One of the fun things about blogging is the fact that I’m always getting in trouble, one way or the other.
Here’s my latest infraction — on Thursday when I wrote about the Annunciation, I dared to say “Whether the Annunciation be a miracle or a myth, it’s a powerful story that is well worth our consideration.” This was too much for a reader named Andy who commented:
I’ve been following your blog with interest for a few weeks now, but I suppose I finally see I’m just in the wrong place when you feel the need to spoil an otherwise insightful and moving reflection on Mary’s Fiat with “Whether the Annunciation be a miracle or a myth…”
Another reader promptly came to my defense:
Andy, for those of us who struggle with what we’ve been taught to believe, Carl gives allowance for us in his inclusive language. If you believe Mary’s Fiat was miracle, then there is room for you. If I believe that it is a great and beautiful myth, there is also room for me here. And in the sharing we are both informed and informing.
For my part, I’m sorry that Andy decided my blog is “the wrong place” merely because I try to be honest about my own agnosis. Of course, this is his decision. But as an alternative to that type of decision, I hope that we can all learn, in Christ, to offer hospitality even to those who say or write something with which we strongly disagree. Not that we have to submit to their views; we can let their opinions be theirs and ours be ours. After all, Christ may have argued with the scribes and the Pharisees, but he also was willing to break bread with them.
The Zen master Hakuin said there are three qualities necessary for Zen: great faith, great doubt, and great perseverance. I think the same can be said for Christianity, at least for contemplative Christianity. I know that this flies in the face of the idea that faith is a gift from God, and so those of us who experience faith mingled with doubt are, somehow, inferior Christians. Maybe that’s so. But I cannot erase my doubt by merely wishing it away. I’d rather present myself honestly before God, doubts and all — and before Christ whom I believe is present in my neighbor — than to try to pretend to be something I’m not.
The funny thing is, to me the question of whether the Annunciation (or any of the other extraordinary stories in the Bible) is “myth” or “miracle” does not have to be an either/or question. Theologian Rudolf Bultmann argued for demythologizing the Bible, stripping away all the supernatural or trans-rational elements so that we can worship the unadorned Christ Crucified. Many progressive Christians today stand on Bultmann’s shoulders. But I don’t go so far as Bultmann and his followers, simply because I am just as doubtful that the mythic events recorded in scripture didn’t happen as I am honestly not sure that they did. In short, I simply do not know. To me, myth does not mean “untrue” but rather means “of a category that is different than what can be determined by empirical evidence.” That’s important, so I’ll say it again:
To me, myth does not mean “untrue” but rather means “of a category that is different than what can be determined by empirical evidence.”
With this is mind, it is possible that some myths are historical in an empirically “real” way, while others may be purely the product of spiritual imagination. The point behind a myth is that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the power and the truth of the myth exists independently of the historicity of the story. The first chapter of Genesis is not a manual of physics and biology, but it is a poetic and evocative statement of God as Creator. Nowadays most Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, accept the fact that a person can be a follower of Christ and yet believe that the Genesis creation story is an imaginal myth. I think someday this will extend to the other extraordinary stories in the Bible as well. But again, my point is not to suggest that all the extraordinary stories cannot be historical. I am simply saying that the point behind following Christ is not about the manner in which we do or don’t believe in the historicity of all Biblical events — last time I checked, following Christ is all about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Of course, when I wrote about the Annunciation in terms of whether it be “a miracle or a myth” it certainly looked like I’m suggesting that myth and miracle are mutually exclusive, and for that I apologize. That, in fact, may be ultimately what angered Andy. Perhaps I should have simply said “No matter how we understand the Annunciation, it’s a powerful story…” and left it at that. After all, I may be a “holy agnostic,” but I do believe in miracles. It’s just that I anchor that belief in something other than unquestioning assent; nor does my openness to miracles require a literal reading of scripture. Maybe some will judge me for this. But like I said, I’d rather be honest than pretend to be something I’m not.