21 February 2009

Followup questions on story, fundamentalism vs atheism, etc

[[Dear Sister, thank you for your posts on story. I have heard Genesis called mythical before, but I was unclear why scholars thought that was a good thing and not a harmful one. I especially never heard before that taking such stories literally could actually be the most harmful thing we can do. It was interesting to hear you put creationists and atheists in the same box here. So here are my questions. Do all stories in the Bible work in the same way? Are you saying that creationists and atheists misread the Bible in the same way? Are these two really more related than not? What is it they are both missing with regard to the stories in the Bible?]]

Some stories in the Bible are more historical (and that is true in the later chapters of Genesis as well), but yes, they challenge us in SOME of the same ways I outlined in the earlier posts. Especially they challenge us to identify in one way and another with the characters and problems involved and make decisions on where we will stand as a result in our own world; they can stand temporarily as a space where we can explore ourselves, etc, but generally they do not ask for the same kind of suspension of disbelief I described before. However, two kinds of Scriptural stories especially work in the way I outlined: myths, and parables (especially Jesus' parables which are completely unique to him in the history of literature).

Both are especially good at providing a space where we can enter in and leave our own world behind (so to speak) for the time being, but only so we can return with our own hearts and minds changed in some way and engage that world differently as a result. One of the ways you will see that Jesus' parables differ from myth per se is that they draw us in, disorient us, and then, demand that we make a choice which reorients us, either to the world as we ordinarily understand it, or toward the Kingdom of God. They are more active or directed in this dynamic than myth per se; further, because they are less fantastic than myth they demand not so much a suspension of disbelief as a renunciation of belief. I will not repeat more of what I have written in the past about parables, but I would suggest if you have not read them, you check out the pieces on Thematic Aperception Tests and Parables, or, the Parable of the Good Samaritan for a more detailed explanation of the way Jesus' parables in particular work. They are tagged, so you can find them in the list of labels at the right hand side of the blog.

Yes, I am saying that creationists and some atheists (there are different kinds) do tend to read the myths of Genesis' primordial history in the same way. Both take these stories literally, and make them ridiculous in the process. The creationists read the stories as explanations not only of a sovereign creator God, but as descriptions of the way he creates. They rule out evolution (micro and macro), ongoing creation, a world which is moving towards perfection or fulfillment rather than (merely) falling away from it, etc. As a result they make faith look like an anti-intellectual act of people afraid of truth instead of a deeply intelligent act worthy of humanity and the profound mysteriousness of the cosmos. They do something similar with God, who is invariably treated as A BEING rather than as the ground and source of all being and meaning. Atheists do the same, but they do so in order to justify a lack or even refusal of faith, the transcendent, and the like. They do so in order to denigrate believers and belief, but also to castigate the parodies of God naive believers so often put forward --- itself a much more legitimate enterprise than is sometimes recognized. So yes, despite apparent differences, these two groups of people often have more in common than they have differences.

What both of these groups of people miss is the fact that stories are sophisticated even sacramental vehicles for encountering truth, and this is especially true of myth or the mythical elements in stories. Both groups treat literal truth as contrary to profound truth which needs to be conveyed with myth and the bending and shaping of the literal. Both forget how story functions in our lives. They treat these things as childish, something to be outgrown, rather than understanding how entering into stories allows for growth in transcendence. (Watch a child being read to and imagine the explosions of transcendence going on in her mind and heart as she places herself in the story and internalizes what she hears!)

They do this in different ways: the creationist, for instance, absolutizes elements in the narrative as literal or historical in the modern sense and loses contact with the depth dimension of the story. Thus when faced with scientific data regarding evolution, the age of the world, etc, they must deny these things; when told by other believers the stories of creation function as myth, their faith is threatened unnecessarily and they cannot see the deeper truths embodied as only story can do. The atheists on the other hand opt for the data of science as far superior to what can be conveyed in story and if told the account is mythical, dismiss it as nonsense or fiction on ALL levels. Both underestimate truth (its scope and mystery) and the God who grounds and is the source of all truth, but they do this especially by forgetting how story functions, and how human beings are by nature story-telling beings not because they are unsophisticated or primitive, but precisely because they are sophisticated and capable of transcendence and communion.