Concerning Myth and Miracles

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.

  • Melanie

    Thank you for the definition of “myth”…so much of our communication can be enhanced by understanding our definitions and this is one word that so easily divides people of faith. I also appreciate your willingness to be honest about your faith and doubt, not only with yourself and God, but with those with whom you share yourself. One of my fondest beliefs is that God already knows what we think, He’s just asking us to be honest with ourselves and others. Then we can grow.

  • http://wanderingtree.wordpress.com Greg

    I appreciate your comments, Carl, and those of Melanie as well. When I find myself struggling with the mythic element of our faith, I often look to the wisdom of J.R.R. Tolkien’s retort to a hestitant CS Lewis’ comment that “all myths are lies, though breathed through silver:” “No, Jack,” he said, “They are not.”

    That Lewis converted soon after this is enough for me to pause and consider Tolkien’s wisdom.

  • http://gmail Mary

    Are you ready to get into a little more trouble,-again?
    I could go along with all that was written, even the myth vs truth reality of the Annunciation. None of us were there. The written word has been revised and translated numerous times.
    Something that you wrote that struck a negative chord in me was when you wrote that Mary “surprised” God with her response. Maybe she pleased Him, but I can’t grasp that she surpised Him.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Of course, this whole idea of Mary “pleasing” or “surprising” God is based on an anthropomorphic understanding of God. Within that framework, I think we can agree that Mary’s fiat was totally free. If so, then it would have been, technically, a surprise to God — not a shock, and maybe not a particularly big or unexpected surprise, but still a surprise, borne of Mary’s free will. And, as you infer, we can trust that it was a pleasant surprise.

  • http://brazenbird.wordpress.com brazenbird

    I think I don’t write as much as I ought to (or want to) because I know I’m going to get “into trouble.” But lately I’m feeling more and more able to take a hit now and then; I don’t feel like it’s going to catapult me back to that place of anxiety ridden doubt. “What if they’re right?” was a question that used to plague me and keep me up at nights, usually after a moment of divine calm (whether a minute or a few days or a couple months). That hasn’t happened in a while I’m happy to say. I’m just in a different head space.

    And being in this different place also allows me to respond in a different way than I have in the past. Not always as graceful as I’d like to be for sure, but I’m a work in progress like any one else. You are an inspiration to write again, Carl and for that I thank you.

  • http://www.diamondsintheskywithlucy.blogspot.com lucy

    i’ve only recently started reading your blog (since your review of christine paintner’s book), but find your willingness to wade into the “unknowing” very refreshing. the tag line on my blog is “the more i learn, the less i know.” there’s so much more room in mystery! blessings.

  • Harmony Isle

    Thank you Carl for creating/acknowledging a Christan space for myth and agnosticism. Like one of my mentors, I view my experience of “being a Christian” as conscious, intentional participation in the Christian Myth, or experiencing deep meaning in the grand narrative of Christianity. As I am emerging from an atheist and secularly agnostic phase of my life, I come to the Eucharist table with beginner’s mind–the full meaning of the Eucharist is an utter mystery to me, but I have a humble experience of divine, unconditional love each time I show up.

    We have a saying in some scientific communities that “all theories/models are wrong; some are useful.” The same can be said of our religious/sacred understandings: we never have full understanding, so in some sense they are “wrong”– but our understandings can be useful (partially true). Certainty about the divine is akin to idolatry, as we are not capable through reason or experience of that certainty. We take ourselves and our understandings entirely too seriously. :-)

  • Ioannis

    My view is that truth meets us where we doubt the most. I suspect that truth meets people of faith in the frame of doubts about extraordinary or so-called miraculous events. Just the same, truth meets an empiricist in doubts that language concerning observed events can be meaningful. Therefore, truth never relents in breaking into our field of doubts, for the Truth would set us free from despair that, indeed, we might not be people of our words–either to act in faith or speak something that carries meaning.

    If anything might be stripped from us that would serve us in good stead, it would be despair about those dastardly and nagging trifles called doubts. For greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world.

  • Shadwynn

    I have always interpreted the “mythic” as that which is greater (or deeper) than mere facts and ultimately of archetypal significance. Given that definition, much of my spirituality is based upon the mythic.

    For those who have guilt complexes over your doubts, may I suggest Matthew 28:17: “When they saw him, they worshipped him, BUT SOME DOUBTED.” That, BTW, was a reference to the eleven disciples after the resurrection. You’re in good company…


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