Myth and Mystery in Religion

Donald Horsfield gave this lecture to an Engaging Issues meeting on Tuesday 28th November 2017

Myth and Mystery in  Religion

 Some of you may remember that, a couple of years ago, I was standing here to give a talk on being Spiritual but not Religious. And I was pretty scathing about some aspects of traditional religion, which I claimed were obsolete, and needed to be discarded.

Nevertheless, I do believe that for all its faults and failings, Religion in its wider sense, is ON TO SOMETHING; without which humanity as a whole would be diminished. So what is this .. SOMETHING?  It’s our connection with the ‘spiritual dimension of life’. Without that, Humanity is ‘unbalanced’; and we will keep staggering on, making the same mistakes, until there is a FALL; and in the words of a famous book – great will be the fall thereof.

 I perceive that the ‘balance’ we need, can be restored through Myth and Mystery – both of which are already there in religion: but they have been either overlooked or mishandled; and need to be rediscovered and re-employed  –  hence the title of my talk Myth and Mystery in Religion. But it will not be ‘religion as we know it’: rather it will be religion as we might come to know it, if we are wise enough.

We need to be clear about what we mean by the word MYTH. Words themselves, any and all words, are only symbols pointing to some reality they represent. It’s the reality the word represents that is important, not the word itself.

Take the word gay .. G-A-Y. William Wordsworth, dancing with the daffodils by Lake Windermere said …”a poet cannot but be gay, in such a jocund company”. But since then, the meaning of the word ‘gay’ has changed; and today in common usage it’s pointing to a different reality.   It’s the same with the word ‘myth’; which for most people means, something that’s not true: a fantasy; a figment of the imagination and therefore not to be taken seriously. We need a more educated understanding than that! We should not be prepared to lose the valuable and important word ‘myth’, at the whim of popular usage!

We must rescue the word myth, and save it – for it may hold the secret of our salvation! And I say this in all seriousness, because the word ‘myth’, far from being ‘untrue’, can be understood as pointing to ‘timeless truth’ – without which our life on earth is impoverished; has ‘something’ missing.

Richard Holloway, when he was here a few years ago, said that he had only a little bit of religion left  –  but he was hanging on to it, because he objected strongly to the idea of everything (including himself) ending up as just nothing in a meaningless universe.

And I’m also hanging on; but I want to plant my little bit of what’s left of religion, like a seed, in the fertile mulch of Myth and Mystery  –  in the hope that it will grow into this missing ‘something’ that we need.

Now if there is anyone here, who is allergic to even a little bit of religion, there is what is known as THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY. A term first used by the well-known agnostic Aldous Huxley. It’s  perennial because its universal: its hard-wired into our humanity: it’s  all about  ‘the meaning of life’; which is a question that everybody asks, or at least thinks about, sometime or other…What’s it ‘all about’, our being here, alive and cognisant on planet Earth?

Poets are more aware of this ‘perennial philosophy’ than most of us, and I’ll be quoting a few of them as I go along.  William Wordsworth was closely in touch with this dimension of life, and said, perhaps even while he was dancing with the daffodils – “We feel that we are greater than we know”.

In other words, there is more to us than meets the eye: mystery surrounds our being here: and if MYTH is really pointing to ‘timeless truth’ – it could be a way into that Mystery: the mystery of our being here on earth; able to ask questions; and look for answers.

So let’s have a closer look at what this word ‘myth’ might be pointing to.

Our early ancestors; the first people on earth; evolving into self-consciousness; asking their questions; getting to know themselves and the world they lived in … would have been aware of  THE BEYOND … felt something of the great mystery of EXISTENCE itself.

They had to make sense of their experiences as best they could, while just getting on with their lives. Stories were told; and myth was born. The ‘beyond’; the great unknown; was symbolised for them by the SKY – which they populated with gods.

Life down here on earth, which was ‘nasty, short and brutish’; was projected ‘up there’ where it was ‘otherwise’: it was seen as ‘heaven’; a beautiful, endless and flawless ideal.

The gods ‘up there’ were also ‘running the show’ down here. They were in control of everything: and therefore, let’s say, they needed to be sweetened with offerings and sacrifices to keep people on good terms with them. Stories were told; myths were created; ritual was performed; and an early form of religion came into being. That religion, such as it was, was obviously conditioned by the situation they were in; and by the limited knowledge that they had. Sitting in their caves at night round the campfire, our Stone Age ancestors would tell their stories  –  make up their myths  –  and in so far as they were passing on information, about say, the creation of the world  –  that would not be ‘timeless truth’.

It would be ‘time-conditioned’, and their stories would have to change with the passing of time, and with the growth of knowledge. But there’s more to it! MYTH has a more important purpose than giving information. Its main purpose was to provide what might be called ‘an early form of psychology’.

This purpose was – to help people cope and survive in their daily lives, where they would be feeling helpless in the face of powerful, natural forces…terrified by the world outside, and haunted by fears within. This experience has been described as the Mysterium, Tremendum et Fascinans and we are not foreigners to it even today. We can ‘feel’ what those words are pointing to, even without a translation. It can evoke a ‘cosmic cry’ from the depth of our being.

Of course today, our knowledge of the world and the universe we live in, is a bit more advanced than it used to be. We have become very clever people, have we not? Our knowledge and technological achievements are mind-boggling. Answers to ALL life’s questions are available at the touch of a Google.

But how well do we know ourselves? There was a man called Socrates, who once said – if you want to be wise, get to know yourself. We may be very clever, but how wise are we? What we KNOW can make us clever (passing exams and all that); but we need something else to make us wise. We need a different kind of knowledge!

The mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was feeling after this, when he said – “the heart has reasonings that the mind knows not of”... and MYTH brings us closer to the heart, than it does to the mind.

There must have been endless myths being told, in all the languages that were developing as people emerged (evolved) from primitive beginnings. People telling their stories to provide a ‘context’ in which to live, and make the most of life, as best they could. Every culture would have its own set of stories, many of which we can still read today.

Karen Armstrong has written  A Short History of Myth, and in it she identifies what she calls ‘a valid myth’. This is a myth whose only purpose is to awaken us to ‘timeless truth’. Timeless, because it is relevant to all people, at all times, on the basis of our humanity. We are all ‘in the same boat’: living our allotted lifespan, on this spherical piece of rock, we call the Earth; hurtling through space – destination unknown.

One of those ‘valid myths’, which I am calling the Mother of All Myths, is the Creation Story, which is looking for answers to life and death; and the other big questions that we are still asking  –  where did we come from? Where are we going to? What’s it all about?

Any ‘valid’ Creation Story is not there to give us information about what happened a long time ago. It’s there simply to awaken us to the fact that Creation has happened; and we are here as a result, asking questions; which means that we are ‘on a quest’’ There is nobody else around to answer our questions. The old Sky Gods have all disappeared! We are on our own; and we have to find any answers for ourselves.

Karen Armstrong tells us that .. Mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence; helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.

She also points out two of the vehicles in which we travel on life’s quest. One she calls MYTHOS and the other LOGOS. Logos refers to our thinking and reasoning; scientific analysis where we get to know what is true because we can prove it.

Mythos is a word embracing that area of life, not open to scientific enquiry  –  poetry, music, art, and religion;  what you might loosely call the ‘mystical’ or spiritual dimension of life. There is no fixed divide between Logos and Mythos. It should not be a case of ‘either or’ but ‘both and’: the two should complement each another – because both are part of everybody’s makeup.

Unfortunately what has happened is that the necessary balance between Mythos and Logos has been lost. In the struggle between Science and Religion, Logos has not only triumphed, but in some cases arrogantly dominated (one can think of Richard Dawkins); air-brushing Myth out of the picture altogether.

Myth is just dismissed as purely ‘subjective’; fanciful imagination – and Logos blunders on by itself, creating the kind of world we live in today. As a result of this arrogance, there is a cry going up from the heart of humanity for the restoration of Mythos: for a vision of the WHOLE, where all things are connected; and where we are in touch with a deeper truth than science alone can reveal.

If religion as we know it, is not going to give us that ‘vision’ – then the poets and the mystics will surely do so.

Emily Dickinson (1830-86) is one such poet, and this is what she has to say:-

This world is not conclusion.
A species stands beyond,
Invisible as music,
But positive as sound.
It beckons and it baffles,
Philosophy don’t know,
And through a riddle at the last
Sagacity must go.

To guess it puzzles scholars,
To gain it men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown
Faith slips, and laughs and rallies,
Blushes if any see,
Plucks at a twig of evidence
And asks a vane the way.

Much gesture from the pulpit,
Strong hallelujahs roll,
Narcotics cannot still the tooth
That nibbles at the soul.

The poet there is saying that even Religion (with much gesture from the pulpit, and strong hallelujahs rolling) can be one of the narcotics to be avoided! Better to face up to the truth of Mythos, and let it do some ‘nibbling at the soul’.

The Psychiatrist R D Laing, not noted for any religious affiliation wrote this:-

“Society without knowing it, is starving for the inner. The ‘outer’ divorced from any illumination by the inner, is in a state of darkness.”

And many today believe that’s exactly where we are – in a state of darkness.  We are in danger of being swamped by the vast amount of what we know; and destroyed by what we do with it.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) spent the whole of his life on this same ‘quest’ that we are all on. He was travelling in the vehicle Logos; cognitive, rational, logical thinking. He was looking for what he called a UNIFIED FIELD, where all the natural forces of the universe, would fit into ONE; and that would be the ‘ultimate solution’ and in a sense, the ‘quest’ would be over.

But Einstein didn’t find that ‘unified field’.                        

Instead, he turned out to be wiser than he was clever; and he wrote:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this ‘emotion’ is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder, or stand wrapt in awe, is as good as dead.

Ultimate Reality will always be a mysterious ‘unknown’, beyond reach of our finite minds. Nevertheless, the ‘attraction’ will always be there. And even though we cannot step out of our ‘time bound’ existence to observe ‘the ultimate’ – we can ‘feel’ our way into it, as Einstein was beginning to do.

We can learn to let go of what we know, and enter more deeply into the mystery of ‘NOT KNOWING’. .. and have the experience of ‘being known’ ourselves, by the very MYSTERY we are entering into.

This is where ‘some form’ of RELIGION might be helpful; and we’ll have a look at the religion called Christianity.

The Christian Story begins with the Creation Myth, which we have inherited from Judaism. It’s a story well-told; and full of meaningful symbolism. Our first ancestors ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge; and were ejected from the Garden of Eden. They were turned out into a world without access to the tree of Life, and doomed to die. But perhaps they could find some way back to that Lost Paradise?  At all events, the ‘quest’ was on.

As the story unfolds through the pages of the Bible over 2000 years, the mythological past merges into history. It’s not always clear which is which – but that problem was solved by the Church which decided that none of it was Myth; it was all historical fact. All totally accurate; the absolute and infallible truth, because it was written by God’s own hand; and became Sacred Scripture; the Holy Bible.

This position became the official teaching of the Church; rigid and unchangeable; and with dire consequences for any who didn’t conform. Fundamentalism was born; and LOGOS RELIGION came into being; no room for Mythos in a Logos religion!

To all intents and purposes, the Quest came to an end; because all we needed to know was there in ‘the Book’  –  just say you believe it, and you’re on your way to Heaven; back to the Lost Paradise;  If, for whatever reason you refused to believe it – the Inquisition would kindly persuade you otherwise!

But, in spite of what the Church has done, the Quest for Ultimate Reality can never come to an end; it’s built-in to our very humanity. And we are paying a high price for replacing it with the bogus offer of Salvation, from a Logos-based religion.

There have been significant people who have not accepted any Logos religion with its certainties and infallible claims.  One of them was Jesus of Nazareth; another was Socrates and both paid with their lives.

Jesus himself was on the same human Quest that we are all on. In his teaching, the Ultimate Reality we are looking for, he called The Kingdom of God. And first of all, he said, you find it by looking into your SELF; into the mystery of ‘who you are’; which involves getting to know and love yourself. The Spirit within will be your inspiration and guide.

Which of course, didn’t please the Logos-minded religious authorities. And in connivance with the Romans (whose rigid system of Law and Order also felt threatened), they got rid of Jesus – he was crucified, dead and buried.

So what happened next?

Stories began to circulate that Jesus was, in some way, still alive. The stories grew and multiplied; and there is a collection of them in the four Gospels. But they are only stories made up by his followers to support their belief that Jesus was in fact, the long-awaited Messiah. That’s a Hebrew word, translated as CHRIST in the Christian New Testament… Jesus became the Messiah; the Christ; the Saviour of the World; the Alpha and Omega; the Beginning and the End; the Ultimate reality.  What’s going on here? Any Saviour of the World has to be a mythical figure.

The historical Jesus of Nazareth was in fact being mythologised! Karen Armstrong puts it with startling clarity:-

“Jesus himself was transformed into the timeless mythical hero, who dies and rises to life.”

And she goes on to observe that: “Unless a historical event is mythologised, it cannot become a source of religious inspiration.”

The Jesus of History became the Christ of Faith: a spiritual reality in the lives of his followers. And in this way Christianity actually got off to a good start! It was ‘on to something’ that could touch the lives of anyone who is ‘on the Quest’.

But the Church stepped in and spoiled it. Logos thinking prevailed over mythos. The resurrection stories had to be taken literally:  and when that happens the myth itself dies. The universal and timeless truth evaporates. But it also left the story-tellers, the Gospel writers with a dilemma. Jesus had come back to life, but the salvation of the world had not happened.  What to do now?

They decide to send him back to Heaven.  Back to where he came from; but he would have to return to finish the job. So we have the Ascension, with Jesus bodily shooting off into the sky. And incredible as it sounds there are Christians today eagerly waiting for that return … because it’s promised ‘in The Book’; in the infallible and unquestionable Scriptures.

If that kind of Logos Religion is the only one on offer – it’s God help us! But there is an alternative. The timeless truth of the Christian Myth can come alive for people regardless of any religious affiliation.

Even before the Gospel writers had written their Resurrection and Ascension stories, the man we call St Paul, had seen a ‘timeless truth’ – and his letters are full of it. This is what he wrote to the Church in Colosse (1:27) – There is a rich and glorious mystery, which God has for all people; and the mystery is this – Christ in you. What does that mean?

“Christ in you”… is not ‘Jesus in you’. Jesus is a historical figure who lived and died in Palestine.  Christ in you is not somebody else in you.  ‘Christ’ in you, is a way of referring to the Ultimate Reality that lies within yourself: and within everybody.

 The word Christ stands for the ideal of Divine-Human Oneness, which is the potential everyone has (for the Creation Myth is that we are all made in the image and likeness of God). You may want to ask – where is the Christ now?  In the Garden of Eden, where else!   ‘At-one’ with God; with access to the Tree of Life; and having left the gates open for those on the Quest!  This is the Good News; the Universal and Timeless Truth of the Christian Myth.

Hearing this can awaken the Spirit within us; and get us moving, on ‘the road less travelled by’; in quest of that ideal, ourselves at-one with God. It can be an exciting journey of discovering the interconnection of all things.

You might be tempted to ask .. where will all this end? .. the destination is unknown; we don’t know and we can’t know. So we have to travel in faith, inspired by the Spirit, and not speculate.

If all this sounds too ‘religious’ for you – don’t abandon the Quest in despair! Find some other way into the Mystery. Carl Gustav Jung could provide an alternative through the Collective Unconscious: looking into our Psyche, rather than finding the answer in a Book.

But to end this lecture, here’s a little poem by Raymond Carver, telling us ‘what the doctor said’. I’ve emended it slightly to fit in with what I’ve been saying:-

The doctor said; are you on the Quest;
Do you kneel down in forest groves,
And let yourself ask for help.
When you come to a waterfall
Mist blowing against your face and arms
Do you stop and ask for understanding at such moments.
I said “not yet, but I intend to start today”.


Books consulted:

A Short History of Myth.   Karen Armstrong

The Naked Now (learning to see as the Mystics).  Richard Rohr

Treasure Beneath the Hearth (Myth, Gospel & Spirituality) Edward Walker

Goodbye to God (Search for Human Spirituality).  Chris Scott

A little Book of Unknowing.  Jennifer Kavanagh