Myth and Mystery

“That’s just a myth.”  “Myths and fairy tales.”  “Those beasts are only mythic.”  “Myths aren’t real.”  “Don’t believe that – it’s a myth.”  We are so used to dismissing myths – usually other people’s myths – as trivial and false, that we don’t even see the myths that govern our lives.

Every culture has its myths.  We have myths about our nations’ origins, myths about our relationships, myths about our heroes, myths about the sacred.  Such myths can be positive and affirming, teaching tools for developing strength and purpose.  We also have myths about superiority – gender or racial or economic – and myths about our own worth (or lack of it) and about what God thinks of us.  Myths of this sort can be destructive and even devastating.

Myths are powerful and important.  They shape our attitudes and our actions and give focus and meaning to our dreams and longings.  They express inner truths, positive and negative, about our most vital selves.  They reflect our souls, and they shape them.  Myths may not be literally, factually, true, but they are True.  They point to deep inner truths that have power in our lives.

My own culture, whose people tend to think of themselves as pragmatic and practical, is full of myths.  We have the myth of American independence and rugged individualism, which has inoculated us against a sense of responsibility to others.  We have the myth of liberty and national superiority, which blinds us to the suffering we inflict on oppressed groups in our own society and in other nations.  We have the myths of wealth and consumerism, which have fostered a society in which money and power are immensely important – and concentrated in a very few hands.  We have the myth of rationalism that discounts anything in human experience that doesn’t seem to be logical and reasonable.

Every nation, every culture has its social myths of this sort, just as it has its myths about heroic deeds, difficulties overcome, adversaries nobly challenged.  These myths establish our values and define our relationships and our sense of ourselves.  Myths express and form the essence of who we are.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our sacred myths – the stories of our faiths that help form our awareness of God and our relationship with the divine.  And I’ve been thinking about my own personal relationship to the myths of my own faith.  I know that there are many Christians, including some of my friends, who believe in the literal truth of our faith stories.  I know that there are others, including some of my friends, who spend a great deal of time and mental effort trying to puzzle out just what about our faith is historically factual.  The first group tends to focus on whatever issues seem important, ignoring the portions of our faith stories that point elsewhere.  The second group struggles with disillusionment and the futility of proving much about stories passed through so many hands over so many years.

I don’t find myself in either camp.  Nor am I willing to accept blindly what my faith teaches or claims to teach.  Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus?  I have no logical, emotional, or spiritual basis for belief that it literally happened.  But I believe in the myth of the resurrection.  That is, I believe in the story as myth, in the most powerful, most True sense of the word “myth.”  I believe that the myth of the resurrection expresses my own deepest longing for God and my own belief that God is with us and dwells within us, and that our worst suffering can become, in God’s hands, a source of life and spiritual glory.  I believe God has chosen to share existence with us, and that sharing is beautifully and powerfully expressed in the story of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, the anointed one.

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