I have always absolutely loved getting into conversations about the Bible. However these days some of the ways I talk about “The Book” have a habit of rustling a few feathers. For example, I accept the teaching of evolution and don’t read things like the Genesis creation poem literally. For some reason that can really give people pause. Although I don’t believe it should. When I read the Bible or a story like Genesis my question hopefully is the same as yours, “What is the truth being revealed here?” What does this reveal about God and my relationship to Him.
So is the Bible myth or truth, the answer is of course yes.
Usually there are two common responses to the idea of biblical myth. And both are fundamentalist in nature. One is to say no, if the Bible says it then it actually happened exactly the way it says. The other is to say, well if it’s a myth than it isn’t true-you’re all a bunch of crazy people and watch as I scientifically and historically shut down each of your beliefs. People argue and argue about whether or not the stories actually happened. And good grief what a boring conversation.
Neither fulfills the purpose of reading a sacred text.
I’ve been reading Paul Tilluch’s “The Dynamics of Faith” and I absolutely love what he wrote on the subject of myth. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
“All mythical elements in the Bible, and doctrine and liturgy should be recognized as mythological, but they should be maintained in their symbolic form and not be replaced by scientific substitutes. For there is no substitute for the use of symbols and myths: they are the language of faith.
The radical criticism of the myth is due to the fact that 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 (or a non-literal reading) is deprived of its truth and of it’s 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. (Or acknowledging that it’s a myth.) 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 express itself in “literalism.” The symbols and myths are understood in their immediate meaning. The material, taken from nature and history, is used in its proper sense. The character of the symbol to point beyond itself to something else is disregarded. (Sometimes literal understandings can rob or hide the meaning of the myth or symbol) Creation is taken as a magic act which happened once upon a time. The fall of Adam is localized on a special geographical point and attributed to a human individual. The virgin birth of the Messiah is understood in biological terms, resurrection and ascension as physical events, the second coming of the Christ a telluric, or cosmic, catastrophe. The presupposition of such literalism is that God is a being, acting in time and space, dwelling in a special place, affecting the course of events and being affected by them like any other being in the universe. Literalism deprives God of his ultimacy and, religiously speaking, of his majesty. It draws him down to the level of that which is not ultimate, the finite and conditional. … Faith, if it takes its symbols literally, becomes idolatrous! It calls something ultimate which is less than ultimate. Faith, conscious of the symbolic character of its symbols, gives God the honor which is due him.
One should distinguish two stages of literalism, the natural and the reactive. The natural stage of literalism is that which the mythical and the literal are indistinguishable. The primitive period of individuals and groups consists in the inability to separate the creations of symbolic imagination from the facts which can be verified through observation and experiment. This stage has a full right of its own and should not be disturbed, either in individuals or in groups, up to the moment when man’s questioning mind breaks the natural acceptance of the mythological visions as literal. If, however, this moment has come, two ways are possible. The one is to replace the unbroken by the broken myth. It is the objectively demanded way, although it is impossible for many people who prefer the repression of their questions to the uncertainty which appears with the breaking of the myth. They are forced into the second stage of literalism, the conscious one, which is aware of the questions but represses them, half consciously, half unconsciously. The tool of repression is usually an acknowledged authority with sacred qualities like the Church or the Bible, to which one owes unconditional surrender. This stage is still justifiable, if the questioning power is very weak and can easily be answered. It is unjustifiable if a mature mind is broken in its personal center by political or psychological methods, split in his unity, and hurt in his integrity. The enemy of a critical theology is not natural literalism but conscious literalism with repression of and aggression toward autonomous thought.
Symbols of faith cannot be replaced by other symbols, such as artistic ones, and they cannot be removed by scientific criticism. They have a genuine standing in the human mind, just as science and art have. Their symbolic character is their truth and their power. Nothing less than symbols and myths can express our ultimate concern (faith).
One more question arises, namely, whether myths are able to express every kind of ultimate concern (faith.) For example, Christian theologians argue that the word “myth” should be reserved for natural myths in which repetitive natural processes, such as the seasons, are understood in their ultimate meaning. they believe that if the world is seen as a historical process with beginning, end, and center, as in Christianity and Judaism, the term “myth” should not be used. This would radically reduce the realm in which the term would be applicable. Myth could not be understood as the language of our ultimate concern (faith), but only as a discarded idiom of this language. Yet history proves that there are not only natural myths but also historical myths. If the earth is seen as a battleground of two divine powers, as in ancient Persia, this is an historical myth. If the God of creation selects and guides a nation through history toward an end which transcends all history, this is an historical myth. If the Christ-a transcendent, divine being-appears in the fullness of time, lives, dies, and is resurrected, this is an historical myth. Christianity is superior to those religions which are bound by natural myth. But Christianity speaks the mythological language like every other religion. It is a broken myth, but it is a myth; otherwise Christianity would not be an expression of ultimate concern (faith).”
-The Dynamics of Faith (Symbols of Faith)