A Mythological Approach to Christian History and Soteriology

What follows is a version of a lecture presented in 2004 in the University Lecture Series of University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

A MYTHOLOGICAL APPROACH TO CHRISTIAN HISTORY AND SOTERIOLOGY

I

The cultural urgency of understanding the Christian story and soteriology from a mythological point of view I take more or less for granted. Christianity remains the living myth of Western civilization, though this fact seems to be scarcely recognized or understood in our officially secular age. Even when we are reminded of it perforce, it seems nonetheless to ambush us from some dark atavistic hinterland of the psyche.

A couple of years ago, an otherwise typical embodiment of Hollywood normalcy by the name of Mel Gibson produced a movie called The Passion of the Christ. It shattered, as the keepers of such statistics attest, practically all records at the box office. Naturally, the critical beau monde panned it. They could find nothing in the film, as they would have us believe, that justified its success.

Though mass popularity is hardly an index of cultural or artistic value, it seems nonetheless obvious that the critics’ reflexive dismissal of The Passion was less a matter of sophisticated judgment than sophisticated prejudice. As we know, intellectuals don’t always comprehend the important things very deeply, especially the things of religion. And of course, it was amongst the lower, uneducated classes that the Christian myth was first incubated, before it conquered the entire ancient Roman world, including its most sophisticated and enlightened minds.

What was it that so many movie-goers, in an officially post-Christian age, responded to so powerfully in The Passion? That in witnessing on screen Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as it had taken place in first century Palestine, they were being reminded of the momentous historical event that, along with the entire posterity of Adam, redeemed them from Satan, sin, and death, unto eternal life?

One doubts it. Since very few people today, even amongst the non-intellectual classes, are any longer capable of such naive belief, it can hardly have been the literal historical story that moved them. But in the absence of literal belief, they were moved, all the same. By what?

Dying God and Mother-Spouse

At the risk of turning this into a movie review, let me draw your attention to one minor example of the way in which the Christian story can still apparently impinge upon the living psyche. Early in the movie there is a charming little domestic scene in which a young Jesus proudly shows his mother the table he has just finished building. Whether canonical or not, the scene has a certain historical verisimilitude.

Like his human father Joseph, Jesus is after all a carpenter. That as a young man Jesus should seek the approval of his mother is entirely in keeping with the natural family situation. That Mary should nonetheless gently point out to her precocious offspring that his masterpiece is somewhat implausibly tall for a dining table is also both natural and endearing. But if that were all that the scene contained, or rather, if the story of Jesus were merely an endearing but ordinary human story, then indeed it could hardly be of enduring interest.

Jesus’ table, of course, is no ordinary dining table. It is in fact the altar that he is preparing for his own Sacrifice. It is also a type of the table of the Last Supper upon which he will consecrate the eucharistic bread and wine, his own body and blood. Typologically, the wood of the table of the Last Supper, and of the Cross itself, is the same wood. According to Christian tradition, it had been harvested from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden, whose fruit deprived Adam of eternal life, just as the Second Adam is the fruit hanging upon the tree of the Cross, whose death restores it. And as Christ is the fruit, so Mary is the universal Tree that bears the fruit. And as tree and fruit, Mary and Christ are no longer mere biological mother and son, no longer any particular historical mother and son interacting in the ordinary family situation, but the immemorial dying and reviving God and mother-spouse of universal mythology.

I do not, of course, for a moment think that, though these symbolic and mythological meanings are entirely traditional and well-known to the student of Christian theology and iconography, the average movie-goer, or even Mr. Gibson himself, understood them consciously. Theirs were rather what Maud Bodkin in her Archetypal Patterns in Poetry called “felt significances”. Mr. Gibson’s cinematic art has recreated what was once experienced intuitively in the nascency of the Christian epoch and yet still inhabits the deepest strata of the Western imagination, susceptible of being called back into living significance and emotion by the sort of skillful portrayal that Mr. Gibson–for those with eyes to see and ears to hear–has given it.

The Search for the Historical Jesus

It should by now be clear, I hope, that when I say that Christianity is the living myth of our culture I do not mean Christianity as a fixed and codified system of dogmas and creeds within the context of an organized religion. In this latter manifestation, the corpus Christi is undeniably moribund–dead, or at least dying–from the effects of attack from without and exhaustion from within.

By now, rational science has long since succeeded in exposing the biblical Christian salvation history as a quaint anachronism, a fairy tale that persists from the childhood of the race. The almighty state (which will have no gods before it) has safely banished traditional Christian symbols from the public square, and generally treats religious statements and ideas as pernicious. Academics can find in the two thousand year history of the Church nothing but forced conversions, inquisitions, witch burnings, and all the other atrocities that logically fester in the miasmal swamp of racism, sexism, and intolerance that is the Western Tradition–and they evangelize this caricature of Christianity to the young with the certitude of the defenders of a new orthodoxy. Worst of all, the Church’s ostensible defenders have been all the more devastating to her for being benignly well-intentioned.

For well over a century now, Christian scholars and “progressive” theologians have assumed that they were doing the Church a good service by stripping Christian narrative and dogma of all those accreted myths, miracles, and metaphysical mysteries that have proved a stumbling-block to rational modern belief. But their obsession with the Jesus of history has merely succeeded in further emptying the pews.

 

The well-meaning undertaking by Christian scholars to distill from the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry a core of indisputable, historiographically and scientifically verifiable fact–the so-called “search for the historical Jesus”–has arisen logically enough in response to the stubbornly agnostic spirit of the modern age. Modern civilization has once and for all left the cocoon of religious fideism. As the great Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung observed almost a century ago, modern man will apparently no longer accept traditional religious postulates that he cannot verify for, or in, himself. In place of subjective belief, he demands objective, scientific knowledge; in place of second-hand faith in distant deeds or remote metaphysical entities, he requires private and immediate experience. In short, modern man seems no longer capable of sustaining any conviction in the literal-historical truth of his ancestral narratives, which he now regards as less akin to history than to poetry, projected psychology, or myth.

In light of the widening and deepening cultural awareness that the Christian istoria is in essence a myth – not unlike those parallel myths of saviour-gods retailed throughout pagan antiquity – the “progressive” search for the historical Jesus seems paradoxically retrograde. Nonetheless, from relatively humble beginnings in the late nineteenth century, the historical study of Jesus the man quickly rose to prominence in the twentieth with the work of the Protestant demythologizer Rudolph Bultmann, and remains today a thriving cottage industry. It continues to fascinate all strata of Christian society, from the learned members of the Jesus Seminar to the southern Baptists who ask, in all earnestness, “What would Jesus drive?”

Unfortunately, however, demythologizing the Christian story is a little like de-alcoholizing Champagne; it can be done, I suppose, but in the place of a high and effervescent mystery, one is only left with a flat-tasting and disappointingly non-intoxicating beverage. To slightly alter the metaphor, the historical Jesus might satisfy the thirst of the flesh, but to satisfy the spirit, only the wine of miracle and myth will serve.

The Mythic Christ

As the Jewish rabbi who lived and taught in first century Palestine, and bequeathed to posterity an undeniably revolutionary and enlightened code of social and moral conduct, the Christian God has nonetheless no more claim on us than Pythagoras, Seneca, Marx, or Gandhi. Were he regarded by his followers as human and nothing else, and in this sense historically true, he could no more have kindled the light that for two millennia has burned in the darkness of the world than any other in the long succession of history’s eminent visionaries, wise men, political reformers, ethical scolds, or naive idealists. He opened men’s eyes to his revelation precisely because he was the eternal and transcendent God, and therefore unhistorical. It can hardly have been the meager human story of a Semitic sage that persuaded those first Christians of their transformation into heavenly beings and their everlasting salvation in communion with God.

Without the supramundane Christ and the whole metaphysical cosmos that He embodied, there would have been no story whatsoever. What has ultimately mattered down through the centuries to the religious, if not to the historical imagination, is that Jesus is the God-man, the incarnate Word, the eternal Son of the everlasting Father; that he was sent from heaven for the salvation of mankind; was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit within the inviolate womb of His virgin mother; that for the redemption of the fallen he died, descended into Hell, rose again from the grave, and returned to the right hand of God.

But every one of these Christian motives and credenda–God-man, miraculous conception, Virgin Birth, Descent into the Underworld, Resurrection, Ascension, and so on–is by definition wholly unsusceptible of empirical-historical demonstration, and therefore wholly beyond the scope and purview of the “search for the historical Jesus”. Every one, that is, constitutes an age-old and irreducibly mythological category of description. The historical imagination can apparently neither prove nor disprove them, as the religious imagination refuses at the same time to see them superannuated.

Naturally, it has never occurred to the searchers after the historical Jesus that their methods of inquiry are utterly incommensurable with the object of their search. Whoever Jesus actually was, and whatever deeds may be verified by historical evidence as having been enacted by him, he was in any case the target of a tidal wave of psychic projections and mythological expectations that all but swamped his historical personality from the very beginning. As Jung remarks, neither St. Paul nor the Evangelists hardly ever allow the real Jesus of Nazareth to get a word in.

Even at this incipient stage of the Christian revolution, his historical particularity has been all but dissolved in the solvents of archetypal and metaphysical conception: he is, already at the end of the first century, the pre-existent Logos, cosmogonic Nous, universal Redeemer, mediating God-man. The entire pre-Christian, Ancient Near Eastern, Hellenistic, and Gnostic theological and philosophical legacy attaches itself to Jesus and transforms him into a larger than life, collective figure who has no more need of historicity. Indeed, the historical Jesus is so peremptorily and completely absorbed into the circumambient religious and philosophical atmosphere of the ancient Graeco-Roman world that he effectively disappears without a trace.

 

The birth of the God-man in Bethlehem was an event with which the entire ancient world had been pregnant since the dawn of civilization. The obscure rabbi whose career lasted for perhaps a year before it came to a tragic end must have staggered beneath the burden of mankind’s conscious and unconscious expectations, no less than he staggered beneath the burden of the Cross. His was both a New Birth and an old one, as those same religious expectations had already been at least partially projected upon, or had moulded out of the raw clay, any number of mythological redeemer-figures throughout pagan antiquity, whose imprint on the developing Christology is unmistakable.

At every stage, the life of the biblical Christ is bent and stretched to the archetypal pattern of the ubiquitous hero myth, whose main elements are well-known: supernatural birth of a divine Father and a mortal mother; improbably humble origins; threat of infanticide; flight into exile; precocious development; miraculous deeds; anagnorisis of his hidden divine origins; tragic death by dismemberment; descent into the underworld, resurrection, and reclamation of his kingdom. All of these age-old and pre-formed motives were inevitably projected into the vita Christi just as they had been projected into the mythic narratives of Zeus, Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, Oedipus, Dionysus, Asclepius, Romulus, Sargon of Akkad, Osiris, Tammuz, Attis, Joseph, and Moses, to name a few.

When surveyed from the distances sufficient to the perspectives of theology, the entire Judaeo-Christian istoria reveals a system of natural and cosmological imagery and a mythological structure that were so long ago absorbed into the biblical tradition that the familiar formulas ventilated by critics and historians to explain their precise cultural-historical relation (“borrowings” or “assimilations”, “harmonizations”, “adaptations”, “Christianizations”, etc.) seem wholly inadequate.

 

The Christian salvation history tells the story of a Saviour who died the victim of an Enemy who appears to have represented an antagonistic Principle of darkness, wintry sterility, and death; thus he was cut down and dismembered on the Cross like a harvest Tammuz (whence in ongoing sacramental devotions, his people consumed his blood and broken body that they might commune with him in immortality). When he descended into Hell, during his absence from the upper world, the entire earth was darkened, even as Nature was said to lament the disappearance of the ancient year-god and abstain from her joyful duties. In the underworld Christ slew his Enemy in the form of a malevolent sea-monster, and rescued his subjects from captivity in its belly; then he arose from the grave and ascended into heaven, where, following a sacred marriage with a royal princess, the Son of God and his mother-spouse assumed their place as King and Queen upon a throne that had been usurped, for a time, by a pretender. By means of his triumphant springtime resurrection, Christ the Sun of Righteousness, the eternally rising Oriens, the Fruit of the Living Tree, the Bread of Life, and True Vine, redeemed an exhausted and dying moral and social order, and converted a barren wasteland into an eternally verdant Paradise, restoring the world to the state of its pre-historical beginnings.

No one can fail to decipher in this outline of biblical history a theme of universal dispersion. Whether defined as “the myth of the hero” or the “seasonal pattern”, the archetypal schema according to which the parallel narratives and rituals of the various redeemer-gods of antiquity were ubiquitously organized seems to have been wholly re-constellated, along with its ingredient images and symbols, in the historical life, liturgy, and sacraments of the Christian God.

*****

II

Historical Man, Universal God

Through these symbols, the earliest Christians encountered in Christ both a God of history and a God of myth: a Redeemer revealed in the unique events of historical time, and (as One who was born upon the winter solstice and reborn on the vernal equinox), a God of nature and the revolving seasons as well. Such primordial associations with the eternal year effectively abstracted Him from His own local, unique, and unrepeatable history, and exalted Him onto the universal plane of mythopoeia. As Jung has contended, this is the essential meaning of the archetype of the God-man, and of the mystery of the Cross, at the intersection of whose vertical and horizontal axes the universal and particular, eternal and temporal dimensions of the Godhead, and therefore of reality itself, collide.

As a personage of Israelite history, Jesus set himself in opposition to the old numens of myth and the cyclical consolations of nature. Yet the Church has unconsciously preserved the traditional narrative and ritual forms commemorative of these ancient mythic and natural themes.

Over the centuries, Christians have seen in Jesus’ Crucifixion an iconic echo of the sparagmos or dismemberment of the ancient year-god by his death-dealing Enemy, or a recollection of his harvest dramas, when the god’s corpse lay strewn on the threshing floor. Christian poets and homilists have described the Maries mourning Jesus during their Easter vigil in the same manner in which the female votaries of Tammuz, miming the bereavement of Ishtar, wailed their annual ritual lamentations as they searched for the departed god. Christian artists have treated Christ’s Harrowing of Hell as the eleemosynary gesture of another Tammuz, Osiris, Theseus, Hercules, or Orpheus; and between the Sun of Justice’ emergence reborn from the belly of an infernal maritime dragon and the night-sea journeys through the viscera of Apophis or Tiamat prosecuted by the sun-gods Re, Horus, and Markuk, their depictions have recorded little iconographical difference.

By means of such mythic resonances Christians have preserved the balance between the concept of Jesus as historical man (Galilean preacher of first-century Palestine), and Jesus as Universal God, an incarnation, localized in time and place, of a Deity who has reigned in all places and all times. While in deference to Jesus’ own historical example, the Church has formally given preference to doctrines and rituals that were inherited from Judaism rather than paganism, yet having detached herself from the old Mosaic Law and the national-historical aspirations of Jewish messianism, she has moved steadily towards the assumption of all the timeless, meta-historical symbols and sanctities of traditional Gentile religion.

When the Emperor Zeno rededicated the Temple of Rhea at Byzantium to the Virgin Mary, it was but a step towards her elevation from the merely human character of the Gospels to the age-old Universal Mother in whom, as the poet and classicist Robert Graves has said, all the ancient titles and attributes of the pagan Virgin Goddess were finally restored. Zeno’s concession eventually gave rise to the Mariolatry of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and culminated in the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption in the twentieth. Such a dogma, in effect, merely acknowledged, in the words Graves, that “educated Catholics do in practice avert their eyes from the historical Jesus and Mary and fix them devoutly on the [universal] Christ and the Blessed Virgin”. Accordingly, as eternal female and male principles, in their mythological guises of Earth and Heaven, Moon and Sun, Heavenly Queen and King, lamenting mother-spouse and dying son-lover, tree and fruit, Mary and Christ have never ceased to be venerated in Christian piety, mysticism, literature, and art down through the ages.

 

The Christian Polemic Against Myth

It need hardly be said that a re-valuation of the vita Christi as myth–or perhaps I should call it a reclamation of the original mythic Christ–would entail a radical transformation of Christianity as it is now understood and practised, and thus run up against enormous inertial forces. That much at least is clear to me from the nervous disavowals I hear in Church every Christmas morning as the priest intones the same sermon year after year: Today, begins his annual homiletic scolding, we are celebrating the birth of the Son of God in history. We are not commemorating a myth, like those idle fables rehearsed in pagan antiquity of divine births that never happened in the real world but only in the mind. We are commemorating an historically true and actual event. We are commemorating a Truth that is unprecedented, unique, and final.

He is right, of course, in one sense: an insistence upon historicity as the primordial authenticating datum of Christianity is tantamount to an insistence upon the exclusivity and finality of its revealed truths. The biblical-historical event occurs uniquely in time and place. It occurs once and for all, and any who do not assent to its truth are outside of the Christian communion. The mythic fiction, on the other hand, is indiscriminately disseminated and universally accessible, to anyone, everywhere, and always. It is eternally recurrent, to use Eliade’s formula, although “only in the mind”. But then this is a curious “only”, coming as it does from a Christian faith that purports to value the invisible things of God and the soul above the mutable and transient phenomena of the material world.

Besides this minor ontological solecism, the besetting problem, however, is that the modern educated intelligence can no more accept the exclusivity and finality of the Christian revelation than it can accept its historicity. I wish I possessed the searing eloquence of Simone Weil, the great French mystic and philosopher, in answering the finalistic certitudes of my annual Christmas homilist. In a “Letter to a Priest” published in the early 1940s, I believe, she enumerated those opinions which she said had debarred her from the sacrament of baptism and entry into the Church. Here are some excerpts from this remarkable meditation:

…we do not know for certain that there have not been incarnations previous to that of Jesus, and that Osiris in Egypt, Krishna in India, were not of that number.

***

If Osiris is not a man having lived on earth while remaining God, in the same way as Christ, then at any rate the story of Osiris is a prophecy infinitely clearer, more complete and closer to the truth than everything which goes by that name in the Old Testament. The same applies to other gods that have died and returned to life.

***

And the same applies in the case of Prometheus. The story of Prometheus is the very story of Christ projected into the eternal. All that is wanting is its localization in time and space.

***

I also think that Hestia, Athene, and possibly Hephaestus are names for the Holy Spirit. Hestia is the central Fire. Athene came forth from the head of Zeus after the latter had devoured his wife, Wisdom, who was pregnant; she ‘proceeds’, therefore, from God and his Wisdom. Her emblem is the olive, and oil, in the Christian sacraments, is symbolically connected with the Holy Spirit.

***

Fire is constantly the symbol of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

The Stoics, heirs of Heraclitus, named pneuma the fire whose energy sustains the order of the world. Pneuma, that is fiery breath.

Heraclitus recognized a Trinity….The Persons are: Zeus, the Logos, and the divine Fire.

St John, in making use of the words Logos and Pneuma, indicated the profound relationship existing between Greek Stoicism and Christianity.

***

Plato also clearly recognized…and pointed to the dogmas of the Trinity, Mediation, the Incarnation, the Passion, and to the notions of grace and salvation through love.

It is worth noticing that the moment Christ was crucified, the sun was in the constellation of the Ram.

Plato, in Timaeus, describes the astronomical constitution of the universe as a sort of crucifixion of the Soul of the World, the point of intersection being the equinoctial point, that is to say, the constellation of the Ram.

***

The words: “Except a corn of wheat die” express Christ’s affinity to the dead and resuscitated divinities which were represented by vegetation, such as Attis and Proserpina.

***

The motherhood of the Virgin has mysterious connections with some words in Plato’s Timaeus concerning a certain essence, mother of all things, and forever intact. All the mother Goddesses of antiquity, like Demeter, Isis, Artemis, were figures of the Virgin.

***

Baptism regarded as a death is the equivalent of the ancient initiations…The use of the word “mysteries” to designate the sacraments points to the same equivalence. The circular font strongly resembles the stone basin in which, according to Herodotus, the mystery of Osiris’ passion was celebrated. They both represent perhaps the open sea, that open sea on which Noah’s ark and that of Osiris, wooden structures which saved humanity before the one of the Cross.

***

The ceremonies of the Eleusinian mysteries and those of Osiris were regarded as sacraments in the sense in which we understand that term today. And it may be that they were real sacraments, possessing the same virtue as baptism or the eucharist, and deriving that virtue from the same relation with Christ’s Passion. That Passion was then to come. Today it is past. Past and future are symmetrical. Chronology cannot play a decisive role in a relationship between God and man, a relationship one of the terms of which is eternal.

Simone Weil here anatomizes the chronic infirmity of faith in a remote and external historical event. Does the modern man really believe that Christ’s once-and-for-all death on the Cross two thousand years ago has saved him? Does he feel saved, now, today?

Writing at about the same time as Weil, Jung animadverted on the pitiable impotence of a God who is thus bound and fettered to the unique and unrepeatable historical moment. “And it is to this powerless God that a Christian is supposed to pray for salvation from bodily and spiritual want? God cannot lift a finger, for he exists only historically, in tradition, and in a strictly limited sense. The French could just as easily, and with just as little success, importune Charlemagne to inflict a great defeat on the wretched Germans and liberate Alsace-Lorraine.”

 “One nature but many names”

It may be either alarming or reassuring to Christians to know that Simone Weil’s twentieth century speculation that there may have been other genuine incarnations of God before Christ and may well be further incarnations after him–that the variously named pagan deities are merely parallel intimations of and designations for the same God–is an ancient and universal intuition of the religious imagination.

Recognizing that the One God can only be revealed through the many, but that no single revelation could express the transcendent totality of His Being, the second-century Middle Platonist philosopher Maximus of Tyre was moved to make the case for an enlightened form of “idolatry” (all the more significant because the veneration of temple images was the arch-sin of both Judaism and primitive Christianity):

God Himself, the Father and Creator of all that is, is older than the Sun or the heavens, greater than time and eternity and all the whole flux of being, is unnamable by any lawgiver, unutterable by any voice, not to be seen by any eye. But we, being unable to apprehend His essence, seek the support of sounds and names and images and creatures, of shapes in gold and ivory and silver, yearning for the knowledge of Him, but in our weakness forced to name His divine Nature after the merely terrestrial beauties of the world…Why should I pass judgment against the use of images. Let men strive to know what is the essential nature of the Divine (to theion genos); let them know. If it is the art of Phidias that arouses recollections of God for the Greeks, while for the Egyptians it is the worship of animals, or for another man it is a river, another fire, I have no objection to such diversities. Let them only know God, let them love and remember Him. (Or. II, 10)

Maximus presents an eloquent brief for a multiplicity of iconographical and revelatory forms, as the plenary instrument of a universal religion. The divergences of local cult and imagery, according to Maximus, betray only the limitations of the human understanding, and the inadequacy of human speech. Properly comprehended they serve to fire their devout to the remembrance of the unitary, transcultural essence of God (to theion genos), who is “older” and “greater” than all of His many local signs and manifestations.

Cultic multiplicity and difference, in mythic theology, do not therefore imply competition and exclusivity of truth; quite the opposite. Thus we observe, most famously in Plutarch, that peculiarly late-antique character: the spiritually omnivorous worshipper. Like Plutarch, who might attend the mystic rites of Isis on Monday and Demeter on Tuesday (in the knowledge that they were merely regional versions of the same Mystery), the second-century Middle Platonist Apuleius was proud of his membership in a multiplicity of cults. “I have been initiated into many sacred mysteries in Greece…moved by religious fervour and a zeal to know the truth, I have learned mysteries upon mysteries, rites beyond number, and a great diversity of ceremonies.”

In short, the mythic theologians of late antiquity regarded the diverse names, cults, and sacred legends of the many gods as only relative symbols of a universal and transcendent Reality. In the useful formulation of Maximus of Tyre, the Divine has “one nature but many names”. For the initiates of the countless dying and reviving gods of the late-antique world, competitive claims to exclusive or absolute Truth were dissolved in the awareness that the local deities were only finite representations of the Infinite, and that, besides, there were overwhelming narrative, imagistic, and allegorical symmetries that assimilated their myths and liturgies. Thus, as opposed to identifying any one regional or ethnic divinity with the Divine itself, what we observe is the ubiquitous late-antique velleity to identify the different gods with each other “syncretistically”, and to relativize them all as merely local representations or epiphanies of the Absolute.

 

Nor was this an exclusively pagan intuition. The second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr could not help but be struck by the comprehensive analogy between pagan mythology and the Christian istoria, which he explained by recourse to a widespread Stoic doctrine of innate and common religious conceptions implanted by the Logos spermatikos in the rational depths of all men.

Clement of Alexandria likewise granted to the pagan worthies the dignity of their own unmediated encounter with the Divine. The scriptural and mythological traditions are in his view separate but parallel channels issuing from a single reservoir of wisdom, vouchsafed simultaneously to the Hebrews and Greeks, and then translated by the Prophets and poets into images “appropriate” to each nation. The Jewish Prophets, Egyptian priests, Chaldaean astronomers, Perisan Magi, Indian Gymnosophists, and Greek poets) all suffered the afflatus of the Word, and it is the same Word that has recently become flesh. In each case, the Word was proclaimed in a different religious dialect, but the underlying theology remained the same. And if the Word is to be heard in the Greek world, it must doff its Semitic guise and put on a Hellenistic guise; it must speak the language of Plato and Homer.

With his theory of the adaptations of the Logos, Clement effectively assimilated and relativized the Godhead’s Jewish, Near Eastern, Greek, and Christian cultural forms, in the same way, that is, as the ancient mythic theologians had assimilated and relativized the diverse names, images, rituals, and sacred legends of the many gods as the regional manifestations and accommodationist symbols of the Universal God.

 

 Beyond the Categories

      As Joseph Campbell has argued, it is the function of myth to humiliate its own confident assertions, to point beyond its inevitably local, particular, temporal iconology to some unspecific and unmanifest Source or Ground of Being:

The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump–by analogy. Forms and conceptions that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond. And then, the conditions for meditation having been provided, the individual is left alone. Myth is but the penultimate; the ultimate is openness–that void, or being, beyond the categories–into which the mind must plunge alone and be dissolved. Therefore, God and the gods are only convenient means–themselves of the nature of the world of names and forms, though eloquent of, and ultimately, conducive to, the ineffable. They are mere symbols to move and awaken the mind, and to call it past themselves.

Though, according to Campbell, the “recognition of the merely secondary nature of the personality of whatever deity is worshipped” is characteristic of “most of the traditions” of the world, in the biblical religions, “the personality of the divinity is taught to be final”–thereby impeding rather than facilitating any passage beyond the local-cultural names and forms of the Godhead. That the particular local incarnation is complete and identical with the Absolute is, indeed, the salient meaning of the Christian historical belief in the Word that took flesh (the only True God and Saviour of mankind, who appeared to men but once, in Roman Palestine, under the governorship of Quirinius). Founded on a supposedly novel, unique, and spontaneous sequence of actual historical events, the Christian evangelium announced a new and utterly final truth to the world.

What then is left to the Christian who has lost his faith in the exclusive veracity and soteriological efficacy of the unique historical revelation? There is always–and the operative word is “always”–the unio mystica: that wholly open-ended revelation of God by means of the individual soul’s unmediated encounter with and transformative possession by the Holy Spirit.

Of course, like faith itself, the unio mystica unfortunately cannot be compelled. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth; and if it bloweth in our direction, it does so as a spontaneous gift of grace. I suppose there are methods of making the soul more receptive to the Spirit’s afflatus At least, the early Christian and medieval mystics thought so. But I know of few people today who can spend weeks on end perched atop a pole in the Egyptian desert.

We are left, in the end, it seems to me, with the symbols: left to study them, to try to comprehend them, to contemplate them, to stare at them, to venerate them if one is so inclined, as a means of approach to the Unknown God. A symbolic or mythological approach to Christianity would certainly be subversive of its sectarian certitudes. But then it’s already too late to worry about that.

In any case, it is not clear to me why the truth of Christianity should not be amplified rather than diminished through the acknowledgement of its archetypal character and transcultural affiliations, and that the meaning and soteriological efficacy of Christian dogmas and symbols might not be enhanced by means of a resonant reconnection with their common psychic ground and mythic background.

By recognizing the symbolic and mythological irradiations and meanings of Christian statements, such as can no longer be metabolized as literal truths anyway, we might at last get beyond the “sacrosanct unintelligibility” in which so many Church dogmas seem almost deliberately to be shrouded. Nor do I mean to suggest this as a merely intellectual or academic exercise. As the psychic deposits of millennia of human religious experience, mythic images are already freighted with meaning and charged with emotion.

As Campbell suggests, and as the ancients believed, the symbols are the steppingstones by which the mind can move out of itself into the sphere of the Divine. In the conscious and unconscious encounter with the eternally recurrent archetypes, whose timelessness and ubiquity transcend every locally and historically circumscribed revelation, the spirit confronts that a-temporal and universal dimension of the Divine which has been, for almost every age and people, the ultimate goal of the religious quest.

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  1. Joseph Campbell’s conclusion – and yours – is so amply reflected in the famous Gospel message of Saint John where he describes this innate light, “the true Light which enlightens every human that comes into this world”. Of course, Saint John is the witness” to the Light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” We all know he is referring to Jesus Christ, only son of God, who is not only the Light of men but the Word made flesh. You might say with Campbell that with that innate Light we confront that universal dimension of the Divine which is our ultimate goal of religious quest. For the Christian, this quest is Christ, “only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. Christ, the Word made flesh, is the source of life on earth, the light in the darkness of psychic deposits and of man-made, circumscibed revelation. Christ embodies the ultimate source of eternal love and life and provides the answer to the mystery and mythology.

    Thank you, Harley Price, for this stimulating essay on the myth and mystery of Christian faith.

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