Broken Myths

As a former Anglican I have taken the liberty of adapting some of the writing of Richard Holloway (a few years ago) to reflect some of my own thoughts.

The deep questions about the meaning of life are part of our humanity, and the way we respond could be seen as our religion (even if we conclude that life has no discernible or ultimate meaning).
Religion has been dominated by special interest groups with their own agendas which don’t necessarily conform to scripture. There are no universally accepted answers!
A minority of Christians long for the old days of dominance and control. Most are members of ‘modern’ institutions operating in an increasingly ‘post-modern’ world – the Anglican Church for example seems to be in a state of transitional futility!
The ordination of women was seen by some as a small adjustment – others saw it as the beginning of the end!

Comfortable coexistence with friends who are on their way to damnation is a real problem – especially for those who believe the Bible is the literal “Word of God” – while others have already deconstructed the traditional views of the Bible – which has led many to abandon Christianity.
Can we accept that the Bible is a human creation? What place traditional theology?

Do we have a view of the mystery of life – can we look beyond the physical and see ourselves in it? What place the language of myth and symbolism?

Consider the significance of a national flag as an emotionally potent way of expressing national loyalty (as a Brit with many American friends this seems to be particularly true of the States). But the symbol ‘God’ seems to be one of the most ambiguous of human inventions!

We cannot do without myths but we must never see them as the final status. A myth (such as Adam and Eve) needs to be understood as a myth – but not be removed or replaced – it needs to become a broken myth – but this is something that is always resisted by the official keepers of the myth such as many fundamentalist leaders, because it threatens their authority, and the peace and security of those people who have submitted themselves to the systems that they control.

Paul Tillich wrote: ‘The resistance against demythologisation expresses itself in “literalism”. The symbols and myths are understood in their immediate meaning. The material, taken from nature and history, is used in its proper sense. The character of the symbol to point beyond itself to something else is disregarded. Creation is taken as a magic act which happened once upon a time. The fall of Adam is localised on a special geographical point and attributed to a human individual.

Tillich goes on to describe two stages of literalism, which he calls the ‘natural‘ and the ‘reactive‘. In the natural stage of literalism, the mythical and the literal are indistinguishable. This stage is characteristic of primitive individuals and groups who do not separate the creations of the imagination from natural facts. Tillich says that this stage (that I refer to as the ‘conformist stage’ in ‘Stages of Faith’) has its own rights and should be left undisturbed right up to the time when the individual’s questioning mind challenges the conventional acceptance of the myth as literal.

There seem to be only two ways to go when this moment arrives. The first is to replace the unbroken myth with the broken myth, which yields some of its inner meaning through interpretation and the power of metaphor. But unfortunately, many people find the uncertainty of the broken myth impossible to live with, so they repress their own questions and denounce the questions that others put to the myth. They retreat into reactive literalism, which is aware of the questions but represses them, either consciously or unconsciously. The instrument of repression is usually an acknowledged authority, such as the Church or the Bible, which claims our unconditional surrender, and fewer and fewer younger people are, quite rightly, prepared to do this.

Natural literalism is an honest response to myth and symbol – it is to remain within a traditional paradigm that is still working and still offers the best answer to the going questions.
Reactive literalism, on the other hand, is usually a rear-guard action on the part of those who are still emotionally invested in a breaking paradigm. Their fear is that if the myth is broken it will lose its power – and it is that fear I suggest that is being expressed by many fundamentalists.

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