't therefore be identified with history as we know it. They are essentially about something else. This "something else" is not so much a way of conceptualising the world as of expressing the experience of those who came into contact with Jesus, either first-hand or later through those who knew him in person. This experience, said Bultmann, we can call the kerygma - that is, the good news proclaimed and experienced through faith.

So for him myth is not something false which has to be stripped away and replaced with historical truth. His attempts to de-mythologise the New Testament wasn't what Strauss and others were trying to do. 

Rather, Bultmann attempted to re-express Jesus in terms of how we encounter him in today's world and through our contemporary worldview. The gospel is thus never something to be merely studied. It always has to be experienced and re-experienced, perhaps differently in different historical eras. Bultmann is known as an existential theologian because his views required a complete re-visioning of existence through the lenses of modern experience.

A central question which occurs to me is to wonder if perhaps the "truth" of history - as an account of "what really happened", an analysis of cause and effect - might be somewhat limited in scope. What if there is another kind of truth which, though it starts from history, can reach beyond it only by means of myth?

The myth of Adam and Eve is more than bad history - it's has no historical truth at all. This has been clear to any thinking person since the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species. But what if it provides a way of presenting a truth which, even if it's terms are mythical, nevertheless tells us something about humanity and the way we are now?  What if it's attempting to describe how humankind continually, one way or another, attempts to rebel against God, for example? What if such truths can't be told any other way?

This is, I think, a viable way of regarding myth. But it also implies that no myth is necessarily better than any other. Just because a myth occurs in the Bible, it is nothing special. Some may find the myth of Jonah useful. Others may find Norse myths more compelling. The myth merely becomes a vehicle for expressing a grade or type of truth which can't be expressed any other way.

But it seems to me false and misleading to suggest that something like the resurrection of Jesus from death can be called a myth. Or rather, if it can be so described then it is replaceable by any other myth which makes the same point, no matter what its origins. A Persian myth of a dying and rising god may suit some people just as well as a myth of a dying and rising Jesus. That is, the "truth" of a myth lies not in its details, nor in any analysis of its content, but in the impossibility of using any other form to express certain kinds of truth.

But if the resurrection is proposed as a unique historical event, then history and its analytical processes must swing into action. That is, the meaning of the word "myth" can't be changed to equate with the word "history." The problem is that the ways in which myth has been described above are not compatible with what we today know as history. In this context, myth and history are incompatible.

If an event is historical it can't also be mythical. One commentator claims that the word "myth" expresses a type of truth which is "more than history." It turns out that the myth in his view includes history but, as it were, extends beyond it [1]. This is, I think, perhaps possible but hard to carry through. The reason is that the history in any "myth" will over time become indistinguishable from the mythical or story part. 

To illustrate, let's assume that an urban myth develops which gives an account of Elvis Presley's final, drug-ridden days. The account may express "more" than the bare facts of history. It may embroider them with details of Elvis' final, inspiring words. It may recount how Elvis touched a sorrowful fan who was instantly healed of her long-term depression. Let's suppose the myth goes on to describe in equally graphic and persuasive terms how certain fans saw Elvis alive in Los Angeles three days after his death. "Elvis lives!" they cry. 

This may tell us [1] how gullible human beings can be on occasion, and [2] how easily fans suffering from hysteria can work themselves up into delusional beliefs. But the mythical part in this case is always entirely separate from the historical part. It would be history that Elvis died, that certain stories about his death were created, and that certain fans experienced delusions of him being alive after death. I suggest that the "myth" of Elvis resurrection on one hand, and the history of his death and the delusions of his fans on the other, have to some people become inseparable.

In short, no attempt to meld history with myth that I've ever come across (and there are many, some extremely tortuous) has ever succeeded.

To summarise: for the past two centuries or more, there has been an ongoing confusion between history and myth in the Bible. Only recently has the fog which obscured the issue begun to clear. The outcome of so much fierce debate has been twofold. Truth is increasingly being stripped of any sense of absoluteness. And both history and myth have been restored to their rightful places as different but equally valid ways of expressing human understanding.
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[1] J D G Dunn, Myth in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 1992

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