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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The Myths of Christianity - 1
The Broken Myth
(Continued)
Richard Holloway

I want to begin this transition by quoting from a book by Alan Watts. In This is IT, he writes:

'There is a kind of speech that may be able to convey something without actually being able to say it. Korzybski ran into this difficulty in trying to express the apparently simple point that things are not what we say they are, that, for example, the word "water" is not itself drinkable. He formulated it in his "law of non-identity", that "whatever you say a thing is it isn't". He was trying to show that we are talking about the unspeakable world of the physical universe, the world that is other than words. Words represent it, but if we want to know it directly we must do so by immediate sensory contact. What we call things, facts, or events are after all no more than convenient units of perception, recognisable pegs for names, selected from the infinite multitude of lines and surfaces, colours and textures, spaces and densities which surround us. There is no more a fixed and final way of dividing these variations into things than of grouping the stars in constellations'.

We usually find the distinction between things and what we say about them fairly easy to grasp. It is obvious that language is a kind of sign system we use for communicating with each other about things outside ourselves, and we see the process at work when children speak their first words. They point to a round, red object on the floor and say 'ball' and we are thrilled, because they have spoken their first word, made their first linguistic connection.

Certain philosophers go so far as to say that it is language that creates the world for us, that we can never get hold of things as they are in themselves apart from the words we use to talk about them. This is one of those endless debates that is hardly worth entering, except to note that even it has to be conducted in words, because they are the only connective means we have for expressing our concern with these matters. The important distinction to note is that our words may represent external reality, but they are not the thing itself, they are only what we have decided to call it.

This distinction becomes particularly important in religious language. It is quite obvious that in religion we have what Tillich called 'an ultimate concern'. We are trying to talk about, make a connection with, that which concerns the very meaning of our own existence. There is something about our humanity that causes us to feel apart from or separated from the purpose or depth of our own existence.

If we compare ourselves to the other animals with which we share the planet, the thing that distinguishes us is precisely this ultimate concern, this concern about ourselves, and not just about our physical survival. We look out on life and we look in on ourselves, making both out there and in here the object of our own gaze, our own concern. That act of looking or gazing or being concerned gives rise to 'religion', which means a kind of connection to the mystery of what is beyond ourselves, however we define it.

That is why even atheism can be religious, because it is also about that ultimate concern, that final question we ask about ourselves. What we call faith, of one sort or another, is unavoidable here. Faith is our response to that which we cannot establish with certainty. Atheists express their attitude to these final or ultimate matters in a God-denying faith, but there is no doubt of their passionate concern over the matter.

For Tillich, the only real atheism was a complete lack of concern for the meaning of our existence. 'Indifference toward the ultimate question is the only imaginable form of atheism' [2]. Tillich defined 'ultimate concern' in this way: 'One is ultimately concerned only about something to which one essentially belongs and from which one is existentially separated'[3]. Because of that potent experience of the combination of longing and separation, we create a language both to express our ultimate concern and to connect ourselves with it. It is the language of myth and symbol. Since our concern is for that mystery from which we feel separated, yet whose possibility haunts us, we develop a language of symbols with which to talk about it.

The word symbol is from the Greek for 'bringing together' or making a connection. A national flag is an example of a symbol that stands for or makes concrete the abstraction of the nation. It becomes an emotionally potent way of expressing national loyalty, as when athletes at the Olympic Games wrap themselves in it after winning a gold medal, or of foreign hatred, as when it is burned by the enemies of the nation.

In religious discourse, God is the ultimate symbol. This little word, with all its potent associations, connects us to all the questions we ask, and all the longings we have, concerning ultimate meaning or its absence.

The symbol 'God' is one of the most ambiguous of human inventions. The Hebrews were so aware of the unbridgeable gap between this symbol and what it was intended to connect us with, that they were afraid of using it and constantly pointed to its dangers. Since, by definition, God could not be what mortals said God was, they preferred to speak in circumlocutions or descriptive analogues rather than try to name God. This was the reason for their radical fear of idolatry, which is the identification of God with an object, either physical or phonetic.

The classic text is from Exodus 32 where the people grow frustrated with the God of Moses, who hides behind clouds on mountain tops. They want an accessible, portable God, and Aaron, the pliable religious functionary, obliges them: '"Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me". So all the people took off the rings of gold which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt'[4].

Idolatry is always a greater danger to religion than atheism, because it identifies something we ourselves have created, something that is essentially an extension or projection of ourselves, with that which is beyond our knowing or creating.

Even more significantly, the idolatrous tendency mistakes the nature of symbols. Symbols may represent something beyond themselves; they may even, in some sense, connect us with it; but they are never the thing itself. We may appropriately show reverence and respect for the religious symbols we have created, because they link us to the real object of our worship; but we must not treat them as though they were the equivalent of the thing symbolised. If we fall into that trap, we confuse the finite with the ultimate, the medium with the mystery it delicately bears. Radical theism of this sort is close to atheism, and may even be described as a form of practical atheism, because it denies that the symbols of religion can ever be perfectly identified with the mystery we call God. Those geniuses of the spirit we call mystics know this intuitively and often express it brutally. 'I pray to God to rid me of God', said Meister Eckhart. 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him', goes a commandment from the eastern mystical tradition.

If we have to be careful in the claims we make for religious symbols, we have to be doubly careful when we come to the way we use religious myths. Tillich defines them in this way: 'Myths are symbols of faith combined in stories about divine-human encounters'[5]. He points out that since the language of faith is the symbol, the expression of faith is inextricably connected to myth. Myth is the way we mediate our deepest experiences of God. He goes on to point out that our myths have to be constantly criticised and transcended, because of their very nature. He writes: '(Myth) uses material from our ordinary experience. It puts the stories of the gods into the framework of time and space although it belongs to the nature of the ultimate to be beyond time and space'[6].

The first criticism of the divine myth takes us from polytheism to monotheism, by rejecting division within the divine. But even the notion of one God is unavoidably mythological, because to speak of God at all is to draw God into time and space. This is the same paradox we saw in discussing the symbol 'God': to name God is already to limit God, make God an entity or an idol. There is no escape from this paradox of speaking about that which is beyond all our speaking. And the same goes for our stories or myths. They, too, run the unavoidable risk of becoming idols, divine objects, instead of humanly constructed symbols that may mediate, but can never enclose the divine.

The important thing to remember here is that we cannot do without myths; they are the way we express and give form to our transcendent longing, our ultimate concern. But we must constantly reflect on the way they work and refuse to offer them any final status. This process is what theologians call 'demythologisation', which is a self-conscious act of reflection on how myths operate.

To demythologise the myth of Adam and Eve, for instance, is not to abandon it as a uselessly primitive way of speaking about abstract matters. It is to understand it as a myth, a narrative way of speaking about abstractions, which is valued for that very reason. The myth is seen as a powerful metaphor for real human experience. It is kept not because it is bad history, but because it is good poetry, because it provides us with a powerful shorthand for complex human experiences of alienation and regret.

Retaining, but demythologising a story in this way gives us what Tillich calls 'a broken myth'. He writes: 'A myth which is understood as a myth, but not removed or replaced, can be called "a broken myth". Christianity denies by its very nature any unbroken myth, because its

presupposition is the first commandment: the affirmation of the ultimate as ultimate and the rejection of any kind of idolatry.

All mythological elements in the Bible, and doctrine and liturgy should be recognised as mythological, but they should be maintained in their symbolic form and not be replaced by scientific substitutes. For there is no substitute for the use of symbols and myths: they are the language of faith'[7]. However, this process of breaking or interpreting the myth in order to release its power for our own day is always resisted by the official keepers of the myth. To challenge or criticise the myth of which they are the official guardians not only threatens the guardians' authority, it threatens the peace and security of the people who have submitted themselves to the systems they control.

This is why the people who challenge religion's claim to be a carrier of objective knowledge rather than the poet of symbol and metaphor are invariably denounced as faithless apostates.

The irony here is that these prophetic challenges to the misuse of myth and symbol are usually made by people who have a radical fear of idolatry and who would rather be accused of, or even fall into, atheism than submit to the worship of human constructs, which is what the failure to recognise the real status of myth amounts to.

Tillich is eloquent on the subject: 'The resistance against demythologisation expresses itself in "literalism". The symbols and myths are understood in their immediate meaning. The material, taken from nature and history, is used in its proper sense. The character of the symbol to point beyond itself to something else is disregarded. Creation is taken as a magic act which happened once upon a time. The fall of Adam is localised on a special geographical point and attributed to a human individual. The virgin birth of the Messiah is understood in biological terms, resurrection and ascension as physical events, the second coming of Christ as a telluric, or cosmic, catastrophe. The presupposition of such literalism is that God is a being, acting in time and space, dwelling in a special place, affecting the course of events and being affected by them like any other being in the universe. Literalism deprives God of his (sic) ultimacy and, religiously speaking, of his (sic) majesty. It draws him (sic) down to the level of that which is not ultimate, the finite and conditional'[8].

He goes on to describe two stages of literalism, which he calls the 'natural' and the 'reactive'. In the natural stage of literalism, the mythical and the literal are indistinguishable. This stage is characteristic of primitive individuals and groups who do not separate the creations of the imagination from natural facts. Tillich says that this stage has its own rights and should be left undisturbed right up to the time when humanity's questioning mind challenges the conventional acceptance of the myth as literal.

There are only two ways to go when this moment arrives. The first is to replace the unbroken myth with the broken myth, which yields its inner meaning through interpretation and the power of metaphor. Unfortunately, many people find the uncertainty of the broken myth impossible to live with, so they repress their own questions and denounce the questions that others put to the myth. They retreat into reactive literalism, which is aware of the questions but represses them, either consciously or unconsciously. The instrument of repression is usually an acknowledged authority, such as the Church or the Bible, which claims our unconditional surrender.

Natural literalism is obviously an honest response to myth and symbol. In Kuhn's language, it is to remain within a traditional paradigm that is still working and still offers the best answer to the going questions. Reactive literalism, on the other hand, is usually a rear-guard action on the part of those who are still emotionally invested in a breaking paradigm. Their fear is that if the myth is broken it will lose its power. In these lectures I shall try to show that it is only the broken myth that can speak to us today, and still speak with transforming power.

Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

[1] Alan Watts, This is IT, Rider, London, 1996p.221
[2] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1958, p.45.
[3] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1957, p.112
[4] Exodus 32.2-4.
[5] Tillich. ibid.p.49.
[6] Ibid.,p.49.
[7] Ibid.,pp.50-51.
[8] Ibid.pp.51-52

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