Sunday, August 28, 2011

Myths And Old Wives' Tales

Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.

These are the things you must insist on and teach.
1 Timothy 4:7-10
Starting September 15, I will be leading a 30-week class on the classic doctrine of the Christian faith, Christian Believer. Please note I do not say I will be "teaching", because my goal, or at least one of my goals, is to learn as much as I can - one can never go back and start at the beginning too often. At the same time, as "leader", there are some things I would very much like to ensure other members of the class take in as a way of understanding what the discipline of doing theology is all about: as important as it is to make clear for ourselves as a believing community what it is we confess and profess, it is never that in which we believe. We believe in God, having faith in Jesus Christ through the gracious indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Living faith is not a set of principles or doctrines. It is a graceful submission to the freedom we have from God the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit.

Theology, like the faith itself, is trapped in a conundrum. We who make the audacious claim that the God who created the heavens and the earth, who dwelt with us in the Person of Jesus Christ, and breathes the breath of new life in our communities in the power of the Holy Spirit can say anything at all about these realities that either makes sense or even captures some part of this lived and living experience. All that we are is called in to question as we understand ourselves judged and forgiven. We grasp in a very concrete, existential way the contingency of our lives, our communities, and, one hopes to make clear, our words. We nevertheless find ourselves compelled to make sense of this mystery called faith, called salvation, this hope in the promise of New Life, all the while knowing we cannot do it. Like that which we confess, it seems impossible. Like that which we live, it becomes a necessity.

When the author of 1 Timothy cautions the recipient not to have anything to do with "myth", all sorts of red flags should start waving. The word "myth" here is, funny enough, muthous in the original Greek. Yet the reference, at least according to one on-line commentary, is not the pagan pantheon and their dealings with humanity. Rather, from the specific uses of the word - four in the pastoral Epistles and one in 1 Peter - the reference seems to indicate a kind of Jewish gnosticism, which included a secret study of the hierarchy of the angels. With that in mind, it should be clear that "myth" as used by the author here refers to something false.

"Myth" is one of those words we bandy about without too much thought. Like "nature" or "truth", we think we know what it means, and we think others will know what we mean when we use it. With the popularization of, among many things, the writings and teachings of Joseph Campbell a couple decades ago, "myth" returned to our popular lexicon as a way of describing an ordered understanding of our relationship to the world around us, to the communities of which we are a part, and those communities with others. Notwithstanding the many ideologically troubling aspects of Campbell's thought and life - as a disciple of Jung, and probably by personal disposition, Campbell did not hide either his reactionary social and political views, or his specifically virulent anti-Semitism, which was edited from the broadcasts of his talks with Bill Moyers yet live on in the printed transcripts - his work has influenced far too much theology to the detriment of the craft..

This rehabilitation of "myth" has created, within some, the idea that, rather than wholly negative, the word is a kind of neutral descriptor of stories and images through which human beings seek to make sense of their world. As long as we understand that these stories and images are symbolic, and therefore are signs that point beyond themselves to underlying realities, they can be considered "true" without insisting on the literal truth or falsity of the stories themselves.

Are we engaged, then, in "myth-making", then? Is theological language, to use a synonymous phrase, "metaphorical"? That we can be so confused about what it is we are trying to describe testifies, I think, to the reality that we are at pains to make clear what it is we are doing. We recognize all the inherent difficulties, even impossibilities, in the task. Yet, it is a task we find ourselves called to do.

I, for one, am hesitant to use words like "myth" to describe either Biblical narrative itself or the theological task. As the word itself, within the context of the Scriptures, is wholly negative, it seems difficult to justify its use there. Furthermore, the more equivocal contemporary appropriation of the word usually leads only to confusion. As the author of this passage from 1 Timothy makes clear - as a way of cleaning out the debris and brush from around the whole matter of word-usage - we are not in the myth business. Whatever it is we are studying, whoever this god is we insist has claimed us, we are not in the myth business.

If not myth, then, what is it? Again, following this passage, ours is a hope set on the living God. That is what we teach. Not some secret understanding of a hierarchy of angels, as back then. Not some metaphor for the relationships between human communities and the natural world. Rather, Christian doctrine is specific, refers not to myths and old wives' tales, but to the creator and savior of the world. Which is to say, when we go about doing our theological task, we do no split the difference, we do not set up the false dichotomy of either/or - either it is "true" in some literal sense or it is only "true" in some metaphorical sense, and we can substitute all sorts of new metaphors for the old ones if they don't make sense any more - we accept that we are in the midst of this weird, impossible situation. We cannot really say anything about this God. We are called to make clear that this God has created us, has called us, knows us and loves us, has saved us.

We accept that the words we say have meaning, yet we also understand that meaning is never exhausted in the use of the words themselves. We understand we must speak, yet in speaking we have not captured that about which we speak.

Which brings me to a specific exchange I had recently. I was asked if I believed in the virgin birth. As a matter of fact, I do not, nor do I quite see any necessity in it.

On the other hand, I do not think it important to disabuse those who do so believe of doing so. If someone thinks it important, even vital, to believe in the virgin birth I would never tell them they are wrong, misguided, stupid, silly, or going to hell.

I was asked, by this same person, if I believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I pointed out that I have written plenty which quite clearly states that I do so believe.

I know, however, of many, including many faithful Christians, who have not and do not.

That's OK, too.

How is it possible, one could ask, that I think it important to do theology as a discipline, yet am devil-may-care about adherence to various doctrines. The answer is simple enough, and given in this passage from 1 Timothy - we don't "believe in" or have our hope in doctrine. Doctrine, whatever else it may be, is not the thing in which we profess faith. It is the living God, to which our lives give testimony. Theology, teaching is just our attempt to make some kind of ordered sense of it all. The historicity of the resurrection, of Adam and Eve, the authorship of various Biblical books, whether Elisha sent a bear to kill children to make fun of him, whether or not the Amorites were really descended from the incestuous rape of Lot by his daughters - these are, by and large, open questions for me. God's grace covers a manifold of sins, including doctrinal error.

It isn't whether or not we get it right. Rather, it is whether we have faith in the God of life, rest our hope in the promise that this God is the God of our salvation. If we get our doctrine wrong, well, we can keep trying. It will probably still be wrong. As long as we are living at the intersection between our life and Biblical witness, reflecting on our experience together, critically aware of all the limitations within which we work and strive to understand.

We should, indeed avoid myths and old wives' tales. We should also, however, avoid making of Christian doctrine yet another myth, the teachings of the Church an old wives' tale.

Virtual Tin Cup

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