I saw a comic strip on Easter Sunday, 2007, of a little girl sitting in church, squirming and obviously bored by a theologically esoteric sermon. In the last frame she looks up at her daddy and asks, ‘When does he get to the part where Jesus meets the Easter Bunny?”
This can be seen in many ways, two of which might be:
1. A poke at the secularization of Easter where the historical Jesus is all but forgotten.
2. A child’s detachment from organized religion and attachment to the fun of a fictional Easter Bunny.
MYTH, THE THIRD WAY BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION
When I read the comic, I saw the importance of myth, and the neglect of it in our culture. For me, Jesus and the Easter Bunny stood for two prominent points of view in this culture regarding religion and spirituality. One view sees Easter and Jesus as a Fact of History, the other sees Easter as Fictional Fun. Fact and Fiction, those are the two choices most of us are given. You either believe the traditional dogma, or you don't. I see a third option, but first, what are the Fact and Fiction options?
FACT: DATELINE MEETS JESUS
This side is presented by those we often call Orthodox Christians, including Catholics, Evangelicals and others like them. They are adamant that Jesus was a historical figure, that his crucifixion and resurrection were literal, observable, reportable events.
When I was in seminary, I held this position. I studied apologetics, a discipline that attempts to give reasonable and rational answers to the tough questions about the historicity of the Christian message. I had some very intelligent instructors who gave evidences and arguments to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus not only existed, but that his death, resurrection and ascension could have been observed and reported by a Dateline or 20/20 correspondent. These folks are almost frantic to compete in the arena of secular rationalism, using the human brain and empirical criteria to validate the Christian gospel as credible, historical fact.
FICTION: JESUS NEVER EXISTED!
These skeptical folks marshal evidence to demonstrate that an empirical validation of Christian miracles is ludicrous. It is not my intention here to examine the two positions. For that I suggest you read Hume and other skeptics, and then read C.S. Lewis, John Warwick Montgomery and others like them for the Christian side.
I AM NEITHER A BELIEVER NOR A SKEPTIC, AND YET I AM BOTH
My purpose here is to state that I have read deeply on both sides and have found the strictly rational evidence to be a best inconclusive and psychologically irrelevant. Now that will sound horrifying to my Christian friends and perhaps evasive to my skeptical friends. But the truth is that I can find pretty good reasonable points on both sides. But neither is intellectually compelling or psychologically satisfying. I have held both positions very dogmatically at various points in my life. I was once an uncompromising Evangelical apologist bent on proving that Jesus rose from the dead. I had a list of twelve arguments, ranging from an inexplicable empty tomb to the radical conversion of the Christian-hating Saul of Tarsus who became the Christ-loving Apostle Paul. I then found those arguments to be only rationally probable to a degree, and offset by the fact that dead men don’t typically come back to life, and that many other religious traditions have miracle claims validated by dozens of eyewitnesses.
Today I find little psychological or spiritual satisfaction from either point of view. Both of these sides assume that the human brain can penetrate psychic phenomena and posit true or false statements about events that transcend rational inquiry. The so called gospel is a psychological experience that contains elements of fact and fiction, like falling in love. That is what myth is, a little fact and a little fiction and whole lot more of something else.
Unfortunately, the term ‘myth’ has come to stand for fiction in our culture, so to talk of myth often loses many readers to prejudice. Most humans assume they have only two choices, fact or fiction (myth). But we have more than two choices, and we do not need to choose between historical fact and historical fiction.
I like the example of falling in love as similar to myth. When you meet someone and have the experience of ‘falling in love’, and notice that I said experience, there is a curious amalgam of fact and fiction. The object of your love actually exists in some form as fact, but the object you fall in love with exists only in your personal psyche. When you try to tell parents, friends and others about the object of your inexplicable bliss, they see only a body or some emails from that person. Most of us have been met with blank stares when we share our experience of the ‘dreamy’ other, because that other is a myth, existing only in the fantasy of our imagination. It may puzzle us that others can’t see what we feel since our very real lover is in the flesh, has a face and voice. Some may even try to talk us out of the infatuation as they see flaws and behaviors that we cannot in the other. Yet some will see something of the ‘dreamy’ side of the wondrous other and understand to some extent your mythical obsession. But none will get it like you do at the psychic or soul level – that is myth. It attempts to articulate what is experienced, felt, encountered at the soulful level. It is more than just emotion, but it includes emotion. It is acquaintance, intimacy and awareness beyond mere facts - yet the experience is not fictional. It is very real.
The word ‘myth’ is derived from the same word as ‘mute’. Mute means to be silent. Myth is in an attempt to tell what cannot be told. Myth and mute are related because both recognize the limitations of mere logic and language. It is beyond reason, beyond words and beyond empirical observation or literal explanation. But that does not make it false or fictional.
Another example comes from our dreams. Are they fact or fiction? In some ways both, and yet neither – they are mythical. They actually occur. We awake with sometimes bizarre images and situations, sometimes embarrassing and often puzzling. The creatures and situations may include temporal and spatial impossibilities in waking life. Yet they are vividly real and psychically affective; that is, we not only feel them, but may be deeply impressed upon us and we may be deeply affected by them. They can guide or haunt us for hours, days or years. We may have physical symptoms, ranging from erotic to erratic. Few would try to argue that dreams are fact or fiction, but somewhere in between.
This third way of myth is sometimes illustrated in what has come to be called the mandorla. The word ‘mandorla’ is Latin and means almond. It is the almond shape we observe when two circles overlap.
Many religious traditions use this symbol to portray experiences and significances beyond the two usual circles of fact and fiction. It might be the Buddha or the Christ in the mandorla, those psychic experiences that transcend human reason or human non-reason. Literalists, both orthodox and skeptical, get stuck in one circle or the other and seem to be incapable of seeing that there may be states of reality, or psycho-spiritual experiences beyond either fact or fiction. This middle ground is called ‘myth’. Is it true? Yes. Is it false? Yes. And it is something more.
Sometimes the mythical symbol shows up as a door. A door is neither the inside (fact) nor outside (fiction) of the dwelling, but in between the two (myth). Like a mandorla, the door navigates between and through realms. It is the third way, the empty space, the invisible portal. The author of John’s Gospel called Jesus a door and a gate.
MYTH IS A LIE THAT TELLS THE TRUTH
Picasso realized this when he said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” A piece of affective art can transform a mere objective fact into a powerful experience with odd lines and exaggerated colors. Poetry and music do this. We have these mediums because rational facts and fictions are too limited to speak to psyche.
Did Jesus rise form the dead? Let’s assume there was a reporter present at Jesus’ resurrection, Geraldo Rivera with a microphone and camera standing next to Jesus' corpse in the tomb. Let’s suppose there was a flash of blinding light, that the burial shroud collapsed like a deflating balloon and that Jesus stood next to the reporter in a glowing body. Let’s imagine that the reporter shoved his microphone under Jesus’ nose and asked, “Wow, what was that?” Let’s imagine Jesus saying, “That was a resurrection. God raised me from the dead. I just got rid of the sins of the human race and am now about to ascend to God in Heaven.” At this point Jesus exits the tomb, begins to rise off of the ground like a soap bubble and disappears into the clouds. Now what?
We have our empirical event. We have a verifiable resurrection. So what?
MOST THEOLOGY IS REALLY MYTHOLOGY
Let’s suppose Geraldo shows the world what he caught on video and audio tape. The whole word sees the flash of light, the empty shroud, the living Jesus and the ascension into the sky. Now what? Can we factually prove what it all means?
I am not denying that ‘something’ takes place when the death and resurrection of Jesus are discussed. I am not denying that countless millions have had life altering experiences in the name of Jesus of Christ. Clearly, many have and many still do have such experiences when they encounter the gospel. But to be fair, many do not. Something happens to some people through this story. Other people have similar experiences through other stories - Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Scientology, T.M. or L.S.D. Not all of these experiences are identical and some seem to be more beneficial than others, but the gospel is not the only means of psychic experience and spiritual insight.
To speak objectively, we must admit that there is a phenomenon of conversion or spiritual awakening that may arrive through Christ. I speak as one who had such an encounter. At the age of twenty, I read through the gospel of Matthew and felt compelled to ‘believe’. I underwent a psychic shift that I was not consciously seeking. It altered my mind and life course radically. I went from being an aimless, academically impoverished college student to an almost straight ‘A’ student overnight. My values changed, my emotions changed, my behavior changed. Something happened.
Like most humans, I immediately tried to explain the event. With the help of a fundamentalist pastor and Christian college, I adopted a theological structure that claimed to explain and contain the event and the experience I had undergone. As the years went by, I came to see that the psycho-spiritual experience was very real, but that most of the subsequent doctrinal explanations were human concoctions. I eventually left most of the Christian explanations, returned to the mystery and myth of psyche, and prefer the almond shaped middle space to being trapped inside the nutshell of Orthodox dogma.