Chapter 16: Myth as the Language of Faith

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 16: Myth as the Language of Faith

Faith is an experience into which a person is led by those for whom it is already a present reality. But for faith to be shared there must be communication, and this quickly entails verbal communication. Thus the experience of faith comes to be translated into a form of words. From now on we must discuss the verbal forms in which the faith of Christian believers has been most commonly expressed. As an example of the Christian understanding of faith in simple terms, we may take the words, "I believe in God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior".

Now what sort of language is this affirmation of faith? Is it the same kind of language as that in which we say, "The battle of Hastings was fought in 1066" or "Water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen"? It is not! Actually it could be said that we have developed different languages for different purposes. For example, mathematics and biochemistry have developed languages of their own. So has human love. We have long realized that things can be communicated in poetry which cannot readily be expressed in prose. We should not be surprised if this most vital human experience called faith should have developed its own language.

Each language has its own rules and it leads only to confusion if we try to make one language conform to the rules of another. Human love has developed its own kind of verbal communication, but this language does not conform to the rules of logic. The language of faith does not become meaningless, as some critics of religious language are inclined to maintain, just because it does not conform to the canons proper to philosophy or history. But neither can the language of faith lead to conclusions which properly belong to the fields of history or philosophy.

Faith has developed its own language because it is attempting to express why man has been led to an attitude of trust, in the face of a human situation whose mystery is both impenetrable and tantalizing. Man finds himself with a stream of consciousness, which, in spite of all that psychology and neurology tell him, is a wonderful and inexplicable phenomenon. He has an imagination in which he may oscillate from seeing himself as but a speck in an unfathomable universe, to the other extreme of beholding the whole universe in his mind’s eye. Why does he find himself called to I respond to this human situation in faith? This question defies a conclusive answer in the language of logic. Not even good prose can adequately explain his reasons for faith. Like the poet and the artist, the man of faith reaches out for a medium of communication which transcends the languages which are adequate for discussing more limited areas of experience. The language of faith has more in common with poetry than with philosophy or a science. (Even for ancient man, poetry was regarded as the language of the gods, and all the early prophetic oracles of Israel were expressed in poetry.)

In the language of faith, as in the arts, the human imagination plays an important role. This does not imply, however, a flight into an unreal world of fantasy. Even the sciences, in spite of their apparent matter-of-factness, depend for their progress upon man’s imagination. Most of the great milestones in scientific advance have been achieved, not by rational calculations and deductions, but by brilliant leaps of the human imagination. The greatest scientists are those who have had the most fertile imaginations, combined with the integrity of scientific method. It may be said that the so-called laws of nature have come to expression through the success man has had to date in directing his imagination to particular fields of inquiry. These laws, like the human language in which they are expressed, are, in part, man’s own products, as their verbal expression has resulted from the application of his imagination to the world he seeks to know.

If imagination plays such a vital role even in such sciences as physics and astronomy, where man can so clearly be an objective spectator, how much more must man depend upon his imagination when seeking to understand the questions of human existence, in which he is at the same time an active participant. As the man of faith uses his imagination to develop a language adequate to express the experience of faith, he may use a variety of modes, such as ecstatic utterances, prayers and hymns. But perhaps the word which most adequately describes the nature of the language of faith is myth. In the ancient world it was in myth that the human imagination reached out in an attempt to understand the truth of human existence.

It is a great pity that the word ‘myth’ has for many people become synonymous with a story which is untrue. This has come about because the new world has so decisively abandoned the mythological elements of the old world. But in Chapter 8 it was suggested that the abandonment of the mythological elements did not necessarily mean the end of ‘myth’. We may freely admit that there is a danger that, if we continue to use the word ‘myth’, it may be mistakenly assumed that we are attempting to restore the mythological view of ancient man. Some Christians quite understandably want to avoid the term ‘myth’ on the grounds that the Christian heritage is grounded in history and not in mythology. But on the other hand there is one thing which the man of the new world still has in common with ancient man and that is his humanity. Scientific language has replaced myth for the understanding of physical phenomena, but it has not replaced poetry and art as the expression of the human spirit. Myth, properly understood, can serve contemporary man, as well as it served ancient man, for the verbal expression of the response of the human spirit to the environment of his existence.

The element which most clearly distinguishes myth from an historical narrative is the reference at some point to God. When we say that Jesus was crucified at Jerusalem we are making an historical statement. But when we say that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, we are speaking in terms of myth. Indeed if the life of Jesus is to be related to God in any way at all, then we are forced to move out of the language of history and enter the medium of myth. For the historian per se can say nothing about God. The historian may evaluate the evidence relating to the empty tomb, but Peter’s statement of faith, "This Jesus God raised up", is outside the scope of historical inquiry. Peter has drawn upon the medium of myth to affirm the faith into which he had been led, and he had little choice, if his faith was to find verbal expression.

The use of myth as the language of faith does not turn the myth into history. But neither can it be categorically stated that myth is untrue, unreal and meaningless, as long as it continues to be meaningful to, and to win the response of faith from, those to whom it is spoken. For this reason, however, myth in the new world will be markedly different in some respects from myth in the ancient world. Whereas the ancient myth bore all the marks of the mythological world to which it was orientated, the myth which the man of faith in the new world finds meaningful will be orientated to the human situation as contemporary man understands it, and it could even be called a ‘demythologized myth’ or ‘historically-grounded myth’.

The Bible itself helps to make the difference clear. As we noted earlier, the story of the Garden of Eden almost certainly had a prototype in ancient mythology, where its original theme seems likely to have been man’s search for immortality. But Israel turned the story around. It is no longer about the unseen world of the gods, but about men in the world of here and now. As Adam is simply the Hebrew word for ‘man’, the story is about man and his wife, and becomes one of the most penetrating narratives ever written about human self-understanding.

There is narrated here with vivid clarity the subtle steps by which man in his daily experience is led into temptation and error, for reasons which at the time appear quite convincing. Then in a flash the stark reality of what he has done comes home to him. His plausible reasoning is now shown up and leaves him defenseless. He is left naked before the truth. The guilty couple feel even the need to hide from each other by clothing themselves. But this is but the premonition of the ultimate confrontation with God, for He it is with whom all men have ultimately to reckon.

Yet the story does not tell us who God is, but only what He says. Man hears himself called to give account. He tries to make excuses for himself. The man blames his wife, and the wife blames the serpent, which here represents that mysterious factor in the human situation, which is felt to be essentially different from the true self. Israel then linked up the judgment consequent upon man’s guilt with the mysterious pains of childbirth and the frustrations which confront the honest toiler.

This is an imaginative story, about man rather than about the gods, and consequently it differs from the ancient myths. But it is a story which still refers to God, and consequently includes the element of true myth. Not only was this myth meaningful within Israel and the former generations of Christian believers, but also to us living in the new world, three thousand years later, it still speaks powerfully, as it lights up for us our human nature and our human predicament.

But Israel demythologized very few ancient myths in this way. She turned to a different source as the seedbed of the new form of myth, and that was the human historical scene. Let us take the sagas of Abraham and Jacob. We do not know for certain that these two men ever lived. What Old Testament scholarship has managed to show is the probability that Abraham and Jacob were two of the more important chieftains who led migrating tribes from upper Mesopotamia to Canaan, and that some of the stories now gathered in the sagas originated around these historical figures.

But about the original figures we really know practically nothing, for Israel kept reinterpreting the original stories, as well as adding new ones, in order to express in these sagas the hopes and convictions which Israel came to believe about herself as a people. Abraham was adopted as the father of Israel and came to portray the destiny to which Israel felt called. Abraham was seen as the very model of faith and obedience, and captured the imagination of Israel more and more as time went on, with the result that in the New Testament we find Paul using him as the example of the true believer.

In contrast with this the Jacob saga portrays the real and all too frail and human Israel. Much is made of Jacob’s craftiness and deceptive tricks, but he was a man who was being chastened and reformed by God, as the change of name from Jacob to Israel eventually makes clear. The story of how Jacob returns from a far country to face the brother he wronged, and how he wrestles all night with an unknown mysterious assailant, provides a penetrating picture of Israel’s own encounter with YHWH all through her history.

In contrast with the ancient myths these sagas are drawn from ancestral traditions. But though they are set in the tangible historical world, they describe men who encounter YHWH at all the strategic points in their lives. It is the reference to God in these narratives which leads them into the realm of myth. These sagas of Abraham and Jacob may be said to be myths which express the faith into which Israel found herself called by reason of her encounter with YHWH through the course of history.

Of course even the modern historian must use his imagination. He does not set out to give a full and cinematographic record of all things said and done in the period under review, for that would be neither possible nor valuable. He must select the words and events which, in his judgment, are crucial. He tries to discern the various trends and personal factors at work. Israel’s interpreters were doing this too, as they pioneered the concern with history, and that is the strength of the claim that the Christian heritage, in contrast with mythology, is grounded in history. But unlike the historian, the biblical writers moved into the realm of myth, even if sparingly, for only thus could their understanding of history become the expression of their faith.

The chief ‘historically-grounded myth’ of the Old Testament is the tradition of the Exodus from Egypt and the Covenant at Sinai. As we have already noted, historical research has so far failed to bring to light the historical events which gave rise to this tradition. But even if the historian were able to confirm that an unusual flow of water at the Sea of Reeds trapped Pharaoh’s army and enabled the Israelites to make good their escape, it is beyond the scope of the historian to deny or confirm that it was none other than YHWH who brought Israel out of Egypt. Even if the historian were able to confirm that at a certain mountain, called Sinai, the Israelites celebrated a ceremony which they believed to be a covenant with YHWH, it is beyond his scope to deny or confirm that YHWH was in fact a party to the covenant. So while the Exodus tradition may in a real sense be grounded in history, its essential importance for Israel is actually the mythical element in it. It is this which constitutes Israel’s own affirmation of faith.

Let us now turn to the ‘historically-grounded myth’ of the New Testament, the one that forms the focal point for the whole of the Christian Bible, and in which is expressed the heart of the Christian faith. We have already seen the difficulty of recovering reliable knowledge of the Jesus of history. But even if the historian were able to present to us with some confidence the historical data of the man Jesus, the real heart of the Christian Gospel would still be left untouched by historical inquiry. Not even historical confirmation of the Virgin Birth or the empty tomb, should either be achieved, would offer convincing proof of what the New Testament sets out to affirm. The focal point of attention is not the life and ministry of Jesus, but his death and resurrection. The New Testament claims, that Jesus died on the cross for men’s salvation, and that he rose in victory to ascend to the right hand of God, are outside the historian’s field of reference. They are affirmations of faith, in which the first-century Christians found it necessary to move into myth for the joyful proclamation of the Gospel. The New Testament story of Jesus becomes the center of the Christian faith only as it is transformed into an ‘historically-grounded myth’, for myth is the language of faith.

Historical inquiry can show with high probability that Jesus was a good man, who delivered some powerful preaching to his fellow-Jews, and who so roused the opposition of the authorities that they tried to silence him by putting him to death. But this is not what the New Testament is primarily concerned to profess. That is why the picture of Jesus as the great teacher of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man falls far short of the New Testament witness. The only way of expressing the faith of the apostles is to use myth, the language of faith. Because the disciplined study of history has helped us to distinguish between history and myth, and to come to the tentative conclusion that the stories of the Virgin Birth, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Ascension are mythical in character, this does not mean that the faith which they have traditionally expressed and conveyed is thereby undermined.

The way to test the truth and validity of the myth is to ask whether it adequately performs its role as the language of faith. Does the historically-grounded myth of Jesus Christ communicate faith from the believer to the unbeliever? It can hardly be disputed that up until the present time it certainly has done this. But some may wish to argue that it was only because the mythical elements in the Gospel of Christ were assumed to be historical that it in fact did have the power to communicate faith. It is not quite as simple as that. For one thing it is anachronistic to press back into the past the present distinctions between history and myth which only the new world has helped us to clarify.

But the main answer to this objection is that faith is not the kind of response to which the believer is led by means of rational argument or the production of incontestable historical evidence. Faith is caught from those who already possess it. The evidence for faith is not in the Gospel story, whether it be called myth or not, but in the man of faith himself. The Gospel story is not a self-authenticating demonstration of its own validity. It is the verbal medium by which the man of faith attempts to communicate to the unbeliever his own understanding of faith.

There is a certain parallel between the sagas of Abraham and the Gospel story. Both are grounded in history, and yet in both the imagination of the believer has molded the original stories to communicate faith and hope. Abraham became the personal symbol of the promise of God concerning the destiny to which Israel was called. The mental picture of the risen and ascended Christ, which the imagination of the Christian believer developed from the memories of the crucified Jesus of history and from the initial apostolic experience, expressed the sense of faith, hope and victory to which the believer had been led.

In each generation each individual Christian moulds his own mental image of the Christ of faith in the light of his contemporary thought and experience. This is mostly done unconsciously, but even when a man becomes aware of what he is doing, it need not stop him, for man must use his imagination to reach self-understanding. But whereas the myth-making of ancient man had no boundaries set for it, the Christian believer is being continually recalled to the biblical witness to the Jesus of History and the apostolic testimony to the Christ of faith. That is the importance of calling the Christian Gospel an historically-grounded myth.

If man is to live, he must find faith. If man is to have faith, it will be caught from those who have faith, and communicated to him in myth, the language of faith. Within the human race the people of Israel pioneered the way of faith which is our heritage, and there is no more powerful myth than the story of the Christ of faith.