Religious myth provides people with enduring stories and metaphoric frameworks for making sense out of their lives and the world.
I believe that all religious myths have been created by human beings, as opposed to revealed by a deity to human beings. That doesn’t mean that I think myths have no spiritual truth. On the contrary, myths are deeply important to how we human beings seek to understand ourselves, the cosmos, and the meaning of life. In fact, if we assume that we are intimately connected with the universe around us, then myth also holds the potential of being one of the ways that we express or reflect deeper realities. Acknowledging that myths come from us, and not from “out there” somewhere, simply implies that the impulse and the creativity to see the world in a sacred way is embedded within us. As Jean Houston writes:
“Myth remains closer than breathing, nearer than our hands and feet. I think it is built into our very being. … Myths serve as source patterns originating in the ground of our being. While they appear to exist solely in the transpersonal realms, they are the keys to our personal and historical existence, the DNA of the human psyche. These primal patterns unfold in our daily lives as culture, mythology, religion, art, architecture, drama, ritual, epic, social customs and even mental disorders.”
So what makes a religious myth more or less healthy?
I’m persuaded by the thoughts of Neale Donald Walsch, who argues in his various books that the test of whether or not something is healthy is whether or not it produces outcomes that we human beings want for ourselves and for future generations. He starts with the assumption that what humans want is a peaceful, ecologically sustainable, just and harmonious world. He then asks us to ask ourselves whether or not each religious belief or practice we have furthers or hinders those outcomes. He rejects the idea that we have no choice about what to believe because the beliefs have been “commanded by God.” We are responsible for the beliefs we assert to be true and for the religiously motivated actions we take, and we live in a world of natural consequences that will play out in ways that either allow our species to survive on this planet or not.
Walsch equates God with Life (with a capital “L”), and argues that if we choose to follow beliefs that lead humankind to its demise, Life will simply find a way, over millions of years, to evolve consciousness in other forms. For Walsch there most definitely is a God – in fact, God is all that there is, and we, as manifestations of God, hold the keys to the course we want to chart for our species. Our religious beliefs and practices will only prove to be healthy if they help us attain the kind of world we would like to live in, and we would be wise to examine them closely. Walsch advocates that we assume we have much to learn from the genuine wisdom in each of our religions, though we also have much to reject if we are to be serious about questioning and analyzing the health or pathology of different elements of our sacred traditions.
He doesn’t advocate the abandonment of religion and religious myth on the grounds that they are hopelessly sick, as do some contemporary critics of religion. Rather, he argues for what he terms “enlarging upon” existing religions. By this he means working with existing religious myths, rituals, cultural expressions, and ethics in a two-fold way. We are simultaneously to seek the depth of wisdom that our existing traditions have to offer us and rigorously comb through them for elements that lead us away from the kind of world we’d like to have. And we are simultaneously to amplify those teachings that help humanity achieve a good future and eliminate those elements that don’t. I describe this dance as assuming an insider-outsider relationship with one’s religious tradition. It’s a discipline that asks much of us. To do this well, we have to be willing to explore and engage religious life while remaining committed to being editors of religious life, cutting away certain bits and introducing new thinking and practice as well.
I’ve left my question of a few paragraphs ago unanswered. What makes a religious myth more or less healthy? Let’s keep Walsch’s test – does it help humanity achieve the kind of world that we want to have – in mind as we explore this question further. I would add that how we teach a religious myth to people of different ages effects how healthy the myth is. Let me share an example from my own family life to illustrate the point.
Our mythic stories can help children feel less alone and relate their own struggles to a “master narrative” of the human experience. Recently I saw this happen with one of my own kids. My wife, Melissa, and I adopted two children, H and C, who were in the foster care system together for several years. They are biological siblings, and they were ages 5 and 7 when they came to us. Helping them manage the after-effects of early trauma in as psychologically and spiritually healthy a way as possible has been our top parenting priority.
C and H weren’t born Jewish, and one of the most fascinating and enjoyable adventures of our first years as a family was introducing them to the stories, rituals, and rhythms of Judaism. Both of our kids have become big fans of the Passover story, which they’ve been exposed to at our synagogue’s religious school and through our Passover celebrations and discussions at home. C, in particular, sometimes would put herself into the Passover story and map parts of her remembered experiences onto it. It doesn’t matter whether her mapping of her story onto the Passover story is a perfect fit. The bottom line is that she gets the meaning of the Passover story in the precise way that the rabbis wanted us to experience it every year when we retell the story at our Passover seders. They wanted us to tell the story as if each one of us personally went forth from slavery in Egypt, not as if it only happened to our ancestors eons ago.
This fits with Karen Armstrong’s definition of a myth as a story that describes not a past set of events, but rather a story that is attempting to describe something that is always happening in the world – something that is ongoingly true about the human condition or the cosmic order. In the case of the Passover story, the myth is asserting that there is enslavement and suffering that is part of the human condition, but that there is also a force in the universe that witnesses the oppression and generates the energy that brings about liberation. Injustice and cruelty are real, but so are revolution, rebirth, and freedom. The Passover myth asserts that the forces of justice and liberation are stronger than the forces of cruelty and oppression. The power of the empire and its armies may appear invincible, but the sea splits and the daring slaves march through to freedom on the other side. By telling us to re-enact the story and tell it as though it happened to each of us in our lifetimes, the tradition shows an understanding of the true function of myth. Our daughter got this intuitively and naturally, in the way that a child so often does. This story is helpful to her. She’s not alone.