Chapter 15: Reconstruction: Christian Myth
“For you bring some strange things to our ears; we wish to know therefore what these things mean!’ (Acts 17:20)
In Chapter 14 we looked at the “sin and salvation” complex of traditional concepts. In this chapter we will look at the themes that deal with Jesus of Nazareth himself. Our primary question, however, will not be whether these themes fit with our common sense. We have already asked this of many of these, and it is clear that major portions of the Jesus story and its interpretations are simply incompatible with modem common sense. But in the story of Jesus we are dealing with more than just doctrine. We have here ideas and images that are central to the Christian faith itself. So the question for this chapter is, since some of the Jesus stories and concepts are so eminently incompatible with common sense — what do we do with them?
The usual alternative to defending their literal truth is to ignore those particular stories we find incredible, shoving them like unwanted family skeletons into hidden closets and bolting the door with a fervent prayer that the lock will hold. We badly need to discover a way to disavow neither our common sense nor this large portion of the Jesus tradition. We need a way to use them both constructively in our faith.
There is a way to do this, but only if we dare to be bold, only if we can be different and creative in our approach. We need to take the most honest and most constructive option available to us: creation of the category of “Christian Myth”. We do not mean this in the technical sense of any story referring to the supernatural (see Chapter 4, p. 44). This has already been done by scholars. What we mean here is myth in its everyday, nontechnical sense as understood by you and me: a story that is told as if it were literally true, but which is no longer accepted as factual, and which explains or symbolizes a belief or insight.
“Myth” in this sense has been applied before to the story of Jesus, but almost always by people who were trying to dismiss Jesus of Nazareth and undermine the Christian faith. These people saw it as a weapon against Christianity. What we are doing is to wrest this from the grasp of those who know not its proper use. We are claiming it for our own, using the concept of “Christian Myth” to mean something valuable and meaningful to us.
To classify a story or theme as Christian Myth is therefore not at all to dismiss it but rather to elevate it to a special status. In fact, the question of its historic accuracy is rendered irrelevant at the same time as we affirm the story’s meaning and value.
To qualify as Christian Myth a story must meet four criteria:
(1) It has a place in Christian tradition and was originally understood as factual;
(2) We no longer claim that it represents factual truth;
(3) It serves to exemplify or reinforce proper Christian belief, attitude, or action; and
(4) It can do this without being taken as literally true.
The majority of the elements that make up the Christian Mythology can be grouped in three broad clusters corresponding to the birth, the life, and the death of Jesus of Nazareth.(There are also other stories and themes from the Old and New Testaments that meet the criteria of Christian and can be constructively used in this way. We are limiting ourselves here primarily to the Jesus myths due to space limitations and due to the centrality of Jesus to our faith. ) The nativity cluster includes not only the supernatural and pseudohistorical events preceding and attending his birth (the annunciation, the virgin birth, the angels and shepherds and wisemen, the location in Bethlehem, etc.), but also the claims as to the nature of Jesus’ being and identity that are not in keeping with our common sense theology. The life and ministry cluster includes many of the miracle accounts, those prophecies and messianic claims which were quite apparently inserted by the early Church, and any claims as to the perfection or total sinlessness of Jesus as an individual. The death and resurrection cluster includes the theme of the atonement and various elements of the resurrection and of the post-resurrection appearances. After considering these three clusters, we will then look at a couple of other concepts that are ideal candidates for inclusion as Christian Myth.
It is important to note the obvious: major aspects of the story of Jesus cannot be included as Christian Myth for the simple reason that they are very probably true. These would be such things as the fact that Jesus was baptized by John, kept company with sinners, called disciples and chose twelve as a special group, performed some “faith healings”, reached out to outcasts, entered Jerusalem in triumph, defied the authorities, was arrested and crucified, and was experienced afterwards by his disciples. Also not classifiable as myth is the most important thing about Jesus of Nazareth: his message. In fact, his message of God’s call and God’s love is the norm to which Christian Myth must conform.
But how do we relate the mythical to the non-mythical? How do we relate what we claim as Christian Myth to what we claim as historical fact?
To repeat: we are not setting up this category so that we can then ignore those stories that fit in it. But neither can we pretend that they don’t require to be treated any differently than anything else we say about Jesus. Neither of these is appropriate or helpful. Christian Myth must be treated differently precisely in order that we neither ignore nor dismiss it, precisely in order that we can claim its positive significance for us.
What then do we do? Do we need to create a different kind of “red letter edition” in which we print in red not the words of Jesus but instead all those passages that qualify as Christian Myth? Or do we need to do with the New Testament as is sometimes done with the Book of Daniel — parts of it included in the text as canonical, parts of it relegated to an appendix of Apocrypha? No, this sort of thing is hardly necessary. And while something like this might be helpful in specialized teaching circumstances, in general such an approach would be unwarranted and unhealthy. We don’t need to go to such extremes. What we need to do is recognize that:
(1) The stories and themes about Jesus of Nazareth fall into two different categories, those which we claim as factual and those which we do not.
(2) Our beliefs about who Jesus was, his relationship to God and his role for us, must be based on the factual, as indeed our theology in general must be consistent with the factual.
(3) Once our theology and faith themes are established, those stories and themes about Jesus which we do not claim as factual, but which are consistent with our faith themes, can be used as Christian Myth to illustrate, illuminate, and emphasize these themes.
This is all neither terribly difficult nor very mysterious, as we shall see as we now proceed to look at some important parts of Christian Myth.
I. The Nativity Cluster
The nativity cluster of Christian Myth can be subdivided into the circumstances of the birth itself, the events announcing the birth, and the claims made about the nature and identity of this child.
IA. The Birth: Born of a Virgin in Bethlehem
Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of a virgin and was descended from David through a man who was not his father. Mark and John are either unaware of this or do not think it worthy of mention. Matthew and Luke do not agree on how it happened that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth but later resided in Nazareth,2 or on how Joseph was descended from David.
How do we explain this? We must consider the circumstances of the followers of Jesus after his death. We can reasonably assume that they searched their Scriptures for any explanations that would help them understand this man who had had such an impact on their lives. Since they had come to believe him to be the Messiah they naturally gave great importance to those Old Testament passages traditionally identified as messianic prophecies. We need also to remember that these early Christians were human just as we are. Besides the established fact that legends have a way of springing up about great public figures, there must also have been an almost irresistible urge on the part of some to bolster the claim that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, especially since his behavior was m some ways most unmessianic (see p. 97).
Among the passages which were widely interpreted at the time as referring to the Messiah were II Samuel 8:12f and Isaiah 11:1, both of which say he will be a descendent of David; Isaiah 7:14, which in its Greek mistranslation says that a virgin shall bear a son (the original Hebrew says “young woman”); and Micah 5:2, which indicates that a ruler would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke — written later than Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letters — tell us that Jesus fulfilled these prophecies (but as we said, have different explanations of how he fulfilled two of the three). Does it not seem likely that the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah gave rise to the belief that he fulfilled these prophecies, and not the other way around? Does it not seem likely that the prophecies occasioned these birth stories? If so, then what do we do with this part of the Jesus story?
What we do is affirm these aspects of the Jesus story as Christian Myth. This means we do not claim that Jesus of Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem of a virgin (which is not the least bit important to his message). As myth, however, these elements of the story that claim this specialness for him serve to symbolize the Christian theme that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed “he who was to come” — not in the sense that he fulfilled human expectations nor in the sense that this particular person was foreseen by any of the prophets, but rather in the sense that it is in this individual that we find the key to understanding God and God’s call, the key to meaning in our lives.
The virgin birth in Bethlehem as well as the descent from David, even if not taken as factual, serve to connect Jesus with the hundreds of years of seeking God in the Old Testament. They also serve to highlight the importance we give to Jesus and so draw attention to his message. If these parts of the story are not viewed as Christian Myth, however, but are claimed as true, then they distract from the message and in fact impede access to it for many people.
IB. Angels and Shepherds and Stars and Wisemen
We have here a combination of (1) events that are incompatible with our common sense, and (2) events that just don’t seem historically very likely. The former include an appearance by the heavenly host and a star that served as a trail guide. The latter, the merely improbable, include the resulting visits by the shepherds and the wisemen. We might also include in this category the trip to Bethlehem to be enrolled, the too-full inn and the birth in a stable.
Both of these kinds of events are peripheral to the message of Jesus but both can be appropriated as Christian Myth. I expect that the Sunday School Christmas play will continue to include angels and shepherds and crusty innkeepers and three wisemen who travel by camel and whose names are Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. And rightfully so, for the purpose of these stories is not to tell us about angels and wisemen but to say something about Jesus of Nazareth. We can use these stories, as myth, to help us celebrate the good news of Christmas and to emphasize the point, “Hey! This is the Christ! Here is the message, the key!” Their use is analogous to the flourish of trumpets that introduces the protagonist in an old melodrama. And if adding some detail to the stories helps them to do this, so much the better — as has happened with the wisemen, about whom Matthew tells us neither their number, nor their mode of travel, nor their names.
There are some additional points made by these stories as well. The wisemen’s recognition of kingship in a powerless infant, the angels’ choice of humble shepherds to whom to announce the news, Jesus’ birth as an outcast in a stable — all these point to a very different kind of king, to a power and truth that transcend worldly power and the socially acceptable status quo. Here is a new and freeing message!
IC. Implications: What Child Is This?
We also include in the nativity cluster the ideas about Jesus’ special nature and origin. Such ideas range from the full-blown doctrine of the Incarnation to the pre-existent semi-deity in the prologue to John to the idea of Jesus being “sent”.
What do we say about the Incarnation, the orthodox consensus about Jesus’ nature for all these centuries? We have discussed in Chapter 7 why we can no longer support this belief. Can we not, however, appropriate this as Christian Myth? We can, and the Incarnation then becomes a symbol that emphasizes in a beautiful way several important Christian themes: (1) that God is here with us, not in some far off dimension; (2) that God loves us so much as to come seeking us out; and (3) that God does not merely sympathize with us but rather shares in an important way in the human condition. We do not have to claim that the Incarnation is literally true in order for it to have meaning for us. As Christian Myth, without affronting our common sense, it can signify and help us to grasp these important truths.
II. The Life and Ministry Cluster
The life and ministry cluster of Christian Myth includes the miracle stories, prophecies and messianic claims erroneously attributed to Jesus, and claims of his perfection or sinlessness.
The miracle stories are among the very first to come to mind when we speak of Christian Myth. But do they qualify? This is not an idle question, especially when Jesus himself rebuked those who sought a sign from him. We must see if miracle stories meet the four criteria we have established for Christian Myth.
The first two criteria are clearly met: miracle accounts are a part of Christian tradition, and we do not now claim that they are literally true. (The exception, again, is those faith healings which fit with the genre as we understand it today, and which we need not understand as miraculous).
The third criterion is that these stories serve “to reinforce or exemplify proper Christian belief, attitude, or action”. This is not so clearly met. The miracles can signify different things to different people, not all of them appropriate. For instance, Jesus’ stilling of the storm or coming to his disciples across the water or multiplication of the loaves and fishes could all be taken to symbolize Jesus’ love and concern for the human fears and bodily needs of people. This would certainly meet this criterion. But these miracles might more readily be understood to symbolize things inconsistent with our common sense theology such as Jesus’ divinity or God’s willingness to interfere with natural law. Likewise they might be understood to symbolize things inconsistent with our Christian faith such as Jesus’ worldly kingship or material power and, therefore, to mean that the Christian message is about what we control instead of about whom and how we serve. The symbolism of magic and power is strong in the miracle accounts. Before they could meet the third criterion for Christian Myth they would have to be clearly reinterpreted so that they did in fact come to symbolize appropriate Christian themes. This could be done, but it would entail a lot of work.
The fourth criterion, that these accounts could symbolize these themes without being taken as literally true, is the key to helping us work on proper interpretation. When we make it clear that we do not in fact understand the miracle stories to be true (per criterion #2), that Jesus did not actually still the storm or walk on water, then the implications of magic or worldly power or divine intervention fade away. We can also understand that to Jesus’ contemporaries these stories would have entailed claims about his authority. But these miracles no longer have religious significance for us, and could not carry these claims if not seen as true. So again some real work is needed on reinterpretation of the miracles for them to have appropriate Christian symbolism.
Do the miracle stories, then, qualify as Christian Myth? I’m not sure that they presently do. But they can, if enough creative Christians do the necessary interpretive work on them.
IIB. Jesus’ Prophecies
Some of the sayings attributed to Jesus are thought by scholars to have very probably originated with the early Church and not with Jesus himself. In the next section we will consider his messianic claims, in this section his predictions of his crucifixion and resurrection.
There are three “predictions of the Passion”, as they are called, in each of the first three Gospels (“passion” in the ancient sense of “martyrdom”, meaning here the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus — as in the medieval “Passion plays”). There is also Matthew’s version of the “sign of Jonah” saying (see Chapter 4, p. 49), as well as various references in John.
The first prediction follows “Peter’s confession” that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus responded with an admonition to tell no one and then told the disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21; cf. Mark 8:27f, Luke 9:18f.) This is echoed by the second prediction: “The son of man [that is, himself] is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day!’ (Matthew 17:22-23; cf. Mark 9:31, Luke 9:44.) This is expanded in the third prediction: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and will be raised on the third day!’ (Matthew 20:18- 19; cf. Mark 10:32-34, Luke 18:31-33.)
The attribution of these predictions to Jesus himself is extremely dubious. They are simply too specific and too detailed. They are too good to be true. No one has ever made such precisely accurate predictions before the fact.(The other example in the Bible of very precise predictions is in Daniel. Supposedly writing in the 6th century BC., he reports an astoundingly accurate vision of the rise and fall of Middle Eastern Kingdoms part way through the 2nd century BC. However, the book appears to have been written around 165 BC., on linguistic and other evidence – and prophecies for events this date were not fulfilled.) If Jesus had made these very specific predictions, how could the disciples possibly have remained unaware of what was to happen? Yet unaware they were, as is obvious both from the story of events and from remarks such as Luke 18:34: “But they understood none of these things; this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said!’ (cf. Luke 9:45, Mark 9:32.)
So the only reasonable conclusion is that Jesus did not in fact make these specific predictions. This is not to say that he might not have spoken in more general terms of danger and suffering. It seems quite likely that he did and that these general sayings were later given a more specific content by people who knew what actually transpired. (We can easily imagine the process: “Why, I bet he knew all along what would happen. He must have tried to tell us, and we just didn’t understand him. Don’t you think that’s what he meant, that day on the way to Jericho? Remember?”)
But if these and the other notably accurate predictions of Jesus were the product not of his foresight but of somebody else’s hindsight, what then do we do with them? Can we use them constructively as Christian Myth? As with the miracle accounts, these prophecies obviously meet the first two criteria. So the question is: do they reinforce Christian themes, and can they do so without being taken as literally true?
The original function of these passages was twofold: to support the claim of Jesus’ special nature and authority, and to show that he knew what lay ahead and nevertheless stuck to his course. If these predictions were not actually his, however, they can no longer reinforce claims as to his special nature or his status as a seer. But they could not do this in any case, for this kind of prediction is irrelevant to our concerns about God and morality. They are not religiously significant.
But the predictions of the Passion can serve to reinforce Christian themes nonetheless. First, because they doubtless represent Jesus’ general awareness that he would be going into great danger. And he went anyway, in faith and in love. So the predictions illustrate how our values are more important than our fears; our faith is more important than preserving our own lives, which are limited anyway.
Second, even if these predictions were not uttered by Jesus they exemplify quite vividly a basic understanding of his: greatness does not mean comfort and ease and earthly power. They stand as statements that the Messiah, God’s chosen one, is chosen not for worldly glory but for suffering, not to rule but to serve. Along with Jesus’ actions, they rein-force the teaching that he or she who would be greatest must be the servant of all. Interpreted in this way they are a valuable part of the Christian Myth.
IIC. Messianic Consciousness
By “messianic consciousness’ we mean Jesus of Nazareth’s own awareness of being the Messiah. Did he in fact claim this title for himself?
This strikes most people as a preposterous question. How could Jesus not know he was the Messiah? How could he not have acknowledged and claimed this? Yet as inconceivable as it may seem, the question of his messianic consciousness is a very live one in scholarly circles.
The question is not whether Jesus considered himself to be a prophet conveying God’s message. This is apparent. The question is whether he considered himself to be that person whose coming was foretold as the Messiah. Since the Messiah was expected to re-establish the kingdom of David in keeping with the prophecies (see p. 97), and since Jesus was evidently not interested in worldly kingship or in driving out the Romans, this is a very good question.
Certainly Jesus did not claim to fill the messianic prophecies that speak of establishing a government or defeating Israel’s enemies (see Isaiah 9 and 11). And many scholars have concluded that he never claimed to be the Messiah at all, that all such statements were put into his mouth by the early Church. As Hans Kung puts it:
According to the Synoptic Gospels then … Jesus never himself assumed the designation of Messiah or any other messianic title.
Probably Jesus did not describe himself as Son of David, Messiah (Christ) or Son of God (Son). It is also possible that he did not use the term “Son of Man” of himself, at least not in an unequivocally messianic sense for his own time.(Hans K¸ng, On Being a Christian, [Doubleday and Company, 1076], p. 288, 290.)
I am not quite as convinced as Kung and others that Jesus made no claims with messianic implications, in part because of the nature of his entry into Jerusalem (see Zechariah 9:9). But apparently his outright claims of being the Messiah are of dubious authenticity.
But this, then, qualifies these statements to be part of the Christian Myth, as long as they can promote Christian themes. They would not do this if we understood the claims to mean that Jesus was the messianic warrior-king. But neither we nor Jesus understand him to be this. We have, in fact, given a new meaning to the title of Messiah. Christians have understood it to mean the one sent from God — the Son of God, or maybe God the Son — the Savior. While we have not been able to buy into any of these titles in our common sense reconstruction, we do use the messianic title of “the Christ”, redefined to mean the one through whose life and teachings we interpret God, the one through whom we find focus and meaning for our lives.
The important question regarding Jesus’ self-identity is not whether he identified himself with any particular title. None of the titles or expectations were adequate. The important question is what he understood himself to be doing and how he understood his relationship to God. Our position is that he did not understand himself to be fulfilling the role of Messiah as understood either by his contemporaries or by Christian tradition. But he certainly did claim to be the one who carried God’s message, the one through whom to interpret God.
Therefore, if we can view the messianic claims not as claims to be the heir of David or claims to be a divine Savior, but rather as symbols that point to the fact that we confess Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ, then they can take their place as part of the Christian Myth.
IID. Jesus’ Perfection
The claims made of Jesus’ perfection or sinlessness constitute a fourth part of the life and ministry cluster of Christian Myth. In the New Testament we find Jesus referred to as “holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens:’ (Hebrews 7:26) and as he “who knew no sin” (II Corinthians 5:21). Similar claims have been made about him ever since.
To people who saw Jesus as God incarnate and/or as the required unblemished sacrifice to atone for our sins, it may have been both necessary and believable that he was perfect. But for us it is neither. Whether by “perfect” we mean simply sinless, or whether we mean perfect in knowledge and love and judgment and other aspects as well, it is simply impossible for anyone who is human to be this. Being human means precisely that we are limited in our knowledge, that emotions affect our judgment, that we get tired and frustrated and depressed, and that we will not always overcome these imperfections to choose rightly.
Jesus of Nazareth was human. Therefore he was neither sinless nor perfect. We can ascribe claims of his perfection to a desire to make the point that he was “the one”, whether “the one” was identified as the Son of God or God the Son, as Savior or the Lamb. But do claims of this sort have a place in Christian Myth? It comes down to the same two questions as before: do they reinforce Christian themes? Can they do so if not literally true?
These claims do not reinforce Christian values if they serve to emphasize the difference between ourselves and Jesus. If he was able to act with love and forgiveness because he was perfect and sinless, then why should we who are imperfect sinners think that we might be capable of the same sort of life? Why should we even try?
Only by recognizing that the claims of Jesus’ perfection are untrue can they serve to encourage Christian values. Perfection is not even an appropriate moral category, because it does not exist and certainly does not apply to human beings. But by using these claims to point to Jesus’ extreme goodness and love, a goodness and love which as his followers and fellow humans we can strive to attain, we can use them in a way that makes them appropriate for Christian Myth.
III. Death and Resurrection
The principal elements in the death and resurrection cluster of the Christian Myth are (A) his death as sacrifice and atonement, and (B) the “magical” elements of the resurrection stories.
IIIA. The Atonement
We have already made the point that the idea that God required the blood sacrifice of an innocent individual before forgiving our sins is awesomely unchristian. Atonement conceived of in this way has no place in Christian Myth or Christian anything else.
But there is an alternative understanding of atonement. The archaic and original meaning (which is refreshingly alive in some theological circles) is “at-one-ment”, reconciliation. And instead of viewing the crucifixion as reconciling God to humanity — for the Christian view is that God is always seeking us, reaching out to us — we need to view it as reconciling humanity to God. So instead of the repugnant idea of the crucifixion as satisfaction of a divine blood thirst, we have instead a paradigm of self-sacrificing love for others, calling people to God and to right relation.
In this view Jesus’ ultimate act of love is not that of taking upon himself the sins of the world. As loving as that would be, it entails an unchristian view of God. Instead, his act of love is his doing that which was required to make known to us the true meaning of faith and of victory, of love and of life.
One might ask why Jesus’ death was necessary to accomplish this. After all, he had been preaching this message all along.
We must say that it was not necessary in any metaphysical or theological sense. It was not necessary to God’s plan or to our “salvation”. It probably was inevitable that the forces of the status quo and oppression would see his liberating message as a threat and so act to silence him. And it was necessary for him then to take the only course of action that was faithful to his message, and this was the path to the cross.
The crucifixion stands as a triumph of faith and integrity and a triumph of the love for others that Jesus preached. This faith and integrity and love were not vanquished by worldly powers or diminished by death. Instead they rose in the face of death to their greatest heights.
The crucifixion, then, can serve as at-one-ment by showing people the nature of the love of God’s messenger and — by inference — the nature of the love of God. The crucifixion shows the real possibility of love, and so calls us to turn and accept God’s love. In this way it can reconcile us to God, and in this interpretation the atonement could qualify as Christian Myth.
I remain unsure whether “atonement” can sufficiently shed its classic unchristian connotations. I am also unsure — if we are able to give it the proposed reinterpretation — whether it would qualify as myth, for the atonement in the sense of reconciling us to God is certainly true. But if we do use the concept of atonement in our common sense Christianity it must be in this latter sense.
IIIB. The “Magical” Elements of the Resurrection Stories
The central element of the resurrection — Jesus of Nazareth’s triumph over death — does not qualify as Christian Myth for the simple reason that we claim it is true. We maintain that this person was in fact not brought to an end by his physical death on the cross. However, when it comes to the various resurrection stories it becomes difficult to make any claims about the specific nature of what actually happened.5 What is important, of course, is the reality to which these accounts bear witness. Having said this, certain elements of the story become candidates for Christian Myth: the appearance of angels, the miraculous rolling away of the stone, Jesus’ ability to pass through shut doors and also to ingest solid food, etc.
The question here is whether we need to claim the literal truth of any of these details in order to maintain the truth of the resurrection itself. If we do not claim the specifics of the angel or the stone or a post-resurrection Jesus that ate fish or showed nail holes or walked to Emmaus, then what is left to claim as the resurrection event?
What we claim is that the person of Jesus of Nazareth survived the death of his body on the cross and made himself known to some of his disciples. We do not claim to understand exactly what happened or how the disciples experienced it. As we pointed out in Chapter 6, we cannot claim great theological significance for this event, but we do claim that it occurred. This claim is not dependent on any of the details or supernatural manifestations. So we can use these aspects of the resurrection story as Christian Myth as long as we use them to point to and symbolize the Christian understanding that Jesus was victorious on the cross and survived death.
There are two other concepts in particular that do not fit neatly into one of the foregoing three clusters but which we need to consider as possibilities for Christian Myth. They are the devil and the Trinity.
IVA. The Devil
In the Bible we see a transition from “the accuser” in the Old Testament (which we too often render as the proper name “Satan”) to the devil as tempter and personification of evil in the New Testament. (What we know as the traditional story about the devil, by the way, is best found in Milton’s Paradise Lost.) Today, however, we have no need to claim that evil is a personal being. While we do not claim that human beings are enslaved by sin, we are aware of the great capacity that humans have for evil as well as for good. We do not need the assistance of a devil to commit great sins; we do well enough at it on our own.
Can the devil be a part of the Christian Myth? Not if the story of the devil has the result that we blame someone else for our sins or that we view the world as a place where there is an ultimate force of evil. We believe in one God, not two — not one good and one evil.
However, by making it clear that we do not mean these stories as literal truth we should minimize the likelihood of these results. If we can instead use the idea of the devil to symbolize that human beings are capable of evil, that we each have within us motives and impulses and temptations that can lead to evil and so must be held in check, then (but only then) the devil can be a part of Christian Myth.
IVB. The Trinity
Here is the centerpiece of orthodoxy: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We explored in some detail in Chapter Seven why we cannot accept the Incarnation, Jesus as God the Son. For similar reasons we cannot accept the broader concept of the triune God in the sense of three “persons” with one “substance”. This idea is neither logical nor Biblical nor necessary nor particularly helpful. We do not claim the Trinity to be literally true in our common sense theology.
There are two possible ways that the Trinity might function as Christian Myth to symbolize Christian themes for us.
First, the Trinity has represented for many people the mystery of God, the fact that God is ultimately beyond our comprehension. (This is a virtue of the otherwise lamentable fact that the idea of the Trinity itself does not make sense.) Certainly we have to admit that a total understanding of God is beyond the grasp of our limited minds. The idea of the unknowability of God is a traditional one, and is especially strong in the Eastern Orthodox spiritual tradition.
But if we use the Trinity as myth to point to this unknowability of God, we must make clear that we are not claiming that God is in fact tripartite. In fact, we might do better to point to the unknowability of God by using concepts that do not affront our common sense — and there are certainly enough unknowables (not lust unknowns, but unknowables) in the universe to do this. Or we could simply state that God is unknowable instead of using incomprehensible language of God to prove our point. Otherwise someone might think we are trying to say something about God instead of just pointing to God’s unknowability.
Second, the Trinity can symbolize for us the different aspects of God and the way we relate to God. God the Father represents the transcendent aspect of God: creator of the universe, beyond all that we know. The Holy Spirit represents the presence of God with us, God’s pulling and encouraging, the fact that God is the context within which we live. The Son, of course, represents Jesus the Christ, but we cannot call him “God the Son”. He is not divine. So “the Son” does not represent an aspect of God, but is the one through whom we best understand God. “The Son”, in fact, shows us what our relationship to God can be and should be. This understanding of the Trinity might be acceptable.
But a further problem here is the masculine imagery. Obviously, Jesus happened to be male, so in his case this is legitimate. But I can see no reason for enshrining the maleness of God as part of our orthodoxy, and to the extent that the Trinity supports a patriarchal society or sexism it is not in keeping with the Christian message and cannot be used.
It should be noted that throughout this book we have assiduously pursued the use of gender-free language in speaking of God. This is important, for certainly God is neither male nor female. If this avoidance of personal pronouns is found to be clumsy or fails to give a proper sense of God as a being who is related to us in a personal way, then certainly one is free to speak of God both as male and as female so long as these usages are understood to be metaphorical and not to be claiming gender for God, and so long as the male and female references are relatively balanced. (I recognize that there may be legitimate pastoral concerns about breaking with our traditional patriarchal images, but there are also legitimate pastoral concerns that join with a correct theology and proper symbolism to impel us to gender-neutral language.)
It is time now to move beyond theology to the Christian life.
1. There are also other stories and themes from the Old and New Testaments that meet the criteria of Christian Myth and can be constructively used in this way. We are limiting ourselves here primarily to the Jesus myths due to space limitations and due to the centrality of Jesus to our faith.
2. In Matthew the wisemen find Jesus and his family living in a house in Bethlehem, from where they flee to Egypt, later to return to a different part of the country — Nazareth. In Luke, Joseph and Mary already live in Nazareth and come to Bethlehem for the census.
3. The other best example in the Bible of very precise predictions is in Daniel. Supposedly writing in the 6th century BC., he reports an astoundingly accurate vision of the rise and fall of Middle Eastern kingdoms part way through the 2nd century BC. However, the book appears to have been written around 165 BC., on linguistic and other evidence — and prophecies for events after this date were not fulfilled.
4.. Hans Kung, On Being A Christian, (Doubleday and Company, 1976), p. 288. 290.
5. See Appendix B for a consideration of the scholarly arguments.