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12. The God-Made Myth that Reveals Reality

On Christmas Eve 1964 I started a sea voyage in Antwerp that would take me to Bombay. The ship was a freighter with a few passengers on board. So I was happy to find good companionship in a high-spirited and knowledgeable German engineer who was also on his way to India. We got on extremely well even though he was a convinced agnostic and I a Catholic missionary.

It being the Christmas season anyway, we could not very well keep off religion. One evening over a glass of beer he told he what he really thought. "I can't understand how an intelligent chap like yourself can be a Christian. Do you never think about what you actually believe? Even if God were to exist, do you think he has a family and lives up there in outer space? And what about him sending one of his sons to become a human being, and so on? It's all so primitive, so crude! It's so obviously a myth! With a little honesty and openness anyone can see that!"

I do not know anymore what I said to him in defence of my convictions. What I do remember is that I thought and prayed over his words for many hours on many days. In fact, on that sea journey I used to stand on deck for a long time every day, watching the fascinating scene of ever changing sky and incredible sea and thinking about God's 'myth'. I will tell you more about this in this chapter, but we have to start with John.

Speaking through symbols

The earthly Jesus was word and image. Everything he did or said throughout his life had sign value.(1) In all his deeds and words Jesus revealed the Father and manifested how we could be saved. John knew that this mysterious symbolism of Jesus' life had only been understood after his resurrection. Only then could the Spirit explain everything (14,26) and disclose the truth in all its fullness (16,13). Jesus' departure marks the dividing line between the period of incarnate symbolism and the hour of clear understanding.

"I have spoken so far to you in mythical language; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in mythical language but tell you plainly about the Father" 16,25

The word I have translated as 'mythical language' is a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word 'mashal', which can mean: riddle, proverb, story with a hidden meaning, allegory and figure of speech. It often is synonymous to parable.Studying God's revealed word, we are told in Sirach, requires the ability to "penetrate the subtleties of comparisons, seek out the hidden meanings of figurative speech and decifer the obscurities of parables" (Sir 39,2-3 ; where 'figures of speech' stands for the word in question). The word denotes a mode of instruction which, usually in story form, both hides and discloses deeper meanings. This is exactly what a "myth" also does in the positive sense in which it is applied in comparative religion. In the whole context of John's Gospel which is concerned with such fundamental issues as salvation, our relationship to God and the ultimate purpose of life, only the word "myth" (in its positive sense) does justice to what John is speaking about.

One form in which the myth is presented to us uses the story of a new birth. We find it worked out by John in Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus (3,1-17) (2). In our own words we might re-tell the myth as follows: "After creating mankind, God the heavenly ruler expected them to show respect to himself and live peacefully among one another. To his dismay, God noticed that sin began to multiply on the earth. People had turned selfish, violence and injustice became the order of the day. The darkness of ignorance and vice began to cover the earth. At this moment, in rightful indignation, God could have decided to punish the world outright and destroy the human race as he had done under Noah.

Instead, he felt a pity on them. As a gesture of his special love he decided to send his only Son, his word and image, to the human race to save all those who would be prepared to accept his message (3,16-17). To such people the Son was empowered to offer a new kind of life, a share in God's own life.178 Through him they would be born again, not by a physical birth as if they would have to enter once more into their mother's womb, but by a birth of water and the the Spirit (3,3-5). This spiritual rebirth, which was therefore not caused by human seed but by a spiritual seed infused by God, made those people to be God's children in a new and very real sense (1,12-13). Thus, through his only begotten Son, God gave all people of good will the chance to become his own sons and daughters." But before we go on let me unravel the meaning of 'myth'.

Frames of reference

Many people are uneasy when they hear the word "myth". Some identify myths with fairy tales, legends, imaginary stories. Others remember that some modern theologians who deny any historical value to the Christian message, have introduced the term "de-mythologisation" - which means: "freeing the message from myths".(3) Speaking of myths in the context of Christian proclamation may seem to them an unwarranted concession to such a hollowing out of Christian faith. Well, I want to assure my readers that I dissociate myself from any such connotations. I believe in the historical reality of the revelation of Jesus Christ. And I am convinced that a proper understanding of "the myth" of the Christian message will safeguard precisely the historical value of that message.

What do we mean when we speak of "myth" in the context of religion? A myth is the fundamental way in which a person understands himself with regard to his origins and destiny, with regard to the universe in which he lives.(4) Perhaps we can explain it in this way: whether people are aware of it or not, all their actions and attitudes presuppose some fundamental answer to the most basic questions of life. These questions are: What do I live for? Who made me what I am now? What will happen to me when I die? To whom am I responsible for my actions? If I need help and guidance to whom should I turn? What will fulfil me as a human being? What is the ultimate meaning of my life? Consciously or unconsciously we carry in us a set of answers to those questions which become the 'existential perspective' that explains everything we do.(5) Such a universal frame of reference is the "myth" we adhere to.

In ancient cultures this complex set of fundamental answers was often presented in the form of a creation story, a story of the origin of a tribe or nation, a story of sin and redemption. The story of Adam and Eve in Paradise (Gen 2,4 - 3,24) is typically such a myth. It explains that mankind owes its existence to God, that God wanted man to be happy, that suffering in the world is a punishment for sin and that God extends the promise of future salvation. The myth presents, therefore a frame of reference in which people could understand themselves and what was happening to them. The same purpose was served by the myth of Marduk's victorious conquest over the evil powers in Babylonia and the beautiful Ramayana in many countries in the Far East. They are colourful 1,R2 their purpose is to buttress people's religious frame of reference.

Now it is important to realise that every person and every human society has its myths. This applies also to our sophisticated, westernised, secularised societies. The new cult language may be the terminology of science. The pulpit of proclamation may have been replaced by the cinema or TV. The ritual celebration may now have become visiting a museum to see the space capsule that took the first astronauts to the moon. The old myths have been replaced by new myths, whether they are consciously recognised or not.(6)

Human autonomy

Typical of our age is the humanist myth. It sees the human race as totally independent and responsible only to itself. Its religious patriarchs are Darwin, Freud and Russell. Its infallible guide is science. "Through an initial event, such as a big bang, the universe came into existence. As matter was flung apart into all directions, forming stars and galaxies, our solar system too was formed. On our earth, which is only a tiny planet, conditions were favourable for the formation of life. From very simple one-cell organisms life gradually evolved to the higher forms of plants and animals, yes even human beings. With the emergence of human intelligence, evolution was no longer a blind process; man could now take charge of his own destiny, so that we may say that man made himself.(7)Of course, in the beginning man did not understand the powers of nature and so he invented gods to account for them. In fact, what he was doing from a psychological point of view, was projecting into religious belief his former dependence on a father. With our new knowledge and moral maturity we have to reject religion as part of our childhood. We should become truly self-reliant. We should procure our own happiness by making the most of the life we live now; for there will be no other. We should accept the fact that as human beings we are on our own: with no god to help us and no one else to be responsible to. (8)

Some people are so sure of this "existential perspective" that they consider it nothing else but facts proved by science. But the fact of evolution does not rule out a creator; it may require one even more. The fact that we use human images about God like calling him "Father", does not disprove his existence. On the contrary, human conscience manifests a deep awareness of "the Other" which is the basis of our sense of responsibility. Claiming that man does not depend on any outside force for either existence or moral happiness, is therefore not observing facts, but an interpretation of facts. It is just as much "myth" as the Christian claim of ultimate dependence on and responsibility to God.

Some forty years ago, in the surge of optimism following the Second World War, it looked as if the humanist myth was set to conquer the West. Now while it still has a grip on many people, it is showing serious cracks. Scientists continue to believe in a creator and belief in God is not waning as predicted.(9) What is more, people's faith in science as the ultimate saviour has been shaken. Technology is seen to have mainly served man's animal needs; it has not offered him real happiness. Violence and injustice are as rampant as ever; the nuclear arms race has introduced a fear mankind never knew before. In response, numerous new sects have arisen that range from oriental cults to New Age groups, each with their own secret formula of happiness and salvation. They are a living protest against the inadequacy of the myth of man's autonomy. They also show a curious resemblance to the Hellenistic mystery religions.

Salvation through knowledge

The humanist myth of our own times had its antecedents in the Hellenistic world. Greek civilization had discovered the value of the human person. The beauty of the human body was admired, as we can see from statues and paintings. The body was cultivated through sports, systematic exercises and sophisticated treatment of bathing, massaging and anointing. The powers of mind too were developed as never before. People's individual rights and duties were extolled in the first democracies of the world. This focus on human dignity and the absurdity of many religious traditions! and polytheistic beliefs, led many of the intelligentsia to becoming practical humanists. As business men, politicians and military leaders, they concentrated on making the best of this life. The book of Wisdom characterizes this Hellenistic unbelief so widespread in a city like Alexandria.

"It is just by chance that we exist, and after life is over, it will be as if we never had been there at all. Our breath of life is no more than smoke; our mind is like a spark struck by the beating of our heart. When that spark is extinguished, the body disintegrates into ash and our breath dissolves like a puff of air.... Come on then, let us enjoy the good things of life.... Let everyone join in our feasting. Let us leave traces of our enjoyment everywhere. For this is our share of life.... Holy people are a nuisance.... They claim that only religious people will die a happy death. They boast that God is their father.... Wisdom 2,1-20 (passim)

But then, as now, the inadequacy of this godless myth was clear. Oppression, bloodshed, injustice thrived everywhere. The world was full of darkness and thinking people were aware man would never be able to liberate himself. Through the religious response in the Greek world itself, mainly in the philosophy of the Stoics, and through the influence of oriental religions, which included the Jewish faith? new approaches to salvation were worked out. Many of them were "Gnostic", by which we mean that for them the main instrument of salvation was enlightenment or knowledge, "gnosis". And these Gnostics expressed their salvation in a myth that is close in terminology to the myth of rebirth taught by Jesus with which we began this chapter.

In outline the myth comes to this. "The world came about as a series of emanations from God, who is pure light and mind, and of marriages between these emanations and lower beings, who were darkness and matter. Human beings are a mixture of both light and matter. We have in us a spark of divine life, but this spark is hidden on account of the darkness in which our bodies with their vices and evil deeds are immersed. To save these human beings from this situation God reveals himself as mind to some chosen individuals who thereby discover that they too belong to mind. He reveals himself through the word, the word of instruction spoken by an enlightened teacher. Through the word the disciple begins to understand his true nature as light and mind. He renounces the evil habits of his material body. Then suddenly enlightenment suffuses his mind and he knows God in new way. This enlightenment is like a new birth for the person who receives through it salvation and life".

The rebirth of the Gnostic myth is therefore the result of instruction and mystical prayer. And though there is an element of gift in it in as far as the knowledge is imparted from above, in another sense the rebirth is almost a natural process. For the light is already in man; it only needs to be re-discovered. The "immanent man" is liberated. "Man recognises the divine elements of which he is constituted". Thus he becomes "a god and child of the One". He is "deified by a new generation". A "birth of divinity" has taken place.(10)

The Christian myth

Jesus had stated: "Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18,3; Mk 10,15). Since entering the kingdom of heaven happens through baptism, John could well interpret Jesus' saying as expressing a new birth by which the catechumens became children of God.(11) Or he may have had in mind first and foremost the enlightenment of faith through the Spirit that makes us realise we are children of God.(12) In either case John saw in Jesus' words the possibility of presenting the Christian myth in terms familiar to Hellenists.

What does the Christian myth teach? Most of all, our utter dependence on God. Salvation is a gift from God. "To all who receive the word, he gave power to become children of God" (1,12). We cannot see the kingdom of God without the spiritual seed implanted by God (1,13 by the Spirit (3,5.8). This rejects in one blow both the humanist myth and the Gnostic one. For man cannot save himself either by his own material efforts or by seeking enlightenment. The Christian myth also teaches that salvation came through Jesus. Baptism in water and the Spirit derives its life-giving power from Jesus who alone can give life (1,12; 3,15-17).

We understand the Christian myth best, if we compare it once more with the other myths we analysed. The humanist myth defends man" autonomy. In as far as it urges us to take our human dignity seriously and not to shirk responsibility whenever we can, the myth has its value. In fact, it comes close to what John's Gospel itself will be demanding (see chapter sixteen). But in as far as it excludes God, it fails. It does not do justice to our dependence on him either as creator or judge.

The Gnostic myth too has its good points. By reflecting on transcendent reality and by turning away from evil conduct, we do become more spiritual and responsible people.(13) But here too essential elements are lacking. We will never be sure we are on the right path. We may not have the strength to live by our spiritual convictions. The tangible support from God is not there.(14)

Such immediate and tangible guidance, we believe, came to us in Jesus Christ. No amount of philosophising, of spiritual seeking, of mystical enlightenment can equal the historical fact of God coming to meet us and save us in Jesus. It is the summit of God's commitment to man - as illogical as his earlier commitments. And here I am back to my own meditations as I was standing there watching the sea on that journey to Bombay. The truly distinctive feature of our Christian myth, I said to myself, is the cheek of believing that an infinitely superior, eternal God would actually commit himself, tie himself down, to the small creatures we are. And yet the commitment of the incarnation is not less credible than the commitments of creation and giving us a free will which we know to be true.

When God created us he committed himself to us - for creation was unnecessary. But after he created us he could no longer disown us as his creatures. When God gave us a free will thus making us in his image, he committed himself even further. For he had no need to give us such true autonomy. But after he has done so, he has to respect our decisions whether good or bad. Coming to us in Jesus was a third, culminating commitment - a totally free gift which once given could never be retracted.

This series of unnecessary, illogical, unpredictable commitments reveals God to us as a God of love. This is the heart of our Christian faith, the central message contained in the myth. God is not just mind and light. God is love (1 Jn 4,7.16). He is a loving person, a father. This provides a frame of reference that revolutionises our world and our life. It throws light on our origin, on suffering, on death. It explains the purpose of our existence. It gives meaning to our relationships and duties. Knowing that our sins are forgiven and experiencing God in our deepest self, we are truly reborn to a new life of love. It provides a vision infinitely more satisfying than the happiness pursued by humanists or the knowledge sought by Gnostics. "He who lives by love, lives in God. God is present in him" (1 Jn 4,16).

For reflection. Touching Jesus' feet

John tells us that Lazarus' sister Mary anointed Jesus' feet with precious ointment and wiped them dry with her hair (read 12,1-8). The story has similarities with an incident related by Luke (Lk 7,36-50) which describes the conversion of a prostitute. In John there is no trace of any special sin in Mary's previous life. He tells us that Jesus loved her, as he did Lazarus and Martha (11,5). Ignoring other aspects of the story I am always intrigued by Mary's affectionate gesture as a symbol of what the incarnation means: that we can 'touch' God

Am I aware of the inadequacy of human concepts about God? How different he is from all we can imagine or express? How all human language about him must be partial and symbolic?

What is the central truth for me in that Christian 'myth' that makes the world meaningful to me? Can I express it in a number of ways? Can I trace its reality in my life?

Do I accept this central truth with full faith? Do I realise that my believing is a conscious act, an option to accept what God is offering to me? Do I grasp that, if I really believe, it will change my view of reality and my priorities

Has God 'touched' me in Jesus? Or has my faith remained rather notional and abstract? Am I less privileged than Mary who could actually clasp Jesus' feet in her hands?

Foot Notes

1. "John's Gospel is symbolic by its very nature", S. M. SCHNEIDERS, "Geschichte und Symbolik im Johannesevangelium", Erbe und Auftrag 52 (1976) 30-35,"The symbolic value of Jesus' actions outstrips the conceptual content of the words that follow;" E. COTHENET, "Gestes et actes symboliques du Christ dans le IVe Evangile", Gestes et paroles dans les diverges families liturgiques 24 (1978) 95-116. "John's worl~ is viewed as a storehouse of symbols that could become bearers of revelation"; J. PAINTER, "Johannine Symbols: A Case Study in Epistomology", Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 27 (1979) 26-41.

2. R. F. COLLINS rightly calls this section "a compendium of the entire Fourth Gospel" ("Jesus' Conversation with Nicodemus", Bible Today 93 (1977 1409-1419), just as the phrase "he gave them authority to become the children of God" is the core of the Prologue; R. A. CULPEPPE! "The Pivot of John's Prologue", New Testament Studies 27 (1980) 1-31. See also: M. VELLANICKAL, "Christian: Born of the Spirit", Biblebhashyam 2 (1976) 153-174; X. LEON-DUFOUR, "Towards a Symbolic Reading of the Fourth Gospel", New Testament Studies 27 (1981) 439-956.

3. R. BULTMANN first proposed this radical solution in a number of essays: "Neues Testament und Mythologie", Kerygma und Mythos, vol I, Reich, Hamburg 1950, pp.15-48;"Zum Problem der Entmythologiesirung', ibid, Vol II, 1952, pp.179-208; "Des Problem der Hermeneutik', Glauben und Verstehen. vol II, Mohr, Tubingen 1952, pp.211-235. BULTMANN merits praise for having raised some fundamental issues, but his solution was too drastic.

4. For an introduction to the meaning of 'myth' in the human sciences I recommend Mythology, ed. P. MARANDA, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1972. It presents an anthology of classical essays on the topic.

5. A. de WAELHENS, Une philosophic de l'ambiguite, University Publications, Louvain 1951, p.83.

6 L. GILKEY, "Modern Myth-making and the possibilities of Twentieth Century Theology" Renewal of Religious Thought, New York 1968, vol I, p.291.

7. V. GORDON CHILDE, Man Makes Himself, Mentor, New York 1951.

8. B. RUSSELL has been one of the most influential proponents of this myth. See especially: Why I am not a Christian, Allen and Unwin, London 1957; The Conquest of Happiness, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1955; Mysticism and Logic, Doubleday, New York 1965.

9. A. M. GREELEY, Unsecular Man. The Persistence of Religion, Schocken, New York 1972.

10. This reconstruction is based on two treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum, "Poimandres" and "De Regeneratione". See C. H. DODD, Interpretation (cf. note 35), pp.41-53; 303-308. The Valentinian Gnostic Theodotus describes Enosis as explaining: "Who we were, what we became; where we were, whither we were thrown; whither we are hastening, from what we are redeemed; what birth is and what rebirth" (Excerpta ex Theodoto 78), In the Gospel of Truth (22,13-22) we read: "He who has knowledge knows whence he has come and whither he is going. He knows this like someone who was drunk and wakes up from his stupor; who has come to himself and has found again what is his own" E. LOHSE, The New Testament Environment, Abingdon, Nashville 1976, pp.255-256.

11. J. JEREMIAS, Die Kindertaufe in den ersten vier Jahrhunderten, Gottingen 1958, 63ff; B. LINDARS, "John and the Synoptic Gospels: A Test Case", New Testament Studies 27 (1981) 287-294.

12. I. de la POTTERIE, "Maitre de l'eau et maitre de ['Esprit", Sciences Ecclesiastiques 14 (1962) 417-443.

13. J. N. FINDLAY, "Thoughts on the Gnosis of St. John", Religious Studies 17 (1981) 441-450.

14. R. Bultmann and his school maintain that the coming of a saviour god was part of the Gnostic myth. Recent studies have clearly demonstrated, however, that this view is not correct. Many Gnostic sects, such as the ones represented through the Corpus Hermeticum, do not have a saviour god at all. Those that do depend heavily on Christianity. The 'Saviour gods" of mystery religions belong to a different context. R. SCHNACKENBURGJohn's Gospel (see note 35), vol I, pp.435-438. See also: R. SCHNACKENBURG, "'Und das Wort ist Fleisch geworden"', Communio 8 (1979) 1-9.


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