Saturday, January 17, 2015

Christianity is the True Myth

One of the things that has always been an important part of my view of the nature of the world, and of the world as Christian, at least since I have been a Christian, is the idea of Christianity as the True Myth.  We humans are made in the image of God, and the things that we create reflect that image, including our literature and our stories.  In our stories, in which there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, we often manage to portray, in a microcosm, to some limited degree, the true story of history as written by God.  That is, our stories, as we pour into them our own intuitions coming from the image of God inside of us--from our reason, our feelings, our imagination--come to reflect to a limited and imperfect degree the fundamental themes of history as written by God.  In our stories, there is purpose, there is good, there is evil, there is a battle between good and evil, and there is the ultimate victory of good, often coming at the very moment when evil seems strongest (this moment J. R. R. Tolkien called the "eucatastrophe").  We infuse beauty into our stories, just as we do into our other forms of creation (music, art, architecture, etc.)  We capture the character traits of virtue, and of wickedness.  We often manage to portray the fact that good wins by coming down into the mass of evil and overcoming it from within, just at the point when it seems as if it will be overcome by it (pointing to the cross of Christ).

This is one of the main reasons, I believe, we are drawn to stories.  We see in them glimpses of the Ultimate Reality.  Similarly, we are drawn to other human creations, such as music and art; we see in them glimpses of True Beauty.  Of course, great caution is necessary at this point.  There is a temptation to idolatry that accompanies these things, for obvious reasons, just as there is a temptation to idolatry involved in all manifestations of beauty and truth in this world (whether we find it in the natural creation or in those things created by man).  We should not throw out all finite manifestations of truth and beauty or fail to appreciate them as gifts from God simply because of the danger of idolatry that accompanies them, but we must tread with great care.  (Acts 14:11-18; Psalm 19:1.)  On a similar note, we must remember that human stories, as productions of man made in God's image but also of man as fallen, can contain both truth and error, goodness and wickedness.  A story can bring out more clearly the truth, but it can also be used to give a false beauty and appearance of truth to wickedness and error.  The same can be said for other human artistic creations.  We must "Prove all things," and "hold fast that which is good," as the Apostle says (1 Thessalonians 5:21).  Our ability to create is a gift of God, for which we must be grateful, but we must use and appreciate it with care and intelligence, by the grace of God.

I said above that I have long thought of Christianity as the True Myth.  What I mean by that is that Christianity is the truth of reality that all the truth and beauty hidden in our humanly-created stories point to.  Richard Dawkins, the famous Atheist, in his book River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995, pp. 131-132), has famously described his view of the world in this way:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

But human stories confront us with the fact that this is not the way the world really is at all.  An Atheist must see the world in this way, for he wants to reduce all mind to mindless matter, thereby destroying any idea of ultimate purpose, beauty, or goodness.  Intuitively, we are aware that this is false, and that the elements involved in personhood are more fundamental parts of ultimate reality than mindless matter.  Intellectually, our intuitions in this area can be proven (see my attempt to prove this, along with the rest of Christianity, in Why Christianity is True).  Stories have a way of inflaming our true intuitions in this area, because they present such a compact, forceful glimpse of those facts of reality that Atheism is all about denying.  Our human stories, therefore, have a natural power to point us beyond this world and to the Triune Personal God, to Christ and the Incarnation, to the cross and the resurrection, and to history as God's purposes unfolded, because in Christianity only do we find the full fulfillment of those things that we glimpse in our stories.

This idea of Christianity as the True Myth came to me to a great extent through the writings of two famous Christian writers--C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  Therefore, below I have selected three readings--one from J. R. R. Tolkien, one from C. S. Lewis, and one from a biography of Tolkien discussing Tolkien's and Lewis's friendship.  I think these selections shed a lot of light on what I've been talking about (though, as should go without saying, this doesn't mean I agree with every single thing they have to say or all their ways of putting what they have to say).

From "On Fairy-Stories", by J. R. R. Tolkien (Taken from The Tolkien Reader [New York: Ballantine Books, 1966], pp. 70-73):

This "joy" which I have selected as the mark of the true fairy-story (or romance), or as the seal upon it, merits more consideration.
    Probably every writer making a secondary world, fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details)(40) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.  If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: "inner consistency of reality," it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality.  The peculiar quality of the "joy" in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.  It is not only a "consolation" for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, "Is it true?"  The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): "If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world."  That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist).  But in the "eucatastrophe" we see a brief vision that the answer may be greater--it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.  The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue.  It is a serious and dangerous matter.  It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.
    I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels--peculiarly artistic,(41) beautiful, and moving: "mythical" in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-eminently the "inner consistency of reality."  There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.  For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.  To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
    It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be "primarily" true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed.  It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown.  The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the "turn" in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth.  (Otherwise its name would not be joy.)  It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe.  The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.  But this story is supreme; and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men--and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.
    But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small.  Redeemed Man is still man.  Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on.  The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the "happy ending."  The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.  So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.  All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

From Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Ballantine Books, 1977), pp. 163-165:

    Usually his discussions with Tolkien took place on Monday mornings, when they would talk for an hour or two and then conclude with beer at the Eastgate, a nearby pub.  But on Saturday 19 September 1931 they met in the evening.  Lewis had invited Tolkien to dine at Magdalen, and he had another guest, Hugo Dyson, whom Tolkien had first known at Exeter College in 1919.  Dyson was now Lecturer in English Literature at Reading University, and he paid frequent visits to Oxford.  He was a Christian, and a man of feline wit.  After dinner, Lewis, Tolkien, and Dyson went out for air.  It was a blustery night, but they strolled along Addison's Walk discussing the purpose of myth.  Lewis, though now a believer in God, could not yet understand the function of Christ in Christianity, could not perceive the meaning of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  He declared that he had to understand the purpose of these events--as he later expressed it in a letter to a friend, 'how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now--except in so far as his example could help us'.
    As the night wore on, Tolkien and Dyson showed him that he was here making a totally unnecessary demand.  When he encountered the idea of sacrifice in the mythology of a pagan religion he admired it and was moved by it; indeed the idea of the dying and reviving deity had always touched his imagination since he had read the story of the Norse god Balder.  But from the Gospels (they said) he was requiring something more, a clear meaning beyond the myth.  Could he not transfer his comparatively unquestioning appreciation of sacrifice from the myth to the true story?
    But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.(1)
    No, said Tolkien, they are not.
    And, indicating the great trees of Magdalen Grove as their branches bent in the wind, he struck out a different line of argument.
    You call a tree a tree, he said, and you think nothing more of the word.  But it was not a 'tree' until someone gave it that name.  You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course.  But that is merely how you see it.  By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them.  And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.
    We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.  Indeed only by myth-making, only be becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.  Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.
    In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology, Tolkien had laid bare the centre of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.
    Lewis listened as Dyson affirmed in his own way what Tolkien had said.  You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened?  In that case, he said, I begin to understand.
    At last the wind drove them inside, and they talked in Lewis's rooms until three a.m., when Tolkien went home.  After seeing him out into the High Street, Lewis and Dyson walked up and down the cloister of New Buildings, still talking, until the sky grew light.
    Twelve days later Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves:  'I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ--in Christianity.  I will try to explain this another time.  My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.'
    Meanwhile Tolkien, invigilating in the Examination Schools, was composing a long poem recording what he had said to Lewis.  He called it "Mythopoeia', the making of myths.  And he wrote in his diary:  "Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual--a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher--and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.'"

From Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, by C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.), pp. 234-236:

    Thus my churchgoing was a merely symbolical and provisional practice.  If it in fact helped to move me in the Christian direction, I was and am unaware of this.  My chief companion on this stage of the road was Griffiths, with whom I kept up a copious correspondence.  Both now believed in God, and were ready to hear more of Him from any source, Pagan or Christian.  In my mind (I cannot now answer for his, and he has told his own story admirably in The Golden String) the perplexing multiplicity of "religions" began to sort itself out.  The real clue had been put into my hand by that hard-boiled Atheist when he said, "Rum thing, all that about the Dying God.  Seems to have really happened once"; by him and by Barfield's encouragement of a more respectful, if not more delighted, attitude to Pagan myth.  The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false.  It was rather, "Where has religion reached its true maturity?  Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?"  With the irreligious I was no longer concerned; their view of life was henceforth out of court.  As against them, the whole mass of those who had worshiped--all who had danced and sung and sacrificed and trembled and adored--were clearly right.  But the intellect and the conscience, as well as the orgy and the ritual, must be our guide.  There could be no question of going back to primitive, untheologized and unmoralized, Paganism.  The God whom I had at last acknowledged was one, and was righteous.  Paganism had been only the childhood of religion, or only a prophetic dream.  Where was the thing full grown? or where was the awakening? . . . I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths.  They had not the mythical taste.  And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion--those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them--was precisely the matter of the great myths.  If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this.  And nothing else in all literature was just like this.  Myths were like it in one way.  Histories were like it in another.  But nothing was simply like it.  And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato's Socrates or Boswell's Johnson (ten times more so than Eckermann's Goethe or Lockhart's Scott), yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.  But if a god--we are no longer polytheists--then not a god, but God.  Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man.  This is not "a religion," nor "a philosophy."  It is the summing up and actuality of them all.

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