This is simple but for some reason often difficult: no myth has ever been literally true. Its just not what mythology is. Myths are symbolic expressions of metaphor – their meaning is to be interpreted like a dream or a poem. To insist on the literal truth of any myth is simply a mistake in reasoning. Its like insisting that a triangle be an apple. Ain’t gonna happen!
YET, in the absence of induction into the inner life and into symbolic thinking and adult contemplation, the search for triangles that are apples, squares that are persimmons, rectangles that are bananas and circles that are grilled cheese sandwiches continues….
Some call this a spiritual quest, I think it is a cul de sac.
What’s more, we INSIST that whomever runs for president in America MUST believe in the myth of the triangle that is an apple, must declare that their decisions, ethics and values will be based on having a personal taste of this apple and that the juice made from this apple is what will inform their reflections on geometry and how it relates to world affairs. I mean how else can we trust our president, and from where else could morals and values possible be derived!?
Personally, I would hope for a president who based their thinking, decisions and actions on reason, evidence, emotional intelligence and consultation with others they respected rather than saying, as Bush Jnr. did, that God told him to invade Iraq.
Imagine a metaphorically literate candidate, one who could quote myths from many cultures and elucidate their meaning in real human terms, one who understood the pervasive mistake of killing the poetry by insisting (a la Robert Frost) that they have personally been to that place where two roads diverge in the wood and there erected a monument to mythic literalism and the poisonous power of superstitious faith.
Campaign slogan? “Take the road less travelled!”
Its Xmas time, or whatever your holiday name of choice is for this season. I hope we all have a well-deserved period of rest and relaxation, love, and joy. In any event, let’s play a little with the myth of Chrsitmas:
Hmmm, the virgin birth of an immortal child who is the son of an immaterial god and will be sacrificed, his blood paying for our sins, so that we (if we believe in him) might have eternal life instead of just dying at the end….
Sing choir of angels – all has been redeemed by the sacrificial lamb who is the prince of peace! Don’t you just love the sentiments of the season?
Wait, hold the presses: Ya know, actually maybe THIS one is literally true, I mean it just sounds so reasonable! Right?
Hold on, I think I like the one about the big fat man in a red and white jumpsuit with flying reindeer better!
The thing with interpreting a myth is that one also has to look at it through a kind of historical and cultural lens….
Let’s consider the notion of sacrifice, that a blood sacrifice is necessary to atone for sin. This is where our still extant word “scapegoat” comes from – we should remember that it was extremely common in human cultures a few thousand years ago to believe that we could appease the supernatural forces we believed were behind the play of reality by literally sacrificing animals (and sometimes people) on altars; shedding their blood as an offering to (a presumable quite blood thirsty) deity.
This offering of blood was a way of both apologizing for our crimes and trying to gain favor with the all powerful being that no doubt was in charge of whether the crops grew, the hunt was successful, the women bore healthy children and the earth didn’t split open and swallow us all whole…
So in this sense Christ represented (in one ancient culture) a kind of ultimate sacrifice, a once-and-for-all shedding of REALLY special blood so as to finally resolve the terrible anxiety of our sinfulness. This ultimate cosmic act then is thought of as shifting the scales such that now human beings no longer have to die at the end – precisely because the blood of the lamb has made everything right with god, who loved us so much that he provided his only son as the sacrifice.
So much angst! So much guilt, such a powerful collective nightmare… No wonder the dreamed up solution to this non-existent problem seemed so important we divide our entire sense of the history of the world (B.C and A.D.) into the time before the savior and after the savior! What a trip.
This myth comes from a time of peasants and royalty, from a time when not only did the aristocrats hold all the power, but they were considered god-ordained. This is the “divine right of kings” and the (later called “protestant work ethic”) idea that if you worked hard as a good little peasant in this life your riches would await you in heaven…
It is interesting to note that in India, the caste system and it’s connection to belief in reincarnation, karma etc comes out of a similar aristocratic power structure. The priestly Brahmins at the top have somehow earned their power and wealth through successive lifetimes of spiritual virtue. By definition then, the Untouchables at the bottom of the Apartheid-like food chain are obviously there because of their impurity and sinfulness. Gulp!
There are ways we can salvage something from the Christian mythic imagery, but only if we are honest about the cultural/historical context it arises in and how little this has to do with our time and place… Great mythology scholar Joseph campbell would say part of why our culture is so screwed up is that it does not have it’s own contemporary myth, and instead tries to squeeze the juice out of one from 2 thousand years and 10 thousand miles away!
A favorite quote from Campbell:
“What is mythology? Other people’s religion. What then is religion? Misinterpreted mythology.”
We also have to face the central theme of this story (and perhaps all religion) humanity’s incredible struggle with accepting the fact of death. Maybe if we turn in a circle three times, bow down to the sun, chant the special words, wash our hands obsessively, give up something we really like, whip our bodies, perform the ritual sacrifice, stop cutting our hair or any number of other supposedly magical acts, we won’t have to die – we can live forever, and what’s more go to a place that is always and for ever happy and peaceful.
So what if we played with poetic/mythic imagery that affirms our sacred humanity, that transcends the whole theme of guilt and atonement via bloodshed – that just sees through the superstitious nonsense, that liberates ourselves from OCD ritual behavior, that celebrates our aliveness because we will indeed one day die, regardless of any animal, human, or superhuman sacrifice.
What if we think of this time of year as being about making friends with the darkness, facing our fears, turning inwards and getting real, as well as about cherishing family and friends? Intentionally engaging in generous gift giving of love and honest communication. Creating moments of grace together in which the sacredness of the present moment and the preciousness of our limited time together open into gratitude, forgiveness and clarity about the human condition.
From the Radiance Sutras:
Wherever, whenever you feel carried away,
Rejoicing in every breath,
There, there is your meditation hall.
Cherish those times of absorption—
Rocking the baby in the silence of the night
Pouring water into a crystal glass
Tending the logs in the crackling fire
Sharing a meal with a circle of friends.
Embrace these pleasures and know,
This is my true body.
Nowhere is more holy than this.
Right here is the sacred pilgrimage.
Perhaps there is a birth of new life we are inviting or opening towards as we let go of the year that has been or of old ways of being that no longer in service of our aliveness.
Last night as I was sleeping, I dreamt
(what a marvelous creation!)
That a spring was breaking out in my heart
And I asked
Along which secret aquaduct
Are you coming to me,
Oh water of a new life,
I have never drunk before?
Merry Xmas and a Happy New Myth.