Oedipus: God. God.
Is there a sorrow greater?
Where shall I find harbor in this world?
My voice is hurled far on a dark wind.
What has God done to me?
Choragos: Too terrible to think of, or to see.
The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil
of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the
boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone
with competence and courage the danger fades.
I am a chronic late bloomer and did not go to college until I was 27. At that time in my life I was deeply entrenched in the Southern Baptist experience. Early on in college I read The Epic of Gilgamesh, and to borrow a cliché, nothing was ever the same again. It was a huge epiphany, or maybe a reverse epiphany, as it pushed me away from The Truth. I began to see the forest, or more correctly I began to realize that there was a forest and not just my little sacred grove. When I realized that the Noah flood story, as well as many others, was common across many cultures my already tenuous acceptance of the Baptist indoctrination stretched beyond the breaking point. Like so many before me I thought I had found the answer and felt content in my newly minted agnosticism.
Then I happened upon The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (and to a much lesser degree Frazer’s, The Golden Bough). This was truly a watershed moment and pushed me further away from Christianity. It was exhilarating and liberating. When I understood that everyone must go though the metaphorical cave, with or without a guardian, face their own fears and emerge bearing the torch to guide the next generation, I felt I had found an explanation for many things that I had long questioned. I also found a way to understand my own life and caught the first glimpses of what I needed to do to be an adequate man, husband and father. The key to my making sense of it all and defining myself was this understanding of myths in culture. They called to me across the limitations of time.
Part of my problem was that I was raised without any father figure to speak of. I did not have the rituals in my life that most young men experience on their way to manhood and I was thrust into it unprepared. In the first years of my adult life I was truly blown far on a dark wind and succumbed to many temptations. Thus, the late blooming.
But this was really a re-awakening. I remembered the old, staid Mythology by Edith Hamilton from seventh grade. Rereading them with an adult mind, especially the Greek and Norse myths was like opening the door to the underworld. I became, fascinated by this deep cauldron of art, psychology and religion.
I realized that, paradoxically, myths seem to be able to express the inexpressible. They are the lens through which our ancestors saw the world when they looked for deeper meaning, for glimpses of the truth hiding in the unfriendly bushes of reality. They came up with fantastic tales that are really signposts on the path of understanding their relationship with all the myriad forces, some beneficial or neutral or arbitrary and capricious, that molded their lives. Over every time and in every place when Man was cognizant, self-aware, and was able to ask from where, and how, and most importantly why, myths provided the answers.
Greek myths have such a strong appeal for me because they explore, perhaps better than any other tales, our emotional underworld. They are simple expressions of an infinitely complex issue. They show that we are messy, complicated beings. Even a cursory appraisal reveals that the stories associated with these names are part of the fabric of our culture and have long endured because they are paths to truths. Consider some of the names: Sisyphus, Oedipus, Tantalus, Daedalus, Icarus, Midas, Pandora, Narcissus, Jason, Medea, Prometheus (who stole fire from the gods) and of course Odysseus. There really is nothing new under the sun.
Norse mythology appeals to me because it is directly a part of my cultural heritage and because I love the narrative and the names. Consider: Yggdrasil (the World Tree), Ragnarök (the end of days), Bifrost (the bridge leading from the realm of mortals, Midgard to the realm of the gods, Asgard), Valkerie, Fenrir , Thor, Loki and Odin with his two ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory).
But I digress. Understanding Christianity in a mythological context enhanced my faith, providing me with an infinitely deeper comprehension. We have been given the complete Truth for which these myths were aiming. We can see them for what they are, attempts to see the face of God, to know His mind, to find solace in a cold world.
Our faith, like the myths to our ancestors, gives us tools to live, providing an ethical framework, a justification for seeking that which is good and spurning that which is evil. Myths were a way of expressing the inexpressible to people in their own cultural time and place. Faith does the same for us. All are manifestations of the story of our journey to Him and the perils along the way.
Before dismissing my perhaps misguided ruminations consider this core tenet of Christian belief: By drinking His blood and eating His flesh, by ingesting God we save ourselves, we secure our safe passage through the underworld to the shining city beyond. Taken literally this is a stunning statement. As a pastor friend of mine remarked last week in his sermon, some said this is a hard truth and many turned away.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that Christ is a myth. I am not saying that Christianity is disguised mythology. I believe that He is the Way, the truth and the Light. Coming to a deeper understanding or the role of myth across time led ME back to the true faith.
This I believe: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose Kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Amen. But to close our minds to these stories and dismiss them as just heathen tales is to do ourselves a tremendous disservice. There are too may similarities across too many cultures to ignore the significance. Without questioning our beliefs, how can we accept them?