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The Use of Myths in Metaphysical Religions:
Strategies for Proper Deployment
by Deb Whitehouse, Ed.D.
Presented at SSMR Regional Conference, Tampa, Florida, October 27, 2000
As the opening speaker on the program today, it behooves me to set the scene for a discussion of myth by defining the term. This is particularly necessary in the case of myth because the term is so frequently used to mean falsehood or fiction. People frequently deprecate something as "a myth", an object of derision. Small wonder that, as philosopher Alan Anderson (1985) once observed, "A myth is as good as a smile" (p. 177).
This paper will show that myths are not only metaphors, but also models in the scientific sense, as well as teaching tales of great value. Because they are analogies, they require discernment as to where to accept and where to reject the analogy they represent. Each has a basis that falls somewhere on a continuum from total fiction to total fact, and we must not be too quick to judge what is fact and what is fiction. They are of most use to us when we are aware that they are myths.
What a Myth Is and Does
According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, myth can mean "an unfounded or false notion", but that is not its primary definition. Its first definition is "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon". As such, it is synonymous with parable or allegory. Its second definition is "a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society". "An unfounded or false notion" is part of this second definition.
Myths, parables, and allegories are all story forms subsumed into the category of metaphor. Metaphor in its broadest sense is any figure of speech. Its primary definition, again from Webster, is "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them". However, it is a great mistake to dismiss metaphor as merely artistic language. Ian Barbour, professor emeritus of physics and religion and winner of the 1999 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, points out in his book, Myths, Models, and Paradigms (1974) that a metaphor "proposes analogies between the normal context of a word and a new context into which it is introduced" (p. 13). Some of the familiar associations of a word are transferred to another word, and the associations "then act as a kind of screen or lens through which the new subject is viewed; some of its features are ignored or suppressed while others are emphasized or distinctively organized. It is seen in a new way and new attitudes are evoked....A metaphor can order our perceptions, bringing forward aspects which we had not noticed before." He goes on to explain,
A metaphor is not literally true. Imagine someone getting out the scales when his friend says ‘My heart is heavy’, or asking for salt and pepper upon hearing ‘She has been in a stew all day’. A metaphor is absurd if interpreted literally because the two contexts are widely disparate; there is a flagrant crossing of what philosophers call ‘type-boundaries’. Yet a metaphor is not a useful fiction, a mere pretence, a game of make-believe with no relation to reality; it asserts that there are significant analogies between the things compared. (p. 13)
Barbour distinguishes parable from allegory: "In an allegory, every person or part represents something else with a 1-to-1 correspondence; in a parable, however, the story as a whole conveys the comparison" (p. 16). Parables, he adds, call for decision, suggesting attitudes and policies and provoking a response from the hearer. Some, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, are useful fictions; others, such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, seem to make claims about reality, implying that God is like a father. Parables, like myths, are open-ended and communicate vivid images.
Barbour agrees with other scholars that biblical events are interpreted through dominant images, but holds that "the images themselves are not directly God-given but arise from man’s analogical imagination" (p.14). "Religious symbols and images", he continues, "are combined in the complex narratives known as myths. . . . In broad terms, a myth is a story which is taken to manifest some aspect of the cosmic order" (pp. 19-20). Barbour then gives five ways in which myths are helpful guides for daily life:
Myths offer ways of ordering experience. . . . A myth is relevant to daily life because it deals with perennial problems and the enduring order of the world in which man lives. . . .
Myths inform man about himself. . . . He takes his self-identity in part from the past events which he believes have made him what he is. . . .
Myths express a saving power in human life. . . . Myths thus portray and convey a power to transform man’s life, rather than a predominantly theoretical explanation of it. . . .
Myths provide patterns for human actions. . . . Often the actions of divine beings or mythical ancestors give the exemplary patterns for ritual, moral and practical behaviour. . .
Myths are enacted in rituals. . . . The myth often justifies the ritual, while the ritual transmits the myth and provides a way of taking part in it . . . (pp. 20-21).
Psychologically, Barbour indicates,
In the face of the insecurities of illness, natural disaster and death, myths and rituals contribute to the reduction of anxiety. They are a mechanism of ego defense against a variety of threats to human welfare, and a way of restoring the individual’s rapport with nature and society. They are a source of security and a symbolic resolution of conflicts (p. 23).
Myths also have important social functions, quite aside from the question of whether they are true or false. Some try to dismiss them as useful fictions; in the nineteenth century, they were viewed as a primitive attempt to explain natural phenomena, susperseded by the scientific age, but still valid as "symbols of man’s inner life " (p. 25). Some scholars, notably Rudolf Bultmann, attempt to "demythologize" biblical myths in terms of man’s inner life by existential re-interpretation. But, maintains Barbour,
the price of this internalization of myth is a neglect of God’s relation to nature and history...In this retreat to interiority, nature becomes the impersonal stage for the drama of personal existence. One wonders also whether the gospel has not been dehistoricized. The message concerning Christ can indeed be an occasion of personal reorientation, but what is the significance of the event itself? Did God act in history, or does he act only in the present transformation of man’s life? (pp. 26-27)
Theologian Paul Tillich, in Dynamics of Faith (1957), says of demythologization,
What does this negative and artificial term mean? It must be accepted and supported if it points to the necessity of recognizing a symbol as a symbol and a myth as a myth. It must be attacked and rejected if it means the removal of symbols and myths altogether. . . . symbol and myth are forms of the human consciousness which are always present. One can replace one myth by another, but one cannot remove the myth from man’s spiritual life. For the myth is the combination of symbols of our ultimate concern (p. 50).
Barbour proposes, as an alternative, models embodied in myths. As a physicist, he is aware of the scientific use of models as mental constructs. A model in that sense is neither a literal picture of reality, nor is it merely a useful fiction, to be regarded as neither true nor false:
Models, like metaphors, symbols and parables, are analogical and open-ended. Metaphors, however, are used only momentarily, and symbols and parables have only a limited scope, whereas models are systematically developed and pervade a religious tradition. A model represents the enduring structural components which myths dramatize in narrative form. One model may be common to many myths. A model is relatively static and lacks the imaginative richness and dramatic power which make a myth memorable; men will always express their understanding of the meaning of life by telling stories and enacting them in rituals. Models result from reflection on the living myths which communities transmit. . . . Models embodied in myths evoke commitment to ethical norms and policies of action. Like metaphors, religious models elicit emotional and valuational responses. Like parables, they encourage decision and personal involvement. Like myths, they offer ways of life and patterns of behaviour (pp. 27-28).
Myths in Developmental Psychology and Psychotherapy
As part of the psychological maturation process, human beings pass through what psychology of religion scholar James Fowler (1981) refers to as the mythic-literal stage of faith, a period during which the school-age child loves stories but attempts to sort out the real from the make-believe in them. The child at this stage uses symbols in a literal way, trying to "take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community" (p. 149). Implicit clashes or contradictions in stories lead the child to reflect on their meanings and initiate transition to the next stage of development.
In psychotherapy, carefully constructed myths known as teaching tales, tailored to the patient’s situation, can have enormous power to heal. Psychiatrist Milton Erickson, whose extensive research into clinical hypnosis made it a respectable scientific discipline, was renowned for his teaching tales (Rosen, 1982). A partial insight into the source of their power comes from psychotherapist David Gordon. In his book, Therapeutic Metaphors (1978), he explains,
The very act of telling a story . . . is somewhat mesmerizing. The process of internally representing a relatively unfamiliar sequence of events, of attending closely to the communications of another person, and of anticipating the succession and resolution of events, can be deeply hypnotic (p. 164).
One builds one’s story, whether one calls it a myth or a teaching tale, by combining elements of fiction or by embellishing a true incident for dramatic effect. A true account of events, well told, can have an important impact such that over time, it attains the status of a myth, even though it was factual.
Myths, then, play a number of vital roles in society. However, as we mature, we need to change the way in which we understand and make use of myths. To continue to take symbols literally is to remain stuck in an immature stage of development. Accordingly, we turn to what Tillich (1957) referred to as "broken myth", "a myth which is understood as a myth, but not removed or replaced" (p. 50). Even when understood as myths, myths can still be valuable teaching devices. Extensive research in clinical hypnosis has shown that we learn best in a state of light trance, where information easily passes directly into the other-than-conscious mind. One can let a myth sink deep into consciousness in this manner even though one is aware that it is a myth.
One of the glories of the New Thought movement is its use of symbolic interpretation of the Bible, following a tradition that goes back to antiquity. Bible passages may or may not be literally true, and may also have other layers of meaning expressed in symbolic language. One of the most basic techniques of symbolic interpretation is translation of the names of people and places into symbolic meaning; for example, Jerusalem means "Habitation of Peace" (Fillmore, p. 341); feet symbolize "that phase of our understanding which comes into contact with substance" (p. 215). Such interpretation can enhance myth, parable, or allegory; and many passages in the Bible that might otherwise be dismissed as too violent or too immoral to be edifying can be seen as valuable teachings when symbolically interpreted.
Possible Dangers in Dealing With Myths
There are two possible dangers in dealing with myths, representing opposite extremes. The first is to remain unaware that they are myths, to leave them unbroken, and consequently, to take them too literally. The other danger is to assume that myths are invariably to be dismissed as fiction, embodying no factual material. Two recent books provide illustrations of these two dangers. The first, by historian Beryl Satter, titled Each Mind a Kingdom (1999), covers the early years of the New Thought movement from 1875 to 1920, and documents two forms of a myth that apparently affected to a large degree American society during that period.
Satter’s book deals with "the interconnections between New Thought and turn-of-the-century woman [sic] movement leaders, early progressives, and proto-and pioneering psychologists." She analyzes New Thought as
a popular intellectual discourse that both drew upon and deeply influenced the ideas of woman movement leaders, early progressive reformers, and turn-of-the-century neurologists and physicians. What linked New Thought to the core intellectual concerns of these three contemporaneous groups was their shared involvement in a broad cultural debate over precisely which qualities constituted ideal manhood and womanhood, or the ideal gendered self. More specifically, these groups were united by their shared engagement in a pervasive but now-forgotten late-nineteenth-century contest over whether the key to progress, civilization, and race perfection was (Anglo-Saxon) male desire or female virtue. Was the nation in need of male rationality or female spirituality? Who offered the more complete paradigm of human mind or selfhood—the desirous, competitive, and rational white man, or the desireless, spiritual, and altruistic white woman? Did man represent the rational mind that must dominate feminine "matter" and physicality? Or did woman represent the moral spirit that must dominate unruly, masculine matter? (pp. 9-10)
Clearly, this is the stuff of which myths are made. New Thoughters, Satter states, did not create the argument, but the debate over it "was the culmination of a century-long struggle between white middle-class men and white middle-class women for cultural dominance." New Thought texts were of use to many of these people "because they wrestled with slippery concepts that were at the core of that broader cultural battle for authority between proponents of white middle-class manhood and those of white middle-class womanhood. They discussed and ambiguously reworked the meanings of gendered definitions of mind, matter, spirit, selfhood, and desire."
Early New Thought authors . . . created new models of womanhood and manhood that overlapped with, but were not always identical to, the competing paradigms of selfhood offered by social Darwinists and social purity leaders. In so doing, they not only engaged in what was arguably the primary cultural debate of their era, they also appeared to heal the nervous illnesses of late-Victorian women and men who were sickened by the contested yet rigid gender norms of their day (p. 13).
Although Satter does not use the term myth in connection with the concepts that early New Thoughters and their society were wrestling with, in Satter’s descriptions of both the fiction and non-fiction produced by early New Thought women, we see mythmaking at work. This use of myth to heal would reappear in the teaching tales of Milton Erickson. I have mentioned elsewhere strong parallels between the transcriptions of the conversations of New Thought founder Phineas Parkhurst Quimby with his patients and the transcriptions of Erickson’s hypnotic inductions. Quimby and Erickson also both felt that people needed to be dehypnotized from false beliefs that they had acquired and that were making them sick in mind as well as in body.
There is no evidence that any of the New Thought writers were aware that they were caught up in myths involving a male-female battle for authority; in other words, the myths for them were unbroken. But Tillich points out,
The primitive mythological consciousness resists the attempt to interpret the myth of myth. It is afraid of every act of demythologization. It believes that the broken myth is deprived of its truth and of its convincing power. Those who live in an unbroken mythological world feel safe and certain. They resist, often fanatically, any attempt to introduce an element of uncertainty by "breaking the myth," namely, by making conscious its symbolic character. Such resistance is supported by authoritarian systems, religious or political, in order to give security to the people under their control and unchallenged power to those who exercise the control. The resistance against demythologization expresses itself in "literalism" (p. 51).
Although New Thoughters have always resisted authoritarian approaches such as that of Mary Baker Eddy, they do often display the absolute overconfidence of "true believers", and hence would not have been open to anything that might shed doubt on their beliefs. But broken myths do not lose their power to heal; on the contrary, healers can deliberately build an appropriate teaching tale, knowing that they are mythmaking. The power of a story to engage the other-than-conscious mind persists even when the patient is aware that the story is fiction. But, as stated earlier, myths are based on analogies that can only be carried so far before they break down. The passionless purity movement foundered when it was realized that "wealth was created, according to social Darwinists, by the very male desire that social-purity leaders hoped to eliminate" (Satter, p. 143). The problem was, in the utopian vision, who would create "the wealth that is a precondition of civilization?" (p. 145) Because of this, says Satter, New Thought had to reorient in the direction of prosperity teachings: "New Thought, the religion of the woman’s era, would transform into an almost unrecognizable religion of success for a corporate era" (p. 216).
The opposite extreme from the unbroken myth is the attempt, especially within Christianity to reduce everything to myth and hence to consider it fiction. This has led to some egregious errors and abuses. Since New Thought is squarely founded upon the teachings of Jesus, however tolerant or inclusive it may be of other valuable teachings, excessive attempts to demythologize Jesus are of particular interest. Charlotte Allen, in her book The Human Christ (1998), documents some of these excesses. She deals mainly with the quest for the historical Jesus, and documents how most scholars have ended up revealing more about themselves than about Jesus as they created him in their own image. As religious scholar Paul Laughlin (2000) has observed, "The altogether natural but most grievous error is to turn Jesus the Christ into a mirror of ourselves, in which we see merely who we are on the surface; or a Rorschach ink blot into which we can read all of our predispositions and prejudices, and so render him simply an idealized version of our superficial selves" (p. 136).
Allen points out that what is most important about Jesus that has been frequently overlooked is that he was born of a Jewish mother into a Jewish community, and that his followers were all Jews.
Linking God’s name to that of Jesus, and calling Jesus "Lord," which was God’s own title (Adonai) in the Hebrew Scriptures, was tantamount to saying that Jesus was God, or, at the very least, someone "in the form of God" who had descended from heaven. At first glance, this might seem incompatible with Jewish monotheism. In point of fact, the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time was filled with imagery that made it easy for certain Jews to adopt a theology that regarded him as divinely sent without compromising their belief in one God (pp. 2-3).
It is therefore evident that any expert who can provide details about first-century Jewish life and culture of the day, or do scientific analysis of artifacts of the period such as papyrus or plants that grow in that part of the world, can be of help in determining what may be factual in mythic accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Bultmann, according to Allen,
considered it the task of Christian theologians to "demythologize" the Gospels, by first explaining the reasons why they portrayed miracles, and then purging them of these miracles in order to make Christianity more palatable to the modern mind. Bultmann, who was an existentialist, believed that the "demythologized Jesus was also an existentialist, whose message was absolute trust in an unknowable God.
In formulating his theories about mythology and demythologizing, Bultmann himself . . . subscribed to a myth: scientific progress had so transformed modern men and women that mythical thought patterns had simply disappeared from their consciousness. Bultmann could not have been more wrong. As the French social theorist Jacques Ellul has pointed out, the modern age, far from desacralizing people’s thinking, has merely substituted a new set of sacred myths for the old ones. . . . The modern myth is in many ways as "superstitious" as any ancient faith (p. 78).
Allen indicates that "besides falling prey to faddishness, the results of each epoch of Jesus research have become dated at an alarming pace", and that Rudolf Bultmann’s "own students have rejected nearly all his theories" (p. 6). She then goes on to discuss Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar:
Like his mentor once-removed Bultmann, Funk was not making a statement of fact, but rather a statement of faith in what Ellul would call a different mythological worldview. Not surprisingly, the Jesus whom the Jesus Seminar has unearthed—a pithy aphorist who said less than 20 percent of the words ascribed to him in the Gospels—bears a striking resemblance to the rationalist-moralist of Chubb and Reimarus and the shadowy existentialist of Bultmann—precisely because they are all products of the same modern mindset. The Jesuses of all of them are stripped of traditional supernatural and divine appurtenances, from virgin birth to resurrection, because only thus are they intelligible to those who subscribe to the mythology of modernity (p. 79).
The passage of time complicates matters as well. During the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it is unlikely that stories surrounding those events would stray far from the facts because someone would be in a position to say, "That wasn’t the way it was; I know because I was there", or to contradict exaggerated accounts with the truth; for example, by producing his dead body. But over time, stories that were once known to be factual attain mythic status, and it becomes more difficult to establish what the facts were. Allen deals with the contradictions in the four canonical Gospels, which differ from each other in many ways, even the three synoptic Gospels. But, she points out, "the discrepancies in the Gospel narratives were not discovered by 18th century freethinkers such as Reimarus and Chubb. The earliest Christians were quite aware of them" (p. 80). Four witnesses to an automobile accident are going to have four different perspectives on what happened and will probably remember different details.
Literary historian and author of superb detective novels Dorothy Sayers had an early reaction to Bultmann’s campaign to "demythologize" the New Testament. Writing about the "notorious dispute" surrounding the fourth Gospel, she observes:
Into the details of that dispute I do not propose to go. I only want to point out that the arguments used are such as no critic would ever dream of applying to a modern book of memoirs written by one real person about another. The defects imputed to St. John would be virtues in Mr. Jones, and the value and authenticity of Mr. Jones’s contribution to literature would be proved by the same arguments that are used to undermine the authenticity of St. John.
Suppose, for example Mr. (George) Bernard Shaw were now to publish a volume of reminiscences about Mr. William Archer: would anybody object that the account must be received with suspicion because most of Archer’s other contemporaries were dead, or because the style of G. B.S. was very unlike that of a Times obituary notice, or because the book contained a great many intimate conversations not recorded in previous memoirs, and left out a number of facts that could easily be ascertained by reference to the Dictionary of National Biography? Or if Mr. Shaw (being a less vigorous octogenarian than he happily is) had dictated part of his material to a respectable clergyman, who had himself added a special note to say that Shaw was the real author and that readers might rely on the accuracy of the memoirs since, after all, Shaw was a close friend of Archer’s and ought to know—should we feel that these two worthy men were thereby revealed as self-confessed liars, and dismiss their joint work as a valueless fabrication? Probably not; but then Mr. Shaw is a real person, and lives, not in the Bible, but in Westminster. The time has not come to doubt him. He is already a legend, but not yet a myth; two thousand years hence, perhaps— (Thiede & D’Ancona, 1996, pp. 21-22).
Allen has a more up-to-date comment:
Certain facts concerning John’s Gospel have now become embarrassingly evident. For one thing, it was written in the late first century rather than the late second century, far earlier than most scholars had assumed. Second, John’s knowledge of first-century Palestinian geography is detailed and complete. Whereas it was once more or less universally assumed that the "five porticos" described by John as surrounding the pool of Beth-zatha (or Bethesda) in Jerusalem were strictly symbolic, excavations carried out during the 1950s unearthed not only the first-century pool but also the remains of the five porticos themselves. In other instances as well, John revealed himself as being highly familiar with the layout of Jerusalem and its environs. For a supposed Gentile Gnostic, he also proved to be extremely knowledgeable about Jewish religious practices and feast days. In 1963, the British scholar C. F. Dodd’s Historical Traditions in the Fourth Gospel took detailed note of the Gospel of John’s surprising historical meticulousness (pp. 323-4).
Finally, Methodist minister Leslie Weatherhead has this to say on the subject:
Acknowledging gladly Bultmann’s eminence and the value of much of his "demythologizing," I cannot, for myself, account for the evidence by suspecting the historicity of that empty tomb. Nor can I account for the volte-face in the minds of Christ’s followers at that point in history which we call Easter Day. A myth takes longer than three days to grow up and be effective enough to bring, from their hiding place of terror, eleven men who proceed to preach it and to lay down their lives for its truth. One wonders also why a "myth" of resurrection did not prove necessary to account for the influence of other great teachers after their death. In passing, it is interesting to meditate on the fact that if his followers had not been convinced that Jesus was alive not one word of the New Testament would ever have been written (1965, p. 126).
Students of the resurrection never seem to me to have paid enough attention to the meticulous details about the grave-clothes which the fourth Gospel gives. This narrative—unlike some parts of the Gospel—seems to me to be based on the account of an eye-witness.
It is made clear that the grave-clothes, covering the body up to the armpits, had collapsed as if the body had evaporated. We are told how that the turban wound round his head stood on its edge as if the head also had evaporated. If the student will turn to the twentieth chapter of the fourth Gospel and read the first twenty verses, he will realize that it was the way the grave-clothes were lying that convinced Peter and John that Christ had disposed of his physical body in a way which we do not understand, but which suggest words like "evaporation," or "evanescence," or "dematerialization." If the corpse had moved or been moved, then the hundred pounds weight of myrrh and aloes would have made a conspicuous heap on the floor and been remarked upon. We are given the idea that not a fold of the "linen cloths" was out of place and the turban was "wrapped up in a place by itself," its supporting head having evanesced (p. 128).
Here we can again see the value of research into Jewish burial customs of the day to help us recognize the factuality of this passage from the fourth Gospel.
Weatherhead recommends that everyone possess a mental box labeled "Awaiting further light" into which to place such matters as an evanescence we do not understand, or other accounts of seeming miracles. Such a box would be a valuable adjunct to our efforts to deal appropriately with myths when we do not know for certain what is fictional and what is fact.
Myths are highly metaphorical teaching tales that may or may not be based on fact. They are an important and inevitable part of all religions and will be broken or unbroken depending on the developmental stage of the worshipper. In any religion, metaphysical or otherwise, the proper deployment of myths necessitates understanding their value when used appropriately to engage the other-than conscious mind. However, our task as scholars is broader, for we must attempt to determine where the line between fact and fiction lies, with the aid of experts from any relevant discipline that can shed light on the situation.
Understanding the nature and use of myths enables both scholar and follower of a particular religion to appreciate more fully what that religion is and what its possibilities and limitations are.
Allen, C. (1998). The human Christ: The search for the historical Jesus. New York: The Free Press.
Anderson, C. A. (1985). The problem is God: The selection and care of your personal God. Walpole, NH: Stillpoint Publishing.
Barbour, I. G. (1976). Myths, models, and paradigms: A comparative study in science & religion. New York: Harper & Row.
Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Gordon, D. (1978). Therapeutic metaphors: Helping others through the looking glass. Cupertino, CA: META Publications.
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Weatherhead, L D. (1972). The Christian Agnostic. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.