Monday, August 30, 2010

PERSPECTIVES II

Our two outside perspectives on myth and religion are, unlike the theological, thoroughly secular. When at their purest, history and comparative religion neither require nor tolerate viewing their objects with sacral eyes.

Otherwise, there is a distinct difference between the two.

History wants to know what religious events—such as foundings, political intrigues, and schisms—have occurred, in what chronological order they appeared, and, often as not, why they happened.

Comparative Religion tries to locate and analyze the similarities and differences of themes, myths, social structures, practices, and ideas that are found in the religions of the world, great or small, archaic or modern. Instead of viewing single events in their particularity, it seeks patterns that have appeared throughout human history.

Going beyond these catalogue copy definitions, we may say that the history of religions will use historical methods to ask when a text was produced, by whom, within what cultural context, and from what other texts, in order to ferret out the original meaning of that text. And comparative religion will examine such things as creation myths, rituals, beliefs, and so on, in order to see what they have in common and how they differ.

Both perspectives can ask why these patterns occur. For a moment, let’s wonder why both Buddhism and Christianity, among other religions, have founder myths. Did the miracle-filled stories about Gotama’s life influence the stories about Jesus, as a purely historical investigation might theorize? Or is there some universal archetype that underlies all hero myths, as Joseph Campbell claimed?

There appears to be an analogy between biological life and religion. Think, say, of the variety of turtle species that are found throughout the world. Species of the order Testudines are found on every continent except Antarctica, on many islands, and in the oceans. They’ve been around for the last 215 million years.

Now, think of the variety of creation myths. From tribal societies to the American present, these stories continue to be recited. They, too, are found everywhere on the inhabited earth, though their appearance has been relatively recent.

This analogy might be more than coincidence. Just as the fact that biological commonality and diversity are determined by both genetics and circumstance, it may be that religious commonality and diversity are determined by the same factors.

But so far, that’s speculation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

PERSPECTIVES I

We could do with a fuller understanding of what it means to say that Christ and the Christian God, among others, are mythological beings.

Let’s start with the New Testament, which contains many of the documents of early Christianity. (There are others--more about that later.)

Now let’s distinguish among three scholarly approaches to these documents: (1) the theological, (2) the historical, and (3) the comparative. The theological way is from the perspective of the believer, the historical way from the perspective of the historian, and the comparative way from the perspective of comparative religion.

We’ll call the theological way an “inside” perspective, because a theologian is a player in the Christian game; the other two are “outside” perspectives. This doesn't imply that either the historian or the comparativist can’t also be believers, just as the historian might also use comparative methods, or vice versa.

Christian theologians are believers who investigate the New Testament in the light of some creed (for instance, the Apostle’s Creed) or theological system (say, that of Thomas Aquinas). They might subscribe to the idea that Scripture is inerrant; or that when the Pope speaks ex cathedra (Latin, “from the chair”), his interpretation of church doctrine is correct and fixed. Moreover, they might interpret Scripture either literally or as consisting of a mix of literal and symbolic material. They might also use the historical and/or comparative methods. But the point is that a Christian theologian views the writings included in the Bible with the eyes of faith.

Theologians can be either conservative or liberal, or somewhere in between. Basic conservatives will argue that the Bible in inerrant and therefore authoritative, citing verses such as I Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” or II Peter 1:21: “Holy men spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (King James Version)  In other words, the conservative theologian will cite Scripture to prove its inerrancy, thus committing the logical fallacy of petitio principii, or “begging the question”--that is, assuming the truth of the conclusion in arguing for that conclusion.

Liberal theologians, on the other hand, will accept the findings of Historical Criticism (for example, by accepting a historian’s finding that Jesus never thought of himself as the Christ) yet find ways to maintain their faith by adhering to some theme of Christianity, whether it be certain teachings of Jesus, forgiveness, or those parts of Scripture that speak of peace and justice.

Whatever form it takes, the inside perspective runs the risk of either ignoring or being ignorant of the historical and comparative methods and their results. Christian theologians can certainly incorporate these two “outside” perspectives into their work, though if they are to consider all available evidence, they must be able to “bracket” their convictions, at least temporarily. Put differently, they must learn to view the evidence as if they were uncommitted outsiders.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

MYTHOLOGICAL BEINGS

What does it mean to say that God, Christ, and unnamed others are mythological beings?

Let's start with that vile word, mythological. The first thing we do is to shorten it to myth. Then we look it up.

My online dictionary assigns two meanings to the word. One is the most common: a myth is "a widely held but false belief or idea." The other is: "a traditional story, especially one concerning the history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events."

Notice the difference between these two definitions. The first one immediately rings true; it's obvious. The second sounds as if it were written by a scholar. And the meanings given in the definitions to the word are also different. In ordinary language, the word refers to some common beliefs, ideas, or theories as lies. But in the language of scholarspeak, a myth is simply a story "involving supernatural beings or events"; there are no disparaging strings attached.

Because I come from the land of scholars, I'm naturally more interested in the second definition, though I take exception to the clause, "especially one concerning the history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon." It appears to contain a theory of myth that I find unconvincing, and that I don't find useful for my purposes. I like the second clause, though, because I do find it useful.

At this point, I might appeal to a consensus of scholars who study myth. But there is no such consensus. Instead, there are books and academic papers written by different scholars treating the many theories of myth--theories that tell us what myth is, how it functions in society, how myths should be interpreted, etc. Important names are bandied about: Tylor, Muller, Frazer, Levy-Bruhl, Jung, Levi-Strauss, Malinowski, Eliade, Barthes. You may have heard of a few of these icons. You may even have read one or two of these cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and comparative religionists. The chances aren't good that you've written a book about one or all of them. A blog, maybe. A book, no.

In order to cut this Gordian knot, let me stipulate a definition. A myth is a story about supernatural beings, a story that provides a model for human behavior, thus giving meaning and value to life. (If you think this sounds like Eliade, give yourself a pre-grade-inflation A.)

A mythology, then, is simply a complex of myths.

That said, it makes good sense to call God and Christ mythological beings.

But I anticipate an objection. "Christ? a metaphysical being?" Yes. But Jesus is not. Jesus was, in the highest probability, an actual, living human being. "Christ" is the supernatural title given to him by some of his followers.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

INVITATION

This blog will expand some of the ideas I developed in two of my books. (See my Amazon Bibliography.) I wrote The Architecture of Religion when I was a professor. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone except other professors, or advanced students, of religion. After I took early retirement from academia, I began to get serious about writing comic novels. One of them, The Church of the Comic Spirit, contains a dozen "Bear Lake Scrolls," which were "discovered" by a roguish dropout from a rabbinical school, with the help of a few angels disguised as waitresses.

Some of the topics I'll cover are:
  • Comparative religion
  • Historical criticism of the Bible
  • The formation of the New Testament Canon
  • The arguments for the existence of God
  • The New Atheism
  • Science and religion
  • Evolution and religion
  • Laughter
I'll approach each topic using the framework of the premises I laid out in The Architecture of Religion. These commonplace subjects will appear in a different light than they ordinarily do.

If you're a Christian--evangelical, mainstream, or liberal--I hope to challenge you. If you're committed to another faith, you might find that what I say about Christianity can be applied to your religion. If you're an atheist, I'd like to enlighten you. If you describe yourself as "spiritual but not religious," I want to help you clarify your ideas. Agnostic, or just perplexed? I mean to offer you an intellectually satisfying way of viewing not only Christianity, but its competitors.