Meaning of the Jesus Story; History v. mythology November 22, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: Christianity, history, Jesus, meaning, mythology, religion
I was just catching up on some blogs this morning and read Jerry Coyne’s thoughts on the virgin birth, the resurrection, and their importance in Christian (specifically Catholic) faith. Towards the end, he says this:
…as has always been clear, the things that to Christians are non-negotiable “truths” of the Bible are those fables on which their faith rests most heavily. Therefore they can dispense with the parting of the Red Sea and the curing of lepers, [but] not with the Resurrection, which is the most important fable that Christians must accept as literal truth.
But if that’s the case, then why not treat Adam and Eve likewise?. For without the Original Duo, and Original Sin, the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus would make no sense (as they say, “Did Jesus die for a metaphor?”).
It is a set of points that I have thought about (and probably written about) myself over the years. But it got me thinking; How do we approach the significance of an idea depending on how historically reliable it is? How do we think about the meaning of an act if we think it really happened versus if it is a mythological metaphor for something? How do the standards of import differ in contrasting history from mythology?
If a friend took off work to do you a favor, that would be appreciated and would have some real import. If a person were to push you out of the way of a car, saving your life and sacrificing theirs, that has more import. For many, Jesus’ sacrifice, is seen as the superlative sacrifice. Further, it transcends the mere saving of a short mortal life, and becomes the transformation of an eternal life. We are all doomed to death/separation from god/whatever and Jesus steps in to take the bullet. And many believe this really happened, and is not merely a metaphor.
But our litany of stories from various religious, philosophical, and cultural sources contains a multitude of stories with moral, social, and philosophical import, many of which attempt such universality. And it is clear, at least to me, that these stories are myths, even if they contain some historical truth to any extent. They are, in essence, products of our imagination. The complicated morals, literary structures, etc that such stories convey, and often contain high moral and philosophical import, are fancy fabrications.
And while reality may occasionally, accidentally, resemble such fabrications in terms of narrative complexity, moral import, etc, the rule is that the design of mythology is better at creating meaning and import than reality. A narrative with more complex interwoven philosophical themes, governing more broad area of impact and importance, is more likely to be mythology. The story of the New Testament, with its universal import and intended (but ultimately failed) sacrificial plot, is a good example of a story which is clearly mythological, even if potentially based on historical facts.
So, the essence to my question today foes something like the following. If I believed that the Fall of Adam and Eve, as well as the resurrection, were literal things that happened, does that mean that the import of the acts involved have more impact than if they were mere stories about the human experience? Would the fact that these actions really happened give them greater impact, emotionally and philosophically, than if they were mere stories?
Consider my example of someone taking off of work to help you with some problem; imagine that this story were part of a religious canon, rather than a thing that really happened to you. If you found this story in the New Testament or the Koran, would you be impressed by it? Probably not. But if someone really did this, for you or someone you know, it would have some importance and meaning, even if it were a small amount of such. The fact that it is real gives it more import to your life, even if the act has less moral and philosophical complexity than mythology.
The thesis is that when things really happen, their personal and social importance is greater than if they were mythological. Mythology has to be exaggerated, embellished, or at least rare to survive as a story of significance. It may be that extraordinary real events inspire such mythology in some cases, but such stories always take on legendary status the more they are told and re-told, because story-tellers have to sell the story. Thus, we will microfy the import of a story which is mythological because we understand that it is embellished, whereas reality, which sits in front of us, is not.
So, a story about a sacrifice, in order to be held as ultimate import, has to become embellished. Religion, then, is part of our story-telling nature, and only stories with universal themes and import can survive to legendary status. And while these stories sit behind our lives as an influence for our behavior and beliefs, reality continues on and we continue to act in less than superlative, but meaningful ways.
And many religious apologists argue that this is what makes religion great; it stands as an example for us and helps preserve our cultural norms and values in narrative form. And for those that believe the stories are true, there is a greater amount of reverence towards those acts (and those who perform them), beyond mere inspiration. But, for those people who don’t believe the literal truth of these religious stories,such stories can still remain as inspirational narratives, even if the non-historical nature of the story takes something away.
Of course, by not believing they literally happened, one can also criticize the import and morality of the lesson. It seems more appropriate, for many, to criticize a story rather than a real act. If we see Jesus as a metaphorical example, and not literally a person (or god) who “died” for our sins, then we can hold him up as an example (even if not a great one) of what humans can do for one-another. But if he was (and is) god, then that fact puts the story on a level of import which dwarfs any mere myth. The same story, depending on whether it is true or not, has different import.
But here’s the problem; if stories such as the all and the resurrection are literally true, including that a god is behind it all, then the distinction between mythology and reality breaks down in this respect. The basis for real actions having inflated import is that such things occur within a real of minimal control over the circumstances, whereas in a story the composer has, well, god-like control over the circumstances. A friend taking work off to help you is only in control of their own actions (taking off work and helping you), not the circumstances which led them to have to make that choice.
The story of Jesus, if we saw him as a mere human who acted in the real world, could be of great import as an inspiration towards sacrifice and love (assuming we ignore the non-loving stuff in there, of course). But as an intentional creation of an all-powerful god, the Jesus story is designed, and poorly, because a better story could have been designed. The world could have been different, the sacrifice unnecessary, and a greater story could have been written. The more true the Bible is, the less powerful its story ultimately is; the more control the author of the story has, the less impressive it is.
As a set of inspirational stories, the New Testament has some philosophical and moral import on their own, but if Jesus was real and did a lot of the stuff in the gospel accounts, then the import increases because a person actually did those things, rather than them being idealistic narratives of some authors. But if God is real, and god designed and orchestrated the whole thing, then I’m not impressed, because I think that I could write a better story than that. God didn’t just compose the narrative of Jesus, but he also composed all of the circumstances which allowed them to be necessary. In short, God is a terrible composer of stories (and universes).
The Bible, as a collection of stories, is a work of human minds and hands. It takes the nature of the world, indifferent and often unpredictable, and comes up with a set of narratives which offer some consolation and moral import. Bu those imports are inflated, exaggerated, and as a result they take on universal import through hyperbolic fabrication, rather than by being real.
We, with our imagination, intelligence and articulate genius have come up with narratives which make reality look pale in comparison. Our stories tell us about our dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears, and our height and depth of philosophical notions. But what ends up mattering are the real acts, the non-miraculous human decisions, which have a real effect on our lives. Mythology might inspire,but it can only do so via exaggeration, by figurative flashing lights and shiny objects.
And, what’s worse is that the mythology, the meaning, of the essential Christian message is flawed and many subsequent stories have surpassed them in many ways. Not only is the Christian message not truly universal, it isn’t even good. So, not only should we not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection, we should not even be inspired by such things. Fabricated acts have no real meaning in the world; they only can attempt to make reality seem pale in comparison, but often merely succeed in making themselves look artificial, forced, and Platonic.
So, while stories are fun and inspire the imagination, what ultimately matters is reality. Give me friends and lovers over a million Jesuses (Jesi?) any day.