Saturday, June 13, 2009

God Out of Bounds: Fantasy and Myth

Some of you might not have read me writing about myth before, so I want to say a tiny bit about what I mean. "Myth" in modern American culture has become synonymous with "lie" or at best "misunderstanding". I reject this. When I say "myth", what I mean is "deep understanding", or "an expression of wisdom through story" or "a meaning-generating story" - something like that.

So when I talk about Christian myth, I hope it is a little shocking coming from a Christian, but not too shocking.

For me, theology is primarily an act not of reason but of imagination, which I believe is far more powerful than the former. We must engage our imagination to even conceive of God. What are God's measurements? What is the sound of Her voice? What is the shape of His footprint? These questions are unanswerable, and only approachable in the area of metaphor or simile, allegory or parable. There is no truly reasonable way to talk about God - we can play in that sandbox for a while, but it falls apart at some point. If we have certainty, it is the gut-certainty of love at first sight, and never the certainty of gravity or thermodynamics.


Finding God in myth is easy because myths are about ultimate meaning, and one word we use to refer to that ultimate meaning is God. I have always been moved and fascinated with our myths as Christians and with other myths from history and from people with other religious traditions. I know that it is naughty to find meaning in these other myths, but I just can't help myself. They are so beautiful, from the impervious ebullience of the Dao de Qing to the trickster-story cycles of Raven and Coyote...clearly, God is too great to contain. In reading Joseph Campbell and the many works of meta-myth out there, I came to understand what were deeply-seated human raelizations about ultimate reality, reflected all over the place in varying intensity.

Finding God in fantasy is just a step back from myth. I first found this when I first read the Lord of the Rings, and felt something deeply resonant to my little tween heart. I soon later learned that Tolkien was quite the Catholic, and was instrumental in converting C.S. Lewis to Christianity. I realized what I had been seeing.

Going farther afield, I remember the first time I read A Wizard of Earthsea. The story of Ged's great mistake made in hubris, and then his long painful journey to wisdom and, ultimately, bonding with his Shadow, spoke to me. For this one, I had to turn to some of the more accessible works of Karl Jung (note that I consider psychology to be a mythology - might explain a few things) among other tidbits, and I got a better idea of why this story had the impact that it did.

As I said, I believe that theology is primarily an act of imagination. I think we depend far too much on reason, as if what we lacked was sufficient intelligence to understand all there is to understand about God. What reason gives us is a better understanding of what we already think is true. It requires imagination to reach beyond ourselves and to grow as human beings.

So when I say that the Bible is full of imaginitive language, I am saying that it is far superior to a rational treatise that attempted to fill all of the holes and shore up all the inconsistencies and internal arguments. For me, the Bible is valuable insofar as it is non-rational, because what it has to tell us that is rational we could figure out for ourselves, couldn't we? So if there are great and beautiful and true things in there (and I believe there are), they are open to our imagination, and in my experience at least, fly in the face of reason.

That's what makes them good - what keeps me coming back.

I just realized that I haven't gone far enough out of bounds. I'll have to fix that.

What is your favorite myth or folktale? What sense do you make of the thousands of myths in human hystory, each contradicting the others in many ways and each echoing the others in other ways?


Aric Clark said...

I definitely resonate with your desire to rescue the idea of "myth" from the realm of "lies". I think "myth" is probably more of a neutral concept rather than a negative or a positive one. I say, neutral, not indifferent, because I don't think we really can live or at least have any meaning in life without myth, but myths are only good if the world they create is a good.

For example, I would say the dominant myths in our society today are myths like "wealth is earned", "we can save ourselves through violence", or "some people are less-human than others". These are the myths of capitalism, nationalism, and tribalism, and they are profoundly detrimental.

The fact that so many of our most popular myths are evil just reinforces the need for good alternative mythologies and the world is also full of those - Christianity especially is rich with them.

My favorite myth, no matter what culture or religion it comes from, is one where all people end up together in a party either dancing or eating. I like it because it is a myth about the death of all the other evil myths - the myth of fingerprints Paul Simon once called it.

Aric Clark said...

As for God in fantasy - Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant stories are still the best example in my opinion. Someday you'll take my advice and actually read them :P

Doug Hagler said...

I read the first one - does that count for something? :)