In response to my review of Avatar, here’s what a reader named Michael asked me:
I read your article on the movie “Avatar.” You wrote that grace is one of the best elements of Christianity. That statement led me to wonder whether you view the life and death of Jesus as an actual historical event or if you see it more as metaphor for love, sacrifice, etc? I grew up in a very conservative, evangelical denomination, who would I think say that Jesus is the best element of Christianity.
This is something which I struggle over: is the atoning work of Jesus an actual event or is it a metaphorical story meant to direct me to God and to grace?
I know that is a big question. Thank you for any feedback you can give me!
First of all, I certainly hope that no one is going to take potshots at me because I talked about grace but not Jesus in my review. I do know there are some Christians who love nothing more than to point out how other Christians are wrong. I’m not accusing Michael of doing this, but he suggests that the church he grew up in had that kind of culture. And I’ve known churches, and individual Christians, like that as well. Let’s just say for the record that my describing “grace” as characterizing “the best elements in Christianity” was not meant to slight Jesus in any way. In fact, I would trust Jesus to understand that I was writing lyrically and poetically, and not trying to make a hard and fast doctrinal statement.
Now, on to the heart of Michael’s question: “Is the atoning work of Jesus an actual event or is it a metaphorical story meant to direct me to God and to grace?” Forgive me for copping out here, but I simply don’t know. I don’t believe anyone knows. This is the frontier of faith, and we each must decide just where our Kierkegaardian leap will take us. For many people, the leap of faith to believing in the historicity of the Gospel story is both possible and deeply, spiritually satisfying. For many others, that kind of a leap is not possible — but choosing to believe in the story on a metaphorical or mythic level is.
As I said above, many Christians like to point out how other Christians are wrong. So it is certainly tempting for the literalists to attack the mythicists, and vice versa. Meanwhile, as long as we spend time arguing over this, the hungry remain unfed, the naked unclothed, the homeless unsheltered.
I admire those who can with simplicity of faith simply assent to the Christ story on an “eggs-is-eggs” literal level. I am not one of them. It would be wrong for me to simply pretend to be someone who I am not. Likewise, I admire those who have such keen intellects that they are able to parse out the many philosophical, epistemological, and hermeneutical issues that surround the question of faith in the Christ story. Likewise, I am not one of them either (I am a bear of little brain). Again, it would be wrong for me to simply pretend to be someone who I am not.
So I am enough of a “questioner” to be unable to accept the simple, literal story at face value, but I lack the intellectual prowess to really understand all of the issues that scholars and philosophers and theologians have raised in response to the Christ story. So, what am I left with? I’m left with what I have called on this blog, “holy agnosis.” In other words, I am comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” I don’t know if the Christ story is historically true or not; I do believe that at this late date it is not historically verifiable, so I know that only by faith can anyone accept it as true. Likewise, I don’t know if the Christ story is only “true” on a mythic or metaphorical level. It seems to me that those who object to the mythical or metaphorical reading of the Christ story fall into two camps: those who reject Christianity altogether, and those who believe that if you do not accept the Gospel as literal, historical fact, then you cannot be a Christian. Since I am in neither of those camps, I am perfectly happy if people find faith and meaning through a mythical or metaphorical approach.
So I think, in all honesty, my holy agnosis leaves me somewhere in-between the literalists and the mythicists. While I cannot simply assent to the literal reading of scripture, intellectual honesty forbids me from saying it cannot be true. For all I know, it is. My faith simply hangs in the not-knowing. And in that not knowing, the mythic or metaphorical approach functions as something like a safety-net. If I hang my faith on Christ, for me this means that either Christ is truly resurrected in the flesh, or else the Christ story has powerful mythic meaning regardless of its historicity. When I hold both of these contingencies together, it is enough for me to say “yes” to the call to believe.
I know that this answer will not satisfy either the literalists or the atheists. What I think these categories of persons have in common is an idolatry of certitude. They all demand solid, unyielding answers. I believe that God in God’s wisdom has given us a gift far more precious than the “solid answer”: the gift of mystery. I’m sorry that this is so frustrating for those who idolize certitude. But it is what it is.