Honest to God
Used with Permission - as published in the Otago Daily Times. August 7, 2007
CHRIST a myth? Of course, says the atheist. Never, says the traditional Christian. Yet in coming to diametrically opposite conclusions, both rely on a basic misunderstanding of myth.
Blame history for that. Christians have been too eager to read the Bible in a literal way, as though it was above and beyond the myths they readily recognise in other religions. Atheists have noses adept at sniffing out myths, which they then dismiss as unhistorical, unscientific, and therefore untrue.
Today, however, and thanks in no small measure to psychologist Carl Jung and scholar of myth Joseph Campbell, the penny is dropping that the mythic lies at the heart of religion - even a religion as rooted in historical events as Christianity.
In recent years a huge scholarly effort has gone into rediscovering the human Jesus who lies buried under centuries of piety, superstition, metaphysical speculation and dogma. The search so far has revealed a sage who encouraged those who heard him to live as though the kingdom of God was already up and running. It is valuable as far as it goes, because without Jesus there could have been no Christ.
But it is Christ as the “anointed one” (that is what the word means), not Jesus, that is the central myth of Christianity and carries its message about life. The churches have tended to literalise the myth and set it in concrete. But a literalised myth is doomed. If this one is to make any impression on our secular world, it will have to be seen for what it is: a pointer to something real at the heart of human experience, a doorway into an expanded vision of what life can hold, a vehicle of deeper insight into human nature and its potential.
English scholar Karen Armstrong reminds us that a historical event has to be mythologised if it is to become a source of religious inspiration. German theologian Albert Schweitzer made the same point a century ago when he described myth as “the clothing in historic form of religious ideas, shaped by the unconsciously inventive power of legend, and embodied in a historic personality”.
Other world religions have their own versions of that, but in Christianity the historic personality is Jesus. The legend centres on his death and the resurrection experience of his followers. The religious idea is the offer of Godness in life and life in Godness. And it was the creative imagination of the apostle Paul that initially fused all this together.
Paul puts the emphasis not so much on Jesus, a man open to historical inquiry, as on the mythic Christ, who is known subjectively in Christian experience. His achievement was to transform Jesus into the Christ, an exemplar of the timeless mythical hero who dies, is raised to new life, and blazes the trail to a higher mode of being. Those who wish to follow his leading signify this through baptism, where they symbolically identify with Jesus' death and emerge to a new quality of life “in Christ”. Ideally, they sustain this by sharing regularly in a ritual meal where they remember Jesus' death, open themselves to his continuing influence, and renew their hope for their community and the world.
There are some who deplore this expansion, and wish Paul had been content to leave Jesus as a teacher, healer, and model for living. But a myth, rightly understood, is infinitely more powerful than a model. It is creative in the artistic sense. It comes alive in the imagination, or not at all.
Inevitably, given the times, the Christ myth came to be wrapped around with the miraculous, the magical, the other-worldly, and a cosmic slant on sin and salvation. But it does not have to be so encumbered. That pre-secular overlay can be peeled away.
Indeed, it is precisely because the secular world has moved on from supernatural assumptions that the Christ myth is today in danger of being eclipsed; for a religious myth loses its vitality when the world-view underlying it undergoes a sea-change. Traditionalists try to save it by insisting that all the old understandings still hold, but that merely hastens its decline.
A better approach is to break the myth open and recover its meaning for our own time, beginning with Paul's metaphor of “Christ dwelling in you, and you in Christ”. The myth is then free to unfold within the fullness of our secular experience, and totally within this world of space and time.