Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

PSALM 48

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
    in the city of our God.
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,
    is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
    the city of the great King.
Within its citadels God
    has shown himself a sure defense.

Then the kings assembled,
    they came on together.
As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
    they were in panic, they took to flight;
trembling took hold of them there,
    pains as of a woman in labor,
as when an east wind shatters
    the ships of Tarshish.
As we have heard, so have we seen
    in the city of the Lord of hosts,
in the city of our God,
    which God establishes forever.

We ponder your steadfast love, O God,
    in the midst of your temple.
10 Your name, O God, like your praise,
    reaches to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with victory.
11     Let Mount Zion be glad,
let the towns of Judah rejoice
    because of your judgments.

12 Walk about Zion, go all around it,
    count its towers,
13 consider well its ramparts;
    go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
14     that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
    He will be our guide forever.

Ancient capitals and larger towns were built according to a sacred design and architecture, with the temple dwelling of a patron deity situated at the center and everything else coordinated around its holy space. David’s Mount Zion was the hilltop in the Canaanite city of the Jebusites, taken and occupied by David’s armies and later named Jerusalem, where the high god (El) had long been believed to condescend to the worship and sacrifices of his people.

When David made the city his capital and transported the Ark of the Covenant to the holy precincts of this mythologized mountain, Zion became the symbol and actual touchstone whence the grace and power of the biblical God radiated forth.

Solomon, David’s son and successor, is the one who made the fateful decision to build a temple for God on Zion, which set up the cooperative (but eventually competitive) division of “church” and “state” that some argue gave rise to the otherworldly preoccupations of later religion. For David himself, the mountain represented the “high place” where heaven and earth, the divine and the human, could meet and merge. Politics, commerce, and even private life were to be organized beneath and around it.

PSALM 34:1-10, 22

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

There is a strong current in the Bible, vocally represented in the traditions that promoted the idea of Yahweh as not only supreme among the gods but as the only god there is (monotheism), which regards everything that happens as directly caused or allowed by the divine will. When things go well for us, this doctrine poses no problem at all. But when adversity comes and bereavement leaves us reeling in its wake, the connection between God and our experience is much harder to discern – and much easier to doubt.

We can use the familiar Western “centers of consciousness” as a way of analyzing this conundrum, picturing God as like us in possessing a mind (knowledge), a heart (passion), and a will (action). When it comes to human suffering, then, perhaps God

  1. knows about it, but doesn’t really care and refuses to help.
  2. doesn’t know about it, and would care if the information was provided (suggesting the importance of prayer).
  3. doesn’t know, and wouldn’t care even if He did.
  4. does know and certainly cares, but is afflicting or allowing the suffering so that something else can be realized (such as humility, repentance, patience, fortitude, or wisdom in the sufferer).

As you can see, the first three explanations make God into something “less than God” in the classical sense of an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful authority over human affairs. The deities of other mythologies might demonstrate less-than-perfect qualities, but the unqualified monotheism of the Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and Quran (Islam) has traditionally forced believers to look for God’s hand (active/passive will) in our suffering and loss.

Another response might be to suggest that God names a mystery we cannot understand. Perhaps there isn’t a supreme being calling the shots or letting things slide. Maybe suffering is just part of the burden of existence – neither a punishment for sin or a strategy for our salvation. Sometimes it follows fairly predictably on our own poor choices, as the immediate or delayed consequence of what we are doing to ourselves, each other, and to our planet. Often, however, it defies explanation (even a theological one) and the best we can do is meet suffering with a grounded presence, mindfulness, and grace.

PSALM 68:1-10,

Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
    let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
    as wax melts before the fire,
    let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
    let them exult before God;
    let them be jubilant with joy.

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
    lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord
    be exultant before him.

Father of orphans and protector of widows
    is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
    he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
    but the rebellious live in a parched land.

O God, when you went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
    at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
    at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
    you restored your heritage when it languished;
10 your flock found a dwelling in it;
    in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
    sing praises to the Lord,
33 O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
    listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God,
    whose majesty is over Israel;
    and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
    the God of Israel;
    he gives power and strength to his people.

Blessed be God!

If you were to spread the writings of the Bible along a line according to the chronological sequence in which they were likely produced, you would come to see how the concept and representation of God evolved through the centuries. A strict biblical literalism would then be forced to conclude that God has changed over time, which obviously conflicts with the Bible’s own claim that with God there is “no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

A better explanation is that something has indeed changed (or evolved); however it’s not the reality of God but the mythological imagination of humans contemplating that reality. As human beings have evolved – from hominids to homo sapiens, and through the numerous stages of cultural development – the notion of a hidden agency and supreme intelligence behind things has steadily advanced. What becomes evident to us, then, is the fascinating way in which a regional population of human beings became increasingly rational, ethical, and inclusive in their orientation and behavior.

Before we file our exceptions to this statement, let’s quickly review how the Bible’s representation of God progressed over time. In the earliest traditions, god* is the jealous warrior deity of nomadic tribes that originally settled the region of Sinai. Yahweh’s idol may have been a war box that announced his arrival to towns and villages under invasion. At this stage, god’s love was a subordinate quality to his aggression, violence, and conquest.

A while later we find Yahweh inviting select individuals and their families into a formal ritual of agreement called a covenant. By obeying his will and worshiping no other god but him, the people are given assurance of Yahweh’s protection, blessing, and future prosperity. This use of the covenant metaphor is a strong indication that humans were progressing into a more stable, rational, and cooperative way of life. God’s love is coming more to the forefront of his personality, as one who cares for his people.

                                                                                                      

In the time of the prophets, the complexities of urban life advanced new concerns for marginalized members (orphans, widows, and other poor). Even outsiders coming to the gates as strangers were to be looked after and offered hospitality. In the prophetic consciousness, this ethical concern of god’s for those who suffer forced frequent confrontations with kings and political administrations that oppressed or neglected them. The love of god was opening out into a wide compassion, not only for insiders but outsiders as well.

Finally, with Jesus – who stood in the tradition of the prophets but took their challenge to another level – we hear that god’s love extends all the way to his “enemies.” These may be outsiders or insiders; their defining characteristic is an utter disregard for god’s will, even an outright antagonism to his way. In short, they are “sinners.” Jesus declared that all sinners are forgiven, that humanity’s debt to god has been released. His message of unconditional forgiveness was so revolutionary in its implications and so radical in its reach, that Christianity itself was unable (or unwilling) to carry it forward for long.

In all these various evolutionary frames, the representation of God is just out in front of human development. The depiction of god’s love in art, story and theology is an idealized projection at first, praised and glorified as an exceptional virtue of the deity. And because worship of god is also the aspiration of devotees to be like god – to love as god loves – this virtue is increasingly activated and gradually takes its place in the human moral repertoire.

*In order to distinguish a representation of God from the reality of God, we use the convention of a lowercase ‘g’ when speaking of the concept of God in art, story and theology. The reality of God is a mystery beyond words.

PSALM 47

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
    shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
    a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
    and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
    the pride of Jacob whom he loves.Selah

God has gone up with a shout,
    the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
    sing praises with a psalm.

God is king over the nations;
    God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
    as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
    he is highly exalted.

It is a real effort for native citizens of a liberal democracy to relate to metaphors of God oriented on monarchy. Kings, thrones, and shields, trumpet processions and coronation events – these don’t ring rich with meaning as they must have once upon a time. Indeed, “once upon a time” in storybooks and Hollywood movies is about the only places we encounter this way of organizing life in the world.

It’s not that the words don’t make sense, mind you, but that their meaning isn’t very relevant to our daily experience. For many of us, kings and queens are odd anachronisms and exotic (maybe less advanced) symbols of government from another time and place.

Where we live, the aggregate effect of individual wills participating in dialogue and voting their preferences is how politics is done. In fact, breaking free from the tyranny of monarchical dynasties and taking a risk on the sovereign will of individuals electing their own leaders is how “the West was won,” as they say.

So isn’t it strange how we have struggled, sacrificed, and built our way of life on the rights and responsibilities of liberal democracy, and yet in our religion – particularly in our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning – we glorify God as a king on his throne, ruling over the nations? We fight for our freedom across the seas and defend our rights to property and protection against “big government” (the republican equivalent of the royal despot), while our mythology, theology, hymnody and worship exhort us to obeisance, submission, and obedience!

But what choice do we have? It’s there in the Bible, and the Bible is our ultimate authority on God-talk. Right?

However unacceptable it may sound at first, it is possible to see the Bible as both a timeless revelation and a very time-bound expression of the human quest for security, meaning, and destiny. It is timeless in the way it might bring us close to (but without containing!) the divine mystery, and it is time-bound because its metaphors, stories, and teachings were produced out of specific historical contexts.

It just so happened that the artistic and literary production of certain periods in the past was preserved, collected, and later canonized as sacred scripture. As subsequent generations progressively lost confidence in their own ability to seek and know God for themselves, they relied increasingly on these earlier efforts and agreements. We may be encouraged to pursue and cultivate our own experience of the divine mystery, but then we are expected to talk about it using a vocabulary more than two thousand years old!

Does God have to be a king sitting on his throne up there in heaven? Does God have to rule over the nations, or sponsor our nation over others? Does God have to be a male authority, a lord of all? Does God have to be personified at all?

How can we, today, express the present mystery of God in a meaningful and relevant way?

EPHESIANS 5:8-14

8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Sleeper, awake!
    Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

The last quoted phrase was likely a piece of baptismal liturgy used in Paul’s mission churches, marking the moment of a new convert’s crossover into New Life. It was a sacrament, not magic, and the ritual was conducted as a way of demonstrating publicly what was happening in the depths of the person.

The dramatic contrast of light and darkness is certainly the most ancient and universal polarity found throughout the world cultures. Its power and attraction is likely rooted in our evolutionary past, when the darkness of night, forest interiors, and storm-laden skies represented dangers our daytime intelligence couldn’t easily detect or comprehend.

Darkness came eventually to represent not only obscurity and potential dangers, but savagery (our earliest predators were probably night-stalkers), chaos and ignorance (since order and distinction are lost in the dark), irrationality and insanity (the moon, Luna, was the inspiration of lunacy), as well as criminal behavior, secrecy, and sin.

The forces, conditions, and virtues associated with the light come to mind intuitively – probably even instinctively: clarity, order, knowledge, enlightenment, rationality, decency, righteousness, rebirth (think sunrise and winter solstice), vision – and by extension, foresight, prophecy, planning and purpose.

Light-and-dark as a polarity is what’s known as an archetype, or First Form, which lies deep in the primitive layers of consciousness and functions as a catalyst for the creative imagination. Insofar as religion is a symbol system that ties the conventional arrangement of life to the primal force and primordial mystery that is life itself, the contrasting interplay of light and darkness can be discerned in its art, mythology, ceremony, and doctrines.

New converts to the Christ movement – we hesitate to call it “Christianity” at this point since it still lacked the internal coherence, widespread agreement, and a centralized authority that eventually developed into the “official” Christian religion – needed confirmation in their dramatic life-change.

Paul exhorted them to dedicate their lives to the good, the right, and the true. While it may sound as if he is pushing for a strong definition of early Christian orthodoxy, Paul is really encouraging these new Christ-followers to become promoters of what is life-affirming and wholesome, advocates for decency and fairness, and seekers after what is genuine, authentic and real.

It’s not about what you believe, so much as how you live. “Christian” is more a verb than a noun.

ROMANS 5:12-19

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Earlier cultures, by virtue of being farther upstream and experientially closer to the wellspring of mythological thinking, apparently did not labor as do we, over whether a particular sacred story (myth) was factual or fictional. The story simply was, and its truth lay in the power of the narrative to draw the audience (primitive stories were oral performances, not written texts) into its magical depictions, dramatic situations, and moral conflicts, in order to either confirm or challenge the current worldview and way of life.

It’s important for us to remember that Paul was not a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer, but a first-century religious personality still steeped in the mythological world of his period. The question is not whether or not Paul believed Adam to have been an actual individual who lived as first in the series way back in the mists of primeval time, but rather who is Adam in the constellation of symbols and meanings that is Paul’s present worldview.

When the question is put that way we begin to sense that, for Paul, Adam is an archetype, an ideal type, exemplar, or primary pattern for what human beings are at some primitive level of their psyches. Adam represents what psychologists today call our “inner child,” the part of us that thinks, feels, and reacts out of a center of self-interest, who struggles beneath the burden of insecurity, guilt, and the fear of being out on our own.

His counterpart in Paul’s mythology is Christ, the New Adam, who is the resurrected higher self, our embodiment of grace, freedom, and love.

                                                                                                

In an earlier letter to the congregation in Corinth, Paul makes explicit use of this functional contrast between Adam and Christ, referring to Christ as “the last Adam” who has become for us a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). This creative duality between the two great exemplars of our human mythstory (history interpreted through the templates of myth), one representing our lower and the other our higher nature, was clearly Paul’s theory of choice for explaining the mystery of salvation in Christian terms.

As he set forth this mystery, it was imperative for Paul that his prospective converts to the Christian way see Adam not as simply a figure of past history but as a present force in their own personalities, and the same with Christ as well. Very early in his missionary career Paul had declared, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I [Adam: my lower impulsive self] who lives, but it is Christ [my higher self: the spirit of wisdom and love] who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

As we can see, then, early Christian mythology as formulated by the apostle Paul and others offered to the world a new way of conceiving the nature and destiny of human beings. The revealed path is one of growth, discovery, awakening, breakthrough, and fulfillment.

ISAIAH 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The utopian vision of a future paradise on earth has given inspiration to song and poetry in every culture on earth. As things appear to us now – and as they’ve appeared to every generation since the dawn of humanity – there is conflict, turmoil, crisis and hardship mixed in with the ecstasies of our life in time.

But as is the habit of mind, human beings have not been satisfied with the idea that this has always been the case, or that it will forever be the case, or that this mixture is the truth of reality deepest down.

Resolutions have arisen, predictably, which posit a perfect state of harmony and goodness either at the very beginning, and from which we have fallen; at the end, towards which we are presently progressing; or in the foundational essence of pure being, when we may enter by a more mystical path.

The evolution of religion itself has advanced through these three, and in that very sequence – first looking back to a paradisal garden, then ahead to a heavenly city, and finally inward to the place that is no place, to the kingdom of God within.

In the modern West ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the critical position taken by rationalism has been that all of this talk of religion is nothing more than fantasy and wishful thinking. The truth is that reality is a mixture of good and evil, and we must simply and responsibly accept this fact – if we must judge at all.

                                                                                                   

A disastrous oversight of Western rationalism concerning the validity of poetry, art, symbol and story, both as products of the mythic imagination and basic elements in the language of religion, was the importance of taking these not literally but metaphorically. Once the metaphor of Isaiah’s mythic paradise is reduced to nothing more than an actual state of affairs in the near or far-off future, the prophet’s vision collapses into becoming a mere prediction – an easily falsifiable prediction, in that case.

We understand now that such a chain of mistaken judgments was necessitated by the logical commitments early in the rise of rationalism. Truth needed to be based on evidence, evidence needed to be measurable and accessible to the detached observer, and conclusions needed to be consistently verifiable through repeated experiments. The (mythological) language of religion passes none of these tests, and was therefore dismissed as an unreliable source.

But metaphors by their very definition are word-images not intended to be taken literally. In its root meaning, metaphor is that which carries the mind across the boundary of mystery that contains our present knowledge, for the purpose of touching and exploring ultimate reality in terms of what we do know.