Short History of Myth II: What can you say?

This is a continuation of my first post on Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth.

Page 109:
[Jewish, Christian, and Muslim] mystics all had recourse to myth. The words mysticism and mystery are both related to a Greek word meaning: 'to close the eyes or the mouth'. Both refer to experiences that are obscure and ineffable, because they are beyond speech, and relate to the inner rather than the external world. Mystics make a journey into the depths of the psyche by means of the disciplines of concentration that have been developed in all the religious traditions and have become a version of the hero's mythical quest. Because mythology charts this hidden, interior dimension, it is natural for mystics to describe their experiences in myths that might, at first glance, seem inimical to the orthodoxy of their tradition.
Some Thoughts:

1) "Orthodoxy" for the U.S. modernist, rational, post-Enlightenment worldview = scientific determinism, naturalism, or whatever you want to call it. I'm not a philosopher and don't know the right labels. (RichardM, feel free to chime in. :)

In any event, I assert that in my case, I seek to chart my inner experience in God language, in Christian language. Is this not living with integrity because the stories in the Bible are possibly not factual, in any case not historically provable, and in some cases scientifically impossible? No, I don't think so.

I was just rereading a post on Simon St. Laurent's blog called "A Sense Beyond the Rational." In response to a comment by Zach, Simon wrote:

Is it possible that the natural world is all there is?

Of course.

Do I think it makes sense to live with that as a foundation assumption?

Absolutely not!

Somehow, that's where I fall, too. I don't read the Bible to follow literally true events, but to find great moral teachings wrapped in mysteries and koans. Something about the sacred that I sense seems larger than life, my life at least, and yet I don't have a scientifically provable hypothesis to base it on. I'm okay with that. Similarly, I find inspiration in music or writing that is not directly explainable or conscious. The Christian mythos is the mythos I inherited. After all, my first name is Christopher, Bearer of Christ, even if it was chosen primarily because it was one of the most popular names the year I was born not for faith reasons!

I figure it's my responsibility to tell my story in ways that have integrity for me, and which I can put into a lightly sketched context that helps my listener or reader understand where I'm coming from when I use this language.

2) The passage above by Armstrong somehow suggests to me that it's unproductive to argue theism vs. nontheism. True, a mystic who experiences the unshakable reality of God's existence will "know" that God exists. And someone with an unshakable, experiential knowledge that "that's all there is" will "know" that God doesn't exist. And their discussions might be very interesting, and often will seem argumentive from someone not engaged directly in the conversation.

So, I conclude it's more interesting at this time to follow the path of "personal narrative theology" (or "nontheology" if that's your practice) and tell your story.

What have you experienced? in relation to your inner reality? in relation to other people? in relation to the world at large, including the natural world?

What were your moments of beauty, of terror, of joy, of seeking and questing? what have you found, what have you lost? do you carry a sense of innocence or of stain, and how has that changed at different times of your life?

Let's spend more time bringing this up out of the depths, and trying to put it into words.

Me, I'm going to use Biblical imagery and stories and use God language. You can share the truth in the words that best express your own truth.


Short History of Myth Part I

So back to Karen Armstrong. I've also read her books The Age of Transformation and A History of God. This one, though, stirred me actually to write a post about it.

I was listening to the book on CD from the library. Then it came to the weekend, and I was not going to be in the car for a few days, so I borrowed the hard copy from the library because I didn't want to wait!

(My memory is a little fuzzy now, because since then I've read a couple more books. Most recently, I went through the same CD-first-book-later deal with Jared Diamond's Collapse, which I would also highly recommend. It is a very long book indeed, compared with Armstrong's history of myth, which is very short indeed. Speaking of which, this post is starting to remind me about the Monty Python sketch interviewing the Shakespearean actor, who knows exactly how many words are in each of the plays but doesn't necessarily grasp their content.)

Here are some passages and then I'll try to synthesize. This book is already a synthesis of longer works by the likes of Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, etc. (At least one review I read of this book criticized it for that reason.)

Pages 106-108:
Unless a historical event is mythologized, it cannot become a source of religious inspiration. A myth, it will be recalled, is an event that -- in some sense -- happened once, but which also happens all the time... A myth demands action: they myth of the Exodus demands that Jews cultivate an appreciation of freedom as a sacred value, and refuse either to be enslaved themselves or to oppress others. By ritual practice and ethical response, the story has ceased to be an event in the distant past, and has become a living reality.

St. Paul did the same with Jesus. He was not much interested in Jesus's teachings, which he rarely quotes, or in the events of his earthly life... What was important was the 'mystery' (a word which has the same etymological root as the Greek mythos) of his death and resurrection.... Jesus was no longer a mere historical figure but a spiritual reality in the lives of Christians by means of ritual and the ethical discipline of living the same selfless life as Jesus himself. Christians no longer knew him 'in the flesh' but they would encounter him in other human beings, in the study of scripture, and in the Eucharist. They knew that this myth was true, not because of the historical evidence, but because they had experienced transformation.
This dovetails well with my understanding of Quaker Christianity: That we encounter Christ in other human beings, in scripture, and in the communion of meeting for worship.

I'm also reminded of Walter Wink's book, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man. He writes that the actual, perhaps subconscious focus of much contemporary New Testament scholarship is the construction of the "myth of the human Jesus," in part as a reaction to the "myth of the divine Jesus." (That is, there is no scientifically compelling and convincing historical evidence about the details of the life of Jesus; hence scholars rely on textual analysis and clues, or "warrants," to build up their theories about who the human Jesus was. I'm saving up some Wink material about this for later.)

I have already typed up some more passages, and intend to reflect on mythical reality vs. physical reality, and to look at what it means to live in a seemingly "mythless" age.

Unexpectedly Finding God on the way to History of Myth

As mentioned in a recent post, I read Karen Armstrong's truly Short History of Myth.

More in a moment. But first, there's this from SFGate.com's "Finding My Religion" column:

How San Francisco writer, activist and lifelong atheist Sara Miles unexpectedly found God


"Now I'll ask you for the answer to the question, 'Why would any thinking person become a Christian now?' "

"I'm not going to give the answer for why anybody else should be a Christian, but I will say why I became a Christian. I believe the story of Christianity is true. It is true beyond facts and literalism, and it's true beyond logic. As a journalist, it was surprising for me to use a different set of tools -- the eyes of faith -- to understand the world. Belief turned out to be the least important part of faith. For me, the most interesting part of faith has been doubt, not knowing, being willing to look at the universe with a different perspective....

Later she talks about her work with a food pantry at her church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, a truly only-in-SF kind of place:

"Most of the hungry people in San Francisco statistically turn out to be women and their kids. And most of the people that we feed at the pantry are working people or the elderly. That's because the housing costs are so insane that it takes two full-time minimum-wage jobs to pay the rent on a one-bedroom apartment, and you don't have enough left over for food."


On delivering ministry while the drawstrings of one's sweatshirt are being pulled

During meeting for worship on Sunday, Five Year Old was having a hard time. He had been playing with my watch, and then he dropped it. Robin prevented him from picking it up, then handed it back to me. He was frustrated. He lightly hit Robin on the knee with his hand. "Stop!" she whispered. So he hit her on the knee with his head. "No!" she shook her head. Then he bumped her purse for a while, then he came over and hit me lightly on the knee. "Stop, you may not hit me!" I said. So he bumped his head on my knee.

I picked him up and sat him on my lap. He curled into me, wanting to be held closely, like a small baby or toddler. I comforted him for a bit.

And then I had a sense of how blessed we were, that maybe we were having a little bit of a hard time, and how much harder almost the entire world has it.

So I stood up, still holding him, and thanked God for the blessings in my family's life, and asked for strength and comfort for the children who suffer in the Kibera section of Nairobi (where our Friend Heidi is working with orphaned and abandoned young people), in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East. (And all the other places in hindsight that I didn't name.) After all, Jesus said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me."

Finally, I asked for strength in our meeting community to carry on, to make a difference, and to be a role model for each other and the world.

Meanwhile, Five Year Old went from leaning his head against me as I started to speak, to looking into my eyes, and then he pulled my hood up on my head and started pulling the drawstrings tight!

All while I'm trying to speak clearly, despite my runny nose and teary eyes, the words that were flowing out of me.

Samuel Bownas never covered this situation!

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PS Blogger is making me switch to the new blogger. I can hold out no longer. In my experience, when others upgrade, my bloglines subscription seems to disappear. So if you don't see anything in your reader for a while, you might want to check back to the site to see if it's me or if it's Blogger, and resubscribe if needed.
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Update, 2/14: Corrected typo "hood on head" which I noticed because Martin picked it up on the QuakerQuaker feed.


Lesson on Clearness

Yesterday I taught Firstday School, to a group including one each of a 10-, 9-, 8-, 5- and 4-year-old. The subject was clearness and clearness committees, and I related the content to Rolene Walker's Walk with Earth once again.

First, we did a check-in to see if we were feeling clear or fuzzy, was the sky clear or cloudy, and if we were wearing glasses (like me), were they clear or dirty.

Second, I reviewed Rolene's walk for the beauty of the earth from San Diego to Chile, and how she wants young people to know about the goodness of earth, not just the environmental problems.

Third, we read two Bible passages:

Psalm 85 (Message)
God, you smiled on your good earth! You brought good times back to Jacob!
You lifted the cloud of guilt from your people,
you put their sins far out of sight.
You took back your sin-provoked threats,
you cooled your hot, righteous anger.
4-7 Help us again, God of our help;
don't hold a grudge against us forever.
You aren't going to keep this up, are you?
scowling and angry, year after year?
Why not help us make a fresh start—a resurrection life?
Then your people will laugh and sing!
Show us how much you love us,
Give us the salvation we need! …
10-13 Love and Truth meet in the street,
Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes!
God gives Goodness and Beauty;
our land responds with Bounty and Blessing.
Right Living strides out before him,
and clears a path for his passage.
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After reading this, the 10-y.o. girl said, "You know how sometimes when we read something, we do a skit [for the meeting]? Could we do a skit today?" I said maybe, after we read the second passage, which seemed easier to act out.
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John 9
Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?"
3-5 Jesus said, "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world's Light."
6-7 He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man's eyes, and said, "Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam" (Siloam means "Sent"). The man went and washed—and saw.
8 Soon the town was buzzing. His relatives and those who year after year had seen him as a blind man begging were saying, "Why, isn't this the man we knew, who sat here and begged?"
9 Others said, "It's him all right!" …
39Jesus said, "I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind."
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We talked about this for a while. I had a revelation myself: That the people had walked past the blind man who begged daily, without ever really seeing him or acknowledging his humanity. And then Jesus healed him. That's when they saw him, as if for the first time. The people weren't even sure it was the same man, they couldn't even remember for sure what he looked like! How often do I walk past others without even seeing their humanity? How blind am I?

Next I talked about how Friends can seek help from their meetings to discern if they are really clearly being led by God to do something, or are they feeling something else. I even summarized a passage from Pacific YM Faith and Practice, which was written in my handout. I'll just include a few bits here; the full publication is online here.

On clearness and clearness committees
Sometimes members ask for help with clarifying personal problems and making decisions. Meetings usually respond to such requests for help by appointing clearness committees.

A clearness committee meets with the seeker as caring Friends, drawing on the same resources that bind the Meeting together in worship. Listening and patience are essential. All must listen not only to the person in need, but also to the movement of the Spirit.... When the individual has a strong leading toward a specific action and wants the Meeting to affirm it, the clearness committee seeks unity on whether this is indeed a leading of the Spirit.
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Walking to Chile: Where is Chile?
Here I plugged in some clip art illustrating where Chile is compared to Central America and Southern California.

Looking through Lenses
The last planned activity was to look through a few binoculars, a telescope, kaleidoscope, and magnifying glasses. The kids loved it! The four year old (almost five) really engaged at that point. The kids got a bit silly with it, but that was okay. They had been mostly great until then, and it was way more kinetic and kinesthetic than my usual activity. And anarchic! My usual activity is to draw something related to the day's topic on a big sheet of butcher paper; they actually really like doing it almost every time, but it was good to have a change of pace. (My thanks to Robin M. for the idea!)

Finally, we did practice the passage from John once more, though it was a challenge to get them to focus, and then perform it for the meeting. My 8-y.o. wanted to be the pool of Siloam; I insisted he at least be the narrator for the first half of the story too. And the 9-y.o. played the blind man; when he went to jump in Siloam (aka 8-y.o.), he yelled, "Cowabunga!" The 4-y.o. was delighted to be part of the crowd and deliver the line, "It's him alright!"

All in all, a rewarding lesson, especially for me. Thank you, God, for most this amazing day. Please help me see, help me notice, help me respond.