De-mythologizing and Faith

|

Last weekend, the Toronto Globe & Mail reported on a Toronto church, affiliated with the large mainline body the United Church of Canada, that offered a different sort of Easter service. Instead of singing "Jesus Christ Has Risen Today", the congregation sings "Glorious Hope Has Risen Today":

Thus, it will be hope that is declared to be resurrected – an expression of renewal of optimism and the human spirit – but not Jesus...
So far, that sounds pretty good to me.

The article goes on to say:
There is no authoritative Big-Godism, as Rev. Gretta Vosper, West Hill's minister for the past 10 years, puts it. No petitionary prayers (“Dear God, step into the world and do good things about global warming and the poor”). No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity's teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus's death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.
That also sounded good, although the very last sentence gave me pause--I don't believe that God is omnipotent--but no "god" whatsoever? What does this really mean?

Rev. Vosper has written a book titled With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe. I certainly would agree with the sentiment expressed by that title. I don't think it matters, for example, to God, whether we believe in God or what we believe about God; I think God is much more concerned with how we live (and love) than what theologian pronouncements we affirm. And I also agree with much of what the article describes as a summary of her beliefs:
Ms. Vosper does not want to dress up the theological detritus – her words – of the past two millennia with new language in the hope of making it more palatable. She wants to get rid of it, and build on its ashes a new spiritual movement that will have relevance in a tight-knit global world under threat of human destruction.

She says there's been virtually a consensus among scholars for the past 30 years that the Bible is not some divine emanation – or in Ms. Vosper acronym, TAWOGFAT, The Authoritative Word of God For All Time – but a human project filled with contradictions and the conflicting worldviews and political perspectives of its authors.

And yet, she says, the liberal Christian churches, including her own, won't acknowledge that it is a human project, that it's wrong in parts and that, in the 21st century, it's no more useful as a spiritual and religious guide than a number of other books.

She says now that the work of biblical scholars has become publicly accessible, the churches and their clergy are caught living a lie that few people will buy much longer. “I just don't think we can placate those in the pews long enough to transition into a kind of new community that doesn't keep people away.”

She wants salvation redefined to mean new life through removing the causes of suffering in the world. She wants the church to define resurrection as “starting over,” “new chances.” She wants an end to the image of God as an intervening all-powerful authority who must be appeased to avoid divine wrath; rather she would have congregations work together as communities to define God – or god – according to their own worked-out definitions of what is holy and sacred. She wants the eucharist – the symbolic eating and drinking of Jesus's body and blood to make the congregation part of Jesus's body – to be instead a symbolic experience of community love.

I find it hard to disagree with much of that. Yet there is a part of me that wonders if her de-mythologizing of Christianity can go too far. One of her colleagues, a progressive pastor of another church, was quoted as saying, "While I'm somewhat sympathetic to the aims of it all – getting rid of the nonsense and keeping the core faith – I think that there is something lacking in it all. Gone is metaphor, poetry, symbol, image, beauty, paradox.”

If I only wanted an intellectually tinged religion of deconstruction, I'd be a Unitarian Universalist. For me, religion is what inspires us to new heights. I see it as a kind of poetry for the human soul: "metaphor, poetry, symbol, image, beauty, paradox," as the pastor said in the quote above. I don't necessarily want to do away with the metaphors and myths. I just want some recognition that they are metaphors and myths. Let's talk about them as myths, and explore how they can inspire us in the way that all great myths can. I do want us to stop pretending that all the various and sundry mythological accounts are literally true. But let us not take away the poetry from religion either.

8 comments:

SocietyVs said...

I just read the Mclean's article on Jesus identity and Mrs. Vospers was in there talking about this same thing. I can sympathize with her to be honest - I am not as liberal as she is - but I get it - the search for the meaningfulness in faith (heck I think we all arrive at the port at some time).

I think I am in the same camp as you on the idea of wanting to see things be acknowledged for what they are biblically - and to drop the whole inerrency thing once and for all.

Frank said...

I agree that there is a need to de-mythologize but keep the poetry. That is very difficult, though. Too often, belief is removed with the myth and all the power of a story can get flushed, too. Awe, wonder and humility are important.

I think de-mythologizing can sometimes improve the power of a story. Jesus "opening the eyes of the blind" is much more profound to me than Jesus simply doing some generous-but-simple healing miracles. It is also a truth I can directly interact with, rather than passively believing someone else's testimony.

Frank said...

With de-mythologizing, I think a lot of people end up attempting to control God. They have stripped all the stories of their transcendence, and have a smug cynicicism as they see God in the little box they created--ironically, not much different than a fundamentalist!

Mystical Seeker said...

Societyvs,

I'm a little curious about that McLean's article. I tried to find it online but was not successful.

Frank, interesting point about trying to control God.

I tend to view the concept of God itself as a kind of metaphorical construct, because I don't know enough about God to make definitive statements about God, God's existence, or God's nature. I might be into process theology, for example, but ultimately it, like anything else I might say about God, is a provisional statement that I use to help make sense of the universe. Vospers talks about defining God as whatever you consider sacred, which is also kind of hyper de-mythologization. To me, take away God altogether because you have no use for the mythological God-language, and once again you are throwing out the baby with the mythological bathwater.

Mystical Seeker said...

Aha! I found the Maclean's article.

Dana said...

Hi Mystical Seeker. I'm a member of Gretta Vosper's congregation in Toronto and I just *had* to comment. :-) With respect to missing symbolism, poetry, beauty, etc., Rob Oliphant's fear is misplaced. There is a depth and richness to the services that is founded on meaningful, relevant symbolism, paradox and beauty. See for yourself by taking a look at Gretta's Easter meditation (sermon) www.westhill.net. Click on videoblog at the top.

It was a pleasure reading your post! It's amazing how far-reaching this article has become.

Mystical Seeker said...

Dana,

Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comments. I'll check it out.

Bill Kennedy, CA said...

Personally, I believe that if we limit our perception of the universe to that which is logical or that which we can perceive with our senses, we are limiting ourselves too much. Metaphor is more than the pretty words of a poem. It is an attempt to convey precise concepts that are not easily reduced to single words. "God" is such a concept. I agree that I don't care whether or not people believe in God. I actually don't think it's a question of belief at all. Either you have experienced something profoundly greater than you in the universe or you haven't. If you haven't, then it is up to you whether you will search for it or not.