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Martin Leiner {*}

Faith in Christ and Myth


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria 'zur debatte', 6/2007, P. 24-26
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


1. Introduction

When the Bible tells us that God is as human being in Jesus of Nazareth embodied, so it seems at first glance to be similar to what we know from the mythology of the Greeks or the Indians. Gods take on the shape of man to settle more or less incognito this or that, to lead people to the truth as e.g. the Indian god Krishna, or to experience the one or other amorous adventure as e.g. Zeus with the Greeks. When further the Bible tells that Christ died, descended into the kingdom of death and rose again, this reminds of the myth of Orpheus who, to lead up his beloved Eurydice from the kingdom of the dead descended there and afterwards again returned to Earth.

This series could easily be continued. The Christian faith seems just in its central messages, which are recorded in the credo, to be profoundly mythological. For Christians it seems therefore almost necessary for their salvation to find an access to the myth. But can they really, in the sense of the apostolic creed believe in Jesus Christ, "born of the Virgin Mary ... descended to the dead, on the third he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead".

People who are moulded by natural sciences and all who think soberly and have progressive ideas know of course that God does not sit enthroned with Jesus at his right hand above the clouds; so they obviously face at least one problem: Either faith with its mythological world view is right or the natural sciences with their rejection of the myth. Who is logically consistent seems to have to choose: either A or B, either faith or science.

The whole lecture is intended to make clear to you that this conflict between mythical faith in Christ and scientific knowledge of the world long since has intellectually been overcome on principle. But admittedly it is still necessary to be really serious about this overcoming up to the last consequences.

I'd like to begin with a surprising finding: In the antique dispute between myth and logos Christianity takes clearly and unambiguously a stand against myth and in favour of logos. The first Christians are by no means followers of the myth but - apart from some Gnostic groups - unambiguous and clear critics of it.

In a second part I would like to show that Christianity develops forms of representation that are similar to myth. To understand these forms of representation is, in fact, essential for faith in Christ.

In the third and final part I'd like to deal with the consequences of those two views and consider the difficult question whether a Christianity is possible that can do without the myth-similar mode of expression.


2. The Contrast of Judaism and Christianity to Myth

The term myth comes not from the biblical but from the Greek sphere. There it has its history, which we are briefly to consider.

In Homer's writings myth was a very positively connoted expression. In Homer's Odyssey Book 1, verse 358f Telemachus, Odysseus' son who has suddenly reached adulthood says to his mother Penelope: "The myth is the business of men.
Of all, and first of me, for mine is the power in the house." Hence 'myth' is the word of a man, a word that has weight, a word of command. Another Greek term for 'word' is 'logos'; it is seen very negatively. It occurs only in the plural, and is almost exclusively said by women. In the oldest Greek 'logoi' are the flattering, soothing words of a woman or at the most of a powerless man. 'Logoi' are the many words that one must say because one has not the social status to say the 'myth'. It is typical for the linguistic usage that the nymph Calypso tries to induce Odysseus with gently caressing 'logoi' (Od. 1, 56f.) to stay with her.

With Heraclites (about 540/535-483/75 BC) and Herodotus (ca. 490-430 BC) now the linguistic usage changes. 'Logos' becomes a positive counter-term to the now totally devalued 'myth'. How is it that this happens? My thesis this is the following: At that time the word 'logos' is often used in the formulation 'logon didonai', to give account - also in court. That means 'logos' is the word of someone who does not decide in monologue by a word of command. Anyone who uses 'logos' has no instruments of power to enforce his word, except the word itself. 'Logos' gets so in the 5th century before Christ the meaning of "good reason, rationality, and sense" (Aeschylus, 525-456, Choephori 515 is possibly the first reference). Since 'logos' cannot be based on rule or instruments of power it must have be better arguments on its side. 'Logos' must allow to be questioned.



Unlike myth logos is associated with dialogue, yes, it only results from dialogue. The decline of the ancient Greek nobility is reflected in that linguistic development. Heraclites commends that 'logos' is something in common and urges that all should live according to it (DK fr. 2).

Early Christianity develops against the background of that linguistic development. Already since the conquest by Alexander the Great, i.e. about 333 BC Israel is in its educated class moulded by Hellenism and thus by Greek thought- and speech patterns. How will they decide, for myth or for logos? Some reasons spoke for myth. For the term 'myth' and myths in general were again in vogue in the time of Jesus. In Rome one was interested in old stories, ancient religious truths especially from the East. Mystery religions, Gnosis, and even the later Neop-Patonism fed their speech and their persuasive power from such ancient myths. According to the Neo-Platonist Sallustius the myth tells what never happened and always is.

Now it cannot be highly enough assessed in its significance that the emerging Christianity related not on the term 'myth' but in a very central way to 'logos'. Christ is the Logos. In five places the New Testament talks about myths: 1Tim 1, 4; 4, 7; 2Tim 4, 4; Tit 1, 14; 2Petr 1, 16. "In all places where some talk about myths is this [term] is the counter-term to the Christian doctrine and truth [...]. It is a mere human invention, in contrast to the true word of God." (Dalferth, Jenseits von Mythos und Logos 72). Who is sensitive to linguistic discrimination against women will particularly at 1Tim 4, 6 sit up and take note; there is some talk about the 'empty chatter of myths". Now the negatively assessed myth is connected with women. Regardless of this problem it is more than clear: the first Christians try to get in contact to the talking about the Logos. The faith in Christ felt not in a position of power to speak words of command, it also wanted not to set upon the murmur of old religious stories but is ready to give with arguments account to everyone about the reason for the hope that is in us, as 1 Pet 3, 15 says. To talk and answer sensibly and by argument to someone whom one places higher than oneself therefore belonged to the Christian faith. But it does not belong to the Christian faith to say authoritatively words of command in the way of a monologue. In the early centuries the Old Church also to a large extent kept to that line. Apart from a few groups Christian missionaries see themselves not as new myth-teller (Remythisierer) but, many of the greatest thinkers among the early Christians bear the philosopher's mantle and look for argumentative conversation with the pagan environment.

What does the decision for 'logos' and against 'myth' mean from the point of view of content? It means at first that the achievements of the Old Testament and Judaism in the criticism of the myth are kept and further built up. In the Old Testament there is a strong critical movement against the own religion as well as against foreign religions. Although the concepts of myth and logos in the Hebrew-speaking world not exist, one can regard the criticism of religion in the Old Testament as a critical work on the myth. The prophets turn against polytheism, against the anthropomorphic representations of God, against an image of God where God ethically stays behind man. God's justice is higher than the justice of man. God is no man; he is beyond all our ideas. Paul Tillich expresses it like this: Monotheism and the awareness of transcendence break, as it were, the myth. World and God part. Both, in Hebrew and Greek thinking a room opens for inner-worldly rationality. It is no longer necessary to attribute everything to the influence of gods and other transcendent beings; inner-worldly causalities and motivations too have their meaning. This development is already indicated in the classical antiquity but develops really only in the modern era.

Surprisingly a culmination of that distinction between divine and secular reality is the dogma in the Old Church. For in its confrontation with 'myth' early Christianity emphasizes, on the line of the Old Testament, the demand not to mix God and man. The Greek myths, so the accusation, mingle gods and people, the Egyptian ones even gods and animals. This is an anathema and should absolutely be avoided. The dispute over Christology, which kept the Old Church for a long time busy, can be understood with some newer interpreters like Gerhard Ebeling and Ingolf Dalferth also against this background. The point was to keep to the truth that God and man are in Christ not mingled to a hybrid, but that human and divine reality remain strictly distinguished. Since at the same time the belief was to be kept up that Jesus Christ is God this was very difficult to maintain. The first result of those discussions were the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451). There was defined that Christians believed in the one Christ who has a divine and a human nature. Both are recognized as unalloyed (asynchtos), unchangeable (atreptos), undivided (adhairetos) and indivisible (achoristos).

Christianity accordingly developed the possibility to interpret Jesus Christ in two different ways that were not to be mingled: On the one hand as God and on the other hand as man just like we, with the one exception that he has not sinned. What has been achieved with this dogma of Chalcedon, which has often been regarded as hopelessly outdated, in my opinion can be hardly underestimated. One kept to the view that there are two legitimate interpretations of Christ's reality: a genuine human-earthly and a genuine divine.

More than 1000 years later Martin Luther was fascinated by the teachings of Chalcedon. He insisted on the fact that both, the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ should be taken seriously in their full meaning: "One cannot draw Christ deep enough into the flesh" was one of his memorable formulations for the necessity to regard Christ really as a human being like us. Against this backdrop it is not surprising that the historical-critical examination of the Bible and Jesus Christ was the special historical deed of Protestantism. . The Bible as a book like any other and Jesus Christ as man like anyone else - that was a program that was only possible by the strict separation of divine and human reality in the wake of Chalcedon and Luther!

The separation strategy was successful not only with regard to Christ. The whole world can be interpreted first from a secular viewpoint and then from the viewpoint of God. It is about two areas of our thinking, research and speech that are self-contained and not to be mingled with each other. Either we talk about the creation or about the world of the natural sciences; either we talk religiously about the decline of the old and the beginning of a new world or we talk in terms of physics about the increasing entropy of the universe. Hence the merging of the divine and worldly sphere typical for myth is broken up in two different areas of knowledge and discourse. Like fission of an atomic nucleus also the splitting of the myth has of an enormous effect. The autonomous world view of the modern era develops from it.


3. Myth-Similar Forms of Expression in Christianity

The splitting of the myth leads on the part of a world to an autonomous, inner-worldly comprehensible world. That is clear. What remains on the part of the divine reality is much less clear. There are serious questions as e.g. whether one can talk about God only in the way of myth. If one takes away all symbols, images and anthropomorphisms from God there is not much left. A God who acts and about whose actions one can tell can be thought much better in a mythical than in a different intellectual approach. When God does no longer speak with final authority he seems no longer to be God at all.

Whereas Christians who were uneducated or influenced by Gnostic tendencies of remythologization were in danger to misunderstand again the Christ event directly as myth, educated Christians knew already in the classical antiquity a model that allows a myth-similar language and yet remains not caught in the old naive merging of world and God. The model is Plato and the Platonic philosophy.

In the dialogue 'Gorgias' Socrates discusses with several interlocutors whether it is more harmful to suffer injustice or to do it. After several rounds of arguments with the most stubborn sophist Kallikles, Socrates states the thesis that to fear death was totally incomprehensible and unmanly; but to do injustice was rightly to be feared. To substantiate this idea, to which his partner in conversation did not agree, Socrates tells a myth. Socrates introduces the myth as "fine speech", which the interlocutor regards as myth, but he himself as logos (523a). Socrates then tells about the establishment of the Court of the dead by Zeus, the state of the souls after death, and the imposition of penalties for reform and deterrence. He then concludes: "Maybe it now seems to you that this was a myth, as a little old lady would tell one, and you do not attach any value to it. And it would be just nothing special to despise it, if we were just able to find somehow or other something better and more corresponding to truth. But now you see that you three, the wisest among the Greeks today, were unable to prove that one was to live in a different way than that one which proves to be beneficial also still there; but among so many speeches, which all have been refuted, that alone calmly remained: that one was to fear the doing of injustice more than the suffering of injustice" (527ab). In that platonic understanding the mythical expression is only justified by the fact that it is the best possible way of expression for matters about the truth of which we know nothing otherwise. It is in addition justified if it leads to the correct behaviour.

From that platonic basis results a threefold dealing with the myth:

  1. Preservation: keeping of mythical expression, if no other representation corresponds better corresponds to truth and if the consequences for life are the best.
  2. Metaphoric Use: Mythical speech is recognized as non-actual speech. Myth becomes a metaphor and
  3. Interpretation: One tries to interpret the myth and, if possible, to replace it by actual speech.

All three ways of dealing with the myth are not new, apologetic inventions, but are consistently practised by the great theologians of the Old Church. How does that look in detail:

  1. Preservation: The Christian church preserved the mythological elements of its faith, as e.g. virgin birth or Ascension as elements of the canonical Scripture and of the creed. The church has preserved not only the biblical "myths" but also allowed the creation of several myth-similar legends, and eventually also adopted pagan myths and allowed some of them the right of domicile in the Christian art, the sepulchral culture, or even in theology. By his book "Greek myths in the Christian interpretation" Hugo Rahner was one of the first who made realize the German public those facts. In the United States e.g. in 1970 the Harvard University Press published the book "Orpheus in the Middle Ages", in which only the reception of Orpheus in the late classical antiquity and in medieval Christianity and Judaism was examined. Pictures of Orpheus, which are already found in the catacombs, compare the Thracian singer in most cases with Christ, in the Jewish context often with David.
  2. Metaphoric Use: In the time after Plato and in Christian time myths are not understood literally. They are legitimate if they are the best possible expression of something that can not be expressed otherwise. Already in the New Testament can be found apart from a literalistic also a metaphoric dealing with mythical topics. Jesus' speeches are introduced not as a literal description of the kingdom of God but as parables.



    A semantic revolution happens: In the parable words that denoted objects of our world are related to a totally different sphere: to God and His World. In the 20th century the theologian Paul Tillich defines a religious symbol by this semantic revolution. Thus he gives an idea how the biblical parable works. In the Old Church and the Middle Ages one felt compelled time and again to emphasize against literal misunderstandings the metaphorical character of the mythical speech. One means to do that was the so-called negative theology. It is developed both by neo-platonic philosophers like Proclus and by Christian thinkers like the author who got the name Dionysius Areopagita. Elements and insights of negative theology can be found in many Christian Fathers up to Nikolaus of Kues. According to Dionysius Areopagita we can talk about God only by simultaneously denying everything that we say about him. The affirmative, symbolic patterns for God (symbolikai theotypiai M III) that e.g. can be found in the Bible, are to be completed and overcome by negating (theologia kataphatika), and transcending (hyperoché) them. The linguistic expression is to point to the "One who is absolutely removed from everything" (MV), the absolute God. Only so the "trans-non-recognizable God" (hyperagnostos theos) can be recognized. God is therefore not finite, but we are to add the negation: in-finite and the hyperoché: hence God is trans-infinite resp. superior to infinity. The moment of negation of all our statements about God has in the Catholic doctrine even been defined as dogma. In 1215 the 4th Lateran Council declared in its answer to Joachim of Fiore: "Between Creator and creature one can note no such a great similarity that between them could not be noted a greater dissimilarity. ("Inter creatorem et creaturam non potest tanta vigorous notari, inter quin eos maior sit dissimilitudo notanda" DSH 806).
  3. Interpretation: As already Plato so Christian and Jewish theologians repeatedly tried to replace the myth-similar statements of the Bible by a different, non-mythical language. One way of replacement was the allegorical interpretation: Mythical statements in the Bible are regarded as statements that must not be understood literally but pointed to something else. In the teachings of the spiritual and worldly sense or a little schematically in the teaching of the fourfold sense of the Scripture this becomes then the program of exegetical methods. For mythological statements about God the language of 'metaphysics', as the actual name for the divine reality offers its services.

With the modern era now three developments happen by which the theme 'faith in Christ' and myth in a special way become a focus of the history of theology and ideas.

1. There is an increase of subjects that are to be criticized as mythological
2. the Crisis of metaphysics and
3. the revaluation of the myth
Also some explanations of that:

About 1: There is an increase of subjects that are to be criticized as mythological. Thomas Aquinas still assumed that the paradise of paradise story was a place on the earth, the entrance of which one could discover some day. Martin Luther believed that the biblical figures about the beginning and end of the world were literally true. Up to the time of Enlightenment many still believed that directly above the starry sky a good heavenly father lives, and even an outstanding scientist like Isaac Newton saw in a calculation of the end of world according to the Book Daniel a scientific achievement that in a certain sense was greater than his work on physics. With regard to other topics all those authors had perfectly recognized that biblical statements are not to be taken literally. The progress of scientific discovery of the world brought about that large parts of the biblical picture of world and history had to be critically revised. In this context some people demanded a Christianity without myths.

About 2: Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" (1783) dealt with the question: How is metaphysics as a science possible? The result of his work was that metaphysics as teaching about God, world and soul is not possible as science. Hence differently to the traditional 'metaphysica specialis' of the Enlightenment period the metaphysical interpretation of the myth had either to learn to break fresh ground or it had to be completely abandoned in favour either for a now atheistic attitude or of a new faith without metaphysics. Kant has so, as he himself said, given up knowledge to make room for faith. With Kant such a belief was morally justified. But there was also the opportunity to take up the myth again on the conditions of critical philosophy.

About 3: Gian Battista Vico even tries to overtake the Cartesian Enlightenment that also in Italy becomes generally accepted by pointing to the positive meaning of the myth for scientific cognition. Myths, understood as poetic creations, are the first forms of grasping the world by words; they are a reservoir of sense from which every human culture draws. With their sensuous concrete pictures they direct reason to the world perceived by senses and win its interest in history and nature. Thus they make natural science and humanities possible. Especially three institutions: marriage as the origin of society, the funeral as the origin of humanity and religion as a source of policy only developed because of the fact that they were from the beginning wrapped and embedded in the myth that protected them and caused their growth.

Quite similar Herder. In his essay "About the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry" (1782) he looks for the tale of paradise as an ingenious product of the poetic imagination of Orient ('s people), where particularly the origins of fundamental human experiences find a superb expression.

As the origin of language, as reservoir of sense, and as model for all activities of man now a great and lasting importance seems surprisingly guaranteed to the myth. Though admittedly with Vico as Herder it remains a condition that mythical language is a metaphoric and therefore in the literal sense a non-actual language.


4. Consequences - Christianity without Myth?

It is time to take stock. At present there are three ways to deal with the myth:

  1. The consistent demythologization as it was held by David Friedrich Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann.
  2. The preservation of the metaphorically understood myth
  3. The search for a new myth as it was propagated by Hölderlin, Nietzsche or also by the ideologue of the National Socialism Alfred Rosenberg.

In the following I'd like to demonstrate that from inner logical reasons the first way cannot be gone up to the end. The second way, however, cannot manage it without the first one. The third way finally leads, consistently pursued, to a new religion. But if it is totally negated it leads to an standstill of the religious development.

I begin with the first thesis: The way of consistent demythologization cannot be gone up to the end. Rudolf Bultmann took the view the way of demythologization had to be gone up to the end. That is, one had to translate the non-actual speech of the myth into the actual speech of philosophy. For one could not time and again translate non-actual speech into non-actual speech without ever arriving at actual speech. After Kant had expounded the problems of the old metaphysics there was needed a new philosophical language into which the language of myth was to be translated. Bultmann found that language in the philosophy of the early Martin Heidegger before his turn; hence in the language that one finds 'Sein und Zeit' or in the Marburg lectures. The problem that arises thus is twofold: on the one hand Heidegger's philosophy can - just as the classical metaphysics or Hegel's philosophy, into which David Friedrich Strauss already in the 18th century wanted to translate the biblical myth -, be outdated by other philosophies and also refuted with good reasons. For also the philosophical language is temporary and does not reach the real truth. Above all Paul Ricoeur drew our attention to the second problem. The mythical symbols and stories give us food for thought. What they give for thought is always much more than a relatively abstract philosophical interpretation. There is much more sense included in the symbol that God is the Father of creation and man than in the philosophical translation that God is the origin of everything. Trust in God is more than detachment from the world and from all attempts of self-protection. Therefore the second way, the preservation of the metaphorically understood myth appears as the better way. But a closer examination shows that thesis 2 is no less true. The preservation of a metaphorical understood myth can only be legitimated when simultaneously constant attempts are made to express the non-actuality of the myth. That an expression is non-actual I can only know by the fact that I have a different access, which is at least in one aspect more actual, to the reality addressed with the non-actual expression. That access must be in some way accessible to the linguistic representation. These facts can only be communicated by different ways of speech, for instance by an ontological language that clarifies that the myth is not simply a product of fantasy, but that it refers to a reality that is also differently accessible than by myth. Besides preservation of the myth there must also be constant attempts to find a more actual, non-mythical language.

Thesis 3 says that an entirely new mythology, as it was demanded in the German idealism and afterwards, actually demands also the foundation of a new religion. A new, completely different mythology would imply that the old myth-similar speech of Christianity was completely wrong. All its symbols and references to God, Christ and God's world had to be rejected. Fortunately for Christianity new symbols can, as Paul Tillich pointed out, not be created arbitrarily. They arise partly from unconscious depth experiences that are shared by many people. Such experiences occur, and people who come across them experience them often as revelations that come unexpectedly upon them.

From the faith in Christ our three theses mean the following:

  1. The concern of demythologization has special significance for today, because a non-metaphorical, literal understanding of the biblical myths is still winning followers. I am referring to the fundamentalist reading of the Bible that believes all biblical stories had to be understood literally. That way of reading does not take Christianity's taking sides with the logos and a platonic interpretation of the myth seriously. It is above all heretical since it binds faith, which essentially is a personal relationship to God, to believe in sentences in which today nobody can believe with a clear intellectual conscience. The language into which the myth is to be translated today is the language of ontology, the Teaching on Being.
  2. When faith in Christ is first and above all a personal relationship this does not mean that it would not lead also to linguistic expressions. The myth is an authentic response to the experience of an overwhelming reality. Joseph Campbell, a rather popular American researcher on myths, formulates that aptly when he writes: "The first function of a mythology is to reconcile man's consciousness with the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe." Events such as the God's revelation in Jesus Christ are so moving mysteries that they can only be expressed in a myth-similar speech.
  3. Also today people can feel that moving power of an encounter with Christ in a way that they can arrive at new symbols and myths. Against the background of an evolutionary picture of the universe and of life, new symbols emerge like the Cosmic Christ or symbolic representations such as the Tree of Life Cross.


    {*} Prof. Dr. Martin Leiner is professor of systematic theology and ethics at the University of Jena


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