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Philosophy of Religion
Religion and Truth
Richard Taylor on the proper role of myths and mysteries.
The best way into our subject is through a look at ancient mythology. Consider, for example, the familiar story of Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to move a rock to the top of a hill, whereupon it would roll back down, this appalling sequence to be repeated over and over through eternity.
Thinkers for generations have sensed in this myth a meaning, possibly a profound truth only dimly seen. Perhaps it is the image of an indominatable will. Or of the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of endless failure. Or it could be an image of justice. It has also been thought to symbolize the meaninglessness of human existence. In any case, what gives the story depth and importance is that it is thought to contain a truth behind the banality of the imagery.
Now suppose a professor of classics were to insist that this story has to be historically correct. He maintains that this myth, like so many others contained in ancient texts, must be considered true as it stands and not properly subject to interpretation or any search for hidden meanings. He thinks that he must take this position in order to uphold the worth and dignity of the classics and their venerable authors. Otherwise, he thinks, people will want to dismiss mythology as a mere collection of fairy tales, unworthy of serious consideration.
Concerning such a misguided classicist we could say, first, that he has completely missed the point; second, that far from upholding the worth and dignity of the classics, he has trivialized them; and third, that he has made a fool of himself.
And this brings us to the nature of myths generally and how the understanding of them has changed over time. The change represents a great loss. It is as if a curtain of darkness has fallen over a vast treasure of truth, and all because of an unnecessarily narrow conception of truth.
Thus, we think now of myths as nothing but widely believed falsehoods, like the myth of racial superiority, or of inevitable progress. The belief that sudden fright on the part of a pregnant woman can injure her unborn child is dismissed as a myth, that is, a groundless falsehood.
That is not at all how myths were thought of in antiquity. They were an important part of Greek civilization and other cultures. They were not, as we think of them now, popular errors, but fabulous tales, sometimes of great complexity, usually involving gods in their relationships with men. But what is distinctive about the more lasting ones is that instead of being simply false, they were thought to embody truth. Thus a myth was an account which, while literally false and even absurd, was true on a deeper level. Moreover, it was thought that these truths could not be expressed in any other way. They could not, for example, be formulated in straightforward declarative sentences without being reduced to banality.
Myths were thus once cultural treasures, and the modern failure to understand them, to the extent that even the meaning of the word has been corrupted, is a severe loss.
Plato, the paradigmatic product of Greek culture, understood the role of myths. He never thought it necessary to explain them. Thus, usually after plumbing some philosophical question as deeply as he could by rational dialectic, Plato sometimes culminated the discussion with a myth. He saw that reason can grasp only so much of a great truth and insight. The rest he incorporated into myth. His Republic, for example, is an expression of precise and rational thought at its best, and yet this great work culminates in the myth of Er, to make the point that our understanding of our ultimate good can be conveyed in no other way. In the same work he invents a tale of men imprisoned in a cave and thus limited to shadows and echoes until liberated and compelled to look at things as they really are, and at the sun that illuminates everything. Final truth, the story suggests, cannot be discovered by unaided intelligence. Plato’s understanding of myths is perhaps most clearly seen in his portrayal of a dialogue between Socrates and Protagoras. Protagoras, in this dialogue that bears his name, is asked to render an account of how virtue is taught. He offers to do this in either of two ways, by straightforward exposition, or by myth. It is thus understood that these are two quite different paths to one and the same truth, and Socrates does not question this presupposition. Protagoras then complies, by inventing an elaborate and instructive myth.
The concept of a myth, as thus understood, is essential for understanding religion, and the Christian religion in particular. Without this understanding it is impossible to see the power of a religion and how it can endure for generation after generation. The power of a religion lies in its stories, not simply as stories, but as vehicles of truth and, sometimes, profound truth. It is superficial to say, on whatever grounds, that scriptural accounts of events long past are false, and it is no less superficial to say that they are, as they stand, true. Some, at least, have a deeper meaning, overwhelmingly important to human understanding, and the task should be to try finding those meanings. Viewed this way, we can see that secularists, who dismiss religion as simply false, and fundamentalists, who insist on literal truth, both miss the point.
This is in some cases perfectly obvious. Consider, for example, the story of the prodigal son. The meaning here is not particularly obscure, and will be grasped by any parent, or any brother in the kind of situation described. Insight is needed here, but not great insight, and when you understand the meaning of the story you are wiser. Equally important, that meaning cannot be expressed otherwise than by story or myth, without being reduced to banality. You need not only to see the meaning, in a general way, but to feel it.
The same can be said of the story of the Samaritan. It drives home perfectly the meanings of neighbor and love, meanings that could not possibly be captured by definitions. Or think of the story of Job, which has had such a profound effect upon the generations. It conveys something of the meaning of human suffering and of God’s role in it, but here it is far from clear what that meaning is. It will perhaps be the task of theologians forever to ferret it out, and we shall meanwhile see some of it dimly and remain content with what we can sense of it. Meanwhile, no one will be able to say, in a straightforward way, what that meaning is, even to the extent that it is found, for this can be conveyed only by myth.
Here it is important to remind ourselves, again, of the irrelevance of literal truth. Thus, it makes not the slightest difference to the story of the prodigal son whether the family described actually existed. That is not the point. Nor is it of any importance whether the Samaritan and the Levite referred to in that story actually had the encounter described. Jesus was not offering instruction in history. He was, by myth, conveying, perfectly and beautifully, the meaning of love. As for the story of Job, we might or might not believe that such a suffering man existed. It doesn’t matter, because the story is not about him. It is about all of us.
The power and endurance of religion cannot be understood independently of myths. The Christian religion, for example, does not rest just on a belief in God, even though many unreflective adherents seem to think so, nor does it rest upon belief in the divine nature of its founder. Belief in God is shared by virtually all religions, and the term ‘divine’ means many things to many people. Christianity rests upon the story of the resurrection.
What, indeed, is belief in God? Many assume that this means simply a belief in the existence of a god. That, by itself, however, has no more significance to religion than a belief that there is life on Mars. It is only an opinion about what happens to exist. What a Christian professes is not merely that there is a god, but rather, belief in God, which is a vastly stronger statement. And this is something not easily comprehended. It can be seen through story or myth, but it cannot be stated. The story of Abraham gives us a sense of its meaning, as does the story of Job, or, above all, the manner in which Jesus dealt with his suffering on the cross. Here a Christian sees, dimly, what it means to believe in God, but not even the wisest theologian or philosopher can say what it is. They should not even try.
As for the divinity of Christ, we are again confronted by incomprehension. There is no rational way to express it. Some suppose that it is attested by the moral sublimity of his teachings. Such a notion, however, would enable us to bestow divinity on other historical figures – Socrates, for example, whose teachings, and whose death at the hands of his persecutors, will forever inspire. The veneration of Socrates does not, however, constitute a religion. Others say that Jesus’s divinity is exhibited by his miraculous powers. Someone’s power to perform miracles, however, even if such power is conceded, proves nothing with respect to religion, for it would be consistent with his being simply a wizard. Wizardry can evoke amazement and wonder, perhaps fear and awe, but it evokes no sense of religious veneration.
What is essential to the Christian religion, then, is not jut a belief in God, nor any miraculous powers of its founder, but the story of the resurrection. Without this there is no such thing as the Christian religion. There may be all sorts of pieties, fellowships, good works, professions of love, all the things that have come to be associated with being a Christian, but the religion is simply diluted into nothingness.
Of course this presents an overwhelming problem for thoughtful and sophisticated persons, for the doctrine of the resurrection, literally understood, is an absurdity. That a man, three days dead, might be revived, to mingle again with the living, talk to them, and move about much as if nothing had happened to him, violates the most basic certainties of reason and common knowledge. The dead become dust and ashes. They do not rise.
Does this mean that the Christian religion should be discarded as false? That is what many conclude. Humanists take just this stand. They embrace, more or less, the basic ethical value associated with liberal Christianity, but dismiss the religion as resting on an absurdity – as indeed it does, if one considers its foundation a literal description of fact.
Christians have tried to meet this challenge in two ways.
On the one hand are those who find the doctrine of the resurrection difficult or impossible to swallow. They tend, then, to hold to what they can, falling back upon the broad, uncontroversial pieties – belief in God, the divine nature of Jesus (variously interpreted), the sanctity of human life, the dignity and worth of all persons, the value of prayer, and so on. Little is said about the resurrection except, perhaps, at Easter, when they rejoice at the rebirth of nature, this being obvious to all and vaguely suggestive of a kind of resurrection. The image of resurrection is deemed inspiring, the stuff of hymns, poetry and art. But they do not feel required to declare a belief that such a thing actually happened, simply because it is an inescapable absurdity.
Such, generally speaking, is likely to be the position of liberal Christianity.
The other way of addressing this basic absurdity is to boldly proclaim it. This is the way of fundamentalism. Christian doctrine, as embodied in Scripture, is simply and literally true as it stands, and faith is understood to be the willingness to declare this. The fundamentalist considers this bold and uncompromising stand to be the mark of courage and strength. He loudly proclaims “I believe,” and this does indeed take considerable strength and courage if one is referring to the resurrection.
Strength and courage are virtues, no doubt, but to enlist them to embrace the absurd is difficult or impossible for most intellectually sophisticated persons. On the other hand, falling back upon the conventional pieties and platitudes common among religious people seems to leave out what is distinctive and precious in a religious understanding.
We are not limited to these two choices. Perhaps all religion rests upon mystery. Certainly the Christian religion does. Everything that is of value there is embodied in stories, in myths, understood in the proper sense of that word. The truths embodied in some of these stories are not impossible to discern. And some of them may even be totally devoid of worth, nothing but stories. But some of them embody profound truth that we can only barely discern and cannot really state. The account of the resurrection is surely one of these, and we are not obliged to say that the Christian religion rests upon an absurdity, nor that it is without any real foundation at all. Minimally it means that death is not what it seems to our senses to be, but beyond that lies mystery. Truth here is, if seen at all, seen dimly indeed, as through a glass, darkly.
Finally we should note that the meanings underlying myths, some of them profound, need not be exclusive. If, for example, theologians should render different interpretations of the Book of Job, this does not mean that one of them is right and the others wrong, even if those interpretations should be incompatible with each other. A myth, like a poem or a work of art, might embody different truths. The myth of Sisyphus, with which we began, has in fact been variously understood, and it would be in vain to contend that one interpretation is the meaning. The same is surely true for religion, and it is well that it is so. While proclaiming the often precious insights of religion, we can at the same time concede that they are buried in mystery, some more and some less, and we are liberated from the kind of dogmatism that makes another person’s understanding of religion an adversarial one. Literalism, and the urge to reduce religious myth to clearly and rationally understood claims, always amounts to trivialization. Truths that are perfectly clear and unambiguous to reason are not the truths of religion, while myth and mystery, which are never clear and unambiguous, are.
© PROF. RICHARD TAYLOR 2004
The late Richard Taylor was a very well-known philosopher (and well-known beekeeper too) who taught at the University of Rochester, New York.