Myth Become Fact

MARK LOWERY

One need not accept the historicity of the Gospels on blind faith. It is eminently reasonable to believe that in Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, the deepest yearnings of mankind, expressed in so many various mythological modes, have been fulfilled.

I distinctly remember a time as a young man when it occurred to me that Christianity, with its teachings about God becoming man, the Virginal Conception, and the Resurrection, might in fact be one more myth in a long line of ancient religious myths; that Jesus may have been quite an admirable and charismatic person (if a bit mixed up as such people often are) and that his followers gradually mythologized their dead hero. I asked myself, a bit proud of my intellect, whether a rational person could be expected to believe that a God came down from heaven, became incarnate, was born of a Virgin, rose from the dead and then ascended right back up into heaven again. Isn't this the very essence of myth? Who can be expected to take such mythological data as true?

To make matters worse, these thoughts occurred to me on the feast of Christmas, at Midnight Mass. I didn't quite know what to make of it, but it certainly was discomfiting. I imagined how easily the whole edifice of Catholicism would come crashing down. For if the Church had taught for centuries that these "myths" were historical facts, and if the Church were wrong, then the Church was wrong about lots of other things too, from her teachings on the afterlife to her teachings on morality, and right on down the line.

Lots and lots of people have had a similar experience. Reading and listening to thinkers such as Joseph Campbell — vis-ŕ-vis Bill Moyers — has only reinforced for them the possibility that Christianity is just another version of the ancient Roman, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Babylonian myths, a set of awesome stories that tell us a lot about the human condition, but still mythical for all that. And it hasn't helped young people much to have George Lucas come on the scene with his admittedly brilliant Stars Wars series, claiming that he thinks all religions are true, and that he is providing a new myth that will be of help in a modern technological age. Lucas is a great filmmaker but a bad philosopher.

Nor has the Jesus Seminar helped much. That's the group of "scholars" that gets a lot of publicity, usually around Christmas and Easter, for their "scientific" findings about the Gospels, namely, that only a tiny portion of the material therein is historically accurate. You guessed it — the Virginal Conception, the Resurrection, and of course Jesus' divinity are all mythological add-ons to the historical Jesus. While the Jesus Seminar claims objectivity, their conclusions represent instead very particular biases of the members, biases against the very possibility that God could have become man, died for our sins, and risen from the dead.

In the midst of such challenges, I myself was very lucky, or rather, very blessed. Fortunately, and providentially, a ready answer soon appeared, an answer that literally (no pun intended) turned upside down this argument about Christianity as a myth. The argument came from C.S. Lewis, in a brilliant little essay called "Myth Become Fact." Lewis opened up an entirely different possibility for me, based on two insights:

  1. All the myths of mankind's primitive religions were expressions of a deep yearning — the deepest yearning — in mankind's consciousness, namely that the mysterious transcendent God would come into intimate contact with mankind, and do so in such a way that He would repair the damages made by mankind's sinfulness, and would grant to mankind a safety that would last forever.

  2. Christianity, rather than being one myth alongside many others, is thus the fulfillment of all previous mythological religions. It is a myth, like the others, but this time a myth that is also a fact.

Here it is straight from the horse's mouth:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.1

As Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn (yes, the mastermind behind the new Catechism) has pointed out, Lewis himself as a young man had fallen into the trap of thinking Christianity just another myth. He had read J. G. Frazer's celebrated twelve-volume work on myth, The Golden Bough (1890-1915), and was intrigued by the many parallels in the history of religions to the idea of the "dying god."

In this view, the myths of Adonis and Osiris, for example, are only myths of natural growth. These figures, who died and rose again to renew the world and their followers, are symbols of the grain that dies, is buried, and rises up in a new harvest. The myths symbolically apply this natural process to human life: Man, too, must endure death in order to live again.

As a young man, Lewis concluded that the Gospel stories were simply another myth of natural growth. Jesus says the wheat must die to bear fruit; He breaks the bread (grain) and calls it His body; He dies and rises again. Thus He seems to be just another harvest-god symbolically offering his life for the world.

Yet a moment came in Lewis' life that "turned the tables" as it were on such reductionism. As he notes in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, one evening Lewis heard "the hardest boiled of all the atheists" he'd ever known make the startling observation that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was quite surprisingly good. The friend concluded: "All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once." The atheist was thus musing on the possibility that in the Gospel we could find, yes, all the old myths, but myths that really happened in history. This comment from such an unlikely source paved the way for

LEWIS'S CONVERSION! 2

Lewis had always been fascinated by myths, and in fact wrote some pretty good ones himself. Schoenborn describes what it was about myth that fascinated Lewis: [T]hey awaken in the reader a longing for something that is beyond his grasp. Myths have this fascination because they effect a catharsis, that is, they move us and purify us; thus they expand our consciousness, allowing us through them to transcend ourselves. So myths are not "poets' deceptions" (as Plato said in his Republic) nor demonic delusions (as many of the Church Fathers thought), nor clerical lies (as many Enlightenment figures asserted), but "Myth in general is . . . at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination."3

In sum, all of mankind's religious and philosophical yearnings partake in, have an inchoate share in, the truth of the Incarnation. The particularity of Christianity — namely, that it is the true religion — is no longer scandalous, but a beautiful mystery that extends universally, seeing reality whole. As someone once said to me, even if this viewpoint is not true, it certainly is beautiful. I think it beautiful and true.

This also accounts for all the vestiges of Christianity found in ancient philosophy. For example, the teachings of the neo-Platonists, as the young St. Augustine discovered on his path to conversion, had lots of hints of Christianity in them, especially the notion of the Logos (the Word). They had remarkable similarity to the writings of St. John, who would not have known those works. But as St. Augustine notes, they lacked the historical flavor of Christianity, particularly the fact of the Word becoming flesh.

Myth and Christianity are not, therefore, antagonistic to each other. Various myths exist either as anticipations of Christianity or as echoes of Christianity. It then makes perfect sense that Christianity took various pagan holidays and feast days and "borrowed" them, or rather purified them and infused them with deeper meaning, instead of rejecting them. Too often we try to "hide" the fact that Christmas is really a pagan holiday that Christians borrowed. This is something rather to be proud of.

Many Christians recently went to Rome for a Holy Year pilgrimage. One of the big sights is the Pantheon, one of the best-preserved buildings from Roman times. (If you don't remember, it's the ancient-looking place that has a big opening at the top of the dome.) It was built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 B.C. as a shrine dedicated to the planetary gods and as an imperial monument.

In A.D. 609 the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, who converted it into a Christian church. A famous legend tells us that Boniface had 28 cartloads of martyrs' bones brought to the Pantheon from Rome's various cemeteries — hence the Christian name of the Church, Santa Maria ad Martyres.

When you visit the Pantheon, the true relationship between myth and Christianity can really come alive. What is the relationship between all the gods and goddesses of antiquity, shrouded in myth, and Christianity? Christianity is myth become fact. The Pantheon-become-Church is a reminder of this fulfillment, and a reminder that all of mankind's religious and philosophical yearnings have an inchoate share in the truth of the Incarnation.

The book I've been quoting from, The Mystery of the Incarnation by Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn (Ignatius Press, 1983), is now out of print. I used to have my students at the University of Dallas read this little book before they went on their sojourn in Rome and Greece — after all, when students see all the pagan shrines, it can easily occur to them that maybe Christianity is just another myth like all these other ancient ones. And if they've read or seen Joseph Campbell, who has popularized the idea of myth, then they can easily have their Christianity pulled out from under them.

That disaster is made all the more easy by the fact that it is convenient to put Christianity on the back burner for a while, to keep Christianity as a nice "mythical" religion on their shelf, practiced a bit on Christmas and Easter and maybe Ash Wednesday. It is particularly convenient to take Christianity's moral code and put it on the shelf for a while. If the Church is wrong when it teaches that God became man, died for our salvation, and rose from the dead, then the Church is probably equally wrong in its moral code that instructs us about euthanasia, just wages, homosexuality, just war, abortion, slavery, sterilization, and genocide.

Then, as one runs about flouting a new "enlightened" idea that Christianity is really just a myth, one neatly rationalizes any variety of immoral acts. The enlightened person's life soon becomes sheer misery, an enslavement to sin. In a word, this "enlightened" viewpoint isn't really very enlightened.

This Christmas, think about it the other way around. Christianity, without ceasing to be mythical, is solidly rooted in fact. Your faith is rooted in real events that happened in history. Did you ever notice how the first chapter of St. John's Gospel, accused of being the epitome of myth with its claims about the Word becoming flesh, sparkles with historical detail? ("A man named John . . . "). Have you ever noticed how St. Luke goes out of his way to state that his account is based on real facts (see Luke 1:1-4)? And St. Paul comes right out with it: "And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our teaching" (1 Cor. 15:14).

One need not accept the historicity of the Gospels on blind faith. It is eminently reasonable to believe that in Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, the deepest yearnings of mankind, expressed in so many various mythological modes, have been fulfilled.

ENDNOTES:

  1. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 66-67.
  2. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Collins, 1955), 178-9.
  3. Schoenborn, 17.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Mark Lowery "Myth Become Fact." Envoy (Janauary/February 2001)

Reprinted courtesy of Envoy Magazine.

THE AUTHOR

Dr. Mark Lowery is a husband and the father of six children. Dr. Mark Lowery is Associate Professor, Department of Theology, University of Dallas, Irving, TX 75062. Mark Lowery, Ph.D., can be contacted by e-mail at lowery@acad.udallas.edu

Copyright © 2001 Envoy

 


Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.