Myth & More


Myth is a necessary way of understanding, but it is deeply misunderstood. The place of myth—and its misplacing—have a lot to do with the divide between fundamentalists and other believers.

Myth does not mean “things that aren’t true.” Rather, the “language” of myth has to do with what is truly timeless. Myth is not bound by the limits of historical thinking, which deals with time-bound and passing phenomena. Myth is a witness to the fact that some things are true forever. Jesus told stories that are not historically true (the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example) but point us to enduring truths.

There is a debate in Christian circles over the historicity of the Fall. It exists in muted form even in nonfundamentalist circles. What primordial event might have happened to explain our current sad state? In the Orthodox Church, interpretations have ranged from the allegorical to the literal. In the Roman Catholic Church, Pius XII (who opened up Catholic biblical studies in many ways) wanted to hold on to some version of Adam and Eve having actually existed.

The caution of a religious or theological tradition is understandable. To throw out or doubt the truth (which is not to say the facticity) of a traditional story, rather than try to see it clearly in its context, without present prejudices, leads to wildly silly things, like just about anything Bishop John Shelby Spong writes. But to be so cautious as not to see how myth works is also to develop, even cultivate, a tin ear.

Were Adam and Eve a real couple (the only one, really) at the dawn of human being? My own belief, one pretty well backed up by tons of scientific and, more important, mythic evidence, is that this is impossible scientifically, and undesirable symbolically. The idea that the Fall is in any way historically true, an event in time, distracts from the truth of the story, which really is timeless. The story of Adam and Eve is more true than Waterloo or Watergate, because what it means goes so much deeper, involving our most basic motivations and appetites and longings. We want to be our own gods and to have our own lives in our own hands, and we cannot. The desire we have is to live in Eden without the self-emptying that real gratitude and true worship entail. This is eternally true of us, to our sorrow.

The ancients knew this. The compilers of the Hebrew Scriptures put contradictory creation stories side by side, not because they didn’t notice the difference between the first two chapters of Genesis, which anyone can see, but because both stories told the truth, and both were found in the story-telling culture of ancient Israel. Both were worth holding on to, and passing along to succeeding generations. The efforts of biblical literalists to reconcile them are pitiful examples of missing the point.

The fundamentalist sees the slippery slope everywhere. If Adam and Eve and the flood and Jonah aren’t all historically factual, why not see the Resurrection as a mere allegory? Looking at what myth means at its depth, however, we can make the argument that at one important level the Resurrection really is outside of history—and to that extent mythical. It really is more than historical. If all the Resurrection means is that a corpse got out of a grave, it’s a zombie story. On the other hand, if, as in the alternative, homeopathic liberal version you occasionally encounter, all it means is that Jesus lived on in the hearts of his disciples, it is a sentimental cliché.

I believe that the tomb was really, literally empty. No one can comprehend the fullness of what this means, or even the edge of a part of it. The tomb is empty—but Jesus is not what we might expect. Mary mistakes him for a gardener, until he addresses her by name. The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize him until the (obviously eucharistic) breaking of the bread, when he vanishes, leaving them to remember how their hearts were burning within them. The disciples have to be reassured that he is not a ghost, and by eating something he shows them that—as transformed as he obviously is in some ways—he is really flesh.

It is clear from these accounts that the life of the risen Christ has to do with something real, embodied, and not within our power to imagine in simple historical or physical ways. This is reality at a level we are not yet capable of understanding. I want to suggest that this really is a part of myth’s realm, and that it’s real. The tomb is empty, in factual history as well as in myth. History says only that the tomb is empty. Myth points us toward what this might mean.

Unless Jesus really rose—that is, unless our death, all death, was in some ways overcome by his death, and he lives in a fullness that includes his flesh, which is to say the fullness of his humanity, a fullness that allowed him to share his divinity with us—our faith really is in vain. This does not mean that myth has no place in the story, only that their mythic dimension does not empty the Resurrection stories of their purchase in real time. Those moments open real time onto a deeper reality, one that in its complicated “already—and not yet” way is even now a sign of something present to us that will finally be fully disclosed. As we will be.

Published in the 2012-01-13 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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