Chapter 2: Symbol and Myth

Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion
by Ian Barbour

Chapter 2: Symbol and Myth

In this chapter I wish briefly to consider religious models in relation to other forms of religious language -- particularly symbols, images and myths. Four issues which will be significant in the subsequent analysis of models arise here in discussing these other linguistic forms: (1) the role of analogy, (2) the relation of religious symbolism to human experience, (3) the diverse functions of religious language (especially evident in the case of myth) and (4) the cognitive status of religious language. I will suggest that the idea of religious models offers a distinctive way of dealing with each of these issues.

1. Metaphor and Symbol

Because religious language is frequently metaphorical, I start with some remarks about metaphors in general. A metaphor proposes analogies between the normal context of a word and a new context into which it is introduced. Some, but not all, of the familiar connotations of the word are transferred. ‘The lion is king of the beasts’, but it has only some of the attributes of royalty. ‘Love is a fire’, but we do not expect it to cook a meal. There is a tension between affirmation and negation, for in analogy there are both similarities and differences.

The philosopher Max Black argues that in metaphoric usage there is a highly selective transfer of some of the familiar associations of a word. These associations then act as a kind of screen or lens through which the new subject is viewed; some of its features are ignored or suppressed while others are emphasized or distinctively organized. It is seen in a new way and new attitudes are evoked. Thus the expression ‘Man is a wolf’ invites us to consider human traits which might be analogous to familiar wolf-traits. We are to construe man as wolf-like, or, in general, to ‘construe one situation in terms of another’. A metaphor can order our perceptions, bringing forward aspects which we had not noticed before. One kind of experience is interpreted in terms of the characteristics of another.1

In a metaphor, a novel configuration has been produced by the juxtaposition of two frames of reference of which the reader must be simultaneously aware. I. A. Richards calls it a ‘transaction between contexts’. It is a new creation for which there are no rules, and ‘its meaning survives only at the intersection of the two perspectives which produced it’.2 One must maintain an awareness of both contexts illuminating each other in unexpected ways. There is often novelty and surprise in these new combinations and the fresh images that they evoke. They arise from the concreteness and individuality of particular experiences, which only an extension of language can try to convey.

A metaphor is not literally true. Imagine someone getting out the scales when his friend says ‘My heart is heavy’, or asking for salt and pepper upon hearing ‘She has been in a stew all day’. A metaphor is absurd if interpreted literally because the two contexts are widely disparate; there is a flagrant crossing of what philosophers call type-boundaries’. Yet a metaphor is not a useful fiction, a mere pretence, a game of make-believe with no relation to reality; it asserts that there are significant analogies between the things compared.

Literary critics have debated at length whether these resemblances can be reduced to a set of equivalent literal expressions. Some critics have said that a metaphor is a condensed simile or a substitute for detailed comparison; they claim that a metaphor can be paraphrased exactly by a set of statements about the resemblance of specific features of the two situations. The metaphor’s function would then be decorative and rhetorical, contributing vividness and style but no distinctive cognitive content. It would have a psychological role but not an indispensable logical one.

The opposing view, with which I would side, holds that a metaphor cannot be replaced by a set of equivalent literal statements because it is open-ended. No limits can be set as to how far the comparison might be extended; it cannot be paraphrased because it has an unspeciflable number of potentialities for articulation.3 The comparison is left for the reader to explore. It is not an illustration of an idea already explicitly spelled out, but a suggestive invitation to the discovery of further similarities. It will be proposed in the next chapter that scientific models are not eliminable because they, too, are based on analogies which are open-ended and extensible, though of course they are more systematically developed than metaphors.

Unlike scientific models, however, metaphors -- especially in poetry -- often have emotional and valuational overtones. They call forth feelings and attitudes. Metaphors are dynamic; language becomes event. The reader is involved as a personal participant and is encouraged to draw from various dimensions of his own experience. Metaphor is expressive of the poet’s experience and evocative of the reader’s. But the presence of these non-cognitive functions does not require that cognitive functions be absent. Metaphors influence perception and interpretation as well as attitude. A poem, according to Philip Wheelwright, ‘says something, however tentatively and obliquely, about the nature of what is’. Even though it makes only ‘a shy ontological claim’, it is not just emotional. It makes a ‘light assertion’ which is referential even when it is only suggestive. It is judged by its faithfulness to concrete human experience.4

Now many religious symbols seem to be metaphors based on analogies within man’s experience. Consider first the symbols of height. Movement upwards is physically more difficult than downwards, so ‘higher’ becomes a symbol of achievement and excellence (think of the imagery of ‘ascent’, from Plato to Dante to Thomas Merton). Height is also associated with the recognition of power, as when men kneel or bow down before the elevated throne of a king in acknowledging his rule ‘over’ them. Edwyn Bevan shows, more specifically, that the sense of religious awe is similar to the awe in looking up at a mountain or at the sky. Symbols of height are therefore appropriate expressions of worship, e.g. ‘the high and lofty One’.5

The frequency of symbolism of light in religion seems to rest on several analogies. A person can see better in the light which therefore becomes a symbol of knowledge; this is evident in the cognate verbs for imparting knowledge (‘illuminate’, ‘clarify’, ‘illustrate’, ‘throw light on’) or the adjective ‘bright’. Light symbolism is frequent in Platonism and gnosticism, in Buddhist ‘enlightenment’, in such deities as Mazda in Iran or Agni in Vedic India, in biblical assertions that ‘God is light’, and so forth. Perhaps also there are analogies between the experience of standing in a dazzling or blinding light and moments of religious exaltation, reflected in the Hebrew idea of God’s ‘glory’ or Paul’s phrase, ‘light unapproachable’.6

A symbol may have quite diverse meanings corresponding to the diversity of contexts in which the analogue was originally encountered. Water is a symbol of chaos (the primeval waters, for instance) but also of regeneration and purification (as in baptism), since man experiences water both as a destructive power and as a cleansing agent and sustainer of life. Similarly fire can at various times be devouring, purifying or life-giving. Furthermore, a number of differing metaphors may be applied to the same religious experience. Thus the Christian experience of liberation from anxiety and guilt is variously described as analogous to acquittal in a law court, the release of a slave, the ransom of a captive, the reconciliation of enemies, the forgiveness of one person by another and the recovery of health after sickness.7

Whereas poetic metaphors are used only momentarily, in one context, for the sake of an immediate impression or insight, religious symbols become part of the language of a religious community in its scripture and liturgy and in its continuing life and thought. Religious symbols are expressive of man’s emotions and feelings, and are powerful in calling forth his response and commitment. They arise from personal participation, not detached observation; they are rooted in man’s experience as an active subject. But they need not be taken literally; they combine affirmation and negation and point beyond themselves. As Tillich puts it, a religious symbol is idolatrous unless it suggests its own inadequacy.8

In the biblical tradition, many of the dominant metaphors are drawn from personal agency, with its categories of intention, purpose, will, action and promise. Some personal analogues are referred to infrequently, for example, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. Others are invoked more often and developed more systematically, becoming what I shall call models, for instance, ‘God is a Father to his children’. Metaphors are employed only momentarily and symbols only in a limited range of contexts, but models are more fully elaborated and serve as wider interpretive schemes in many contexts. We are asked, in the biblical case, to construe the world through the model of a father’s love and purpose. Other religious traditions have used dominant models which are impersonal in character.

In later chapters we will find that religious models, like literary metaphors, influence attitudes and behaviour and also alter ways of seeing the world. They serve as ‘organizing images’ which give emphasis, selectively restructuring as well as interpreting our perceptions. Models, like metaphors, may help us to notice particular features of the world. In all of these functions -- the evocation of attitudes, the guidance of behaviour, the interpretation of experience, and the organization of perceptions -- a metaphor is used only momentarily, whereas a model is used in a sustained and systematic fashion. In both cases, however, claims are made about the world and not simply about human feelings and attitudes.

2. Parable and Analogy

A narrative form of analogy frequently found in religious teachings is the parable, a short fictional story whose characters are taken from everyday life. In an allegory, every person or part represents something else with a I-to-I, correspondence; in a parable, however, the story as a whole conveys the comparison (for example, ‘The Kingdom of God is like unto a man who.. . .’). I will confine myself to three observations:

1. Parables call for decision. They suggest attitudes and policies and provoke the hearer’s response. His judgment is called for; he must accept or reject. Occasionally this is explicitly pointed out; King David acknowledges that the poor man in Nathan’s parable has been unjustly treated and then sees that this implies a condemnation of himself. More often the hearer is implicitly invited to see himself in a parable; he is drawn in as participant and actor. Peter Slater has written:

The analogies developed in parables are not just any analogies. They are those which help us to develop our policies for living and decide on their adoption. The central analogies are ones which suggest roles and rules in life, such as the role of sonship and the rule of neighbourly love. They are rarely analogies to impersonal features of the universe, designed to aid in speculating about anything as abstruse as ‘being as such’.9

Some parables, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, are indeed ‘useful fictions’ whose only point is to recommend attitudes, policies for living, ‘rules and roles’. Other parables seem at the same time to make claims about reality; the Parable of the Prodigal Son commends to us a filial stance; but it also implies that God is like a father.

2. Parables are open-ended. C. H. Dodd gives this definition: ‘At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.’10 Like a metaphor, a parable presents a comparison to be explored, insights to be discovered, not an optional illustration of a set of explicitly stated principles. (Most scholars believe that the explanations, allegories and hortatory appeals which follow several of Jesus’ parables in the gospels were later additions to the parables themselves.11) Often parables are many-faceted and can be applied to one’s own situation under a variety of circumstances after one has tried to understand the original context in which they were told.

3. Parables communicate vivid images. Who can forget the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan, once he has heard about them? Mental images are more important than abstract concepts as vehicles for the transmission of a religious tradition. Images influence attitudes and behaviour more powerfully than general principles do. They are common in the experience of worship (as, for example, in the temple imagery of Isaiah’s vision). Perhaps both philosophers and theologians, in concentrating on verbally-stated propositions, have tended to neglect the role of images in human thought.12

Austin Farrer maintains that religious images are central in the biblical tradition. He holds that God has revealed himself through ‘inspired images’ rather than through creeds or doctrines. These images, he urges, are based on analogies which man neither postulates nor establishes for himself; but simply accepts because they are ‘God-given’. Once revealed, they can be used to interpret experience and historical events. Farrer discusses a number of these biblical images in detail and makes a convincing case for their influence.13

The idea of ‘directly revealed images’ escapes the literalism of directly revealed propositions, yet several objections can be raised. By his appeal to authority, Farrer makes ‘authorized images’ immune to criticism. Surely the images of different religious traditions lead to incompatible affirmations. On what basis should one accept the claim that the images of a particular tradition are revealed? Further, can we not acknowledge the importance of imagination without treating it as a separate faculty which God could use in isolation from other faculties? To be sure, Farrer does give the religious community an active role in the development and interpretation of images, and even in their origination man is not entirely passive. But by detaching religious images from the human experience in which they occur, he minimizes the influence of psychological forces and cultural images (from literature, mythology, art, etc.). I would agree that in the biblical tradition events are interpreted through dominant images, but I submit that the images themselves are not directly God-given but arise from man’s analogical imagination.

The role of analogy which I will develop differs, however, from the traditional doctrine of analogy. How can religious language avoid literalism on the one hand and emptiness on the other? If familiar terms are predicated of God literally (univocally), one ends in anthropomorphism. But if no familiar terms can be predicated, except equivocally, one ends in agnosticism. (If divine love in no way resembles human love, the term is vacuous; one could as well call it divine hate, or divine obesity, after disclaiming all familiar denotations of the terms.) The doctrine of analogy was supposed to provide a middle way, allowing for both similarity and difference between God and man.14

But one of its two classical forms, the analogy of proportionality, seems to end close to agnosticism. For it denies that there is any analogy between divine and human goodness themselves; it asserts only that divine goodness is to God’s nature as human goodness is to man’s nature -- in other words, that each is good in away appropriate to its own nature. But unless we have some prior knowledge of God’s nature, or assume an ontology of ‘levels of being’ with some continuity between the levels, the ‘proportionality’ tells us nothing about God. The other classical form, the analogy of attribution, states that a characteristic can be predicated ‘formally’ of God and ‘derivatively’ of created things. But the argument rests on the assumptions that causes resemble their effects and that God is the cause of the world. The conclusion then asserts only what was already in the premise: the creator is good in whatever way necessary to produce goodness in the creatures. If analogies are based on religious experience, however, neither of these two assumptions need be made. The role of analogy in religious models will be presented in a later chapter.

3. The Character of Myth

Religious symbols and images are combined in the complex narratives known as myths. These forms have been illuminated by historians studying ancient civilizations and by anthropologists studying preliterate cultures today. In contrast to literary critics, who have usually concentrated on the internal content of myths, historians and anthropologists have been concerned about their place in the lives of individuals and groups. In broad terms, a myth is a story which is taken to manifest some aspect of the cosmic order. We shall for the moment postpone the question of the relation of the events narrated in the myth to historical events, and consider the function of myths in human life. Unlike a fairy tale, a living myth is highly significant in personal and corporate life; it endorses particular ways of ordering experience and acting in daily life, along the following lines:

1. Myths offer ways of ordering experience. Myths provide a world-view, a vision of the basic structure of reality. Most myths are set at the time of creation, or in a primordial time, or at the time of key historical events -- times in which the forms of existence were established, modified or disclosed. The present is interpreted in the light of the formative events narrated in the myth, as Mireca Eliade has shown. Peter Berger refers to this ordering of experience as ‘nomizing’ or ‘cosmizing’, the adoption of a dramatized cosmic framework for human life. According to Streng, myths show ‘the essential structure of reality, manifest in particular events of the past that are remembered from generation to generation’. A myth is relevant to daily life because it deals with perennial problems and the enduring order of the world in which man lives.15

2. Myths inform man about himself He takes his self-identity in part from the past events which he believes have made him what he is. He understands himself in relation to the ancestors of his people. A community is constituted by the key events which it remembers and in which its members participate. A living myth evokes personal involvement rather than contemplation or conceptual analysis. It is a way of action which brings man into accord with a group and an ordained order. It expresses ‘the continuity between the structures of human existence and cosmic structures’ (Eliade). Creation myths usually manifest in dramatic form basic convictions about human nature and destiny.

3. Myths express a saving power in human life. The cosmic order reflected in myths typically has a tri-partite structure. There is an ideal state or being which represents the source, ground and goal of life. The actual condition of man is separated from the ideal by some flaw, defect or distortion, variously understood as sin, ignorance, attachment, etc. But a saving power, can overcome the flaw and establish the ideal; it may take the form of a personal redeemer, or a law, ritual or discipline to be followed. Myths thus portray and convey a power to transform man’s life, rather than a predominantly theoretical explanation of it.

4. Myths provide patterns for human actions. They hold up not an abstract ideal but a prototype for man’s imitation. Often the actions of divine beings or mythical ancestors give the exemplary patterns for ritual, moral and practical behaviour. ‘Hence the supreme function of the myth is to "fix" the paradigmatic models for all rites and all significant activities -- eating, sexuality, work, education, etc.’16 Myths are vivid and impressive, inspiring their adherents to emotional response and concrete action. They encourage particular forms of behaviour and implicitly embody ideal goals and judgments of value. Myths form and sanction the moral norms of a society.

5. Myths are enacted in rituals. Myths are expressed, not only in symbolic words, but also in symbolic acts -- dance, gesture, drama, and formalized cultic acts or rites. Myths are narrated and enacted in rituals. The myth often justifies the ritual, while the ritual transmits the myth and provides a way of taking part in it, as van der Leeuw shows.17 The original event becomes present (re-presented) in symbolic re-enactment. Cultic acts embody the creative power of primordial and historical time and create anew the forms for ordering experience and action.

There are many examples of this close association of myth and ritual. New Year’s festivals in several cultures are known to ‘have included the recitation and enactment of creation myths. In ancient Mesopotamia, the victory of Marduk over Tiamat, the primeval dragon, was acted out annually; the New Year, as a new beginning, was celebrated as a renewal of the primordial victory of order over chaos. There was a close correlation of myth and ritual also in the ‘mystery religions’ of the Near East, such as Orphic, Eleusinian and Isis cults. The latter was a ritual dramatization of the Isis -- Osiris myth of death and resurrection, through ‘which the initiate sought immortality. Again, the ‘rites of passage’ at critical points in individual life, marking a change of status (birth, puberty, marriage, death), are almost always accompanied by the presentation of myths. Initiation ceremonies and rites of puriflcation and rebirth are rich in mythical symbolism.18

Some anthropologists have in fact maintained that ritual was the earliest form in all religious traditions, and that myth was developed later to justify and explain ritual. Marett holds that ‘men danced out before they thought out their responses’. Changes in behaviour and in action often occur before changes in ideas. Thus Hyman, Raglan, and others19 claim that myth arises from rite -- even though the myth may be remembered long after the rite which it sanctioned has disappeared. Other anthropologists, such as Clyde Klukhohn,20 reply that there are some myths (among African Pygmy and American Indian tribes, for example,) which have evidently never been enacted in ceremonial form. They insist that the interaction between myth and ritual is complex and diverse, and cannot be reduced to any simple universal pattern except by a selective use of evidence. In some cases myth influences ritual, in other cases ritual influences myth, in still others they develop together -- or separately -- according to particular needs and historical circumstances.

Both myth and ritual are frequently forms of celebration. Agricultural communities have celebrated the life-giving and creative forces in the world, rejoicing in the wonder of renewed life in the spring, and joining in festivals of thanksgiving for harvest in the autumn. The festivals and holy days of ancient Israel were primarily celebrations of the historical events which it remembered and symbolically re-enacted. The liturgy, ritual and sacraments of the Christian community have, of course, centered on its memory of the life of Christ. In all these instances, man’s life in the present is interpreted in relation to the cosmic order portrayed in stories about the past.

If a myth is defined as a story in which some aspect of the cosmic order is manifest, then the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam must be said to include myths. For in them one finds stories of God’s creation, judgment, deliverance, incarnation, and so forth; and these stories offer ways of ordering experience and patterns for human action and ritual re-enactment. In the western religions, myth is indeed tied primarily to historical events rather than to phenomena in nature. This difference is crucial for conceptions of history, time and ethics, but it need not lead us to deny the presence of myth in the Bible. Divine action is in itself no more directly observable in history than in primordial time or in nature.21

The broad definition given would include modern secular philosophies whose stories, while not about the gods, do deal with ‘aspects of the cosmic order’. Marxism and evolutionary naturalism are world-visions with most of the characteristics described above. Some authors speak of modem ‘covert myths’ of inevitable progress, human rationality, and utopia through technology.22 We will be mainly concerned, however, with traditional religious myths.

4. The Functions of Myth

We must now examine the functions and cognitive status of myths and relate them to models. Consider first the psychological functions of myths for the individual. In the face of the insecurities of illness, natural disaster and death, myths and rituals contribute to the reduction of anxiety.23 They are a mechanism of ego defense against a variety of threats to human welfare, and a way of restoring the individual’s rapport with nature and society. They are a source of security and a symbolic resolution of conflicts. In the psychoanalytic interpretation, myths, like individual dreams, are symbolic expressions of unconscious wishes. According to Freud, they are collective fantasies representing repressed sexual impulses. Freudian authors find disguised sexual symbolism and forgotten childhood experiences (e.g., incestual desires or hatred of father or mother) behind every myth.24

The social functions of myth have been stressed by other interpreters since Durkheim. Myths promote the integration of society. They are a cohesive force binding a community together and contributing to social solidarity, group identity and communal harmony. They encourage cultural stability, for ‘myth is an active force which is intimately related to almost every aspect of culture’ (Malinowski). Myth sanctions the existing social order and justifies its status system and power structure, providing a rationale for social and political institutions -- from kinship to kingship. A common morality is supported by a mythical tradition, which perpetuates both value-attitudes and specific behavioural recommendations.

An interesting interpretation known as structuralism has been expounded by Claude Lévi-Strauss. He finds a binary structure in many myths with opposing terms. These myths have an internal logical pattern in which the initial opposition is overcome, often by the introduction of a third term. But the formal properties of the myth, especially the logic of contradictions and correlations, have parallels in the structure of society. The binary oppositions in society are made tolerable by the myth; the third category helps to mediate between the overtly irreconcilable aspects of the social order. Thus Lévi-Strauss tries to display the linguistic and logical features of the recurrent patterns within various myths, and to set forth their function in coping with conflicts in individual and social life.25

Now these analyses of various psychological and social functions do not in themselves say anything about the cognitive status of myth. To be sure, if any one of these analyses is taken as an all-embracing theory concerning the origins of myth, it becomes a reductionist explanation. (This occurs if one says that myth is nothing but a projection of sexual repression, or nothing but a rationalization of ritual or a symbolic representation of social structures.) But it would be quite consistent to defend a variety of functions of myth in individual and social life, while leaving to one side the question of truth or falsity. To the instrumentalist, however, a myth is in principle neither true nor false, but a useful fiction. Thus Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

A myth is living or dead, not true or false. You cannot refute a myth because as soon as you treat it as refutable, you do not treat it as a myth but as a hypothesis or history. Myths which could not easily coexist if they were hypotheses or histories, as for example rival accounts of creation, can comfortably belong to the same body of mythology.26

But surely the problem of the cognitive status of myths cannot be so easily dismissed. For one thing, the belief systems of religious traditions are taken more seriously by their adherents than instrumentalist accounts acknowledge. Cosmological beliefs are a central feature of myth, as Eliade has indicated. De Waal Malefijt maintains that myth and ritual are intimately associated, not because either is derived from the other, but because both are based on particular beliefs about the cosmic order.27 A ritual presupposes a world-view, a set of assumptions within which the ritual makes sense. Henry Murray describes ‘cognitive and convictional functions’ of myths, which must be credible to their adherents, though he considers these secondary to other functions.28 Even though a living myth is closer to daily life than to metaphysical speculation, it does seem to presuppose some sort of truth-claims which can be examined.

What cognitive status, then, can be assigned to myth? In the nineteenth century, mythology was usually viewed as a primitive attempt to explain natural phenomena. One could point to etiological stories accounting for the origins of striking features of the world and then conclude that myths are essentially prescientific attempts to answer scientific questions. As such, they have obviously been superseded by modern science. Influenced by the prevailing faith in man’s progress and the evolution of culture, these authors dismissed myth as the product of the prelogical mind during ‘the childhood of the race’. Even Ernst Cassirer -- who defends myth as an autonomous form irreducible to psychological or social forces, and holds that myths are based on an authentic intuition of the solidarity and continuity of cosmic life -- ends by asserting that the age of mythical consciousness has been superseded by the scientific age.29

But if myths are not true when taken literally, what kind of truth can they be said to have? One possibility would be to take them as symbols of man’s inner life. They would be valid in so far as they authentically expressed man’s feelings, hopes and fears, or his experiences of guilt, reconciliation and liberation from anxiety. Carl Jung goes further than this: for him, myths are the projection of inner psychic dramas, but these in turn are products of the ‘collective unconscious’. Common to the mythologies of the ancient world and the dreams of modern man, he says, are archetypal figures, primordial images, universal symbols, known by a kind of immediate intuitive awareness. Even myths about the elements of nature (sun and moon, summer and winter, etc.) are symbolic expressions of man’s unconscious psychic life in which the eternal archetypes are encountered.30

The most notable recent effort to translate biblical myth in terms of man’s inner life is Rudolf Bultmann’s programme of demythologizing’. He objects to myth because it tries to represent the divine in the objective categories of the physical world. In the New Testament these misleading categories include space (e.g., Christ as ‘coming down’ and ‘ascending’), time (eschatology as temporal finality), and causality (miracles and supernatural forces). These first-century thought-forms must be rejected, according to Bultmann, both because they are scientifically untenable in a world of lawful cause-and-effect and because they are theologically inadequate: the transcendent cannot be represented in the categories of the objective world. Moreover, he insists, the true meaning of scriptural myth always did involve man’s self-understanding. The gospel was concerned about man’s hopes, fears, decisions and commitments in the present, not about miraculous occurrences in the past.31

For Bultmann, ‘demythologizing’ is accomplished by existential re-interpretation. All religious formulations must be statements of a new understanding of ourselves. We must ask what a given myth says about new modes of personal existence, new possibilities for our lives. Bultmann draws from the categories of Heidegger’s philosophy: man’s anxiety, fallenness and guilt, and the transition to authenticity, freedom and openness to the future. Christ was the man of radical freedom -- freedom from anxiety, freedom to love -- and he opens for us the possibility of authentic existence. Faith is not the acceptance of propositions about the past but response, decision and reorientation in the present. Here is a comprehensive programme for translating mythical imagery into the language of personal experience.

But the price of this internalization of myth is a neglect of God’s relation to nature and history. I would grant that God is not encountered apart from personal involvement, without granting that God’s action is limited to the sphere of selfhood. Bultmann maintains the existentialist dichotomy between the sphere of personal selfhood and the sphere of impersonal objects, perpetuating the Kantian bifurcation of man and nature. In this retreat to interiority, nature becomes the impersonal stage for the drama of personal existence. One wonders also whether the gospel has not been dehistoricized. The message concerning Christ can indeed be an occasion of personal reorientation, but what is the significance of the event itself? Did God act in history, or does he act only in the present transformation of man’s life? In short, has Bultmann by subjectivizing myth lost its reference to nature and history?

The alternative which I am proposing is to consider the models which are embodied in myths. Models, like metaphors, symbols and parables, are analogical and open-ended. Metaphors, however, are used only momentarily, and symbols and parables have only a limited scope, whereas models are systematically developed and pervade a religious tradition. A model represents the enduring structural components which myths dramatize in narrative form. One model may be common to many myths. A model is relatively static and lacks the imaginative richness and dramatic power which make a myth memorable; men will always express their understanding of the meaning of life by telling stories and enacting them in rituals. Models result from reflection on the living myths which communities transmit. In the remainder of this volume we must keep in mind this wider context: the life of religious communities.

Models summarize the structural elements of a set of myths. They can represent aspects of the cosmic order, including nature and history, which are dramatized in myth but which tend to be neglected in Bultmann’s de-mythologized existentialism. Like myths, models offer ways of ordering experience and of interpreting the world. They are neither literal pictures of reality nor useful fictions. They lead to conceptually formulated, systematic, coherent, religious beliefs which can be critically analyzed and evaluated. These cognitive functions of religious models in the interpretation of experience present a number of parallels with the functions of theoretical models in science which will be explored in subsequent chapters.

But religious models can also fulfil many of the non-cognitive functions of myth, particularly in the expression of attitudes; these functions have no parallel in science. Models embodied in myths evoke commitment to ethical norms and policies of action. Like metaphors, religious models elicit emotional and valuational responses. Like parables, they encourage decision and personal involvement. Like myths, they offer ways of life and patterns of behaviour. Analysis of models thus provides an illuminating method of dealing with the cognitive functions of myths without neglecting non-cognitive functions. We will return to these diverse characteristics of religious models in Chapter 4 below.


1. Max Black, Models and Metaphors, Cornell University Press 1962, chaps. 3 and 13.

2. See Douglas Berggren, ‘The Use and Abuse of Metaphor’, Review of Metaphysics, vol. 16, 1962, pp.237 and 450.

3. Monroe Beardsley, ‘Metaphor’, in P. Edwards (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan 1967; M. McCloskey, ‘Metaphors’, Mind, vol.73 1964, p.215; Martin Foss, Symbol and Metaphor in Human Experience, Princeton University Press 1949.

4. Philip Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality, Indiana University Press 1962, p.162; see also his The Burning Fountain, Indiana University Press 1954.

5. Edwyn Bevan, Symbolism and Belief, Allen & Unwin 1938.

6. Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality, chap.6.

7. Ian Ramsey, Christian Discourse, Oxford University Press 1965, cap. 2; F. W. Dillistone, Christianity and Symbolism, Collins 1955

8. Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Allen & Unwin and Harper & Row 1957, chap. 3.

9. Peter Slater, ‘Parables, Analogues and Symbols’, Religious Studies, vol.4, 1968, p. 27.

10. C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, Nisbet & Co. 1935, p. 16.

11. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus trans. S. H. Hooke, SCM Press and Charles Scribner’s Sons 1963, p. 105. See also Robert W. Funk, Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God, Harper & Row 1966, chap. 5

12. H. H. Price, Thinking and Experience, Hutchinson’s University Library 1953, chap. 8.

13. Austin Farrer, The Glass of Vision, Dacre Press 1948, chap.3.

14. Battista Mondin, The Principle of Analogy in Protestant and Catholic Thought, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff 1963; James Ross, ‘Analogy as a Rule of Meaning for Religious Language’, International Philosophical Quarterly, vol.1, 1961, p.468; E. L. Mascall, Existence and Analogy, Longmans Green 1949; George Klubertanz, St Thomas Aquinas on Analogy, Loyola University Press 1960.

15. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion trans. R. Sheed, Sheed & Ward 1958; Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, Doubleday & Co. 1967; Frederick Streng, Understanding Religious Man, Dickenson 1969.

16. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane trans. W. Trask, Harcourt, Brace & World 1959, chap. 2.

17. G. van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation trans. J. E. Turner, Allen & Unwin, 1938 chap.6o.

18. H. R. Willoughby, Pagan Regeneration, University of Chicago Press 1929; Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, Viking Press 1964; Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1963.

19. See chapters by Stanley Edgar Hyman and Lord Raglan in Thomas A. Seboek (ed.), Myth: A Symposium, University of Indiana Press 1958; also S. H. Hooke (ed.), Myth and Ritual, Oxford University Press 1933.

20. Clyde Klukhohn, ‘Myth and Ritual: A General Theory’, Harvard Theological Review, vol.35, 1942, p.45, reprinted in W. A. Lessa and E. Z. Vogt (eds), Reader in Comparative Religion, Harper & Row 1965.

21. See chapters by John F. Priest and Amos N. Wilder in Joseph Campbell (ed.), Myths, Dreams and Religion, E. P. Dutton & Co. 1970.

22. E.g., the essay by Alasdair Maclntyre in A. Maclntyre (ed.), Metaphysical Beliefi, SCM Press 1957; or Langdon Gilkey, Religion and the Scientific Future, Harper & Row 1970.

23. See J. F. M. Middleton (ed.), Myth and Cosmos, Doubleday and Co. 1967.

24. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams trans. J. Strachey, Modern Library and Basic Books 1955.

25. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology trans. C. Jacobson and B. G. Schoepf, Basic Books 1963; Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss, Fontana 1970.

26. Alasdair Maclntyre, ‘Myth’, in P. Edwards (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.5, p.435.

27. Annemarie de Waal Malefijt, Religion and Culture, Macmillan 1968, chap. 7.

28. Henry A. Murray, ‘The Possible Nature of a "Mythology" to Come’, in Henry A. Murray (ed.), Myth and Mythmaking, George A. Braziller, 1960.

29. Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth trans. S. Langer, Peter Smith Publishers and Harper & Brothers 1946; The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. II, trans. R. Manheim, Yale University Press 1955.

30. C. G. Jung and C. Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology trans. R. F. C. Hull, Princeton University Press 1969; Maud Bodkin, Studies in Type Images in Poetry, Religion and Philosophy, Oxford University Press 1951; also Wheelwright (note 4 above).

31. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1958.