One of the reasons I left the Mormon church was because I discovered that many of the historical claims the church made were not true. For example, one of the central organizing myths of Mormonism is the “Restoration”, which Mormons believe began with the “First Vision” of Joseph Smith. Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, at the age of 14, knelt down in a grove to ask God which of the churches is true and God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared as two separate beings and told him that none of the existing churches were true and that he would form a new church, the one and only true church. However, the official version of the First Vision told by the church today differs in important respects from the earliest account written by the hand of Joseph Smith. Specifically, this earliest account describes a more or less typical Christian experience of Joseph Smith praying for forgiveness of his sins and being told he was forgiven, with no mention of God the Father and no mention of other churches.
Needless to say, when I was still a Mormon, I found this disturbing, but I later came to understand that the First Vision, while based loosely on historical events, functions as a myth for Mormons. By “myth”, I don’t mean that it is false. Rather I mean that is a story by which Mormons organize their experience in a meaningful way. A myth may or not be historically accurate, but that’s not the point, as Karen Armstrong explains in A Short History of Myth:
“Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened. But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant. A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”
The First Vision myth serves as a model for every Mormon. Every person who investigates the church is explicitly invited to follow the example of Joseph Smith in the official version of the First Vision and ask God if the Mormon church is true. I think the First Vision myth is a good one in so far as it encourages those considering becoming Mormon to seek the truth for themselves by study and prayer. This can be quite empowering for people raised in other authoritarian religions.
On the other hand, I think the First Vision myth is problematic in so far as it paints the world in black and white and encourages dichotomous thinking about questions of truth. What does it mean if one receives divine confirmation that the Mormon church is “true”? Does it mean it is true for you or for everyone? Does it mean is always was and always will be true, or is just true in this moment? Does it mean that every claim the Church makes is historically accurate, or does it mean that it is “true” in the sense that it works? These questions are glossed over by the First Vision myth, which admits no such ambiguities.
We Pagans have our own myths too. I’m not referring mean the myths of ancient pagans, like the myths recorded in the Illiad or the Mabinogion or the Egyptian Book of the Dead. We may adopt those myths too, but we are mostly aware of them as myths. Few of us confuse those myths for history.
There are other Pagan myths, though, that have been confused with history. Take, for example, the myth of the Burning Times. Like the Mormon First Vision, it is based in historical fact, but has become mythical for us. And like the First Vision, the myth has both positive and negative aspects. For example, the Burning Times may be understood as a mythical expression of contemporary women’s experience of patriarchy, which can be empowering. On the other hand, the myth can create a victim mentality, which is not empowering.
Another important myth for many Pagans is the myth of matriarchal prehistory. Again, while it is based in some historical fact, this myth serves an important function as a myth. Though it is a story about the past, it can also be understood as a vision of a possible feminist future. It serves as a challenge to another myth, the myth of the inevitability of patriarchy. However, Cynthia Eller has argued that the myth may also perpetuate the same stereotypical notions of femininity that have always served as tools of sexist oppression.
There are other Pagan myths, which many of us don’t recognize as myths. There’s the myth of pagan survivals, the myth of Gaia … perhaps the very idea of contemporary Paganism is a myth. The point isn’t whether our myths are historically accurate or not. All of these myths have a certain connection to historical realities, but each has become mythological for us. And each of them perpetuates some healthy attitudes and some unhealthy ones.
The Trap of Literalism
So does it matter whether we take our myths literally? Does believing the official version of the First Vision make Mormons more prone to dichotomous thinking? Does a belief that 9 million women were killed during Burning Times make it any more likely to foster a victim mentality? Does a believing that ancient Crete was a matriarchal paradise make it more likely that we will fall into gender essentialism?
I think it does matter. Myths, as we have seen, can be good or bad. Often they are a mixture of both. And it seems to me that, when we confuse myth with history, we lose the critical frame of reference from which we can ask whether our myths are helpful or not. For example, if we believe that 9 million women were burned at the stake as witches, then we cease to see the Burning Times as a myth. When we lose sight of its mythic nature, then we fail to ask whether the myth is good for us. Likewise for the myth of matriarchal prehistory or the myth of pagan survivals or any other myths we are living by now.
When myths are confused with historical fact, when we take them literally, then they become sacrosanct. When our become insulated from critical scrutiny, then all historical inquiry comes to be seen as a threat to the legitimacy of our religion, and an anti-intellectual sentiment is fostered. Nietzsche described this process well:
“For it is the fate of every myth to creep by degrees into the narrow limits of some alleged historical reality, and to be treated by some later generation as a unique fact with historical claims. … For this is the way in which religions are wont to die out: under the stern, intelligent eyes of an orthodox dogmatism, the mythical premises of a religion are systematized as a sum total of historical events; one begins apprehensively to defend the credibility of the myths, while at the same time one opposes any continuation of their natural vitality and growth; the feeling for myth perishes, and its place is taken by the claim of religion to historical foundations.”
The Danger of Demythologization
So why not just do away with myth and stick to the historical facts? That was my though when I left the Mormon church. I thought, doesn’t the Mormon church — and all religions for that matter– just be “honest” about their foundation myths, to admit that they are not historical. (Incidentally, the Mormon church has recently been taking steps in this direction.) This “demythologization” is the course that much of mainline Protestant Christianity followed in the 20th century. But I think the decline of the mainline churches serves as a cautionary tale against such a course. Demythologized religion simply does not inspire the same devotion as religions which embrace their myths.
The fact is that we need myths. History can tell us what happened in the past. But myth tells us why it matters and how we, individually and collectively, fit in to the story. Carl Jung wrote that myths “are the psychic life of the primitive tribe, which immediately falls to pieces and decays when it loses its mythological heritage, like a man who has lost his soul. A tribe’s mythology is its living religion, whose loss is always and everywhere, even among the civilized, a moral catastrophe.” Nietzsche described a culture which has lost myth as
“a culture without any fixed and consecrated place of origin, condemned to exhaust all possibilities and feed miserably and parasitically on every culture under the sun. … What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home … And who would care to offer further nourishment to a culture which, no matter how much it consumes, remains insatiable and which converts the strongest and most wholesome food into ‘history’ and ‘criticism’?”
I think this describes our secularized society pretty well.
In a way, demythologization actually makes the same basic mistake as the literalism which it means to correct. Both confuse myth with history. Literalism mistakes myth for good history and accepts it uncritically. Demythologization mistakes myth for bad history and dismisses it entirely.
Believing in Our Myths, Without Believing Them
The question shouldn’t be whether the Burning Times really happened or whether there actually was a Neolithic matriarchal paradise. Rather, we should be asking what meaning do these stories have for us now. How do they situate us in the cosmic drama? How do they inspire us? How do they transform us?
I think we need to find a way to live mythically, without taking our myths literally — to believe our myths, without believing in them. We need our myths to live by, but we also need to be conscious that we have a choice of which myths to live by. Not all myths are equal. And we really could use some good myths nowadays, as Karen Armstrong writes:
“We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource.’ This is crucial, because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.”
Believing in Our Gods, Without Believing They Exist?
I think we sometimes make the same mistakes when talking about gods as we do when talking about myths.
On the one hand, there are literalists who believe their gods exist. In some ways, believing in the literal existence of gods may be analogous to believing that a myth is historical. Maybe the gods exist, maybe they don’t; but it’s really the wrong question. And if we get hung up on the question of whether the gods literally exist, then we may be less likely to ask the next question: whether we should be worshiping them. Just as there are good myths and bad myths, there must be good gods and bad gods too — or gods who are healthy for us to worship and gods who are not healthy for us to worship. And focusing on the existence of the gods may cause us to lose sight of the question whether our gods are even worthy of worship, even if they do exist.
Fortunately, I think polytheists have a leg up over monotheists in this regard. If you’re a polytheist, believing in the existence of a god doesn’t mean you choose to worship that god. For a polytheist, there’s plenty of gods to choose from, and no one could worship them all anyway. But many polytheists do believe they were chosen by their gods. Perhaps the gods do choose us, but surely we have to choose them back. We always have a choice of who or what to worship. And whatever the nature of the gods, we need to choose wisely. We need to adopt a perspective which enables us to critically examine that choice.
On the other hand, I think those who want to do away with gods make the same mistake as those who want do away with myth. Just as the question of the historicity of myth is the wrong question, I think the question of the existence of the gods is the wrong question. When some asks whether the gods “exist”, often it is implied that only what is objective is meaningful. But this is a false assumption, and one that leads to a disenchanted world. (It’s no coincidence that the word which English-speakers have translated as “disenchantment”, entgotterung, literally means “de-godding”.) Whether something objectively exists and whether it is meaningful are two different questions altogether. As Rhyd Wildermuth has written recently, “what something really is does not begin to describe what something means. Looking for the material being-ness of a thing, rather than its tapestry of meaning, is to destroy it.”
As I understand the nature of the gods, they belong to the realm of myth. Therefore, we cannot speak about them objectively, independently of our relationships with them. This is why they disappear from view when we start asking whether they objectively exist. So, rather than asking whether the gods “exist”, we should ask what the gods mean to us. What meaning do they bring to our lives? How do they cause us to relate differently to others, to the earth, and to ourselves? Do they help us lead richer, more meaningful lives? Do they motivate us to care for the earth and its human and other-than-human inhabitants? The answer will not be the same for all of us (and I’ve been wrong to imply otherwise in the past). But I think it is a question we need to keep asking ourselves.