|The Myths of Christianity - 1
The Broken Myth (Continued)
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
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' . 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'. 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'.
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'. 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'.
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
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'. 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
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
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
 Alan Watts, This is IT, Rider, London,
 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Harper Torchbooks, New York,
 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Harper Torchbooks, New York,
 Exodus 32.2-4.
 Tillich. ibid.p.49.