Begin Again, in Myth

". . . [T]he purpose of a myth was to make people more fully conscious of the spiritual dimension that surrounded them on all sides and was a natural part of life." — Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

Myth is a word that has suffered greatly in our times, but it wasn't always this way. As used by Plato in his dialogues it had an honorable place next to logic: it carried the truth of a concept through a story. Those whom we like to call 'the ancients' seemed to live in a myth-ful world in which stories were told, repeated, passed on, modified, lived out and lived within—in short, a myth was a portal to a dimension of transcendence which only had to be invoked to be experienced. We are so far from that now.

"In every culture," notes Karen Armstrong, "we find the myth of a lost paradise, in which humans lived in close and daily contact with the divine.” Through many cultures and times the heavens were opened up, sometimes with a tree, a pole, a mountain, an escalator at the center of the world by which people could climb up to the god lands. These were the Golden Ages, common to most cultures around the world, a time when people and animals could commune together, and the gods walked among humans, sometimes in disguise, sometimes revealed through a flash of insight or a glance understood. These were the good old days.

Then somehow a catastrophe snapped the connection between heaven and earth. The mountain crumbled, the tree was cut, the ladder broke. As a species we've never been the same since. Joni Mitchell pointed out our longing in “Woodstock”—“and we're trying to get ourselves back to the garden.” None of this was meant to be history, a deliberate and verifiable account of events. It was myth, stories that taught us how to live in the face of the inexplicable and to survive in the shadowlands.

We divide our world into the religious and the secular, a concept that would have been blasphemous to our far ancestors. To them the world was imbued with the sacred; they walked in light that was cast by divine beings. Nothing was untouched by the gods, anything could be immersed within the sacred. The idea that we would worship in a building on a designated day would have been laughable had it not been so seriously bent. For them, the divine could be seen and heard in a burning bush, just off the path.

While the sacred was all around them it was not so obvious that they could afford to be inattentive. Moses, on the lam from a murder charge in Egypt, making a life for himself in the desert, sees a bush burning and turns aside. He is awestruck and curious, but to our eyes the remarkable thing is what happens next: He hears a voice from within the bush telling him to take off his shoes for he is on holy ground, and he does it!

Our first instinct would have been incredulity, tinged with panic. We might have thought ourselves to be slipping, hearing things, suffering hallucinations, most likely from dehydration. A couple of long pulls on the ever-present bottled water and we'd be set right again. Back slowly away, slip around the rock, and forget the whole thing ever happened. But Moses turned off the path, allowed the distraction, and met his destiny. By so doing he expanded his universe infinitely in all directions. We would contract it, reduce it, constrict and desiccate it.

I am envious of this inclination to the transcendent. It's all through sacred writings from all cultures; it is depicted sometimes laconically, sometimes in bewildering detail. The great divide between those people and us is at the molecular level of the One versus the Many. They saw the world as one being, everything in it spinning up in the drama between heaven and earth. Somewhere along the line it was understood that "on earth, as it is in heaven," was real. This world was a mirror image, on its best days, of what transpired in the heavens. There were people with an acute sensitivity, who saw the signs and could read the wind. You went to them because they could see from a great height what the earth looked like and where you were placed.

There were rituals, sacraments to be carried out, each one another opportunity to come closer to transcendence. It was not a matter of belief, but of practice. Beliefs came and went or wore out and had to be replaced. Or they were found to be impractical. What mattered was the doing, the deed, the action that made the ritual real. When the ancient stories were told you could see yourself in the moment; the hearing made the action vivid. The acting recreated the story, with you, this time, in the starring role. "This is the way," you heard, "walk in it." The world is One and you are part of it.

But you don't get science that way. In order to understand the whole it must be seen through the parts. Not for nothing do we talk about "breaking it down" in analysis. Our metaphors build categories; without categorization there is no possibility of analytical thinking. Usually this works well for us: we see the world as we think it is, we break it down into parts and then build it back up into a new form, and hope there are no little pieces left out in the rebuilding. Thus we separate action from belief, understand the process, see where the system gets clogged or breaks, and make our repairs. By reducing the world to the lowest common denominator we see what energizes it from the inside. This is what gives us immunizations, molecular biology, synthetic drugs, and nanobots.

But I long for Jacob's ladder, with the angels going about their business, magnificent beings who barely gave him a glance. He was dumbstruck, touching himself to see if he was dreaming all this, and hoping it was real. It was as real as it needed to be because he felt the weight of the numinous, the holy, and he shouted, "Surely the Lord is in this place!" And he placed some stones together to mark the spot, for in the absence of angelic footprints he needed to find it again when he passed by that way. And he called it Beth-El, the house of the god El. And for everyone who came by that place the stones spoke of an experience that was had by someone that was worthy to be remembered. In the remembering one might enter that experience too and feel oneself transformed.

But there's an inevitability here that can become tragic. A man has a transcendent experience at a nameless desert scree and piles the stones to mark the spot. The story gets out, the people come in hopes of their own experience. The crowds pour in, the tents go up, the hustlers work the crowd, t-shirts are sold, and miracles performed. In time, a city springs up, the temple at its center. There are opportunities for business and investment, legends grow, and soon the religious tourism is booming.

And if you should be able to slip out at night where the buildings give way to sand and desert rocks, and you lie on your back and look up, you must shield your eyes from the glare, but faintly against the sky you might see a moving star, a satellite. No angels, no ladder, no brush of the wind against your cheek, just the clear and certain knowledge that your texts and calls are being carried by that point of moving light.

And yet . . . and yet . . . we may still find the power in the myth if we're willing to see with our imaginations and suspend our need for irreducible certainty. The world is One and Many, God is in this place, be it Syria, Iraq, Capitol Hill, or Orange County. We will find what we need if we act on our beliefs.

“I believe, help my unbelief!”

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C., and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com / Zoltan Tasi

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8241

Let us be sure that the Christ Event is no myth. Jesus valids Noah, Jonah and the Temple among others, including 40 days in the Wildress. He also validated Enoch, Moses, and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. He transformed Saul into the Apostle Paul. He is our Creator, Redeemer, and coming King of Kings. Not a whisker of. trump.

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Barry, thank you for highlighting the importance to understand the meaning and purpose of myth.

A myth is not a story, false, but mere an un-reified opportunity for wonder. It is also definitely not an unliving concretion, such as we like to fashion our graven “truths” god-like.

Perhaps the divine can exist only in our loose grasp of myth-after all, words are mere metaphors, categorized in our literary conventions, of abstract ideas too fantastic, if they were given wing, they would surely circumscribe the universe in a skir.
A literal letter of the law wringing and stomping and squashing seems to only squelch the voice of God, as if we can squeeze out the very essence and distill the pure divine, unmixed, in our feeble but fantastic minds. The unmythification of the story of the divine reduces our awe to one of dismissal, as if it is somehow passé because we are so cool and all knowing.

A myth permits us to celebrate our unknowing, and fosters childlike awe in our imaginations.
I suspect that is one of the mechanisms where truth is hid in plain writ, despite how we attempt so trite to wrest it from there into our grubby spiritual paws…

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Correct me: once you break it down, you have parts. Lots of parts. (Please see Postmodernism.)


And, it may be that God is real and can be experienced directly.

Perhaps in order to “see whole,” we need to revisit Petrarch’s docta pietas, learned piety?

These faculties need not be set against one another, like the babes struggling in Rebecca’s womb. They are human faculties and have a natural intimacy, if we do not interfere.

The Enlightenment was an attempt to liberate myth and base truth claims on evidence, not just dogma. But when science threw out the church, they threw out the baby with the bath water. --Ken Wilber

As Karen Armstrong said, “the spiritual dimension is a natural part of life.” Breathe it.

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That was beautifully expressed, sublime in its cadence, the somber reflection of a man who has just lost his faith. The glory of God is no more awe-inspiring to him because he has discovered for himself the brilliant sleigh of hand of the Divine. The Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of Moses fell victim to that very experience.


Exodus 7


Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Show a miracle for yourselves,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it before Pharaoh, and let it become a serpent.’” So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and they did so, just as the Lord commanded. And Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent.

But Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; so the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the Lord had said.


There is nothing new under the sun, is there? The problem is that it goes even beyond that. This was the very offer Satan made to Adam through Eve, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5) At that point, they stood on the precipice of life and thought to themselves, "Does a man really need God if he can understand and do the things he imagines that God can do, if indeed there is a god?"

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James, thanks for your observations. You opened a door to another scene (Pharoah with Moses and Aaron) that invites closer examination. Part of what I was trying to say, at least indirectly, in the essay is that these awe-inspiring moments come to us 1) unbidden, 2) as first-order experiences for us personally, and 3) they ought not to be commodified, but remembered. We can’t manufacture them or demand them from God. They are gifts. BUT we can and should receive them as gifts that are precious and pay attention to them. They are not in the category of tricks (like turning rods into snakes!), but as numinous revelations from God.

Myths return us to our origin stories, since they are most often about primal events (creation, beginning a quest) and liminal (crossing a threshold) events. As you so poignantly put it, we stand with Adam and Eve on the precipice and ask ourselves that same question, not just once but every day. For me, this is the power of myth, that it is a portal through which we are brought to that precipice. At that precipice we may respond with faith or despair. What I resist are attempts by some to profit from such an experience or to reduce it to a formula. Thanks for your comments!

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As I understand myth it is most emphatically not something that is false. On the contrary, it is true to the core of meaning and purpose. So yes, the Christ event is true.

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Timo, yes to what you’ve said!

One of the best takes on the subject of myth as religion comes from G.K. Chesterton, laterally through C.S. Lewis, but more directly through his book, The Everlasting Man . The major theme throughout the book; and throughout Lewis’ “story” books, is God reaching out to man (or more precisely, man reaching out to God) through myth; and the Christian God personifying those myths.

From the book:

The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; eventually to worship unnatural things. the pastor of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller wen he bowed.

Sometimes it would seem that the Greeks believed above all things in reverence, only they had nobody to revere.

he who has no sympathy with myths has no sympathy with men. But he who has most sympathy with myths will most fully realise that they are not and never were a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion. They satisfy some of the needs satisfied by religion; and notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality. But though they provide a man with a calendar they do not provide him with a creed.

All this mythological business belongs to the poetical part of men. It seems strangely forgotten nowadays that a myth is a work of imagination and therefore a work of art. It needs a poet to make it. It need a poet to criticize it. … We we do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy; but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science.

Before the critics pounce, Chesterton never equates Christianity with the pagan myths; but rather as the actualization of the spirit of those myths.

(Cassie - welcome back from Patmos, :joy:)

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Well, you did say that you longed “for Jacob’s ladder” but found the reality of “a moving star, a satellite … and certain knowledge that your texts and calls are being carried by that point of moving light.” And again, ““I believe, help my unbelief!”

Anyway, I like the point you made that the dramatically sublime comes to us “unbidden … we can’t manufacture [it] or demand [it] from God” so that one cannot walk a little way off and conjure up a burning bush or command a dream of a mediatorial ladder or find the Messiah among us today. Some generations are more blessed than others, some people in each generation as well.

When I was young and stumbling along confidently in the faith of SDA, I used to re-read pages 833-835 of the Desire of Ages and long for the experience I supposed Ellen White had of seeing those things in vision. I wondered what it was like for her. I wanted the same (not for fame or fortune) but for the sheer joy of “seeing God”.

Later, I understood that in the grand scheme of things, God chooses men and generations to make history, to move the hands of time further along. And, unfortunately, I was not a chosen one in a chosen generation. It behooved me therefore to be humble, to know that all things were working together for a grand and final outcome the likes of which I could but faintly imagine, if at all. It behooved me to stay clear of the temptation to say, “I was shown, I was shown and I saw …” when God had NEVER appeared to me at all.

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Dr. Casey…thank you for a beautiful piece. I’m sure you must be well familiar with “The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion” by Mircea Eliade…it’s one of my favorites!

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