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Can Mythology Save the Miraculous?

Stephen Anderson argues that religion isn’t simply a system of profound myths – it relies on making factual claims which are really true.

Is religion a suitable subject for philosophy? For a great while now, the general answer in the academy has seemed to be “No.” After Darwin, Marx and Freud, after Nietzsche, Camus and Derrida, what possible vestige of legitimate space could be left to religion? Perhaps it might be conceded a niche among historical curiosities like alchemy and phrenology, but beyond the antiquarian realm, it was hard for a while to see where religion might belong.

Recently, however, religion has received a new lease on its academic life. Partly, this is because of the decline of modern confidence in the Enlightenment project, and it’s partly because of the emergence of new hermeneutics – in other words, new ways of interpreting religious texts. Postmodernism has generated a revived interest in narratives of all kinds, both true and fictional. Specifically, there is great interest in the perspectives that particular narratives stand to promote or legitimize, and how each ‘story’ becomes a vehicle of a community’s particular ‘truths.’

Religion, as one source of such stories, swims uneasily in this new sea of debate. All religions are a combination of stories and factual claims. As interested as postmodern thinkers may be in narratives of all kinds, they are famously cynical regarding corresponding assertions of truth. If the factual elements of religion fall prey to postmodern cynicism, then it becomes uncertain how religion’s attendant stories are to survive. The peril we perceive is that the ethical or cultural treasures buried in religious narratives will be lost. But how can the veracity of religious narrative be asserted if it is based upon the miraculous?

In Issue 47 of this magazine, the late Richard Taylor wrote a very engaging article titled ‘Religion and Truth’, in which he set out to resolve this problem. Despite religion’s detractors and their claims that it is no longer intellectually tenable to believe that the particulars of accounts of events found in religious texts can be true, Professor Taylor proposed to preserve the treasures of meaning hidden in religious narratives. The solution he proposed is as clever as it is winsome. He sought to affirm religion’s value as a source of myth, rather than of factual data. (Note: In using the word ‘myth’ he was not conceding that religion is ultimately false – quite the opposite, he was arguing that religion is mythic in that it contains and conveys deep truths, truths so complex and fundamental that they could be conveyed in no way but through sustained metaphor.)

Myth as Truth-Telling

What he argued was that all myths, and religious myths in particular, ought to be read as telling fictions, rather than as literal facts. He began with the myth of Sisyphus, then progressed through Plato and finally to Biblical parables. He illustrated how certain myths that we know not to be literally true are capable of conveying truth nonetheless: for the morals or messages that such myths convey may remain relevant and truthful, even though the particulars be entirely fictive.

Prof. Taylor went on to argue that to insist on literal truth in regard to the surface facts of a myth is to deprive that myth of its true value. Both secularists, who insist that religions are false because they are mythical, and fundamentalists, who insist that religious myths must be factual in order to convey truth, are, in Prof. Taylor’s words, “missing the point.” The point is that myths are true in a deeper sense than a factual one; they are true metaphorically, and that is where the true payload of any religion exists. He wrote:

“The concept of myth, as thus understood, is essential to the understanding of 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 deeper meaning, overwhelmingly important to human understanding, and the task should be to try finding those meanings.” (Issue 47, p.10)

Here we must pause, and reflect that there is something profoundly right about this understanding. To take Prof. Taylor’s line of thought further, we might think of Aesop’s Fables, which have for countless generations proved to be a source of homely wisdom. In reading the story of ‘The Fox and the Grapes,’ for example, it is not necessary for us to believe that foxes like grapes (though perhaps some do), or that animals can talk and reason, or that the wind likes to play teasing games, in order to derive the benefit of the practical application of the myth – which is that we ought not to want things that we simply cannot have. Factual or no, the myth ‘works’ in delivering its value. To insist on facts is, so to speak, merely ‘sour grapes.’

Prof. Taylor applies this insight to the Biblical record, and finds that his new hermeneutic works there as well. He points to famous parables, ‘The Prodigal Son’ and ‘The Good Samaritan,’ and shows how that these stories too carry their value in their myth, not in any factual accuracy. There may never have been such a particular prodigal son, and there may have been no good Samaritan: it does not matter, as far as the truth-value of the stories is concerned. They still deliver their messages.

The Limits of Myth-Making

Now, up to this point, Prof. Taylor has had pretty clear sailing. At the very least, his argument succeeds in showing that there are legitimate ways in which myths may be read for truth value without entering into contentious questions of historical veracity. But can this strategy be ultimately successful in preserving the essential cultural value of religion against postmodern skepticism?

The answer turns out to be no. As winsome as his mythologizing strategy may be, it just won’t work because of three considerations: Theology will not countenance it, Literary Criticism will not support it, and Science doesn’t need it. We shall look at these objections in order.

Religion and Myth

The first place Prof. Taylor’s strategy begins to run into squalls is in regard to Theology. His characterization of literalists is flawed. In specific, he supposed that literalists or fundamentalists must be obliged by the logic of their position to insist that all religious language is factual, and he assumes that metaphor, poetry, parable and mystery could not be epistemologically available to anyone who holds a literalist theological position. But this is incorrect. The strategy of interpreting of parables metaphorically is actually fundamentalist orthodoxy. (It is easy to find numerous instances in their writings.) In fact, there is a great deal that literalists are prepared to read from the Biblical record as metaphorical – provided that, as they argue, the text itself suggests that this is the right way to read. No, it is not when parables are clearly presented as parables that the problem exists: it is when events are presented as historical fact, and when metaphorical significance is deduced from historical factuality that conflict arises over the necessity of historical accuracy.

In particular, it is not in regard to parables but in regard to the Resurrection of Jesus that the factual and mythical readings of text collide. The historical factuality of the Resurrection is the sine qua non, the lynchpin of Christianity – without it, nothing else in the tradition holds. Prof. Taylor himself certainly had some perception of the unique importance of this singular event, and that is why the majority of his comments concerning Christianity address it. As he says, “What is essential to the Christian religion, then, is not just a belief in God, nor any miraculous powers of its founder, but the story of the resurrection.” So he seems to be admitting this. But we must not be unsubtle in our reading here. Prof. Taylor does not mean to retain the Resurrection as a fact, but as a metaphor. The story is what he wants, not the history. If you like, he wishes the resurrection myth to speak, and the historical facts to remain silent.

This is Prof. Taylor’s strategy for saving the Resurrection from outright rejection. But crucially, his explanation runs afoul of the Pauline Biblical text, which specifically rejects the mythologizing of the Resurrection:

“…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is in vain. Moreover, we are found to be false witnesses against God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom he did not raise … if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins… If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied…” 1 Corinthians 15:13-19, NASB.

Here it would seem quite unavoidable that the Biblical author was arguing for the literal facts of the Resurrection, which moreover, he held to be essential to the metaphorical possibilities of the story. Moreover, Prof. Taylor’s fears merely confirm certain conventional theological assertions about the Resurrection, that without faith it would appear foolish and offensive, and would not be believed (See 1 Cor. 1:18). If, then, the textual record itself maintains that those who merely mythologize the Resurrection make it valueless and reduce Christianity to a pitiable state, how is Prof. Taylor to commend his strategy to Christian thinkers? They are hardly likely to embrace any hermeneutical strategy that offers such Pyrrhic gains as this.

Literary Criticism and Myth

The second area in which Prof. Taylor’s strategy runs aground is in the matter of Literary Criticism. He erroneously believed that there was something inherently debasing in attributing historical factuality to religious stories. He writes, “Literalism, the urge to reduce religious myth to clearly and rationally understood claims, always amounts to trivialization.” (Issue 47 p.12)

We might well agree that to treat any religion as only a matter of historical truth or fiction is indeed to trivialize it; but if we take him to mean that to enter into questions of its factuality or lack thereof is itself to debase the myth, then Prof. Taylor’s conclusion is clearly incorrect. In fact, there are at least three kinds of myth:

1. Those that are clearly independent of reality claims.
2. Those about which reality claims are possible but unnecessary, and
3. Those to which reality claims are essential.

All three of these types are capable of carrying mythic power. The first type is nicely exemplified by Aesop’s story of ‘The Fox and the Grapes,’ which I mentioned earlier. To enter into questions of whether foxes can talk is immediately to trivialize the myth and, as Prof. Taylor says, to ‘miss the point.’ The second type is illustrated by myths like the legends of William Tell or King Arthur or Robin Hood. Doubtless, some historical facts attach to these legends, but it is of no great consequence whether they do or not.

But the third type of myth also exists, stories to which historical facts are essential if any mythic value is to be affirmed from them at all. (Here we want to be careful to emphasize that we are agreeing with Prof. Taylor in saying that ‘myth’ is an abused word, and that it by no means is a synonym for ‘untruthful’ or ‘false.’ p.10) Such stories appear whenever a historical incident is interpreted, given meaning, and becomes resonant within a culture. For example, Babylon, Pompeii, Milvian Bridge, Agincourt, Gandhi, Guernica, the Maginot Line and the Birmingham Riots are certainly not ‘mythical’ in the negative sense of being ‘false’ or ‘unhistorical’; but they have become ‘mythic’ in the positive sense that they have more than mere historical importance and resonance within our cultures. They do not merely form part of a neutral record of what has happened in past; they go beyond that. They are rightly taken to mean something, to have vital lessons to impart to the present; and there is something less than moral in any discussion of them that fails to accord them this mythic weight. Even the scientific community, so ordinarily contemptuous of myth, has its own set of key historical moments of mythic power: consider how the stories of Galileo and the Inquisition or the Scopes Monkey Trial serve in that community of discourse. For more on this, see Philip Sampson’s Six Modern Myths, IVP, 2000.

Now here is the crucial point: it is the very fact that these are real, historical events that makes possible their mythic resonance. Factuality is intrinsic to their meaning. To treat them merely as fables or useful fictions does not merely do a disservice to history: it deprives these stories of mythic force as well. In the case of these stories, to speak of their historicity does not, as Prof. Taylor fears, ‘trivialize’ them: it immeasurably increases their significance as myths. In fact, one is tempted to think that without historical fact, many of these would have no significance at all. For example, how could the story of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 have occasioned an existential crisis in Enlightenment Europe if it had not actually happened? (see Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought. Princeton, 2002.)

The key question in regard to Richard Taylor’s mythologizing strategy, then, is what sort of story is the Resurrection? It would seem that the textual record itself would maintain that it is of the third type. The broad spectrum of the Christian theological tradition, both liberal and conservative, would tend to affirm this as well. If the Resurrection is the kind of myth that derives its force from its reference to historical fact, then to mythologize it does not, as Prof. Taylor supposed, open it up to additional possibilities of ‘new meanings,’ ‘ambiguity’ and ‘mystery,’ but rather it drains it of mythic force.

No wonder, then, that when Prof. Taylor finally arrived at the point of explaining what the new ‘broader’ possibilities of the myth might be, he began to become incoherent. Sensing this, he turned to the tautological gambit of arguing that in such cases the inability to explain oneself is evidence that one is poised on the brink of the ineffable. (Of course, the distance between the ineffable and the incoherent is sometimes not great.)

Science and Myth

Finally, the problem that Prof. Taylor’s mythologizing strategy was intended to solve does not actually exist. He imagined a conflict between Science and the miraculous, and imagined it in a way that Science itself does not support. To see this, we must recall his own explanation of why the Resurrection must be reinterpreted as myth instead of history:

“…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 as if nothing had happened to him, violates the most basic certainties of reason and common knowledge.” (Issue 47, p.11)

The ‘certainties’ he has in mind are evidently the scientific laws of the universe. The miraculous, he feared, is simply not available as an explanation for any ‘thoughtful and sophisticated’ mind – the very reason for this being that such laws exist.

But does the existence of scientific laws in itself make the miraculous impossible? Not at all; for, as William P. Alston has observed, those laws of science that we have good reason to accept are all laws ceteris paribus – that is, laws that apply ‘all other things being equal’. They have probabilistic value, within a closed system; but concerning the possibility of Divine intervention, they have nothing to say. In order to bring scientific laws into conflict with the miraculous, it is necessary to add an additional premise, known as the Uniformitarian hypothesis: that is, the supposition that all laws continue as they have been since the foundation of the earth, without exception. But a little reflection makes it apparent that Uniformitarianism is itself a faith assumption of sorts.

Interestingly, the concept of the miraculous contains both the supposition of scientific laws and the admission of infrequency within it, as C.S. Lewis once perceptively observed. For one does not call anything a ‘miracle’ unless it is an event of singular improbability, one that contravenes the expected scientific laws. Thus one cannot rule out the miraculous on the basis that scientific laws are against it. The very most that one can deduce from the existence of those laws is that miracles are unlikely – to which the believer in miracles always has the cavalier rejoinder, “No kidding.”

Can Myth-Making Save Religion?

So what has Prof. Taylor given us in his article? Surely his drawing of our attention to the truth-bearing potentialities of myth is a benefit. His description of how mythological value can transcend historical factuality serves as a caution both to religious literalism and secular cynicism. Moreover, he opens up the possibility of deriving value from myths with which we factually disagree, and enjoying the benefits of truth wherever we may find them. But his solution begs the whole question of mixed mythology; and in particular, his attempt to salvage the Resurrection by turning it into only a myth fails.

Clearly, Richard Taylor was writing as a friend of Christianity. He was attempting to rescue the gems of Christian truth from the rubble of historical criticism and the depredations of fundamentalist literalism. Yet in this situation we do well to recall the advice of Feste, the wise fool in the play Twelfth Night, who makes the paradoxical claim that he is “the better for my foes and the worse for my friends.” He explains that this is because “…[my friends] praise me and make an ass of me; now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass: so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself, and by my friends, I am abused…”

“By my friends I am abused.” There is a kind of well-intended flattery that has the unfortunate effect of anaesthetizing one’s intellect. “By my foes...I profit.” On the other hand, the incisive criticisms of an enemy may perform an inadvertent benefit, if by their honesty they awaken one to the truth. If it is true, as I have argued, that religion cannot do without factual claims, then the effect of mythologizing the miraculous is not to save it but to neutralize it. In that case, faith in the miraculous and the secular faith in Uniformitarianism cannot be reconciled as Taylor hoped, and we are forced again to choose our commitments. Alas, Taylor’s strategy is more flattering than helpful to religion, for though it loudly proclaims the excellences of religious myth-making it denies to particular religious events the essential legitimating claim to historicity.

© Stephen L. Anderson 2005

Stephen Anderson is a high school teacher in Ontario and has written for a variety of magazines.

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